Where to Go in Malaysian Borneo: Sarawak or Sabah?

A Guide for Choosing Between Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo

Sarawak or Sabah? Malaysian Borneo's two states — divided by the independent country of Brunei — both have a lot to offer. Choosing between the two hurts and just isn't fair!

Seeing both Sarawak and Sabah is ideal and necessary for a rounded Borneo experience, but time is often against us. Sabah is usually brighter on the tourist radar, but Sarawak may turn out to be a better choice for your particular interests.

  • 01 of 10

    Scuba Diving

    Scuba diving in Sabah, Borneo
    The diving in Sipadan and around Mabul Island in Sabah is amazing. ultramarinfoto / Getty Images

    Where to Go: Sabah

    Sabah has a generous amount of world-class diving destinations. Sipidan and Mabul Island on the east coast are famous for the superb diving.

    Layan-Layang and Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park are closer to Kota Kinabalu and provide plenty of incredible action underwater. Although there are some undeveloped beaches in Sarawak, Sabah is a clear choice for diving and snorkeling.

  • 02 of 10

    Orangutans

    Orangutan in Sarawak, Borneo.
    An orangutan in Sarawak, Borneo. Greg Rodgers

    Where to Go: Sarawak and Sabah

    There are opportunities to see semi-wild orangutans in both Sarawak and Sabah. After witnessing the antics of these intelligent creatures, you'll leave with a burden for their survivability.

    Sarawak's Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre just outside of Kuching is smaller, cheaper, and typically less crowded than Sabah's more famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

    Seeing wild orangutans in their natural habitat is a bit trickier, although both of Borneo's states offer opportunities.

  • 03 of 10

    Proboscis Monkeys

    Proboscis monkey bako national park in Sarawak, Borneo
    Endangered proboscis monkeys live in Bako National Park. Grant Dixon / Getty Images

    Where to Go: Sabah

    Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in Sabah is the most convenient place to learn all about the endangered, floppy-nosed proboscis monkeys.

    For a more adventurous experience in a wilder setting, you can visit Sukau just outside of Sandakan in Sabah. Lodges will help you arrange a boat trip down the Kinabatangan River to see wild proboscis monkeys — among many other types of wildlife — that live along the banks.

  • 04 of 10

    Rafflesia Flowers

    Rafflesia flower in Borneo
    The rafflesia is the heaviest flower in the world. Greg Rodgers

    Where to Go: Sarawak and Sabah

    Rafflesia flowers are the heaviest flowers in the world — and they smell rotten. Rather than relying on bees to cross pollinate, the rafflesia attracts flies with a smell that conjures death and decay.

    The strange, other-worldy flowers bloom unpredictably when a tetrastigma vine — a wild member of the grape family — becomes infected by a particular parasite. Needless to say, this happens unpredictably and is a fairly rare occurrence.

    The Rafflesia Information Centre in Sabah is the place to learn the most about Rafflesia flowers. You also have a chance to view flowers growing in the national park surrounding Mount Kinabalu.

    In Sarawak, rafflesia flowers can be seen in Gunung Gading National Park. You'll need to ask at the park office in Kuching if any are currently in bloom.

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  • 05 of 10

    Learning About Indigenous Culture

    Dayak man in Sarawak Borneo with Blowgun
    A Dayak man in Sarawak gives a blowgun demonstration. Greg Rodgers

    Where to Go: Sarawak

    You'll learn lots about Dayak people and their former headhunting practices in the free, enjoyable museums dotted around Kuching.

    The Sarawak Cultural Village just outside of Kuching has mock-up houses built in each of the traditional styles. An afternoon visit to the cultural village is an immersive, educational treat.

  • 06 of 10

    Fun Festivals

    Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Borneo
    The Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak is Huge!. Greg Rodgers

    Where to Go: Sarawak

    Sabah has plenty of festivals, but few can compare to the cultural experience and good fun offered by the three-day Rainforest World Music Festival.

    Sarawak's biggest festival is held each summer at the Sarawak Cultural Village; Kuching becomes busy and buzzing during the festival.

    Although Borneo may not seem the first pick for jazz culture, the Miri Jazz Festival in Sarawak attracts big performers from all over the world.

  • 07 of 10

    Stay in a Longhouse

    Longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo
    A traditional-style longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo. Anders Blomqvist / Getty Images

    Where to Go: Sarawak

    Staying in a jungle longhouse with an indigenous family is an educational, humbling experience.

    Although some longhouse stays are catered to tourists, you can still find authentic experiences in Sarawak. The most authentic Iban and Ulu longhouses are accessible only by river; you'll need to arrange a visit in advance through the local tourism board.

    For proper etiquette, you'll need to present a gift (often a bottle of spirits or something not easy to get in the jungle) to the longhouse chief and give treats to the children.

  • 08 of 10

    Serious Climbing and Trekking

    Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo
    Mount Kinabalu offers a challenging overnight trek in Sabah, Borneo. Andrea Pistolesi / Contributor / Getty Images

    Where to Go: Sabah

    Climbing Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is a rite of passage for adventurous travelers to Borneo. The volcano towers to 13,435 feet and is the third tallest in Southeast Asia. While climbing the slopes doesn't require technical training or equipment, getting to the top takes a lot of physical stamina — and a permit.

    You'll find smaller volcanoes such as Gunung Gading to tackle in Sarawak, but don't expect much of a view.

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  • 09 of 10

    Caving

    Large cave in Niah National Park - Sarawak, Borneo
    Niah National Park in Sarawak has many large caves. Tristan Savatier / Getty Images

    Where to Go: Sarawak

    Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the north of Sarawak near Brunei, is famous for its giant cave system. Getting there requires flying in on a small plane.

    For an easier-to-reach experience, consider visiting Niah National Park near Miri for the famous caves there. Superb rainforest awaits when you're ready to surface.

  • 10 of 10

    Shopping

    Suria Sabah mall in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo
    The Suria Sabah mall in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Tom Cockrem / Getty Images

    Where to Go: Sabah

    Although Kuching is consistently building new shopping malls, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah has bigger malls, more markets, and plenty of boutique shops for satisfying shopping needs.

    Malls may be good for rainy days, but fluorescent lighting isn't why you came to Borneo! Have a look in some of the local markets for a more interesting experience or consider waiting until you get back to Kuala Lumpur for some serious shopping.