Things to do in Borneo: Discover our top 11 attractions
Borneo is the third-largest island in the world and is divided between the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Unique biodiversity, million-year-old rainforests and beautiful islands with world-class diving spots are just three of the reasons why you should spend some time here. In this article, we’ll reveal our top 11 things to do in Borneo. Fantastic moments, lasting memories and great photos are guaranteed.
Amazing caves in Mulu National Park
Mulu National Park is one of the top attractions in Borneo. Its huge cave systems, which are among the largest in the world, are truly unique. Plenty of tours are offered, allowing you to discover the cave systems. From standard hiking tours to adventure caving for the more adventurous – in Mulu Park, there will be something to everyone’s liking.
But that’s not all – the national park is also famous for its Pinnacles, the up to 50-metre-high limestone rocks which protrude from the jungle. Some effort will be required to see these or to ascend to the summit of the almost 2,400-metre-high Mount Mulu.
The park is located in the north of the island, a considerable distance from any major cities. Plane is the only sensible way to get there, as all other means of transport would take far too long.
Primary rainforest in Danum Valley
In Danum Valley, you can discover 130-million-year-old rainforest. The area, which was declared a protected area over 20 years ago, has been spared from deforestation and clearing and is now home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna which includes orangutans, pygmy elephants and Malayan bears. In addition to daytime hikes, night drives allow visitors to explore the rainforest in the dark. There are two different accommodation options to choose from.
The Danum Valley Conservation Area is secluded inland in the eastern part of Borneo. The nearest major town is Lahad Datu, but even from there, the journey takes about 2 hours by car.
Observe orangutans in the wild
Many visitors to Borneo are eager to see orangutans. The endangered primates only live here and in Sumatra. So it’s no wonder the orangutan sanctuaries in Sepilok (near Sandakan) and Semenggoh (near Kuching) are among the island’s biggest attractions. At these rehabilitation centres, animals freed from captivity or found injured are first nursed and then prepared for a life in the wild. Finally, the apes are released into the adjacent forests.
These orangutans are referred to as semi-wild, as they continue to be supported with two daily feedings. You can visit the facilities while these feedings are taking place, and orangutans can usually be seen.
An absolute highlight of a holiday in Borneo, though, is catching sight of wild orangutans. This does, however, require some luck. Because the rainforest is very dense, it provides the apes with ideal places to hide.
Hike Mount Kinabalu
At over 4,000 metres, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. Hiking to the summit takes two days. You will pass through different vegetation zones with varying flora and fauna on the way. However, you will not see orangutans, pygmy elephants or Malayan bears. On the second day, you will reach the summit just in time for sunrise. And it’s that sunrise, as well as the view from the top, which make it more than worth the hardships of the two-day trek.
Mount Kinabalu is located in Kinabalu National Park. The journey from Kota Kinabalu takes about 1 ½ – 3 hours, depending on means of transport. We definitely recommend booking early as only a limited number of people are allowed in per day and tickets are often booked up six months in advance or more.
Proboscis monkeys in Bako NP
Bako is a tiny yet extremely popular national park. This is mainly due to the enormous variety of flora and fauna you can discover in the protected area. The very rare proboscis monkeys, known for their long noses, are particularly worth seeing; a variety of other animals also live on the Bako Peninsula. Furthermore, you can find seven different types of vegetation, beaches and waterfalls, cliffs and a small climb with a great view.
Thanks to the numerous, mostly well-maintained trails, you can experience all of this during your stay in the park. From short walks to challenging hikes lasting several hours or even up to two days, there is something for everyone’s taste and fitness level. Since the park is also not far from Kuching, it is also suitable for day trips. However, if you want to stay longer, you also have the possibility to stay there overnight.
Visit an Iban longhouse
Another thing you should do in Borneo is visit a longhouse. These are the traditional homes of the indigenous tribes, of which there are several living on the island. Multiple families live next door to one another in long wooden houses, often built on stilts. Additionally, there is usually an outdoor area for communal activities.
Several tribes, especially those in the Kuching area, offer visitors glimpses into their lives. The Ibans are one of the larger tribes. They were traditionally known as excellent headhunters and collected the skulls of the opponents they murdered as trophies. These skulls are often still displayed in longhouses today.
River safari on the Kinabatangan River
Malaysia’s second-longest river meanders 348 miles (560 kilometres) through the rainforests of Sabah. It is said that the area around the river is the second-richest in the world in terms of biodiversity; only in the Amazon region can even more species be found. Among the most noteworthy are orangutans, pygmy elephants, crocodiles, proboscis monkeys and various rare bird species. Exploring the river’s landscape and wildlife while sailing along the Kinabatangan on a small boat is a unique experience. Hikes through the jungle are also possible.
There are several accommodation options by the Kinabatangan River, so you can easily stay there for a few days. You can only travel there from Sandakan or Sepilok and the journey takes about 2 – 3 hours.
Diving in the waters of Sipadan
Borneo does not only have extraordinary sights to see on land. Off the east coast, around the island of Sipadan, there are diving areas which are among the best in the world. Turtles can be seen in abundance. Sharks are also encountered on almost every dive, and schools of barracuda and manta rays are also spotted regularly.
The number of permitted daily divers is restricted; only 120 permits are issued per day. The longer you stay in the area around Sipadan, the greater your chance of getting one of the coveted diving permits. Unfortunately, you cannot stay overnight on the island; the nearby island of Mabul is the best place to do so.
Sun bears in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Malayan bears, also called sun bears, are another species Borneo is famous for. This is because they only live in very few areas of Southeast Asia. The smallest bear species in the world is even rarer in the wild than orangutans, so be sure to fit a trip to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, near Sandakan, into your vacation. Here, the animals go through a multi-step rehabilitation process before being released into the wild where possible. Bears that cannot be released are given a permanent home in the lush enclosures of the BSBCC.
The Malayan bear sanctuary is located in Sepilok in the east of the island. It is located right next to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, meaning visits to the two facilities can be combined perfectly.
Island hopping off Kota Kinabalu
From the coast of Kota Kinabalu, you can see five beautiful islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Clean white sandy beaches, clear water and intact coral reefs invite you to come and relax or go snorkelling. A walk across the islands is also worthwhile, as the inland areas are covered with dense vegetation.
Speedboats travel regularly from Jesselton Point to the islands. Various tours are offered, so you can decide how many of the islands you want to visit. We absolutely recommend a day trip for those who are staying in Kota Kinabalu for a few days.
A dose of nostalgia with the North Borneo Railway
A trip with the North Borneo Railway is a great experience. For about four hours, you will travel in an over 100-year-old locomotive through rice fields and rainforest, past original villages and along the beach. The final destination is Papar, where you can visit, among other things, a traditional market. A stop at the Chinese temple in Kinarut is also scheduled along the way.
However, the stops in Kinarut and Papar should not be the focus of the trip; otherwise, you might be disappointed. Instead, it is passing through Borneo’s countryside that makes the ride in this traditional locomotive unique. The North Borneo Railway runs only twice a week; departure is from Kota Kinabalu, located on the north coast.
Check this out
You’ve discovered our top 11 things to do in Borneo, but of course, this is only a tiny fraction of what there is to discover on the island. Check out our other articles if you want to find out about more attractions.