As the third largest island in the world, Borneo is a one of a kind destination. Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia all share parts of this 830-mile-long island with lush forests and surrounding beaches. The island’s rainforest shelters various jungle wildlife which is often spotted while hiking through the many guided trails. There is no lack of photo opportunities on this tropical giant. One could spend years on the island and not see everything it has to offer. To help you limit the mass list of attractions, we present the top things to do, things to eat, and best places to stay when visiting Borneo.
What to Do
See Three Countries
Once on the beautiful island, Borneo presents the chance to travel between three different countries. The tri-country element of this island makes it an interesting location for travelers. Visit the world’s largest palace in Brunei, hike to the peak of Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, and island hop off the Indonesian coast. Because Borneo is so large and remote, one may not even come across another tourist as they travel.
Visit Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah, a state in the northeast of Borneo. As the capital, the city is lined with shops and restaurants. However, the city also displays amazing beaches of orange sand, captivating coastlines, and Floating Mosques. Snorkeling and watching the gorgeous sunsets are just a few activities to enjoy while in Kota Kinabalu. Visit the Monsopiad Cultural Village for a look at the indigenous culture of the tribes living on Borneo. If you find the city to be too much for one day, stay a night at the popular Le Méridien hotel. Visiting this city will not leave you disappointed.
With 1788 rooms, Instana Nurul Iman is the world’s largest residential palace. The best time to visit is during the IdulFitri open house.IdulFitri happens after the month of Ramadan and last only three days a year. During this time the palace is open to the public and you can also meet the Sultan. A photo stop is set up outside of Instana Nurul Iman for visitors to take a photo of this impressive location the remainder of the year.
Join an Indigenous Tribe
The large island of Borneo provides homes for the local Dayak people. The term “Dayak” simply refers to an indigenous farming group. These tribes live off the food and resources provided by the rainforest, which is why conserving the forest is extremely important to them. Many tribe members are proactive in their efforts to protect the island of Borneo from deforestation, as well as their way of life. They welcome all visitors to see how they live as a way to preserve their culture and land.
The most popular Dayak groups that live on Borneo are the Iban, Punan, OtDanum, Murut, Klemantan, ApauKayan, and Ngaju. Though each tribe has slightly different customs and languages, there are a few similarities. Some Dayak communities have a traditional home called a “longhouse.” Typically,longhouses can hold up to thirty families in one building. The Dayak tribe welcomes visitors to stay the night in the village and join them in the traditions of their culture.If you are not certain about leaving the luxuries of modern society, many guides provide the chance to eat a traditional indigenous meal while on a shorter tour of the village.There is nothing like experiencing the traditions and foods of an indigenous culture.
See the Sea Glow
The Tusan Cliff Beach in Sarawak offers whimsical sites to lucky visitors. Located south of Miri, this beach has a natural light show that preforms only under the right circumstances. When the bioluminescent organisms shine, the water on of the Tusan Cliff Beach glows. This site is worth the visit, even if you are not lucky enough to see it illuminated.
Summit Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s first UNESCO world heritage site and it is a sought-after location for panoramic views. However, before getting to the peek, gaze up at the rainforests on the hike. Jungle wildlife will surround you as you walk the trail. The photo opportunities are endless. As the highest mountain between New Guinea and the Himalayas, Mount Kinabalu is also home to the most elevated ferrata, or mountain pathway in the world. This is another spot on the trail that you may want to look up, rather than down as you walk.
Watch the Borneo Orangutans
If extended time in the jungle does not appeal to you, there are couple options to still see the local wildlife up-close. A great place to visit is the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park instead. Local animals and plants are displayed at the park for visitors to experience the wildlife of Borneo without the hike.
The Leakey Camp is an orangutan rehabilitation program in the TanjungPuting National Parkthat is another wonderful stop for animal lovers. Taking a tour of this facility grants the opportunity to see the feeding of the orangutans famous to Borneo and even the chance to interact with the baby orangutans.
Island Hop and Ocean Dive
While most of Indonesia’s Kalimantan coastline is cover in mud and mangroves, a quick flight from the Indonesian Borneo airport will transport you off the east coast of Borneo to the magnificent group of islands known as Singalaki Archipelago. The islands of Singalaki Archipelago are a paradise of white beaches and lagoon filled forests. One island in particular, Derawan Island, is home to Borneo’s best diving. Clear turquoise waters display sea turtles, manta rays, and vibrant coral. A five minute boat ride will take you to the Sangalaki Island known for the huge manta rays visible through the crystal water. Another 10 minutes on a boat could take you either Kakaban Island or Maratua Island. Both islands house lagoons full of non-poisonous jellyfish. If swimming with these magnificent creatures is a dream of yours, visit one of these two islands for a safe way to make this dream come true.
Food to Enjoy
There is a large variety of food in Borneo due to the Indian, Malay, and Chinese influences on the island. Each food choice is uniqueto Borneo because the majority of the food is locally sourced, right down to the spices. Many of the Borneo foods are seasoned with spices harvested from the rainforest. The indigenous people also use traditional cooking methods. Open fire grills, coals on bamboo, handmade meat skewers are all normal styles of cooking on the island. You will never look at average barbequed chicken again after seeing it done in Borneo. Here are a few common foods to try.
A dish with a Chinese heritage, KolokMee consists of egg noodles served in a broth with beef or pork to top it off. You can primarily find this dish in Sarawak, but variations are sold in Kuala Lumpur.
Hinava is a type of sushi using mackerel. The fresh mackerel is cut into small pieces, then mixed with ginger, chili, and bambagan seeds, then covered in lime juice. The flavors complement each other well and create a refreshing and delicious island dish.
You will not have to travel far in Borneo to find a Bambagan to try. Bambagan is a favored fruit on the island, similar to a mango. Though the fruit can be eaten alone, the Bambagan’s sour taste can be a shock at first. It is better when the fruit is paired with other dishes.
The Night Market in Gadong sells a variety of products including native fruits and vegetables. Walk the rows of stalls and experience a local market full of rainforest foods. Bruneian foods such as authentic desserts, curries, kebobs, barbecued chicken, and ‘nasikatok’ can also be purchased at this market.
Where to Stay
This hotel could not have a better location. Not only is the Le Meridien located in Kota Kinabalu with restaurants, cafes, malls and markets all within walking distance, the hotel is also on the water. Walk the beaches or choose to take a dip in their magnificent swimming pool.
Survivor Island, Sabah
For the fans of the “Survivor” TV show, this island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu may just be a dream come true. The Survivor island also goes by the name “PulauTiga” which means three islands in English. The name comes from the eruption of mud volcanoes in 1890 creating a small chain of islands. For a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience than the contestants on the show, stay at one of the resorts on the island such as Gaya Island Resort.
Experience An Eco-friendly Resort
The Tabin Wildlife Reserve is a preserve that provides eco-friendly options from the bedding to the bird-watching at the resort. Traveling to Tabin where the wildlife Reserve is located can be pricey, but worth the experience and stay at the Tabin Resort. Packages are also available for purchase.
This incredible hotel is worth every bit of its rather expensive price. Visitors can attend high tea from 4 to 6 daily for those who do not want to commit to a night at the hotel, but still want to see its beauty. The magnificent sunsets can be observed from the lobby where the high tea takes place. Book a room or visit the Empire Hotel for an unforgettable experience.
If you wish to hike to the peak of Mount Kinabalu, the best place to stay is at Laban Rata. Located at the 3,272m marker, Laban Rata is a great location to sleep before summiting the next day. Possibly the best part is the Poring Hot Springs near the hotel which offers a rejuvenating soak after a long day of hiking.
When to Visit
Year-round Borneo is hot and humid due to the tropical climate. Temperatures range from 77- 110 degrees Fahrenheit (25-43 degrees Celsius)throughout the year. Such weather is perfect for a day at the beach or a jungle resort. No matter the time of year the large island of Borneo will welcome you with a cultural experience that lasts a lifetime.