This lush land of tribal warriors, mysterious head hunters and far-from-home war heroes has intrigued adventurers, anthropologists and explorers for centuries. From steamy jungles to blissful mountains, balmy beaches and peaceful villages, travellers love Borneo's bolunty of natural treasures seemingly tailor-made for fun, relaxation, exploration and adventure.
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Articles on Borneo
What it’s actually like to climb the via ferrata on Mt Kinabalu
Posted on Mon, 7 Mar 2016
You can’t climb Kinabalu's via ferrata without feeling there is something magical about the mountain. This is one climber's story.Read more
‘The mountain is the mountain, tomorrow is tomorrow.’ Reflections from Mt Kinabalu
Posted on Wed, 10 Jun 2015
The awful news that a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck Mt Kinabalu on Friday has affected the entire Intrepid community of staff and travellers.Read more
Expect the unexpected in Borneo
Posted on Wed, 13 Aug 2014
I chose Borneo because I wanted to see amazing wildlife, stay in traditional villages and give the mountain climb a go, but what I didn't anticipate was just how much of a buzz I would get from exploring this fascinating land.Read more
A homestay haven in Borneo
Posted on Sun, 11 May 2014
Embarking on a big Borneo adventure, you are likely to have the icons front of mind: orang-utans, turtles, tropical jungle and the magnificent Mt Kinabalu perhaps. But once there and […]Read more
- Get steamy in the Poring Hot Springs
- Cool off in the waters near Kota Kinabalu
- Visit the temples and markets of Sandakan
- Relax on the stunning beaches of Sabah
- Meet the orangutans of Sopilok
Intrepid believes half the fun of experiencing a new country is getting there, and getting around once there! Where possible, Intrepid uses local transport options and traditional modes of transport - which usually carry less of an environmental impact, support small local operators and are heaps more fun.
Depending on which trip you're on while in Borneo, you may find yourself travelling by:
- Speedboat - Get out on the water and experience the thrill of a zippy speedboat ride on Borneo's pristine coastline.
- Local Bus - Rub shoulders with locals and practise your Bahasa language skills when travelling on a humble bus in Borneo.
- Longtail boat - A ride on the aquatic transportation icon of South-East Asia is a must when travelling on the coast of Borneo.
Travelling with Intrepid is a little bit different. We endeavour to provide travellers with an authentic experience to remember, so we try to keep accommodation as unique and traditional as possible.
When travelling with us in Borneo you may find yourself staying in a:
- National Park Lodge - Enjoy the comfort and convenience of staying in a lodge located within one of Borneo's national parks. Staying close to the action is a beautiful bonus.
- Homestay Longhouse - Homestay Spend a memorable night with the Iban people of Borneo, sleeping in a traditional longhouse.
Jungle camp - Get back to nature and camp in the wilds of Borneo. What's missing in modern conveniences is made up for in wildlife encounters, serenity and natural beauty.
Best time to visit Borneo
Borneo's climate is typical for a tropical region - generally hot and humid all year-round. Temperatures are usually in the high 20s for most of the year, dropping back to the low 20s at night. Rainfall tends to be in short, heavy bursts followed by sunshine. The 'wet season' runs from November through to February but it does rain throughout the year, although our itineraries are rarely affected. The state of Sabah is known as the 'land below the wind' as it's below the monsoon belt.
Culture and customs
Although an overused term, the island of Borneo truly is a melting pot of cultures, customs and religions. Home to more than 18 million people, a large majority of the population is Muslim, so most of society is quite conservative in accordance with Islamic law. Dressing modestly is recommended (covering legs and shoulders), as is being careful with public alcohol consumption and displays of affection. Indigenous people (like the Dayak and Penan people) make up the rest of Borneo's population, many of whom have either been converted to Christianity or hold animist beliefs. While many indigenous people rely on farming as a way of life, Borneo is still home to small numbers of tribal people who live a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence. Unfortunately, deforestation and mining have encroached upon their traditional lifestyle (particularly in the last 30 years) yet despite this, many are still able to hunt and gather as their ancestors have done for centuries.
Eating and drinking
Intrepid believes that one of the best ways to experience a country is by eating! Whether you're sampling street food, savouring a cheap eat or indulging in a banquet, there are endless options to choose from wherever you are in the world. Borneo's cuisine has a distinctive Chinese/Malay influence, and with many night markets around the country, finding freshly prepared, low-cost food is simple.
Things to try in Borneo
1. Fresh Fruit Take the chance to try fruits endemic to the region like rambutan, banana, jackfruit, salak, durian and mango.
2. Sarawak Laksa While laksa is available all over Borneo, a spicy Sarawak laksa filled with chicken, prawns, chilli, coriander, coconut, rice noodles and lime is a filling and tasty meal to remember.
3. Seafood Crab, prawns and whole fish are popular, particularly on the coast. Try whole steamed fish or 'otak' (fish wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over coals).
4. Tuak This locally brewed rice wine is popular in small villages around Borneo. Try it if you dare!
Geography and environment
The South-East Asian island of Borneo sits just south of the South China Sea, with the Sulu Sea, Celebes Sea, Makassar Strait, Java Sea and Karimata Strait also surrounding the island. Split up between three countries (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), the regions most visited by tourists (Sabah and Sarawak) belong to Malaysia. Home to the oldest rainforest in the world, large cave and river systems and mountains, Borneo has an incredible range of biodiversity with hundreds of species of birds, bats, plants, flowers and insects living in this ecologically precious part of the world. Sitting 4,095 m above sea level, Sabah's Mount Kinabalu is the third highest mountain in South-East Asia and a popular trekking spot for active travellers looking for a challenge.
History and government
Early on, Borneo was used as a port for trade, with the Chinese and Indians stopping in on the coast as a part of their trade route from 500 to 1300 AD. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British were soon to follow. Because of this, Borneo now has a rich diversity of international influences to draw upon from these years of trade and interaction with other cultures. With most of coastal Borneo falling under the rule of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom in the 14th century, the Sultanate of Brunei extended its rule in the north from the 15th to 17th century. By the 19th century, both the British and the Dutch had colonial interests in the area, with a dynasty led by James Brooke ruling Sarawak for many years. Brooke's interest in the area stemmed from his attempts at trade in the Far East and connections to the Sultanate of Brunei. Brooke's rule was fraught with controversy and battles with the Sea Dayak people, who interrupted trade and were labelled as pirates. James Brook was succeeded by his nephew, Charles, and then his son, Vyner, in this rule known as the 'White Rajahs' of Sarawak.
Japan took control of Borneo during World War II, resulting in a high number of deaths for the local population. During the war, many British and Australian prisoners of war were sent to Borneo, with the most notorious spots being Sandakan where thousands of Allied soldiers perished due to disease, malnutrition and exhaustion. By the conclusion of the war in 1945, Borneo was freed from the Japanese yet only two decades later, Borneo was the site of more conflict, this time between Indonesia and Malaysia. This conflict arose from the union of Sabah and Sarawak with Malaya in the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. More recently, the Sultanate of Brunei became an independent nation (in 1984). Palm oil plantations have spread rapidly throughout Borneo in the last ten years, mainly due to the decline in the rubber industry. While these plantations have provided jobs and helped the economy in the short term, their proliferation has led to wide-scale deforestation, which surmounts to devastating habitat loss for many of Borneo's endangered species and displacement of indigenous people who rely on the forests and jungles to sustain their hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
Top 10 Nature Spots of Borneo
- Mount Kinabalu - Seeing sunrise from the top of Mount Kinabalu is a fine payoff for making it to the top. The climb, while strenuous, is filled with beautiful flora, interesting animals and beautiful vistas - making this majestic mountain a true natural highlight of Borneo.
- Poring Hot Springs - Located within the Kinabalu National Park, these steaming hot pools of water provide a relaxing place to unwind after trekking Mount Kinabalu. Sliding into the open air baths is a therapeutic way to soothe your muscles - a nice outdoor reward for completing such a climb!
- Bako National Park - The oldest national park in Sarawak may be small, but with isolated beaches, jungles, waterfalls, rock formations and walking trails, visitors will be delighted in the perfect panoramas to photograph and range of wildlife viewing opportunities on offer.
- Turtle Island - Lying just north of Sandakan, Turtle Island Park is a haven for endangered green and hawksbill turtles. Witnessing turtles landing onshore at dusk, or baby turtles hatching, is one of life's most unforgettable moments.
- Kinabatangan - This district of Sabah is know for its incredible array of wildlife and diversity of habitat, with limestone caves, swamps, rivers, lakes, forests and mountains all contributing to the ecological diversity of the area. Home to such rare species as the Asian elephant, the proboscis monkey and the Sumatran rhinoceros, a visit to the jungle here will guarantee some wildlife viewing thrills.
- Sepilok Meeting the gentle orangutans of Sepilok is a must-do for visitors to Borneo. These orange-tinged creatures are captivating, entertaining and cheeky - and watching them play, eat and interact in the jungle of Sepilok is a privilege not to be missed.
- Headhunters' Trail - Walking in the footsteps of one of the world's most mysterious, feared and intriguing people may not be for everyone, but walking along the famed Headhunter's Trail reveals a little bit of local history as well as many wondrous natural sights.
- Mulu National Park - Visitors should overlook Mulu National Park at their own peril. Not visiting this World Heritage-listed area would mean missing out on canopy walks and treks that reveal exotic creatures, spectacular caves and stunning limestone karst formations.
- Danum Valley - This area of pristine lowland rainforest is arguably one of Borneo's premier wildlife hot spots. Walk the trails and spot exotic birdlife, interesting plants, flying squirrels, vocal frogs and active gibbons.
- Gaya Island - Get away from it all and revel in the seclusion of Gaya Island, located just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. See tropical fish swimming through colourful reefs, learn to scuba dive, laze on the uncrowded beaches or grab a kayak and go exploring this slice of tropical beauty.
While Borneo's wild landscapes and beautiful beaches are definitely the true highlight of any visit, there are still treasures to found in Borneo's markets.
It's a good idea to check with your local customs officials to ensure that you are able to bring certain items back into your home country. Australia and New Zealand generally have strict quarantine laws.
Things to buy in Borneo
- Ikat Weaving - This traditional weaving process results in coloured, patterned textiles that can be used as clothing, wall hangings and home furnishings.
- Wood Carvings - Sarawak boasts a population of talented wood carvers -wooden bowls, charms, masks and figurines are all wonderful souvenir choices.
- Ceramics - Sarawak also has a wide range of good-quality ceramics and pottery thanks to the local populations of Chinese and Iban tribal potters, each group possessing their own distinctive style.
Festival and events in Borneo
- Rainforest World Music Festival - This popular three-day music festival held in Kuching features a diverse range of world music performances, traditional music workshops, food and art. Growing larger each year, this relaxed festival allows festival-goers to interact with performers and be a part of the fun.
- Borneo Jazz - International jazz acts and fans travel to Sarawak to celebrate their love of jazz grooves at this annual festival - considered one of Asia's best music events.
- Borneo International Kite Festival - See the blue skies of Sarawak be transformed into colourful animation when thousands of vibrant kites take to the air. Fish, angels, snakes, demons and cats fly alongside surreal kaleidoscopic optical delights in this festival that kids and adults will delight in.
MALAYSIA: Australia: No - not required
Belgium: No - not required
Canada: No - not required
Germany No - not required
Ireland: No - not required
Netherlands: No - not required
New Zealand: No - not required
South Africa: No - not required
Switzerland: No - not required
United Kingdom: No - not required
USA: No - not required
The above nationalities don't need visas to visit Malaysia as a tourist for up to three months. Other nationalities should check with their Malaysian embassy or consulate.
Tipping isn't mandatory or customary in Malaysia or Borneo, but a tip of spare change or another small amount would be appreciated by restaurants and service workers, especially if the service has been particularly good.
Internet access is widely available in tourist areas like Sarawak, where there are plenty of internet cafes. Internet access is less frequent in rural and remote areas, so prepare to disconnect when venturing out of urbanised areas.
You'll be able to use your mobile phone in most urban areas of Borneo, although some of the islands or remote, mountainous areas may not have network coverage. Ensure you have global roaming activated with your mobile carrier before you leave home if you wish to use your mobile.
You'll have to adjust to different standards of hygiene and sanitation while in Borneo. The standard toilet is of the squat variety and this may take some getting used to, although western-style toilets can be found in large hotels and some tourist areas.
Can of soft drink = 2 MYR
Basic meal from street stall or market = 3-5
MYR Bottle of beer in a bar or cafe = 10 MYR
Seafood dinner = 20-25 MYR
Drinking tap water isn't recommended in Borneo. For environmental reasons, try to avoid buying bottled water and fill a reusable water bottle or canteen with filtered water. Ask your leader where filtered water can be found; some hotels we stay in may have drinking water available. It's also advisable to avoid ice in drinks and peel fruit and vegetables before eating.
Major credit cards are sometimes accepted by large shops, hotels and restaurants in Borneo. However, they may not be accepted by smaller vendors such as small family restaurants, market stalls or in remote towns and rural areas. Make sure you carry enough cash for purchases, since credit cards aren't always an option everywhere in Borneo.
ATMs can be found in Borneo's cities and tourist areas, so withdrawing cash shouldn't be problematic for most travellers. Smaller villages and rural areas may not have ATM access, so prepare for this before venturing too far from a city or major town.
Absolutely. All passengers travelling with Intrepid are required to purchase travel insurance before the start of their trip. Your travel insurance details will be recorded by your leader on the first day of the trip. Due to the varying nature, availability and cost of health care around the world, travel insurance is very much an essential and necessary part of every journey.
For more information on insurance, please go to: http://www.intrepidtravel.com/booking-intrepid/our-services/travel-insurance
Jan 1 New Year's Day
Jan 23-24 January Chinese New Year
Feb 5 Prophet Muhammad's Birthday
Apr 6 Good Friday
Apr 11 Installation of New King
May 1 Labour Day
May 5 Wesak Day (Birth of Buddha)
May 30-31 Harvest Festival
Jun 2 King's Birthday
Aug 19 Hari Raya Puasa (End of Ramadan)
Aug 31 Merdeka Day (National Day)
Sep 16 Malaysia Day
Oct 6 Sabah Governor's Birthday
Oct 26 Hari Raya Qurban (Feast of the Sacrifice)
Nov 13 Deepavali
Nov 15 Awal Muharram (Islamic New Year)
Dec 25 Christmas
Please note these dates are for 2012. Religious festivals are usually timed with the lunar calendar, so the dates listed above are estimates and vary from year to year.
Health and Safety
Intrepid takes the health and safety of its travellers seriously, and takes every measure to ensure that trips are safe, fun and enjoyable for everyone. We recommend that all travellers check with their government or national travel advisory organisation for the latest information before departure:
Borneo travel tips
Intrepid is committed to travelling in a way that is respectful of local people, their culture, local economies and the environment. It's important to remember that what may be acceptable behaviour, dress and language in your own country, may not be appropriate in another. Please keep this in mind while travelling.
Top responsible travel tips for Borneo
- Be considerate of Borneo’s customs, traditions, religion and culture.
- Dress modestly and respectfully. Shoulders to knees should be covered, especially when entering places of worship.
- For environmental reasons, try to avoid buying bottled water. Instead, fill a reusable water bottle or canteen with filtered water.
- Always dispose of litter thoughtfully, including cigarette butts.
- When bargaining at markets, stay calm, be reasonable and keep a smile on your face. It's meant to be fun!
- Learn some local language and don't be afraid to use it - simple greetings will help break the ice.
- Shop for locally made products. Supporting local artisans helps keep traditional crafts alive.
- Refrain from supporting businesses that exploit or abuse endangered animals.
- Please ask and receive permission before taking photos of people, including children.
- When on community visits or homestays, refrain from giving gifts or money to locals.
While travelling through eastern Sabah, you will likely notice that much of the land is covered in palm oil plantations. Palm oil is used throughout the world in a range of products from biscuits to cosmetics, and its use is on the rise. This growth comes at the expense of large areas of tropical forest and other ecosystems, cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations. The clearing has destroyed critical habitat for many endangered species – including rhinos, elephants, tigers and the Borneo orangutan – and, if this wasn’t bad enough, the burning of the forest to make room for crops is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Since palm oil is a significant contributor to Malaysia’s economy, consumers have the power to change the above practices by only purchasing Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) approved products. Sustainable palm oil production is legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate and socially beneficial and helps prevent further illegal forest clearing. Currently, it is estimated that around 50% of the palm oil in Malaysia is currently RSPO approved. Purchasing RSPO-approved products will help shift plantations and producers that are non-certified to become more sustainable. RSPO-approved products have a certification on the label (a small palm tree) – keep an eye out for it.
Making a difference on the ground
The Intrepid Foundation has teamed up with HUTAN, a local community-run organisation based in the Kinabatangan region of eastern Sabah, which runs a conservation programme to protect orangutans. Their work has led to improved land management and reduced degradation of orangutan habitat.
To learn more or donate, visit: theintrepidfoundation.org/projects/hutan/
Into the Heart of Borneo, by Redmond O'Hanlon
All Elevations Unknown, by Sam Lightner Jnr
The Airmen and the Headhunters, by Judith Heimann
Where Hornbills Fly, by Erik Jensen
The White Rajah, by Tom Williams