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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Borneo: Travel Tips

Borneo has an abundance of lush jungles and diverse wildlife, ranging from orang-utans and proboscis monkeys (known locally as ‘Dutch monkeys’ due to their large noses) to pygmy elephants and turtles. I was only able to spend a week here but if you can, I would recommend spending more time on the island exploring all it has to offer. Borneo can be pretty expensive, but you can do it cheaply too. I spent about Malaysian Ringgit (RM) 500,000 give or take – it should only be around 100,000 for a week. I was travelling alone so it was more expensive as they charge you extra for rooms and tours. Scuba diving is meant to be amazing in Borneo so have a look at the best deals.

What to bring:

  • First and foremost, bring lots of mosquito spray!

  • Bring a long-sleeved top, trousers too and long socks for the wellies on the treks.

  • Pack a torch, binoculars, a pillow, and a lightweight sleep sack.

  • Good hiking shoes is also definitely an essential.

Kota Kinabalu:

I would only really spend one day and two nights in Kota Kinabalu (KK). Sandakan is much nicer and you will regret spending a lot of time in KK if you miss out on stuff in Sandakan as a result.

The night market in KK is a great experience. Lots of different types of street food, and the usual market hustle and bustle. There’s a cultural village in KK called Mari Mari. It is quite staged and a lot of money for what it is. If you can get a cheap deal on it then go as you do get to see how people lived but it's very folk museum-esque. You do get to try target practice with a bow and arrow and watch a traditional war ceremony. We got some nice food at the end and had henna tattoos which was fun!

You should try and do Mount Kinabalu (tallest mountain in South East Asia). It's really beautiful. If you don’t have time, you could go to the national reserve park at the base.

A lot of places offer tours in KK so if you have a spare day I would do one of them. I went to the Abdulrahman Marine Park and it was great but if you are going to be doing beaches elsewhere then don’t bother.

Where to stay?

Borneo Backpackers: I had a nice experience here and found the staff to be very friendly and helpful. They even let me keep my bags for the day when I hadn't been staying there on the way back from Sandakan and sent my postcards for me which was really nice! They have free wi-fi and basic breakfast available- plenty of showers and a nice hangout area. However, I did meet a girl who had stayed in the dorm that I was in a couple of days after me who had contracted bed bugs- I for some reason was really lucky as they had just sprayed apparently (although I was still paranoid and put on a boil wash as soon as I got home!). They seemed to be under the impression that she had brought them in herself but one of the staff admitted that they were infected with bed bugs at some point in July already so this seems to be a case of a severe infestation. It seems to be difficult to get rid of them which is a real shame and not ideal for backpackers as they get in every crevice imaginable. I hope they sort this out soon as it's a nice place.

The Lavender Lodge- reviews are good and lots of other places have bed bugs (at least when I was there.).

Turtle Island Park

There are huge conservation efforts being made at Turtle Island park where hawksbill and green turtles lay their eggs. It provides a much-needed sanctuary for these endangered turtles as their habitat is slowly being encroached upon by illegal fishing, poaching, pollution, and coastal development in the area. You can book the turtle island tour from Sandakan and you can see them hatch their eggs. I flew from Kota Kinablu to Sandakan- don't take a bus, it's so cheap to fly and the bus takes around 8 hours!

Sepilok (Orang-utans)

The destruction of their natural habitat has meant that the Bornean orang-utan is also now critically endangered. In Sabah, efforts to preserve forests from illegal logging and unsustainable palm oil plantations are underway. Orang-utan sanctuaries are growing in number, the largest of these is in Sepilok. I would recommend going to Sepilok as there's a chance you may not see the orang-utans in the wild. Although it was spectacular to see the orang-utans up close, morning feeding time felt like a bit of a circus with everyone pushing to get the best photo! Plus, there was a woman there shouting at everyone to move down and stand back so it felt a bit like I was on a school trip. I slept in a place near the centre and went there in the morning. There's not an awful lot to do so I would recommend going to the orang-utan early morning feed and then doing the rainforest canopy walk. It's really tranquil there and there's a cafe where you can have lunch. The rainforest canopy walk is about a km away from the centre.

Where to Stay?

Forest Edge Resort: Stunning rooms in the middle of a rainforest setting, which is within walking distance to the orang-utan sanctuary. The food was amazing so even if you don't stay here you can still go for dinner. The only issue was that internet was only available at the restaurant and not in the rooms but I guess that allows you to disconnect from the world, which is what it is all about.

I would email Borneo Eco Tours and see if you can stay at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Sukau Rainforest Lodge: It’s meant to be wonderful. The downside is you have to do their tour in order to stay at the hotel and I think it's relatively expensive. If you are in a couple or a group, you can probably get a deal.

I stayed at the Sepilok Jungle Resort for one night but the food was pretty average and the rooms equally not that great. It was a very basic set up There seemed to be a lot more people there than at the Forest Edge but I wasn't that enamoured by it. They got my pick-up time for the airport wrong and there was a mad panic to get me for my flight so it was a bit of a nightmare. The upside is the grounds are gorgeous with lots of tropical flowers and overhanging palms by a river but, again, you can walk in and have a wander even if you're not staying there. I think it is slightly cheaper than the Forest Edge.

Jungle Tour (Uncle Tan’s):

Definitely do a jungle tour. Uncle Tan's was the highlight of my entire trip to Borneo. Just call them up a few days before or in advance of your arrival: +60 89 535 784 or +60168244749. You don't need to pay over the phone. Just book and pay on arrival. It was amazing experience. We got to see so many incredible animals including probiscus monkeys, crocodiles, hornbills, eagles, turtles, gibbons, macaques and even the rare nocturnal mouse deer on a night-time hike. On the night-time trek you even get taught how to search for spiders with torches. There is quite a technique to it!

I would advise doing the three days, two nights tour as you see a lot more. The guides are all really nice and they care a lot about the animals and are really knowledgeable. They are also great craic. We had sing-songs every night and they provided us with shots of rice wine and well-priced local beer! The guides I had were Remy, Lan and Leo who were amazing and you could tell they love what they do which makes a huge difference. The food was surprisingly pretty great. I was vegetarian and I had no problems whatsoever. We even got to do a cooking class which catered to vegetarians as well. You also meet some interesting people along the way. I ended up sharing my hut with two Danish girls, which was a funny throwback to boarding school. Minus all the trimmings. Having said that, the camp is not AS basic as everyone makes it out to be. There are boardwalks, cabins and toilets! (I was led to believe we would be camping outside on the ground!) The only thing is that you will have to bucket wash- but it was not a problem! It is very clean, and the water is filled up each morning. Plus, the place is cleaned each day.

I was lucky as I was in a cabin with a door and windows that shut. Most of the cabins have an open front which can leave you vulnerable to wildlife! We were woken one evening to the sounds of screams from a nearby hut as a bat family had decided to take root in the hut and were flying around the room. You are given a mosquito net, which hangs over the mattress on the floor. Bring lots of mosquito spray. I actually bought the Uncle Tans homemade one and it worked really well and smelled like citronella :) Bring a long-sleeved top, trousers too and long socks for the wellies on the treks. Pack a torch, binoculars, a pillow, and a lightweight sleep sack. Good hiking shoes is also definitely an essential. There are a lot of creepy crawlies so minimise the torch use at night to avoid attracting them inside. We were warned that jungle rats are attracted to toothpaste, any foods and even previously worn clothes so they provided a bucket with a lid to put all our things in to prevent this and we had no problems. I know some people had issues with rats coming into their huts but they said the rats couldn't wait to get out once they were trapped inside! Plus, they don't really look like city, sewer-dwelling rats (which they aren't) so it wasn't too bad! Don't let this put you off - if you put all your things in the buckets they won't be tempted into your hut!

You definitely just have to embrace the madness of the situation and enjoy sleeping under the stars to the sound of crickets and swamp frogs, amidst all the wonderful creatures calling the jungle home.


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