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Malaysian Borneo

Travel Guide to Malaysian Borneo

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Malaysian Borneo is one of those rare places where you can sense the adventure in the air, along with the green smells from thousands of miles of rainforest just waiting to be explored. Borneo is the third-largest island in the world, and a virtual paradise on earth for anyone who shares a love for plants, wildlife, and adventure.

The island of Borneo is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small, independent nation of Brunei. The Indonesian part of Borneo -- known as Kalimantan -- covers around 73% of the island, while Malaysian Borneo occupies the rest along the northern edge.

Malaysian Borneo has two states, Sarawak and Sabah, which are separated by the independent country of Brunei. Sarawak's capital of Kuching and Sabah's capital of Kota Kinabalu are the usual entry points, and act as hubs for exploring Borneo's wild attractions.

Here are just a few of the many reasons to get yourself to Borneo!

1. See Wild Orangutans

Two Young Orangutans
Akira Kaede/Photodisc/Getty Images

Borneo is one of two places on Earth -- Sumatra is the other -- where endangered orangutans can still be viewed in the wild. Orangutans are among the smartest primates; they make medicine, craft tools, and even exchange gifts!

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss caused by massive palm oil plantations, orangutan numbers are dwindling; now is the time to see them while you still can.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in East Sabah is the most popular place to view orangutans in Borneo. A better option is the cheaper and less-crowded Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre just outside of Kuching. While there are never guarantees, you have a pretty good chance of seeing semi-wild orangutans at both refuges during feeding times.

Alternatively, you can chance a real orangutan encounter in the wild by taking a river cruise along the Kinabatangan River!

2. Learn About the Rainforest

Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sabah
Image © Borneo Travel / Used with Permission

Only open to the public since 2006, the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sabah is a world-renown environmental education center.

Today, for a great entrance price of only US $3.50, visitors can learn about an amazing array of plants, insects, and animals found in Borneo's rainforests. After touring the well-manicured botanical garden and education center, visitors can then apply their new knowledge while trekking along the many trails nearby.

An impressive, canopy walk matrix elevates visitors above the dense trees where they can spot rare birds and sometimes even orangutans.

3. World-Class Scuba Diving

Diving in Malaysian Borneo
Photo by Lisa English / Used with permission

Not all of Malaysian Borneo's natural attractions are found on land. Sabah boasts some of the world's premier scuba diving sites. Compared to diving in places such as Malaysia's Perhentian Islands, diving in Borneo is certainly not cheap; however, from turtles and macro life to hammerhead sharks and whale sharks -- you get what you pay for!

The diving in Sipidan is so famous, that conservationists now only issue 120 permits per day in an effort to preserve the fragile reefs; you must organize your diving well in advance to ensure a permit.

Mabul, a nearby alternative to Sipidan, offers arguably some of the best muck diving in the world, and is also considered the premier dive site for underwater macro photography.

4. Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu
Photo by Robert Nyman / Creative Commons

At 13,435 feet, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is the tallest mountain in Malaysia, the third-highest peak in Southeast Asia, and one of the tallest peaks in the world that can be climbed without technical equipment!

Reaching the summit of Mount Kinabalu requires only the stamina and heart to do so. Around 40,000 people per year come to try the grueling, two-day ascent; many don't make it to the top. The last part of the climb requires a rope-assisted scramble through the clouds to the peak.

Aside from one impressive mountain, the 300-square-mile Kinabalu National Park has a mindboggling amount of flora and fauna; meeting biologists and botanists who have come to study the estimated 4,500 plant species is an everyday occurrence.

5. Rainforest Trekking

Malaysian Borneo
Photo by Greg Rodgers

From monkey encounters and poisonous snakes to waterfalls and hidden beaches -- trekking in Borneo is the real deal. Dayak headhunters once roamed the same trails, relieving a few early spice traders of their heads; only in relatively recent times did they stop their head-removing practices!

The national parks in Sarawak can largely be explored without a permit or mandatory guide, while some other parks require that you hire a guide. Camping is available in most places, as are simple longhouses which offer cheap accommodation while you take day hikes and explore the area.

6. The Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan River Borneo
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Although the name is a mouthful, the Kinabatangan River area in Sabah is often the favorite highlight for visitors to Malaysian Borneo.

Lodges along the tiny, single-path village of Sukau offer accommodation and guides who take people up the muddy river by small boat. A quiet approach by boat allows visitors the opportunity to spot highly endangered proboscis monkeys, orangutans, crocodiles, pythons, and even elephants when they are in season!

The Kinabatangan River is reached via minibus from the city of Sandakan in East Sabah.

7. Beaches and Islands

Beach in Borneo
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Malaysian Borneo is not at all just about sweating and swatting insects in the jungle. Miles of pristine and wild beaches will give you plenty of opportunities to unwind after a few days of trekking.

Tiny Mamutik Island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park -- only 20 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabali -- allows wild camping directly on the beach. Alternatively, you can enjoy Tanjung Aru, more of a local's beach scene with very few tourists, just a few minutes south of Kota Kinabalu.

If you need an island, check out the different vibe on Labuan Island -- an enjoyable, duty-free island off the coast of Sabah. Survivor fans should get to remote Pulau Tiga, where the first season of the hit show was filmed.

8. Stay in a Longhouse

iban longhouse blowpipe
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Visitors to Sarawak can visit and stay in an Iban longhouse to see how indigenous people live.

While some longhouses are touristic experiences, it is possible to see authentic ones only accessible by river and far removed from city life. You'll get to sample authentic food, see a traditional dance performance, and can learn to shoot a blowpipe gun just for fun!

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