Borneo travel guide

Borneo travel guide


2 minute summary

Despite having opened up greatly to visitors in the past few decades, Borneo remains a road less travelled, where new species continue to be discovered each month.
Sadly, it has also lured poachers, loggers, miners and farmers – who between them demolished over 50 percent of Indonesian Borneo’s rainforests in just 15 years, and whose presence threatens the existence of creatures such as the orangutan, as well as ways of life that have persisted for centuries.
The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are now well equipped for visitors, boasting wildlife sanctuaries, world-class dive resorts and mountain treks. But to get truly lost in this remote island, it’s worth heading into Indonesian Kalimantan, whose jungles must be navigated by river. Its landscapes and people remain largely untainted by tourism, and as the home of most of the island’s remaining orangutans, responsible Borneo vacations here could play an essential part in securing their future.
A Borneo vacation is...

"one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature herself," according to Charles Darwin
A Borneo vacation isn't...

a trip to one country. It's a huge island, containing bits of Malaysia, Indonesia and all of Brunei

What we rate & what we don't


responsibletravel.com's best & worst

Underrated

Indonesian Borneo Fabulous flora Longhouse homestays Traditional skills

Indonesian Borneo

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.

Fabulous flora

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.

Longhouse homestays

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.

Traditional skills

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.

Rated

Weird wildlife Cultural pick‘n’mix Creative cuisine Island life

Weird wildlife

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.

Cultural pick‘n’mix

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.

Creative cuisine

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.

Island life

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.

Overrated

Modern waterfronts Volunteering with wildlife Cute, exotic pets “Helpful” donations

Modern waterfronts

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.

Volunteering with wildlife

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.

Cute, exotic pets

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.

“Helpful” donations

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.

Food, shopping & people


Travel like a local with our Borneo travel guide

Eating & drinking in Borneo


Sabah’s Kadazan people flavour their food with a slightly sour, wild mango called Bambangan. It’s also pickled and severed as an accompaniment. They also have their own fragrant version of sushi, made with raw mackerel, ginger, shallots, chilli and lime.
Sarawak’s Iban tribe eat Manok Pansoh: chicken, mushrooms and lemongrass stuffed into bamboo tubes and cooked over an open fire.
Popular with indigenous tribes but less so with tourists is the spongy centre of the sago palm. It’s chewy, gooey and rather tasteless.


Estimated to be around 130 million years old, Borneo’s rainforest is the most ancient on earth.

People & language


Borneo’s native people are the Dayak – an all-encompassing term referring to 20 million people made up of over 200 tribes found mainly in the interior. The island’s Chinese, Indian and Filipino immigrants also who have a huge cultural and culinary influence, as well as the Malaysian, Indonesian and Bruneian people.
Sabah's boat-dwelling Bajau traditionally never set foot on land.
Ancestors of the Barito may been some of the first colonisers of Madagascar, over 1,000 years ago.

Gifts & shopping


Exquisite Batik fabric originated from Indonesia – batik of varying colours, origins and qualities can be found across Borneo. Traditional colours include dark brown and indigo; the priciest cloth may take months to create.
Handwoven silk shawls are a gorgeous, luxury souvenir from your Borneo vacation. Some stores have in-house workshops where you can see your items being skillfully created.
Sarawak Craft Council is a non-profit shop in Kuching selling a selection of crafts from many ethnic groups.
Do not buy items made from tortoiseshell, coral, feathers or any other endangered species.

Fast facts




Borneo is the world’s third largest island – after Greenland and New Guinea.

How much does it cost?


Bowl of noodles in a Malaysian market: 90p
Meal in an Indonesian restaurant: £5.20
Return bus from Sandakan to Sepikok £4
Adopting an orangutan for a year: £27.74

A brief history of Borneo


Borneo’s location at the maritime crossroads of Indonesia, China, Malaysia, India and the Philippines ensured that it was a vital trading post, centuries before the first waves of European sailors stumbled across this vast island, which has never been united under a single government. The Portuguese, Spanish, British and Dutch traded with and divided up the island between them – with Sabah becoming British North Borneo, and the Dutch having control over Kalimantan from the 19th century. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Top box: Kevin Wasilin] [Indonesian Borneo: Indo_girl2010] [Fabulous flora: Richard W Sinyem] [Longhouse homestays: Travelust] [Traditional skills: The Great Traveler] [Weird wildlife: The Wandering Angel] [Cultural pick‘n’mix: shankar s.] [Creative cuisine: Gossipguy] [Island life: chem7] [Modern waterfronts: Dustin Iskandar] [Volunteering with wildlife: Rob and Stephanie Levy's photostream] [Cute, exotic pets: Schristia] [“Helpful” donations: Rob Enslin] [eating & drinking (sago): Mark Guim] [people & language: hazize san] [gifts and shopping: Stephen Kennedy] [how much does it cost: Daniel Kleeman]
Written by Vicki Brown
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