There are many reasons why Kalimantan is less visited on Borneo vacations: there are no international flights, infrastructure is more basic, English is less widely spoken... but mainly it’s simply because people don’t know enough about it. The food is superb, the people welcoming, there are far more orangutans than in Malaysia and you’ll get a true sense of having left the beaten track far behind.
Most visitors are so busy squinting at wildlife through the foliage that they ignore the plants themselves. But with the world’s largest flower, carnivorous pitcher plants and over 1,700 orchid species, it’s well worth paying attention. Roughly 5,000 of Borneo’s 15,000 flowering plant species are found nowhere else in the world – and three new species continue to be found each month.
Borneo has luxurious lodges, remote resorts and hip hotels, and it’s easy to wonder why you would want to trade this in for a rustic longhouse homestay, sharing with a dozen local families. But Borneo’s culture is seductive, and the warm welcome, traditional dances, home cooked food and cheeky glass or three of rice wine are sure to change your mind – and make you realise that richness is relative.
Borneo’s tribes may no longer be the fearsome, forest-dwelling headhunters of the past – but they still have many unique skills which risk being lost as they migrate to the cities. Creating batik textiles; weaving intricate bead jewellery, rattan baskets and mats; hunting with a blowpipe; and cooking with the island’s unique ingredients are some of the unusual skills you can learn during a cultural Borneo vacation.
Borneo’s exotic creatures are hyped by all... but they don’t disappoint. Long-limbed orangutans are the huge draw, but proboscis monkeys – only found here – are perpetual crowd pleasers, and the chance of spotting the more elusive clouded leopards, tiny tarsiers, slow lorises, sun bears and pygmy elephants keep wildlife fans on their toes.
Home to sea gypsies, longhouse-dwelling communities and former head hunters, a Borneo vacation has everything a cultural traveler could ask for. There’s plenty of chance to get stuck in, with floating markets, living museums and blowpipe demonstrations, but don’t overlook the modern cities, with Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and Filipino fusions, temples, music festivals and ethnology museums.
If you’re a fan of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Filipino or Indonesian food, you’ll find something to savour in Borneo. The coastline and rivers produce abundant fish, which is just as tasty from a streetside stall as it is in a high-end restaurant, flavoured with coconut milk, spices, chilli and lemongrass. Superbly prepared tandoori and dim sum can be found here, and vegetarians won’t go hungry either.
Borneo’s many little islands each have their own speciality – from castaway-style desert islets to tranquil, luxury resorts; sanctuaries for marine and forest wildlife and reef-ringed diving Meccas. Even those who normally avoid lounging on the sand will appreciate a rest after a long-haul flight – or after an epic vacation climbing mountains and trudging through leech-filled swamps – and there’s an island for all tastes.
The glitzy, redeveloped waterfronts of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are a glass façade of luxury hotels, shopping malls and “lifestyle centres”, designed to hurl these cities into the 21st century. Visit Kuching’s 900m-long esplanade for the fountains, restored Chinese pagoda and views of local boats – but avoid the restaurants at both waterfronts: the “designer” restaurant bill will quickly take the shine off.
As people seek “meaningful” Borneo vacations, and “giving back” becomes a buzzword, volunteering with endangered wildlife seems to tick many boxes. But thanks to the risk of transmitting diseases and habituation to humans, you should never touch an orangutan, and any organisation promoting this has their own interests at heart, not the wildlife. Stick to construction and reforestation work – it’s better for everyone.
Videos of a slow loris being tickled have catapulted it into the Internet hall of fame – but its cuteness could cause its own demise. Slow lorises, along with baby orangutans and sun bear cubs are all in demand as illegal pets, with poaching on the increase. If they don’t die during capture or transportation, they are doomed to a miserable life in tiny enclosures – with teeth or claws removed.
When visiting a local community, bringing a gift is a nice gesture in any culture. However, what is helpful and appropriate is not so easy to guess. Sweets are unhealthy, alcohol is often frowned upon in Islamic regions, and pens and books can be useless. So check with your guide – the results may be unexpected, with suggestions ranging from blocks of salt to stinky fish paste.