Many people have asked for a full report from Borneo, So here goes:
East Malaysia, on the Island of Borneo, is the outdoors adventurist playground. If you have an audacious bone in your body and are not scared of the world’s largest insects, then this is the place for you! Oh, and don’t worry too much, only some of the insects are poisonous! But seriously, Borneo is a paradise for the outdoorsman, offering everything from the #1 diving spot in the world, the world’s largest caves, world class beaches, some of the oldest rainforests in the world, bird watching that is out of this world, mountain climbing, and more! There is so much to do in Borneo, two weeks was barely enough there and I still didn’t get to do everything that I wanted!
My trip to Borneo used Kota Kinabalu as the jumping off point, for it’s the largest city in Sabah, Malaysia and provides a gateway to a number of activities in the region. From Kota Kinabalu, one can plan a number of events taking part right in KK, as the locals call it, and some nearby. KK offers everything from shopping at the famous night market or even larger Sunday market, to zoos and animal parks. It is super close to two major national parks; both Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is right off the cost of KK and Taman Kinabalu National Park is only a short drive away.
Although I really wanted to visit Taman Kinabalu to climb the largest mountain in South East Asia and relax in the nearby hot springs, time was not on my side and I had to bypass this adventure; so instead we opted to spend a day of island hopping and lounging at the beaches of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. From the city of KK, one can walk down to the pier and find a number of boats that will take you to the islands for the day. Just know though the stated prices are not the price you should pay and you should easily be able to negotiate yourself a 3 island tour for about 30-40 MYR per person.
This National park is absolutely beautiful! The island has pristine untouched white sand beaches and amazing reefs for snorkeling just a few feet off the shore, allowing for easy access for snorkelers of all skill level. There are also paths around the island which will take you into beautiful untouched rainforests. Each island is fairly small and takes less than 1-2 hours to walk around. Just beware of spiders and snakes! Although we didn’t see any, they are there, and the islands are home to a number of other animals including the rare proboscis monkey and beautiful hornbills! All we saw were lizards and butterflies, along with a few other creepy crawlers, but this is what happens when you’re only there in the heat midday and not early morning or closer to dust!
The National park is unquestionably exquisite and a good cheap escape from KK. If I was to do this again I would start out earlier in the day to ensure I had a full day on the Islands. The boats will work around your schedule, and stay with you when you’re on the island or stay nearby drifting in the sea; I would recommend only paying them ½ before you leave and ½ when you return, ensuring that you get back without any problems! There is also a 10 MYR park entrance fee paid when arriving at the first island. Keep you receipt for it will be checked at all other islands. Also, there are a number of guest houses on the islands for those wanting to stay within the national park; camping is even permitted on some of the islands!
After a few days in KK, which honestly is enough unless you want to be a super tourist and visit things like the animal park, the mall, the butterfly gardens, and more, we jumped on a plane and headed south to Tawau. Although our plan was not to stay in Tawau, it’s the closet airport to Sipadan, and a 45 minute flight beats a 12-16 hour bus ride any day! Upon arrival in Tawau our driver from Seaventures Dive Rig resort picked us up and we continued on our way to Sipadan. I am not going to go into details of the resort or my time at Sipadan, because I’ve already done so (follow the link above), however, I will say that Sipadan is a Scuba Divers Utopia and is a MUST place to visit if you’re already on this side of the world! Your eyes will come alive with glee as you see more underwater than words or pictures alone could ever describe!
Relaxing, diving, drinking and sun bathing for 4 days was a perfect way to spend our time in south eastern Sabah, but we were soon saying goodbye to the Rig and headed towards Sandakan for further exploration. I will warn you though, there are only a few buses a day between the cities and when they don’t run, they don’t run! We were unfortunate and found ourselves stuck in Semprona on a day when the bus decided to break down. Not having time to waste and having a large group, we were able to find a private van to charter us to Sandakan, costing us 400 MYR total. Although it was slightly expensive, it included all costs/gas and to be fair, the drive did take almost 6 hours; not to mention the bus is close to 60 RM a person, so even then, we got a good deal and only paid an extra 100 RM for a private air conditioned shuttle!
We arrived into Sandakan late in the evening and quickly found ourselves a cheap hostel to set up camp in for the next couple of days. Not listening to things we’ve read online we thought that there would be plenty to do in Sandakan; HA we were wrong! This sleepy seaside town is only good for a jumping point to other locations and using it for more than transit is not worth it! It’s a great place to book tours into the virgin rainforest nearby or to turtle island, but beyond that there’s nothing to do or see! So if you’re stuck here, find a way out, otherwise, sit along the boardwalk, smoke some hookah and drink a tiger beer or two—that’s what we did!
We spent 2 nights in Sandakan because we got in to late our first day to book our tour into the jungle for the next morning, so instead we spent our first day going out to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the rainforest discover center. The rehab center was honestly a big disappointment. Being on the edge of the forest, all you can do is walk around on a very small path that only cuts maybe 1km into the rainforest. It’s only open during feeding time and all it is, is some man feeding orangutans. Other than some good educational materials about orangutans at the center, paying an extra 30 MYR to see someone feed the primate fruit is not necessary since orangutans can be spotted in the rainforest on jungle hikes; not to mention, one is not at the center for more than 30 minutes, so it is quite pricey! However, the organization does do great work and the money goes to good cause. There are only two Orangutans rehab centers in the world and their mission is to rescue the primates from the plantations and from captivity and retrain them to live in the wild.
Right next door to the rehab center, also on the edge of the forest is the Rainforest Discover Center. The RDC is a huge area which covers miles and miles of the rainforest and offers everything from jungle trekking to a canopy walk. A number of towers are situated in the middle of the rainforest and allows for amazing bird watching! Although I will warn you, the rainforest gets hot and sticky, so bring plenty of water! After just the canopy walk, you’ll be pitting out at the very least and probably soaked from head to toe in your own perspiration! Furthermore, just like us, many of the animals do not enjoy the heat, so they sleep during most of the day. This is another place that is best to visit at sunrise or just before sunset because as the jungle cools down the animals come out to play! There are also a NUMBER of guest houses and hotels in Sepilok, which are walking distance to both of these locations! They are all fairly inexpensive and if I do it all over again I would have stayed here instead of in Sandakan! So plan ahead!
From Sandakan we headed into the wild and visited one of the many jungle lodges. Tours for the jungle lodges can be set up through any backpackers hostel or travel agent in KK, Sandakan, Dhad Latu, or Sepilok. The Jungle lodges are a few hours from Sandakan, almost closer to Dhad Latu, and allow for a first-hand experience in the world’s oldest rainforest. Situated along the river, the lodges are in the center of everything “wild”. Don’t be surprised if you see monkey’s stealing items from you cabin or if a snake slithers its way across your porch. The rainforest resorts even have small electric fences up to keep herds of pygmy elephants from stampeding across their grounds! The rainforest is the perfect place to fall asleep to the sound of bullfrogs and crickets but wake up to the squawk of the magnificent hornbill! Rainforest lodge tours are amazing and require at least 1 night, however I would highly recommend two.
sunset over the river
The trip into the jungle is superb because there is more wildlife in these parts than any other parts of Borneo. You’ll see hundreds of monkeys, including the proboscis monkey and even wild Orangutans feeding on the trees along the river. Bird spotting was by paramount and we even saw a few snakes coiled up in the trees! If that’s not enough to convince you, on the way back to the lodge our first night, we saw a wild rhino! That’s right, I saw the backside of Rhino as he worked his way from the river to hide from being spotted by us! Now, I can officially say I’ve seen a wild Rhino! Honestly, AMAZING! A rare sight, even in Borneo! If this doesn’t convince you to go here I don’t know what will, however maybe the fact that on our night walk into the forest we spotted a Tarsier in the wild! The world smallest primate was quickly spotted as we trekked knee deep in leech-infested mud! Be sure to rent the boots and bring a flashlight, because you just don’t know what you’ll spot, it’s a jungle out there!
Monitor Lizard sleeping in the tree
Monkeys along the river
Our last stop of our journey to Borneo took us back to KK so we could fly to Mulu National Park. Mulu offers the world’s largest cave system, and again it’s in the middle of the rainforest. Large animal wildlife is not nearly as abundant here as the jungle lodge due to hunting by the local indigenous people, however there is still plenty to see! Depending on your skill level and how much of an adrenaline junkie you are, there is copiously amounts of hiking and caving to do or not to do. From show caves which require little to no physical fitness to adventure caves that require a sense for adventure and upper and lower body strength, there is something for everyone!
Since I am all about an adrenaline rush, and love life threatening crazy escapades, I would tell everyone to do the Clearwater connection cave at Mulu! This 5-8 hour tour will take you deep into the underbelly of the earth as you trek for miles underground in the dark caverns. Spotting the largest spiders I’ve ever seen, larger than life centipedes, snakes slithering through crevices, crickets the size of Twinkies and a number of species of bats and even a rare type of blind birds, this will be an adventure you will not forget! Not to mention, the cave has a number of “squeezes” were you have to drop down 20-50+ feet in narrow passages that are not much wider than a skinny person. Holding onto a rope, and blindly trying to climb down a wall as your feet searches for a spot to rest on before you drop down another few feet; don’t be surprised if you find yourself talking like a sailor and laughing in ½ fear ½ enjoyment! Also beware, if you have a little extra meat on your bones, don’t be offended if the guides tell you that this tour is not for you. They are not being rude, they are being honest, you won’t fit!! The highlight of the cave adventure is the underground river that you get to swim through, which is very refreshing after hours inside the cave! Now get on your way and tred lightly, if you injury yourself there is no emergency exit!
Trying to find my way down through a squeeze
VJ Guiding/Directing someone on where to place their feet
Sierra is try to find her way through the rabbit hole, we all had to do this!
Racer Snake inside the cave
The other famous thing to see at Mulu is the bat exodus at Deer cave. “every night” between 4 and 6pm, thousands of bats spew out of the cave all at the same time; turning the dusty sky nearly dark as a stream of bat all exit the cave at the same time! A river in the sky, or so they say. Sadly the night we hiked out there, the bats did not streamline it out of the cave, so I missed this sighting. Despite this, the night walk home on the fairly well lit path from the cave was a thrill rush in itself because as the night sky becomes dark, the jungle comes alive! On our walk home we spotted a number of crazy insects, a giant bull frog, and even found a snake slithering its way across the bridge! Like an out of tune orchestra, the jungle brings music to your ears that is so loud, one might actually need earplugs if you were to sleep in a tent!
Our days at Mulu were numbered and we wanted to extend our trip, however due to lack of time and our promotional fare plane ticket we had bought, changing out flight was out of the question, so we headed back to KK for our final days. Our group split up here and ½ of us went rafting the other ½ enjoyed a spa day. I of course, being a thrill seeker, went rafting. The Padas River offers topnotch class III and IV rapids! If you’re not ready for this type of a ride or have little ones, then I’d recommend the nearby Kiulu river offering smaller class II rapids. Both rivers are in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by rainforest and provide incredible views of the forest and mountain! This is a day trip from KK that is 100% worth it!
After two weeks, the trip was over and our journey came to an end. We headed back to Manila and our trip to Borneo became a memory full of laughter and out of this world experiences. The jungle of Borneo is a true playground for anyone who loves the outdoors. There is so much to do and see; my two weeks there was not enough! One can honestly specialize a trip to Borneo around anything that has to door with being outside, as long as it doesn’t include winter sports! Bird watching, jungle trekking, mountain climbing, scuba diving, beach laying, rock climbing, etc Borneo has something for EVERYONE!