The intertwining histories of Borneo’s three countries—Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia—are all laid bare in the mega-island’s collection of museums.
You’ll find a variety of perspectives covered, from the Royal Regalia Museum’s jewel-encrusted praise of the sitting Sultan of Brunei, to WASAKA Museum’s defiant revolutionary stance, to the Kuching Cat Museum’s kitschy take on the humble house cat. Each of these galleries offers a unique take on local values that should never be left out of any visitor’s itinerary.
We picked out nine of the best from each of the three countries on the island; don’t miss any of these when you’re in the area!
Sabah State Museum (Malaysia)
Bits and pieces of Sabah’s history and culture come together on this sprawling complex off Jalan Penampang in Kota Kinabalu.
The Sabah State Museum showcases its exhibits in several different buildings. The main building covers archaeology, natural history, textiles, history, and more, inside a building modeled after a Rungus longhouse.
A Locomotive Gallery features the steam trains that used to commute the length of Northern Borneo’s railway system. A Science and Technology Centre features interactive scientific displays. And a Heritage Village recreates traditional housing used by Borneo’s indigenous peoples.
Located near the city center, the Sabah State Museum can be reached by taxi or by the Number 13 Bus. Admission for non-Malaysian citizens costs MYR 15 (about $3.60).
Museum Negeri Pontianak (Indonesia)
Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province lets its multicultural flag fly in this state museum, which celebrates the intertwining histories of the local Dayak, Malay, and Chinese communities.
Here you'll find replicas of traditional houses; Dayak tribal wear, handicrafts and a replica of a longboat; and a variety of exhibits that display each culture’s household appliances, relics of worship, and other lifestyle cues.
Ceramics admirers or researchers will find the museum’s exhibits of particular interest; they’ll find miniatures of traditional ceramic burning furnaces onsite, as well as water jugs called "tempayan" dating back to the 16th century.
The Museum Negeri Pontianak is located next to Tanjungpura University campus. Entrance fee costs IDR 10,000 ($0.60).
Kuching Cat Museum (Malaysia)
The common house cat—"kuching" in Malay—lends its name to Sarawak’s capital, and has inspired a quirky little local museum that covers all things feline.
The Kuching Cat Museum contains more than 4,000 items relating to cats from historical relics to pop-culture souvenirs. With posters, statues, snippets, and taxidermy, there’s much to see here for the cat lover, including a 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummified cat; a stuffed display of the world’s rarest cat found in Borneo’s rainforest; and a collection of cat-related advertising.
You’ll find this museum at the Kuching North City Hall atop Bukit Siol in Petra Jaya, Kuching. CityLink Bus K15 stops at the foot of the hill; spare yourself an uphill climb by taking a taxi instead to the top.
Museum Waja Sampai Kaputing (WASAKA) (Indonesia)
This Indonesian museum’s name derives from the war cry of Banjarese freedom fighters during the revolution against Dutch rule, quite fitting for a museum filled with relics of the struggle, including armaments, clothing, and propaganda.
The museum isn’t too large—it’s located in a traditional house on the banks of the Martapura River. As a result, the 400 or so items exhibited onsite are mainly from the post-World War II struggle for independence between 1945 and 1949.
Homegrown national hero Hasan Basry enjoys an outsize presence in the museum. His personal items onsite include furniture, a keris sword, his personal dinner plate, and an undershirt inscribed with spells that supposedly made its wearer invulnerable.
You can visit WASAKA by river boat ("kelotok") and disembark at the museum pier. Many WASAKA visitors combine their trip with one to the nearby Lok Baintan Floating Market.
Royal Regalia Museum (Brunei)
You can think of this building as the Sultan of Brunei’s trophy case, where the long-reigning monarch and his predecessors have kept jewelry, swords, special clothing, and gifts from foreign visitors.
The biggest display takes up almost the whole floor of the building’s central rotunda: a replica of the Sultan’s silver jubilee parade float, manned by costumed mannequins. Other artifacts of note include military service medals and decorations; a replica of the Sultan’s throne room; and various jeweled gifts, including jewel-encrusted models of local mosques.
Entrance to the museum is free of charge. Guests are required to leave their bags and cameras at the counter before entering.
Petroleum Museum (Malaysia)
Sarawak, Malaysia’s very first oil well, is located on Bukit Tenaga in Miri. When the reserves dried out in the 1970s, the government converted the site into a museum chronicling the history of the local petroleum industry.
Inside the museum, exhibits reveal relevant scientific details, including oil rig models and an earthquake simulator. Outside, despite the presence of the modern museum complex on the site, the original “Grand Old Lady” was never demolished and can still be seen there by visitors—a hundred-foot-tall, century-old derrick and its “nodding donkey” pump.
Admission to the museum is free, though it’s temporarily closed for renovations. From the museum site, you can get a bird’s-eye view of Miri and offshore oil rigs that still keep pumping crude to this day.
Kampong Ayer Cultural & Tourism Gallery (Brunei)
The water village of Kampong Ayer is the largest of its kind, and a major Brunei tourist attraction. The village’s Cultural & Tourism Gallery deserves to be a stop for any first-time visitor with its expansive galleries featuring local history and culture, its observation tower overlooking the settlement, and signs pointing to local tourist attractions.
Five sub-galleries inside the house document the village’s existence as far back as the 10th Century A.D., with displays of antiques and handicrafts dating back from prominent eras in Brunei’s history. The fourth and fifth sub-gallery show Kampong Ayer in the present day, painting a feel-good picture of thriving economic and social development. Occasionally, the “Sunken Gallery” stage features weaving exhibitions, where artisans create Bruneian kain tenunan fabric.
The Gallery is accessible by water taxi from the Bandar Seri Begawan Waterfront.
Brunei Museum (Brunei)
Set on the former site of a stone fort on the hill of Kota Batu, the Brunei Museum now stands as the tiny nation’s main repository of cultural and historical treasures.
Five galleries contain exhibits of a surprising breadth, covering the distant past, contemporary developments, and locally relevant scientific discoveries, such as from locally cast traditional cannon and musical instruments, to displays of regional animal and plant life, to an Oil and Gas Gallery that proudly showcases Brunei’s main bread and butter.
To get to Kota Batu and the Brunei Museum, ride Bus 39 and stop off in front.
Sarawak Museum (Malaysia)
The Sarawak Museum in Kuching, Malaysia, is Borneo’s first and oldest. Built in 1891 by the “White Rajah” Charles Brooke after a visit from famous British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the museum had an impressive cultural and natural collection from day one.
A brand new museum building is currently being constructed to replace the Victorian-style building that housed its collection for the past 120 years. The new building will have a lot to ground to cover: stuffed animals native to Borneo’s rainforests; traditional ceremonial masks from Sarawak’s indigenous peoples; model longhouses showing how the local Dayak peoples live; and an exhibit that explains the obsolete Dayak tradition of headhunting.
The five-story building will open its doors by the end of 2020 with a floor space of some 31,000 square meters to display more than a century’s worth of collections.