Planning Your Trip
Places to Visit
Things to Do
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is divided between three countries: Indonesia (73 percent), Malaysia (26 percent), and Brunei (one percent). Your trip to Borneo will probably be centered around taking advantage of the natural biodiversity. The reefs are home to some of the best diving in the world, and Borneo is one of only two places left where wild orangutans still roam the rainforest. Opportunities for adventure abound within Borneo’s rugged interior of almost 289,000 square miles!
You’re going to need time to explore all the big island has to offer. Use our guide for planning your trip to Borneo and enjoying one of the most adventurous places on earth.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Overall, Borneo is hot, humid, and receives plenty of rain throughout the year. Sarawak is generally driest from March to September, while Sabah tends to be driest between January and May. East Kalimantan, Balikpapan, and the Derawan Islands receive less rain between July and October.
- Language: Bahasa Malaysia is spoken in Malaysian Borneo. Bahasa Indonesia is the national language in Kalimantan, but an estimated 74 languages are spoken daily among different sub-ethnic groups! Bahasa Melayu is the official language in Brunei; though, Melayu Brunei—Brunei’s variant of the Malay language—is used daily.
- Currency: Malaysian ringgit (MYR) in Malaysian Borneo; Indonesian rupiah (IDR) in Kalimantan; Brunei dollar (BND) in Brunei.
- Getting Around: Borneo requires time to move around. Plan on using regional flights for crossing long distances. Traveling by boat is sometimes the best option for going overland. Taxis and ojek (motorcycle taxis) are common for getting around in cities. Grab is a popular rideshare service in Malaysian Borneo.
- Travel Tip: Doing research before the trip is prudent, but you’ll find that many independent guesthouses and small airlines don’t have an online presence. You’ll have more options for making arrangements once on the ground. When possible, book local tours and guides to directly help communities.
Things to Do
Despite damage from heavy deforestation, Borneo is one of the most biodiverse places in the world—see as much of it as you can. With mountains, rivers, thriving reefs, and a rainforest canopy that’s home to endangered species, finding memorable adventure in Borneo is easy.
- See Wildlife in East Sabah: Although you can see orangutans and proboscis monkeys in rehabilitation centers and national parks throughout Sarawak and Kalimantan, the Sandakan area in East Sabah is home to three destinations that really provide a sample of the rainforest: the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Rainforest Discovery Centre, and Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
- Learn About Dayak Culture: The best way to learn about the indigenous peoples’ way of life is to let them show you. Iban longhouse visits or overnight stays can be arranged in Sarawak, Sabah, and parts of Kalimantan. Contacting the Sarawak Tourism Board is the best way to find remote longhouse communities willing to host foreigners. If time is too short to reach the most authentic experiences, the Sarawak Cultural Village outside of Kuching is a “living” museum with model longhouses and cultural displays spread over beautiful grounds.
- Visit the Derawan Islands: Getting to the Derawan Islands in East Kalimantan isn’t easy, but once there you’ll enjoy a wonderland of marine life. The islands are a major nesting site for hawksbill turtles and green sea turtles. The snorkeling and diving are superb, plus visitors can swim with millions of harmless jellyfish in lakes. Some of the smaller islands are such perfect examples of paradise that friends may not believe you took the photos!
- Enjoy the National Parks: No matter which part of Borneo you choose to visit, you’ll have access to impressive national parks. Some are easier to access than others. Bako National Park is less than an hour from Kuching, but getting to Tanjung Puting in Central Kalimantan requires flying in and traveling by boat. You can see hornbills, giant butterflies, carnivorous pitcher plants, and plenty of monkeys even on relatively short hikes.
What to Eat and Drink
With so many miles of coastline and rivers, Borneo is a great place to indulge in fresh, inexpensive seafood. Patrons cram into cavernous food courts and seafood restaurants built on the water. Be on the lookout for a live empurau, the fruit-eating fish from Sarawak that’s one of the most expensive edible fish in the world. Midin, a jungle fern that stays crunchy after cooked, is a healthy green not easily found outside of Borneo. Sarawak laksa is a filling, addictive variant of laksa, the noodle soup enjoyed throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.
Have fun trying the many unique fruits found in Borneo, especially the ones that won’t be easy to find fresh at home. Be on the lookout for mangosteens, rambutans, red dragon fruit, longans, salak (snake fruit), and langsat in markets. If you’re brave enough to sample durian—you should!—the season is roughly from June to August.
Learn more about delicious Malaysian street food, eating in Indonesia, and interesting fruit to try in Southeast Asia.
Where to Stay
Finding hotels in major cities such as Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, and Bandar Seri Begawan is easy enough. But you may need to be a little more creative in remote, smaller places. Homestays and eco-lodges are popular options in Sukau on the Kinabatangan River, in the Derawan Islands, and other settings where there are fewer choices for eateries. Dive operators usually have accommodation for guests in places such as Mabul Island. You can sometimes reserve simple huts and longhouses within the national parks.
Many options for bungalows and small guesthouses aren’t listed online—you’ll need to book them in person or through an agent.
Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Malaysian Borneo are surprisingly inexpensive; choosing where to start your trip to Borneo is key. For the most accessible orangutan and rainforest experiences, consider flying into Sandakan in East Sabah. Jakarta is best for connecting to points throughout Kalimantan.
- Kuching (KCH): The pleasant city of Kuching is the best starting place for exploring Sarawak, but you’ll want to fly into Miri (MYY) if Mulu National Park is your first objective.
- Kota Kinabalu (BKI): Kota Kinabalu is often the busiest airport in Borneo and puts you in the heart of Sabah. It’s the best choice for getting to Mount Kinabalu or connecting to other points throughout Borneo.
- Sandakan (SDK): Fly into Sandakan in East Sabah for quicker access to orangutans, rainforest, and the Kinabantan River.
- Bandar Seri Begawan (BWN): Flying into Brunei’s capital is the obvious choice for exploring the sultanate and impressive Ulu Temburong National Park.
- Balikpapan (BPN): Balikpapan is a vibrant city in Kalimantan and hub for taking smaller planes to remote places.
- Tanjung Redeb (BEJ): Flying into Kalimarau Airport in Berau, East Kalimantan, is usually the best for accessing the Derawan Islands.
Get help choosing the best airport in Borneo for beginning your trip.
Culture and Customs
- The collective term “Dayak” is used for the more than 200 groups of indigenous peoples who call Borneo home. When you know the specific name of an ethnic group (e.g., “Iban”), use that instead.
- Visiting a longhouse is an interesting way to learn about indigenous culture, but avoid contact when not feeling well. Many communities live in close quarters far from medical help, and even a case of the sniffles could cause problems. If staying overnight, you’ll need to bring a gift for the chief and practical gifts that can be divided equally among the residents. Consumables are usually best; your guide can provide advice about what to bring.
- The left hand is generally considered unclean in local culture. Opt to pay, accept items, and eat with your right hand only. Eating with the hands is common in longhouses and some homestays.
- Shaking hands (with a looser grip than in the West) is common when meeting someone of the same sex. After the handshake, briefly touch your heart to show extra respect.
- Brunei is considered the most devout of Islamic nations in Southeast Asia. Dress conservatively when exploring Bandar Seri Begawan.
- Read about the concept of saving face to have a better understanding of culture in Borneo. Avoid public displays of anger or frustration. When possible, defer to elders and people of higher status. Pointing out that someone is wrong could cause them to lose face, so always correct people privately rather than in front of their peers. Public displays of affection with your significant other could cause strangers to feel embarrassment.
Money Saving Tips
- Check the dates for national and regional holidays before booking your trip. Big events such as Chinese New Year, Independence Day for both Malaysia and Indonesia, Gawai Dayak, Hari Raya (the end of Ramadan), the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, the Jazz Festival in Miri, and the Erau Festival in Kalimantan can drastically affect prices for flights and hotels.
- For overnight stays in national parks in Sarawak, get in touch with the Sarawak Tourism Board in Kuching. The hostel-style accommodation is typically inexpensive and simple. Ask if there is a shared kitchen for cooking your own meals. Nighttime and early morning access to the park provides an extra memorable experience and costs little.
- Like elsewhere in Asia, tipping isn’t the norm in Borneo. You can round up fares for drivers and leave a small tip for guides and porters to show your appreciation for a good experience.
- Prices for many items are negotiable, especially in markets or when you’ll be purchasing a lot from one merchant. A little good-natured haggling is expected but never for common items with fixed prices (e.g., a bottle of water).
Read more about saving money on the duty-free island of Labuan in Sabah during your trip to Borneo.