Lush with jungle, riddled with rivers and bursting with wildlife, this South-East Asian isle is the place for those Born(eo) to be wild! Here’s our expert guide
Having spent all afternoon huddled in a hammock, listening to rain thrash the corrugated iron roof above, it was with a certain anxiety that I stepped down the slimy steps into the flat-bottomed boat, which was gently rocking in the swollen river. The air was hot, wet and thick; the gunmetal-grey skies were drifting off to be replaced by a fading washed-out blue.
The captain started up the engine and we slipped away from our mooring, quietly gliding along the Santubong River. We passed the peninsula’s limestone humps and small stilted fishing villages, their wooden houses hanging precariously over the water’s edge.
Fifteen minutes into our journey, the captain cut the engines and pointed to a disturbed patch of river just as the slick, dark back of an Irrawaddy dolphin rolled into the water. A profound hush descended as we listened for more watery signs of the dolphins’ presence. I craned my neck and spied several more playfully surfacing in the distance.
After handing out some refreshing chunks of sweet pineapple from an ice box, the captain had us on our way again. We headed towards a shaking tree. High in the crux of some branches, a proboscis monkey – its nose swollen and long – stared bemusedly back at our boat before nonchalantly turning towards a friend to continue their discourse. We spent the next hour in this way, calmly sailing between dolphins and monkeys.
As the sky darkened, the moon rose over the hills, casting a long luminescent reflection on the inky river. Stilted villages in the distance flickered like fairy lights. We turned back, enjoying the bewitching silence that comes with the sudden fall of night on the water in the tropics.
Suddenly, the boat lurched and the driver switched on his torch, scanning the banks. A yellow eye shone back, followed by a splash and the visible flick of a tail; a man-eating saltwater crocodile had just slid into the gloomy water. The torch continued to meet menacing eyes as further deadly reptiles entered the river. Definitely not the time for a dip.
A row of trees filled with glimmering and pulsating lights bade me farewell as I got off the boat: a firefly colony was having a blast on the opposite bank.
Since that first dusk in Sarawak, I have been enchanted by the charms of Borneo. Nowadays, as a resident of nearby Singapore, I am able to easily enjoy getaways to the island’s wandering rivers and jungles teeming with unique flora and fauna – such as the Bornean orang utan, Asian elephant and clouded leopard. Memorable and gregarious nights under the stars at longhouses and music festivals are a huge draw, as are the museums detailing a rich and turbulent history. To blow the urban cobwebs from your soul, nothing beats hikes to secluded beaches, huge caves and remote mountain tops.
No matter how small or large your appetite for adventure is, Borneo is the one place guaranteed to satisfy it.
Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, is shared between three countries; Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. The Malaysian parts are collectively known as East Malaysia and are divided up into the states of Sarawak and Sabah. The Indonesian part of Borneo is known as Kalimantan and is divided up into five provinces. Brunei is a small independent nation on the north coast.
Sarawak has a couple of excellent annual festivals that music lovers won’t want to miss. The Rainforest World Music Festival is held in the Sarawak Cultural Village and attracts quality world music acts. Borneo Jazz is held in Miri over two days, and features notable jazz artists from Malaysia and beyond.
Bandar Seri Begawan’s Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is the most elegant mosque in Borneo and has become the national symbol of Brunei. Take the lift to the top of the 44m-high minaret for views over the city.
Borneo offers an imagination-firing range of walks of varying intensity. Even better, routes offer the chance to enjoy some of the island’s gorgeous natural scenery and unique flora and fauna.
Sarawak’s Bako National Park, 37km north of Kuching, is located on a remarkable peninsula jutting into the South China Sea; its quiet beaches and weathered sandstone cliffs are dominated by the towering Tanjung Sapi headland. It’s home to a diverse selection of wildlife: the mangroves and forests are home to flying lemurs, pythons, long-tailed macaques and around 150 proboscis monkeys (most often seen at dawn or dusk). The park’s 16 colour-coded hiking trails make it an excellent place to adapt to walking in Borneo. For example, one short but exhilarating hike leads to the top of Tanjung Sapi, offering sweeping views over the sea and across to Gunung Santubong on the opposite peninsula. A hike to the Tajor Waterfall rewards a steep climb with refreshing cascades, and finishes at a gleefully tourist-free beach.
Park entrance: RM20 (£4); www.sarawakforestry.com.
Gunung Mulu National Park lies in north-western Sarawak, close to the border with Brunei. This park is named after 2,377m Gunung Mulu, and is famed for its limestone karst formations and huge underground caves, including the Sarawak Chamber, thought to be the world’s largest. The park provides bountiful hiking opportunities including the four-day ascent of Gunung Mulu, and the extremely tough day-long Pinnacles Trek, which runs through a forest of razor-sharp limestone needles, some of which tower above the trees to heights of over 45m. A gentler walk is to Deer Cave, which has the world’s biggest cave mouth and is the location of a daily exodus of hundreds of thousands of bats (usually 5.30pm-6.30pm); visitors must use an official guide.
Summit Trek RM475 (£96) pp; Pinnacles Trail RM325 (£65) pp; Deer Cave RM20 (£4) pp – all prices include guide fees. www.mulupark.com
The jagged peaks of 4,095m Gunung Kinabalu are often swathed in swirling clouds but on a clear morning provide seemingly endless views across Sabah. Over 30,000 people a year attempt the two-day trek to Borneo’s highest summit, taking trails that are home to 1,200 species of orchid and the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia arnoldii. Climbers can enjoy clambering over the north face of Kinabalu, the site of the world’s highest via ferrata.
Conservation fee RM15 (£3); summit registration RM100 (£20); guide compulsory, prices from around RM128 (£26), depending on group size. Note, only 146 climbing permits are issued per day. For tours/packages, see www.mountkinabalu.com.
Located in the centre of the region, Maliau Basin is known as Sabah’s Lost World. It rings to the haunting calls of the many gibbons that inhabit the basin alongside orang utans, elephants and pangolins. In Maliau you can do a four/five-day trek through pristine rainforest choked with orchids and pitcher plants climaxing at a spectacular seven-tier waterfall.
Trek packages cost from RM4,575 (£925) pp including food and guide; for information, www.borneonaturetours.com.
With over 40 distinct ethnic groups speaking 200 languages or dialects on the island, it’s no surprise that Borneo has plenty of intriguing cultural experiences on offer.
Top of the list is a stay at a longhouse – the traditional stilted dwelling of Borneo’s indigenous people; Sarawak alone has over 1,500 of them, some of which can be visited (though only with an invite). A longhouse is typically home to around 20-25 families and an overnight stay is a great way to get a feel for traditional life. One of the best places to arrange a longhouse look-in is Kapit, up the Rejang River.
A good time to visit the area is during the Gawai harvest festival, when the doors of longhouses are thrown open for all. Expect to drink plenty of rice wine, watch some dancing, be gently teased and to sing to a fascinated and exuberant audience.
If a longhouse visit isn’t feasible, the Sarawak Cultural Village outside Kuching has examples of the various Sarawak indigenous groups’ longhouses and cultural performances in lush grounds at the foot of the imposing Gunung Santubong. The cultural village is also home to the annual Rainforest Music Festival, which attracts world music acts from around the globe.
Kampong Ayer in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is an amazing collection of 40 stilt villages (inhabited by over 30,000 people) lining the Brunei River. Small water taxis – known as ‘flying coffins’ due to their shape and hair-raising speeds – can be hired to zip between the brightly coloured houses, schools, mosques, karaoke lounges and hospital; it’s a fascinating insight into Brunei’s riverside life. Trips cost around B$20-25 (£10-13) per hour; ask your captain to take you a little further down river for a glance at the Sultan of Brunei’s luxurious palace, Istana Nurul Iman.
Sabah’s tamu (markets) are an integral part of daily life in the state and are a good way to get in touch with indigenous culture. Locals descend on the tamu to sell jungle produce, traditional handicrafts and wares, take part in beauty competitions and show off their horseriding prowess. The weekly tamu at Keningau, Kota Belud and Kudat are all well worth a good nose.
Banjarmasin’s floating market starts at dawn on Kalimantan’s Barito River. It is undoubtedly one of Asia’s most authentic river markets, with vendors wearing distinctive rounded bamboo hats sitting perched on narrow boats selling local fruits such as rambutan, pineapples and huge bunches of bananas along with Banjarmasin’s famous kueh – varied, often rice-based cakes.
Borneo has lots of lip-smacking dishes to try including: Sarawak laksa, a spicy noodle soup; Banjarmasin’s soto banjar, an addictive citrusy chicken soup with boiled egg; and (for the adventurous) Sabah’s hinava, a raw-ish salad with lime and bitter gourd. Brunei’s night markets, known as pasar malam, are laid-back places to dine in the evenings; spend the evening sipping exotic fruit juices and eating grilled satay and seafood.
The grand building that houses the Sarawak Museum in Kuching (admission free) was modelled on a town hall in Normandy. It was constructed on the recommendation of renowned naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace by the ‘White Rajahs’, the British colonists who ruled Sarawak for a century from the 1840s. The museum has an excellent ethnographic collection and includes a full-scale model of an Iban longhouse, Iban war totems, Kayan woodcarvings and reputedly the finest collection of kris (ceremonial daggers with purported supernatural powers) in all Malaysia.
Also in Sarawak, just to the west of Miri, are the Niah Caves (admission RM20 [£4]; www.sarawakforestry.com), home to one of South-East Asia’s most important early finds. Between 1954 and 1962, Tom Harrisson unearthed fragments of a 37,000-year-old human skull, the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in the region; this find challenged earlier theories about human ancestry and migration. Palaeolithic and neolithic tools, beads and pottery have been found in a total of 166 excavated burial sites. The Niah Caves are also a rich source of the nests needed for the Chinese delicacy, bird’s nest soup; made from swallows’ saliva, these nests can fetch up to $2,000 per kilo.
The Sandakan Heritage Trail is a walk around the sites of Sandakan, Sabah (leaflets available locally). It takes in Agnes Keith’s House (admission RM15 [£3]), a beautifully restored colonial home set in sprawling tropical gardens. Agnes Keith was the wife of a British conservator of forests, and she lived here from 1934 to 1952 during which time she spent three years as a Japanese POW on an island off Sandakan. Keith wrote several fantastic books detailing her years in Sandakan including Land Below the Wind and Three Came Home. The house provides insight into colonial life in north Borneo and is furnished with antiques and colonial furniture; a gallery on the first floor describes Keith’s life. A few minutes’ walk from the house is the English Tea House, which serves nostalgic cream teas on a manicured croquet lawn overlooking Sandakan Bay.
Sandakan is also home to the Sandakan Memorial Park (admission free), which is on the site of a former Japanese POW camp and was the starting point for the notorious Sandakan to Ranau death march in early 1945. Of the 2,400 soldiers who began the march, only six survived. Commemorations are held here every year on ANZAC day (25 April) and Sandakan Memorial Day (15 August).
Borneo has a thriving handicrafts industry. Look out for rattan mats and baskets, Iban pua kumbu (woven blankets), and wooden masks and utensils from Sarawak.
Headhunting was commonly practised among Borneo’s indigenous groups until the early 20th century. After a successful raid by the hunters, the seized heads were skinned and smoked before being hung from the longhouse ceiling, where they were believed to contain powerful magic. Nowadays young men no longer need to take heads to gain respect, but are still expected to go on a coming-of-age journey – perhaps a stint on an offshore rig – and return to their village with plenty of tales. In parts of Kalimantan, freshly severed heads have been replaced in village ceremonies by coconuts wrapped in leaves.
The flora and fauna of Borneo is simply extraordinary, with abundant wildlife both above and below the water. A boat ride along the Santubong River in Sarawak is a good introduction to the incredible diversity you can see in a short space of time. Small, unobtrusive boats depart an hour before dusk and glide gently along the river offering glimpses of Irrawaddy dolphins, proboscis monkeys, fireflies and saltwater crocodiles, their beady eyes glowing in torchlight after nightfall.
For those that don’t have the time for longer jungle stays, the orang utan rehabilitation centres at Sepilok (near Sandakan, Sabah; RM30 [£6]) and Semanggoh (near Kuching, Sarawak; RM3 [60p]) offer guaranteed sightings of orang utans at daily feeding sessions in well-organised and sensitive surroundings.
Sabah’s Kinabatangan Riverine Forest has escaped the rapacious attentions of the loggers. It’s an amazing place for day and night river trips as well as jungle walks, offering the chance to see tree-snake, crocodile, Sumatran rhinoceros and occasional herds of elephant crashing through the park. The area is also a birder’s paradise with hornbill, oriole, osprey, egret and stork commonly spotted. It’s well worth staying a night here to tune into the jungle atmosphere; many hotels and lodges offer deals. A good option is the Sukau Rainforest Lodge (two-day/one night wildlife safari RM1,138 [£230]; www.sukau.com). A cheaper, popular option is Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures (three-day/two-night trip RM420 [£85]; www.uncletan.com).
The huge Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan was founded in the 1970s in an area with a large population of wild orang utans and a variety of forest types. Despite the difficulties of reaching the park, it’s attracting growing numbers of foreign visitors who come primarily to chug slowly upriver on a klotok river boat. Slow three-day trips on these boats – which are equipped with cabins, crew and a cook – are a quintessential Kalimantan experience, and are recommended for spotting clouded leopards, orang utans and reticulated pythons curled up in the trees. You can book through a local guide (recommended is Majid: 0852 4859 0487) in Kumai, which is a 25-minute taxi from Pangkalanbun; trips cost around US$500 for three days including permit, boat, guide and food.
Borneo’s underwater wildlife is also fabulous, particularly in Sabah. There’s world-famous diving at Pulau Sipadan, whose waters are home to turtles, barracuda and a number of hammerhead sharks.
Slightly offbeat, Layang Layang is a manmade island on a lagoon an hour’s flight from Kota Kinabalu in the disputed Spratly Islands. Diving and bird watching are the main attractions here, particularly around Easter, when large schools of hammerheads gather. Trips are usually booked on a package basis; flights (US$370 rtn) leave 6.30am Tues/Thurs/Sun from Kota Kinabalu (www.avillionlayanglayang.com).
On river trips into the interior, it’s fairly common to see women with huge dangling rings attached to their ears for the sake of beauty. Men enhance their own sex appeal by drilling a hole into their penis, into which they insert a variety of objects – from seeds, beads and bamboo shavings to pig bristles. This, known as the palang, is done to increase their partner’s sexual pleasure.