Borneo has so much to offer its visitors – from pristine jungles to dreamy beaches, from city bustle to island paradise. But here’s how to get the most out of this huge island without spending all your annual leave.
Borneo is a real traveller’s paradise. So many cultures and so much wildlife exist here it’s almost overwhelming. You could spend your whole life exploring this culturally replete equatorial island.
The Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo’s north is the most inhabited and developed part of the island, which makes it the most accessible part of the island. Sabah is home to incredible world-class reef dive sites, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain and one of the most diverse jungle habitats on the planet. It’s also where you can find pigmy elephants and orang-utans in the wild.
We explored this stunning tropical region from west to east, from the capital to central jungles, and blissful islands and reefs – here’s our essential guide to Sabah, Borneo.
But this all takes time. So if you’re time poor and want to get the most out of your time on the world’s third largest island, here’s what you need to do.
How to explore Sabah, Borneo in a week
Kota Kinabalu – 2 days
Sandwiched between the sea and Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain Mount Kinabalu – Sabah’s capital city has a fascinating personality. It’s a blend of fishing village quaintness, wild outpost ruggedness and the exotic yet cosmopolitan air of a developed, post-colonial city.
Kota Kinabalu – or KK as the locals call it – still gives off the feeling of being in a Malaysian city. In fact it’s a bit like someone took a cutting from Kuala Lumpur and replanted it here in Borneo.
Stay at Le Meridien KK – closest to the markets, the port and the nightlife of KK. The hotel also looks west for some amazing sunsets over the ocean.
Gaya Island – 2 days
From the busy port, take a short 10-minute boat ride to Gaya Island. This is the biggest island of the small offshore archipelago on the west coast.
If the dash and bustle of KK has you wanting somewhere to relax, this is the place to do it. Everything slows down here. Relax in the beautiful Gaya Island Resort with its spectacular pools or down at the private beach.
Or if you’re feeling energetic, take a guided hike through the mini rainforest with the resort’s own naturalist and conservationist Justin Juhun. Over the last 10 years, Justin has toiled away to create the trails that roam through the island’s jungle. He’s also certain that he has spotted a new species of mammal here on Gaya!
The conservation centre he has built on Gaya Island Resort is a true asset to the hotel and to Borneo as a whole, and well worth checking out.
Depending on what you enjoy doing and how active you want to be, here are two ideas for you to add on to your trip.
Climb Mount Kinabulu – 1-2 days
Mount Kinabalu – the highest peak in Borneo – towers over KK and features on the state flag of Sabah. For the adventurous, the climb to its summit is a must, though it takes at least a day to complete.
For more information, check out Sabah Tourism’s information guide here.
Meet orang-utans – 2+ days
Seeing these amazing primates, the largest in Asia, is an amazing experience. You can see them in the wild, but it’s tricky and the likelihood is low as they roam the vast, dense jungles nomadically. This will take more time.
However, there are sanctuaries in Sabah where you can experience these incredible creatures close up. They’re well cared for and in these sanctuaries, and their living conditions are closely monitored.
The only problem is these sanctuaries and their natural habitats are in the north or the east of Sabah, so more travel – away from KK and the east – is your only option.
Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center in Sandakan is connected to the state Wildlife Department, which part of the Tourism Ministry.
The Lower Kinabatangan River is also where you can go for wildlife sightings.
Whatever you choose to do while you’re here, whether it’s hiking through the jungle, climbing mountains, diving with turtles or just relaxing on the beach, you’re guaranteed a unique experience.
Diversity is the word of the day here in Borneo. Three different nations have stakes in this island. Indonesia holds claim to most of Borneo, while in the west is the principality of Brunei and Malaysia has two large states in the northwest. With the many indigenous tribes also found throughout the island.
There’s great diversity in wildlife and landscapes here too. From the peak of Borneo’s tallest mountain to its deep ocean reefs there’s so much to see.
What would you choose to do in Borneo? Tell us in the comments!