I only spent five short days in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo and I immediately realised my mistake. The ultimate Borneo itinerary would have to be at least two to three weeks long (or as long as you can stretch it out given time and money).
Not content with the amount of time I have spent in this sensational part of Malaysia, I have compiled my ideal itinerary that is partly a recap of what I have seen of Borneo and partly what I would like to have seen based on recommendations by other travellers and research.
I’ve given each area an approximate guide to the number of days you may want to consider staying in each place, but this is of course an entirely personal choice.
If you’re wondering about whether you should visit Borneo, either as part of a larger Malaysia visit or stand alone, then I hope this gives you a rather categorical nudge in the ‘yes it’s definitely worth it’ direction and inspires you to plan your trip.
Where is Borneo?
Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Covering an area of 287,000 square miles it is situated off the coast of peninsula Malaysia. It is divided into two rough ‘halves’; one side being governed by Malaysia and the other ‘half’ by Indonesia.
Things To Do in Borneo
The question of what to do in Borneo brings you no shortage of ideas. From beaches and island hopping, dense tropical jungle with some of the world’s rarest species, mighty rivers, there is no chance that you will be bored here. If you are a wildlife enthusiast then this is definitely the place for you.
If animals aren’t really your thing, then there is a rich history in Borneo. Northern Borneo, including Brunei (which is a separate sultanate), Sabah and Sawarak, was part of the British Empire until 1963 and the influence of this rule still lingers on to this day. Borneo was also caught up in the Second World War as Japanese Navy troops invaded Borneo and seized control of many areas. The Australian army was brought into fight and many were imprisoned by the Japanese in Prisoner of War camps and lost their lives.
Borneo, like mainland Malaysia, has a diverse population of traditional Malay people, Chinese and Indian. This diaspora of cultures makes for an eclectic variety of food, music, language and religions. Enough to keep you exploring and discovering for weeks.
Sandakan (1-2 days)
Whilst Sandakan may not be the most attractive of small cities, it offers travellers the perfect base to visit the numerous wildlife sanctuaries in the vicinity and also trips to the Kinabatangan River. It’s quite possible you may find yourself here for a night or two, which isn’t a great shame. Despite the allure of the wildlife on the doorstep, I found Sandakan to be refreshingly un-touristy. It had a local street market at the weekend, a promenade along the waterfront with a handful of small restaurants plus a few notable things to do dotted around.
You can spend a morning following the Heritage Trail, which covers several points of interest throughout Sandakan such as the Jamek Mosque, 100-step staircase and the Goddess of Mercy temple. Red footprints on the ground indicate the direction of the trail and you can pick up a map at tourist information.
I also enjoyed visiting the house of Agnes Keith, an American woman who lived in Sandakan in the 1930s and 40s. She wrote a book about her experience of living in Borneo during that time called ‘Land Below The Wind’, which became popular when it was published in 1939.
Alongside Agnes Keith’s house you will find the English Tearooms. This is a small restaurant that is perfect for a mid-afternoon cup of tea and scone as a pick-me-up. The tea rooms are also open for dinner and there is a nice lawn on which you can catch glimpses of the view over Sandakan Bay as you play croquet.
The Sabah Region (3 days)
There is so much to do in the Sabah region of Borneo that you could easily spend a week. It depends how much on an animal nut you are as to how long you would want to visit each of the fantastic sanctuaries here. Their close proximity to each other and the way the feeding times are staggered throughout the day means that you could visit the orangutans, the sun bears and the rainforest discover centre easily in one day.
Admittedly, you won’t get long in each place, but if you’re short on time then it’s certainly doable. If, like me, you have a huge soft spot for these animals and you don’t want to rush your time there, then you can spent a whole day happily at each place. Details on each one are below:
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
The centre was established in 1964 and its aim is to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back to the wild. Many orphans have successfully undergone the process of rehabilitation and have been released into the 4,294 hectare Kabili-Sepilok Forest, a jungle rich in rainforest and mangrove swamp.
Visitors are able to view part of this process by visiting the viewing platform where the natural forest diet of the orangutan is supplemented by with milk and fruit. You can also view the youngsters in the ‘nursery’ area, where they are taught the necessary skills such as how to climb and build nests as they would learn from their mothers.
I wrote a post all about my experience at the sanctuary where I enjoyed watching a mother and baby orangutan feeding on fruit, plus the lively youngsters playing on their jungle gym.
Sun Bear Sanctuary
Situated directly across from the orangutan sanctuary, it’s very easy to combine a visit to see the sun bears. The Malayan sun bear is the smallest bear in the world and can only be found in South East Asia. These bears continue to be threatened by deforestation in their habitats, poaching and illegal trade of bear cubs to be sold as pets. The Sun Bear Sanctuary rescues ex-captive sun bears and attempts to rehabilitate them into the wild.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
Further down the road from the orangutan sanctuary is the Rainforest Discovery Centre. You can walk between the two along the road, which should only take about 30 minutes, or grab a taxi from outside the orangutan sanctuary. At the Rainforest Centre you can explore the rainforest on a variety of walks and trails of varying lengths without the fear of getting totally lost in the jungle!
There is an elevated skywalk through the tree tops that you can climb for birds eye views of the expanse of forest surrounding you. And birds are one of the main reasons you may want to visit the Rainforest Centre, as it is a bird watcher’s paradise. Bring your binoculars and some patience and you could be rewarded to many different varieties.
I was lucky enough to see a wild orangutan crashing about in the tree tops. It was my first truly wild orangutan spotting and it left me grinning from ear to ear.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
This sanctuary is situated on a 400-acre mangrove forest inside the Yet Hing Oil Palm Plantation. In the late 90s and early 00s, this area was earmarked to become a palm oil plantation. Workers were destroying the mangroves and the jungle to make room to plant palm trees, therefore destroying the proboscis monkey’s habitat.
The owner of the land realised what a grave mistake he was making and has ceased all deforestation on the land. He has initiated a feeding programme to supplement the diet of the proboscis monkeys, who were suffering due to the lack of food in their shrinking habitat, and visitors have excellent viewpoints from which to enjoy the monkeys.
Lower Kinatabangan River cruises (1 -2 nights)
The Kinabatangan River is 560km long and the Lower Kinabatangan region is estimated to have one of the largest concentrations of wildlife in all of Malaysia. A dawn or dust river ride along the banks of the river promise exciting glimpses of wildlife: from the rare orangutan, proboscis monkey and pygmy elephant.
I joined a 2N3D organised trip through a company that I booked locally called Sepilok Tropical Adventure Tours. I had an amazing time on my trip, largely due to the fact that I was lucky enough to see all the aforementioned animals – including the incredibly elusive pygmy elephant.
If you’re short on time, you can visit the river on a one night / two day trip. I wanted to maximise my animal spotting opportunity, so opted for the two night trip, but you can cross your fingers and hope you see all you want to over the course of two days and one night.
Turtle Island (1 night)
Turtle Island can be found north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea. The island is set aside as a sanctuary for the green and the hawksbill turtle. Conservation work is carried out by the rangers who live on the island to ensure that breeding and hatching can take place to preserve these species.
It is possible to stay overnight on Selingaan Island – aka Turtle Island – and watch the turtles laying their eggs on the sands. However, because it is a sanctuary, visits to the island are regulated and numbers limited to 50 a night. It is only possible to go on an organised tour either through the franchise operator, Crystal Quest, or by travel operator booking agents in Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu.
Kota Kinabalu (1 – 2 days)
Over on the north-west coast of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the state of Sabah. Kota Kinabalu is a coastal city surrounded by rainforest that acts as the gateway to Kinabalu National Park, home to Mount Kinabalu. It’s a bustling, vibrant city filled with markets, a modern boardwalk along the waterfront and fringed by beaches.
Having a diverse mix of cultures, Borneo is a great place for any foodies out there. You’ll be treated to an array of cuisines from all over the world: from local Malay, Chinese, Indian to Japanese.
A couple of days exploring the city and relaxing on the beach is probably all you’ll need before heading out to the national park.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu (2 days)
At over 4,000 metres above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is one of the highest mountains in South East Asia. Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a popular thing to do in Borneo. However, with only 135 permits issued per day it’s important to have this part of your trip organised in advance. With these permits only being organised by within 30 days of the start of your trip, you have to balance the fine art of being organised yet fairly last minute with your plans!
To get you started I recommend reading this helpful post by Notes of Nomads on how to climb Mount Kinabalu on a budget.
The climb takes two days to complete with roughly 6km on the first day and an overnight stay in a mountain hut. The next morning you wake up before dawn to complete the final 2.7km to reach the summit, hopefully in time to see the sunrise. You then descend the entire 9km down the mountain to finish your walk by the national park’s headquarters.
Poring Hot Springs (1 day)
Poring Hot Springs is situated 136 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu within Kinabalu National Park. You can soak away your stresses in the spring’s naturally heated waters. If you’ve just finished the Mount Kinabalu trek then this would be the ideal place to soothe your tired muscles. The hot springs are heated by naturally occuring sulphuric minerals and the locals believe the waters to have healing properties.
A visit to the hot springs is only likely to take up an hour or two of your time. However, you can combine your visit with a walk along the raised Poring Canopy walkway or a walk to Kipungit Waterfall, which is only 30 minutes from the hot springs.
Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai Islands (2 -3 days)
These three islands are off the coast of Semporna on the south east coast of Sabah. They are recognised as having some of the finest coral reef and diving opportunities in the world. Several tour companies leave Semporna to dive the waters around Sipadan, however, the island is currently not available for overnight tourism. This has been done to protect the turtles that lay their eggs here.
The three islands are situated within 15-20 minutes of each other by boat. Mabul is the most popular choice for accommodation and you can spend a couple of days here island hopping, snorkelling, scuba diving and sea kayaking.
Getting To Borneo
Getting to Borneo is incredibly easy from Malaysia. From Kuala Lumpur there are regular (and reasonably priced) flights by Air Asia to Kota Kinabalu on the west coast and Sandakan over on the eastern side. Flight time from KL International Airport to Sandakan was 2 hours and 50 minutes.
There are several other airports and operators to choose from. I always use Skyscanner to check my flights and find the best deal.
Getting Around Borneo
There are frequent bus services from most of the urban areas on Borneo. Journeys can be arranged at short notice, so don’t stress too much about booking too much in advance. Give yourself the freedom and flexibility as you travel in Borneo and realise that you only need to book your bus a day in advance (for longer journeys) or even just show up at the bus station to see what’s leaving next.
There is also the option of hiring a taxi and you can negotiate the day price with your driver to organise trips around your current location.
Local bus services are also a cheap and frequent option. These are mini vans painted in white and blue, white and purple or white and orange depending on the area and route (in the Sandakan urban area).
Hints And Tips For Planning Your Trip To Borneo
By now I hope I’ve got you dreaming excitedly about a trip to Borneo. Here’s a few hints and tips on what to expect when planning a trip to Borneo and information you may find useful.
- Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country where dress codes are more conservative than you may be used to. Whilst it is ok for tourists to wear shorts and t-shirts, be mindful of wearing very revealing clothing – such as bikini tops – in public.
- The currency of Borneo is the Malaysian Ringgit.
- The climate in Borneo is generally warm and humid all year round. The Sabah region has an equatorial climate. Temperatures rarely rise above 32 degrees Centigrade / 90 degrees Fahrenheit, however the humidity levels can be as high as 85%.
- The best time of year to visit Borneo is during the high season from May to September. The wetter months in Borneo tend to be between November and February. Temperatures remain fairly constant all year round.
My Ultimate Itinerary For Visiting Borneo
The next time I visit Borneo I’ll be sure to allow myself enough time to visit all the things I want to see. I know now that five days was not enough time to explore the Sabah region around Sandakan, take in several of the islands off-shore and head over towards Kota Kinabalu.
If you’re organising your trip before you go then you can probably fit in the highlights in about 7 to 10 days. If you’re travelling independently like I was and booking things as you go along, then you could probably easily stretch this to fill two weeks or more.
With the history, culture, food and wildlife on offer in Borneo I know I’ll be back for more.
Read more about Malaysia:
Have you ever visited Borneo? Where was your favourite place? Has this Borneo itinerary inspired you to take a trip to Malaysia? Do you have any questions about Borneo? I’d love to hear from you!
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