First time travelers to Borneo

To the uninitiated, Borneo calls to mind one thing: orangutans. But to those in the know, it’s so much more. It’s the rainforest island you read about in children's pirate stories, where the air is heavy with humidity and muffled by the ceaseless sound of wild screeches and calls. It’s misshapen-looking wildlife; bulbous-nosed proboscis monkeys and little pygmy elephants. It’s an astonishing array of food and different cultures, including the famous, formerly headhunting tribes.
Borneo has stolen our hearts and it surpassed, and thoroughly exceeded, our expectations.
- Claire Ruby on her first visit with our Borneo great apes and beach escapes tour.
There’s something about orangutans, perhaps their gentle nature or their very expressive eyes, but they seem so human. Their very name means ‘person of the forest’ in the Malay language. Perhaps that’s why so many people care so much about protecting them, and why travelers want to spend time with them. Currently, they can only be found in dwindling numbers in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, because, of course, palm oil plantations have ravaged their habitats. But you can see them – albeit, from a distance – on most Borneo tours. What else you decide to do on the island, that’s up to you.

What to expect


There are only around 100,000 orangutans left in Borneo, making them critically endangered. You can support the rehabilitation of injured or orphaned orangutans with a visit to Semenggoh, Matang and Sepilok wildlife sanctuaries Borneo pygmy elephants are pretty small and, sadly, only a small number of them remain in the wild too. Your best chance of spotting them is on a boat safari along the Kinabtangan River, where they like to bathe. Endemic to Borneo, proboscis monkeys are pretty bizarre-looking, with oversized noses that (allegedly) attract the females. Just like orangutans and pygmy elephants, they’re also endangered, but can be found all over Borneo, particularly in coastal swamps and riverbanks. Hiding out of the limelight you have a whole cast of creatures that tend to get overlooked, each one more elusive with the next. But by booking an expert tour, with knowledgeable guides and conservation specialists, you’ve a much greater chance of spotting pangolins, flying lemurs, clouded leopards and sun bears.

Language & culture

Borneo is a large island in Southeast Asia that is shared between Malaysia (the Malaysian states are Sabah and Sarawak), Indonesia (Kalimantan) and the little nation of Brunei. When it comes to a multi-nation island, with many indigenous groups, you can expect to hear many different languages, but Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English tend to be spoken the most. Food in Borneo is anything but boring, it’s a literal melting pot of Asian cuisine – southern Chinese and Indian dishes, delicious Malay food and indigenous (Dayak) delicacies. Despite being mostly Muslim and Buddhist, alcohol isn’t that hard to come by, especially tuak – Dayak rice wine, which is about 18%.
Be open minded in embracing the food, it’s delicious and the people are very friendly.
Kamini Gadhok enjoyed the local food on our Borneo orangutan vacation

Travel requirements

The vaccinations that the World Health Organisation recommend for travel to Borneo are adult diphtheria and tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid. Rabies is present on parts of the island, as is Malaria, and you should speak to your doctor for advice about both. Whether or not you need a visa depends on your nationality, but citizens from 58 countries, including Australia, Canada, the EU states, the UK and the USA, will be granted a 90-day visa for free.

Traveling to Borneo & getting around

You can fly into one of several major airports in Borneo, including Kota Kinabalu International Airport (Sabah) and Kuching International Airport (Sarawak). Some tours include internal flights to get from one end of the island to the other, but most transport will be by bus or boat. If you’re on a Borneo cycling vacation (yes, those exist), then you’ll be pedalling your way through national parks and along coastal roads.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Borneo or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Highlights not to miss

Borneo is a giant island, so it’s unlikely you’ll see everything in a single visit, even if you stay for a month (which you can). Instead, have a look at our highlights and pick a tour that takes you to a few favourites.

Bako National Park

The highlight of Bako has to be the preposterous-looking proboscis monkeys, which populate the mangrove forests of this coastal park. If you’re lucky, you might spot saltwater crocs, bearded pigs and otters too. It’s Sarawak’s oldest and also smallest national park, and is within an easy reach of Kuching, the state capital, which is also worth adding to your to-visit list.

Kinabatangan river cruise

Sungai Kinabatangan is a long and serpentine river that winds its way through the state of Sabah. The swamps and lakes and lowland forest areas are filled with wildlife, but it’s the pygmy elephant that attracts the most attention. These little pachyderms can be spotted bathing in the shallow waters – boat tours are best for sneaking up quietly without disturbing the herd.

Kota Kinabalu

Borneo’s culture is often overshadowed by its wildlife and that’s a shame, because there’s lots worth seeing. Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, is a wonderful clash of different cultures, from its Filipino markets and old world architecture, to its mosques and Chinese restaurants. Its modern waterfront isn’t worth a visit, but don’t miss out on its culinary scene, from street food to sophisticated restaurants.

Kinabalu National Park

Malaysia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site is an important site for diversity – more than 4,500 species of birds and animals live here. Trekking along nature trails, you’ll encounter rare orchids and pitcher plants between waterfalls and canopy walks. Athletic travelers might want to trek to the peak of Borneo’s biggest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, but the relaxing Poring Hot Springs await for the rest.

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary

Sepilok sanctuary isn’t the only place to see orangutans, but some will argue it’s the best. As the world’s largest animal refuge, at 43km squared, it’s an unparalleled place for orphaned and injured orangutans to learn how to live in the wild. We recommend arriving in the morning for feeding time, before seeing the other wildlife cared for here, such as sun bears and Sumatran rhinos.

...and what not   to do

Sometimes, well meaning travelers can do more harm than good and, when it comes to orangutans, this is often the case. These great apes are at risk of picking up diseases and becoming too used to human contact. You should never be in a situation where you are touching an orangutan, and no responsible organisation or tour should allow this. Instead, volunteering vacations involve food preparation, reforestation and maintenance work. Similarly, zoos are out, as is any other animal entertainment. Make sure any rescue centers you visit are genuine, and not just masquerading as a sanctuary. Don’t be afraid to ask your tour operator, who should be only too happy to advise. Obviously shark fin and bird nest soups should be avoided, as should souvenirs made from tortoiseshell, coral or feathers – all these endanger the local wildlife.

Best time to go

The temperature in Borneo hovers around 27-32°C all year round. Saying it’s hot doesn’t quite do the climate justice. ‘Steamy’, like a wood fired sauna, might be a better description. The whole island is basically a wet, overgrown greenhouse on a hot summer’s day. Then there’s the rainy season…

The best time to visit Borneo is from April to September. In spring and early summer, when rainfall has slowed, the flowers and foliage are at their finest. Midsummer to autumn is much drier, although you should always pack for showers. Any activities, like cycling or hiking, will be made harder by the humidity here, something to bear in mind when choosing what to do. October to December sees an increase in rain, but it might be worth it for the benefits of traveling in Borneo’s low season.

How long is needed to see Borneo?

In a week

It’s such a large island, and such a long way to go, that most travelers will choose to spend more than a week in Borneo. But if you are constrained by time, money or school vacations, there are shorter tours that you can do in seven days or less. It is possible to do Borneo on a budget, or to take younger kids, if you choose an itinerary that’s designed for it. Family volunteering vacations can be full-on, often involving tasks like tree-planting and working with local communities, so you’ll make the most of your limited time.

In two weeks

Two weeks is a good amount of time to start to get to know Borneo, although there’s still a chance you’ll wish you’d stayed longer. Most tours offer an overview of the main highlights: beaches, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and some culture, such as a visit to the capital, Kota Kinabalu. Lots of tours are tailor made, so they can be adapted to only include the sights and activities you really want – making your vacation, or honeymoon, more special.

Activities can often be added on as optional extras, but if that’s not enough, try a multi activity tour with an emphasis on adventure – you might be white water rafter down raging rivers one day and tackling a via ferrata the next. Trekking vacations will guide you through ancient jungle, home to Malayan tigers and crab-eating macaques, and up into the island’s highlands. Multi-day treks will take you to the summit of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo’s tallest mountain.

It’s unlikely you’ll go to Borneo without seeing some of the wildlife, but conservation vacations, especially ones that work with local indigenous communities, are the best way to see animals that are often scarce in the wild – plus, by helping the local people to look after them, you can learn more about their culture.

Three weeks or more

In three weeks, you can fully immerse yourself in island life, especially if you book a specialist wildlife watching vacation that visits a wide variety of landscapes: caves, waterfalls, beaches and jungles. You might get to spend some time in local villages, too. Small group tours let you stay with a host family in bamboo longhouses, the traditional homes of Borneo’s Iban people.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fish Ho Hong Yun] [Intro: Farizal Resat] [Wildlife: Rob Hampson] [Traveling to Borneo & getting around: Paradeso Borneo] [Bako National Park: amrufm] [Kinabalu National Park: shankar s.] [Best time to go: Dukeabruzzi]