The many national parks in Borneo provide a way for visitors to sample the wildness of earth’s third-largest island, a place where uncontacted tribespeople roamed well into the 1980s. National parks in Sarawak and Sabah (the Malaysian portion of Borneo) are the most accessible, but the interiors are still wild and rugged. Just across the border, you won’t have to worry much about crowded trails in Indonesian Kalimantan. Some of the harder-to-reach national parks can only be accessed by boating along muddy, jungle rivers!
National parks in Borneo also provide one of the last refuges for wild orangutans and many other endangered species displaced by heavy logging and palm oil production. Sadly, Borneo is one of the most deforested places globally—all the better reason to support and enjoy the national parks there.
Bako National Park is Sarawak’s first, oldest, and arguably the most accessible national park. Bako is located less than an hour by bus from Kuching, but it’s an isolated peninsula. You’ll need to take a 20-minute speedboat into the park.
Although Bako is compact by Bornean standards, an amazing amount of wildlife is squeezed into the park’s 10.5 square miles. A sizable population of endangered proboscis monkeys lives within the park, increasing your chances of spotting one of Borneo’s funniest-looking residents.
Bako has an impressive trail system with treks ranging from 30-minute educational walks to sweaty, eight-hour jungle excursions. Strolling some of the undeveloped beaches is a nice bonus. Proboscis monkeys can often be seen in the treetops along the shoreline.
Mulu National Park
Mulu National Park is considered one of Borneo's most impressive national parks and was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2000. Getting there requires flying in by small plane, but visitors enjoy a 204-square-mile wonderland of trails, caves, and limestone formations once in the park. Mulu is home to 17 different vegetation zones hosting a plethora of plants, animals, and insects. Around 20,000 invertebrates can be found in the park.
The Mulu Caves are still being explored and studied. Up on the surface, the famous Pinnacles Trail trek is a tough three-day, two-night adventure with serious scrambling at the end for views of the karst formations.
Located a couple of hours west of Kuching, Gunung Gading National Park opened in 1994 and became a popular place to see rare Rafflesia flowers when they bloom.
Rafflesia flowers are among the world’s strangest; they’re parasitic, bloom unpredictably, and smell like rotting meat to attract flies for pollination. They’re also huge—one species can measure up to four feet across!
Visitors to Gunung Gading National Park can trek to several waterfalls or take the steep trail to the top of Mount Gading (3,166 feet), where artifacts remain from a British army observation post set up in the 1960s. Check with the Sarawak Forestry Office in Kuching before going to see if any Rafflesia flowers are in bloom. The rangers can mark the location of blooming flowers on your map.
Lambir Hills National Park, about an hour south of Miri in Sarawak, is home to more than 1,050 species of trees along with a brilliant array of diversity on the ground and in the canopy. The park’s facilities and easy accessibility make it the best “all-around” national park for a quick taste of Sarawak’s rainforest.
The nearest waterfall can be reached with only a 15-minute hike, but hardcore hikers can grind their way to the top of Mount Lambir. The remnants of an oil well that is still bubbling and a small steam locomotive with tracks mostly reclaimed by the jungle can be seen on a four-hour hike.
Like many of the national parks in Borneo, you can arrange a stay at the simple lodging within Lambir Hills National Park. Staying in the park allows you to take advantage of night walks and early mornings when many creatures are the most active. Bring groceries along to cook in the communal kitchen.
Kubah National Park
Kubah National Park isn’t huge, but it’s only 40 minutes away from Kuching and can be enjoyed on a day trip. The six trails at Kubah allow visitors to enjoy jungle scenery then cool off beneath waterfalls. Around 93 species of palms and many orchids are found within the national park.
Kubah isn’t considered the top national park in Borneo for wildlife encounters. Still, its scenery and accessibility make for an excellent diversion—especially if you’ve already been to Bako National Park.
Niah National Park
Niah National Park is a happy place for anthropologists and cave enthusiasts. Although Mulu National Park farther north is also famous for massive caves, getting in can be time-consuming. On the other hand, Niah is an easy, two-hour jaunt south of Miri in Sarawak. An expedition in the 1950s discovered tools and human remains there dating back 40,000 years.
The elevated walkways at Niah National Park help visitors explore caves and large limestone shelters without getting too filthy. The Niah Caves are also a major source of swiftlet nests harvested for bird’s nest soup. A single bowl can cost upwards of $100 in restaurants! In January and June, visitors sometimes get to watch the dangerous process of harvesting nests from the cave ceiling.
Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain, dominates the landscape north of Kota Kinabalu. But even if you don’t get a permit and spend two days climbing to the summit at 13,435 feet, Kinabalu Park has plenty to offer around the mountain.
Kinabalu Park was designated as one of Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000. The biodiversity found around the base and along the slopes of Mount Kinabalu is unmatched in Malaysia. An estimated 326 species of birds and 100 species of mammals are seen in the area. The Mount Kinabalu region is a botanists' dream: More than 800 species of orchids and 600 species of ferns have been documented there! You can see carnivorous pitcher plants while hiking.
Tawau Hills Park
In Sabah, Tawau Hills Park demonstrates why the national parks in Borneo are so important for conservation—palm oil plantations encompass it. The 107-square-mile national park is the only nearby refuge for many species pushed out of their native habitat. Gibbons, hornbills, and red leaf monkeys are frequently spotted there.
Tawau Hills Park is a popular day trip and picnic venue for local families, especially on weekends. The volcanic interior is home to hot springs and waterfalls. Although Tawau Hills Park is only a 40-minute drive north of Tawau Airport, most tourists who fly in are heading east to enjoy the world-class diving at Mabu and Sipadan.
Crocker Range National Park
With 540 square miles of hilly terrain, Crocker Range National Park is Sabah’s largest park. Mighty Mount Kinabalu is actually part of the same range; although, Kinabalu Park is several hours away.
Hiking in Crocker Range is tough due to the hilly terrain, but mountainous views and seeing the Padas River rushing below reward the effort. Evening temperatures at the Gunung Alab Substation (park headquarters at 5,200 feet) feel especially chilly after trekking in the jungle below!
Crocker Range is home to rare plants, orangutans, gibbons, and many unique insects—some of which are on display in an insectarium.
Ulu Temburong National Park
Although Brunei attracts less tourism, Borneo’s smallest independent nation did a superior job protecting the native rainforest from logging and palm oil plantations. With 210 square miles of thriving forest, Ulu Temburong National Park is an example of ecotourism done well. You can’t even get there by road; you’ll have to take an Iban longboat into the interior of the park!
More than four miles of boardwalks and trails rise above the forest floor in Ulu Temburong. A canopy walkway suspended at 160 feet helps visitors get closer to the hornbills, monkeys (beware of the macaques!), and other creatures that live there.
Tanjung Puting National Park
Tanjung Puting in Central Kalimantan is mostly swampy and low lying, but it’s an excellent place to see orangutans and proboscis monkeys in the wild. Access is only possible by boat. Visitors float quietly along the Sekonyer River, allowing them to sneak up on orangutans and other endangered wildlife feeding along the banks. Leopards and sun bears are also local residents but seeing them is a rare event.
More than half of Tanjung Puting has been destroyed by illegal logging and mining despite efforts to protect important habitat. Watch for the giant butterflies that flutter around the park.
Sebangau National Park
Many of the national parks in Indonesian Kalimantan are more difficult to reach than their Malaysian counterparts, but the effort is often rewarded. Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan is home to the largest orangutan population on earth!
Like Tanjung Puting, Sebangau has been heavily damaged by logging, and you’ll need to rely on boats to get around. Visitors floating along the black waters of the Sebangau River get a chance to spot critically endangered orangutans hanging out on the banks. Wild orangutans and gibbons roam freely, while semi-wild orangutans turn up at feeding platforms until they are rehabilitated.