Unsurprisingly, many of the top destinations in Malaysian Borneo are about enjoying the impressive biodiversity of the world’s third-largest island. Although threatened with deforestation to make room for palm oil plantations, the rainforests are still home to exciting wildlife and indigenous cultures. Borneo is one of only two places left on earth (Sumatra is the other) where orangutans live in the wild.
From diving and island hopping to trekking and caving, Malaysian Borneo is a wonderland for adventurous travelers—and it’s accessible! Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Borneo are quick and inexpensive.
Sabah’s second largest town and former capital has plenty of World War II history but doesn’t really attract many international visitors. It is, however, a convenient base for enjoying many of the most exciting things to do in Malaysian Borneo.
Once in Sandakan, you’ll be within easy striking distance of the biggest attractions in East Sabah, such as Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (45 minutes), the Gomantong Caves (two hours), and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary (45 minutes). Consider visiting the enjoyable Rainforest Discovery Centre (45 minutes) first for a better understanding of the flora and fauna you may encounter elsewhere in Borneo.
Get there: Flying into Sandakan (airport code: SDK) is the best option. Buses from Kota Kinabalu take around seven hours.
Located around 2.5 hours south of Sandakan, Sukau and the Kinabatangan River is a sanctuary for many of Borneo’s most exciting animal species. Visitors stay in lodges, walk the river trail, and take boat cruises (morning and night) to observe wildlife.
Drifting silently along the Kinabatangan is a great way to add to your animal-spotting bragging list. You can see many kinds of monkeys (proboscis included), wildcats, giant snakes, and occasionally even elephants! Hornbills, kingfishers, and other exotic birds call from the canopy. Those shiny eyes seen on the river at night belong to the many crocodiles that live there.
Get there: Most of the touts in Sandakan want to sell you a Kinabatangan tour. You can book a tour or make reservations with one of the lodges near Sukau and get yourself there for some self-guided adventure.
Situated in the north of Sarawak not far from the independent nation of Brunei, Mulu National Park could be considered the crown jewel for adventure tourism in Sarawak. The massive caves and limestone formations earned Sarawak’s largest national park UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2000.
Visitors to Mulu National Park can enjoy caving (from beginner to the extreme), trekking, and river expeditions. Mulu is home to 81 species of mammals and 270 species of birds, eight of which are hornbills.
Get there: Getting into Mulu National Park overland requires a combination of buses, boats, and walking! For that reason, most visitors fly to Mulu National Park from Miri. The small planes don’t fly if the weather is precarious and Mulu National Park gets a lot of heavy rain, so keep your itinerary flexible!
If you’re stuck in Miri and can’t reach Mulu, consider exploring Lambir Hills National Park (30 minutes south) instead.
Sipadan Island on the eastern side of Sabah is considered one of the best places for diving and snorkeling in the world. In fact, the diving may be too good. The small island’s underwater beauty once attracted an unsustainable amount of visitors. Since 2013, permits are required to visit Sipadan. Dive shops issue most, and only 120 are available per day. Travelers also have to stay on one of the adjacent islands (Mabul is popular) rather than Sipadan itself.
Despite the need for a permit, the snorkeling and diving at Sipadan are worth a little inconvenience. The reef is busy with marine life, and the strong currents provide the best drift diving in the world.
Get there: Getting to Sipadan and Mabul takes some effort. Most visitors begin by flying to Tawau, then take a minivan to Semporna (1.5 hours), and finally, a speedboat to one of the islands (one hour).
With an elevation of 13,435 feet, Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th most prominent mountain in the world, meaning it really stands out from the surrounding landscape. Anyone with the fitness and stamina can grind uphill to the summit on Mount Kinabalu; the climb isn’t technical. To limit environmental impact, the number of climbing permits is capped at 130 per day. Most climbers spend a night in one of the simple huts along the route then make the chain-assisted ascent to the summit in the morning.
The surrounding national park became Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Even if you don’t ascend Sabah’s big mountain, you can still enjoy the biodiversity. Kinabalu Park boasts 326 species of birds and is also home to the Rafflesia, an unusual parasitic flower that can weigh over 20 pounds! Park rangers track the Rafflesias’ unpredictable blooms.
Get there: The trip from Kota Kinabalu to the national park headquarters takes less than two hours by bus or private car.
Sarawak’s capital of Kuching, “the Cat City,” has certainly earned its spot among the top destinations in Borneo. With a clean riverfront promenade, friendly vibe, and ridiculously good seafood, Kuching could quickly become one of your favorite places in Southeast Asia.
Kuching’s free museums are a nice bonus, but most of the fun is outside. A visit to the nearby Sarawak Cultural Village offers insight into the ways of the indigenous Dayak people. Sarawak Cultural Village also serves as the beautiful venue for the Rainforest World Music Festival every summer.
Kuching is surrounded by exciting things to do. Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, just 30 minutes south, is a place to enjoy observing semi-wild orangutans. Around 30 minutes to the north, Bako National Park is the oldest and most accessible national park in Malaysian Borneo. Although small, a self-guided walk through Bako is always rewarded with unforgettable wildlife sightings and plenty of monkey encounters.
Get there: Kuching (airport code: KCH) is one of the most accessible entry points into Malaysian Borneo. Flights from Kuala Lumpur take around two hours and can usually be booked for less than $50.
The Bario Highlands in the northeastern part of Sarawak is an ideal escape from Borneo’s heat. The clean air and gentle breezes at 3,500 feet will feel even better after braving the humidity of Malaysia's national parks at lower elevations.
Sarawak’s Bario Highlands are green, peaceful, and welcoming. The indigenous Orang Ulu people are still more than happy to show visitors their beautiful home. Rainforest retreats, homestays, and small lodges are scattered around the highlands. Hot springs, trekking, and tours are available. You can even see an empurau—a rare, fruit-eating fish that costs between $300–500 when served in a restaurant!
Get there: Fly to Bario from Miri. Going overland isn’t easy and requires braving rutted logging roads in an off-road vehicle.
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s big capital, has a different vibe than Kuching, but there’s plenty to see and do. Museums and art galleries showcase local culture. Gaya Street (now known as Chinatown) is a busy strip with cafes, markets, and traveler hostels. Just 30 minutes outside of town, the Monsopiad Cultural Village allows a peek into longhouse life. Human skulls from wars between headhunters of the past are still on display.
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park (30 minutes south) is an easily accessible way to see orangutans, tigers, gibbons, and other wildlife without spending days in the rainforest. When you’re ready for an island or two, Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a short boat ride away. Day trips include snorkeling and hops between islands. Some islands are cleaner and less developed than others; Sulug and Mamutik are the least developed while Manukan and Sapi are usually busiest.
Get there: Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu are quick and easy!
The Dayak people of Borneo suffer the same plight as other indigenous groups around the world: Their culture is rapidly disappearing due to modernization. Adventurous travelers with the time can arrange to stay in a longhouse with a Dayak (often Iban) family to learn old traditions. Staying in a longhouse also provides some direct financial support to these communities.
Longhouse experiences are a mixed bag. The longhouses nearest Kuching have televisions and Wi-Fi. In contrast, the longhouses farther afield (often accessible only by boat) may depend on kerosene lanterns for light. No matter which you choose, longhouse stays usually include food, drinks, music, and cultural lessons such as learning how to shoot a blowgun.
Get there: To enjoy a proper Iban longhouse experience, forgo the tours and offers pushed by touts in Kuching. Instead, contact the Sarawak Tourism Board in Kuching and let them know your timeline. They may be able to match you with a host longhouse that meets your comfort levels. Kapit, deep in the interior of Sarawak, frequently serves as a base for visiting longhouses.