Welcome to the third largest island in the world. With only one week in Borneo, you’ll have to move quickly while taking advantage of regional flights, as overland journeys are too long and arduous in the rugged interior. The effort will be rewarded, however, with memorable people, places, and walks through rainforests teeming with biodiversity.
Seeing everything is obviously impossible, so this one-week itinerary for Borneo brings you to the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak along with a bonus visit to Brunei. Although Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, makes up 73 percent of the island and is blessed with many tempting places, traveling there can be time consuming. Irregular flight schedules and frequent transportation delays often make short work of an itinerary without enough buffer days built in.
Kuching and Kota Kinabalu seem the most obvious choices, but travelers with a short amount of time in Borneo should consider starting their adventure in Sandakan, a city on the west coast of Sabah. The three-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur can be as inexpensive as $50.
Numerous guesthouses, cafés, and eateries are clustered along the edge of the rainforest just west of Sandakan. For convenience, choose one of the eco-hotels near Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre; Sepilok Nature Resort (3-star) and Sepilok Jungle Resort (2-star) are two popular places to stay within walking distance.
Begin your first day by walking to Sepilok (5 minutes); get there by 10 a.m. to catch the morning feeding, when fruit left on a platform by rangers sometimes lures shy, semi-wild orangutans within camera range. These orangutans are free to roam but are still being rehabilitated back into their native habitat after becoming orphaned or rescued from captivity. Watch the short film at Sepilok and learn all you can about earth’s most intelligent primate; sadly, they are critically endangered, and wild orangutans can only be found in Borneo and Sumatra.
Next, stop in at the Rainforest Discovery Centre next door. The RDC will prep you for what exciting plants and creatures you’ll see the rest of the trip. Climb up to the canopy walk suspended 82 feet above ground to look for colorful birds before checking out orchids and carnivorous plants in the Discovery Garden.
Enjoy a quick dinner nearby, then book a Grab rideshare (or request a driver at reception) to one of the lodges in Sukau, a small village around 2.5 hours away. If you arrive in time, you can join one of the night excursions along the muddy Kinabatangan River to look for saltwater crocodiles.
Day 2: The Kinabatangan River and Sandakan, Sabah
Wake up early to float silently along Malaysia’s second longest river, where long-nosed proboscis monkeys and other exciting wildlife live along the swampy banks. The Kinabatangan River Sanctuary is also home to pygmy elephants and rhinoceros, but seeing them requires a lot of luck.
Have a light lunch at your lodge then head back toward Sandakan by car. You'll be flying to Kota Kinabalu later in the day, so depending on the time of your flight, you have the option of stopping at the Gomantong Caves along the way. Visitors can explore the Black Cave by a network of boardwalks in this impressive cave system, which is a primary source for edible swiftlet nests (an expensive and controversial delicacy in Asia). Lots of scavengers live in the guano below; give the caves a miss if you’re creepie-crawlie adverse!
Sandakan isn’t large, so no need to spend too much time waiting at the airport. Instead, visit the war memorial park just 10 minutes away. The garden commemorates the thousands of POWs who died during the infamous WWII death marches in Borneo. Afterward, call into the English Tea House & Restaurant for a drink with nice views of Sandakan and the coast. For a proper meal, head over to Sim Sim Seafood or one of the many other seafood restaurants built on stilts along the coast.
Fly onward to Kota Kinabalu and spend the night there.
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital city, has plenty of charms. But you’ll want some beach time, and leaving Borneo without experiencing the marine life would be a crime. Since getting to the Derawan Islands in Kalimantan—one of the top places in the world for marine biodiversity and nesting sea turtles—with only one week in Borneo isn't practical, head out to the conveniently located Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park instead. Hop among the five islands by speedboat, and relax on the white-sand beaches in between snorkeling or diving. Be on the lookout for whale sharks, which pass through in the spring months.
After a day of sun, return to Kota Kinabalu for some shopping and sightseeing. Go enjoy sunset and the evening street performers at Tanjung Aru, the park and beach at the southern end of town. Strolling Gaya Street and the waterfront is a good way to sample the vibe and delicious street food in Kota Kinabalu, especially on Sundays when there's a large market.
Day 4: Kinabalu Park
You won’t have the two fulls days and a night to get a permit and climb Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain (13,435 feet), but you can still enjoy the national park on the slopes. The best way to take advantage is to book one of the popular day trips that include transportation (two hours) each way.
The flora and fauna in Kinabalu Park earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. At least 800 species of orchids have been documented around Mount Kinabalu, and you’ll get to see carnivorous pitcher plants as well. Ask a ranger if there are any known Rafflesia flowers in bloom; it’s one of the largest and strangest flowers in the world. You can also watch for some of Kinabalu’s 326 documented species of birds, including hornbills, while enjoying the canopy walk.
Many tours involve a trip to the Poring Hot Springs, another hour of driving beyond the entrance to Kinabalu Park. Although going further to get boiled on an already hot day doesn't sound appealing, Poring has numerous other attractions, including a bat cave, butterfly farm, and canopy walk. If you prefer more time at the national park, ask about foregoing the hot springs.
Return to Kota Kinabalu after a long day and indulge in Malay or Indian food—choices for tempting eateries seem limitless—then pack up and prepare to fly to Brunei in the morning.
Day 5: Brunei Darussalam
Brunei, the smallest country of three sharing Borneo, isn’t often on tourists’ radar. The oil-rich sultanate is barely larger than the U.S. state of Delaware, but the residents enjoy a relatively high standard of living. The infrastructure in Brunei is excellent; travelers won’t have any trouble popping in for a day to explore Bandar Seri Begawan, the interesting capital. Royal Brunei Airlines offers inexpensive, 45-minute flights to Bandar Seri Begawan from Kota Kinabalu.
Bandar Seri Begawan Airport is right in the city, and after checking into your hotel, go explore! You can opt for a tour, but the capital is compact enough to grab a map and walk or take taxis as needed. Keep in mind that Brunei is considered the most observant of Islamic countries in Southeast Asia—you’ll need to dress modestly to enter museums and mosques.
The mosques around Bandar Seri Begawan are impressively photogenic. Check out a couple before seeing Kampong Ayer, a sprawling water village that’s home to more than 10,000 people. For a glimpse of how one of the richest men in the world lives, stop in at the Royal Regalia Museum. The museum contains gifts from world leaders to the Sultan of Brunei along with other gold-covered artifacts from his eclectic life. Entrance is free.
After a day of sightseeing, sample some of Brunei’s delicious roti and curry dishes. Prepare to fly to Sarawak (two hours) in the morning.
Day 6: Kuching, Sarawak
Arrive in Kuching, the pleasant capital of Sarawak that’s often a favorite for many travelers. The airport is located only 15 minutes south of town.
Kuching means "cat" in Malay; that’s why statues of cats adorn roundabouts. The city is boasted as one of the cleanest in Asia, and the waterfront esplanade is home to some of the best seafood restaurants in Borneo. The few touts are friendly, and hassle is generally low in Kuching. If your visit coincides with the annual Rainforest World Music Festival held there every summer, watch out—it’s going to be busy!
After flying to Kuching, head 45 minutes north by car to the Sarawak Cultural Village. With only a week to spend in Borneo, you won’t have time to stay in a difficult-to-reach Iban longhouse in the jungle; fortunately, the Sarawak Cultural Village is a living museum spread over 17 beautiful acres with demonstration longhouses from the various Indigenous peoples. Spend the day learning about the Dayak tribes and their way of life in the rainforest. The daily cultural shows take place at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.; the grounds close at 5 p.m.
Return to Kuching and enjoy an inexpensive seafood feast at Top Spot Food Court or one of the other nearby restaurants. We said hassle is low in Kuching, but Top Spot may be the exception as touts shout to lure you with menus. Choose a stall then order midin—a crunchy rainforest fern—as a healthy side dish; this may be your only chance to try it, as finding it outside of Sarawak is nearly impossible. If the squirming seafood at Top Spot makes you squeamish, consider trying Sarawak’s unique version of laksa, a spicy noodle soup (note: it contains shrimp).
If you haven’t yet managed to see an orangutan while in Borneo—nothing is guaranteed when wildlife is concerned—this may be your last chance! Go 30 minutes south of town to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre; feeding times are at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Much like Sepilok in Sabah, Semenggoh is home to free-roaming orangutans learning how to manage themselves in the wild again.
Otherwise, begin early before the heat of the day and head north to Bako National Park, Sarawak’s oldest and most accessible national park. Other than the Kinabatangan River, Bako is your best opportunity to see an endangered proboscis monkey in the wild. You’ll enter the park by small boat then walk the trail network to see all sorts of monkeys, bearded pigs, pythons, and other park residents. Don't worry: You don't have to trek far to see wildlife. Watch for hornbills and giant butterflies, but beware of the bold macaques that like to steal things from visitors.
If the weather on your last day is too rainy to enjoy outside adventures, go see the cluster of four interesting museums near Reservoir Park; entrance fees are $1.50 or less. The Sarawak Museum has an exhibit of human skulls taken by headhunters!
Enjoy one last, shameless seafood experience then stroll along the waterfront knowing your one week in Borneo was well spent.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Kinabulu Park." 2000.