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Wonderful Souvenirs You Can Buy in Borneo

Wakid and other bamboo products are widely available in Borneo
Wakid and other bamboo products are widely available in Borneo | © Sam Bedford
Photo of Sam Bedford
10 November 2021
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You can’t put a sun bear in your suitcase or an orangutan in your carry-on, so you’ll need to find other souvenirs from your Borneo trip. Thankfully, there are plenty of wonderful things to purchase on the third-largest island in the world. Whether you’re wondering what to buy in Sarawak or where to pick up goodies in Sabah, we’ve got the answers. Here are the best souvenirs you can buy in Borneo.

Pick up flashy pearls from Sabah

One of the more popular souvenirs from Borneo, pearls are cultivated in Sabah, specifically in Lahad Datu’s Darvel Bay and Tabawan Island along the eastern regions of the state. Buy pearl jewellery such as necklaces, earrings and bracelets. The types, quality and cost vary considerably and those sold on the markets won’t have the same value as the ones in more reputable shops such as Borneo Pearl.

Pearls are sold during the Sunday market on Jalan Gala in Kota Kinabalu | © southeast asia / Alamy Stock Photo

Buy vibrant paintings of Malaysian village life

One of the best souvenirs from an unforgettable Borneo trip is a painting from a local artist. Stroll through the markets and handicraft shops and find everything from small tableside pictures to giant canvases. Favourite images are often of the idyllic setting of the kampung capturing the laid-back rural lifestyle.

A batik craftsman adds colour to the canvas using popular floral motifs

Take home wonderful musical instruments

The ethnic diversity in Borneo almost matches the biodiversity. Each group brings its own culture and traditions to the island. Musical instruments such as the Kadazan-Dusun’s miniature gongs, suling (a bamboo flute) and the sompoton make ideal souvenirs from Borneo. The sompoton, a type of mouth organ with eight bamboo pipes and a head resembling a duck, is a particular favourite. Head to the handicraft stores or Gaya Street Market in Kota Kinabalu to search for these instruments.

Saron, a traditional music instrument, plays a role in music across Borneo

Enjoy a brew of Sabah Tea

West Malaysia has BOH from the Cameron Highlands; East Malaysia grows Sabah Tea in Ranau and Kundasang near the state capital Kota Kinabalu. Sabah Tea comes in eight varieties including spiced flavours, lemongrass infusion or the basic plain black tea. Visitors to Sabah can either buy boxes from any supermarket or visit the highland plantations and get tea leaves from the source.

Loose-leaf black Sabah Tea makes a great Borneo souvenir | © Ian Bottle / Alamy Stock Photo

Purchase hand-woven wakid baskets

The Kadazan’s wakid is another popular souvenir from Borneo. A wakid is a type of bamboo basket used to carry fruits, vegetables and other products in rural Borneo. Apart from making a good memento, it also holds a more practical role back home for storage. Handicraft stalls and markets throughout Sabah stock various styles and sizes of baskets from full-size to miniatures.

Wakid and other bamboo products are widely available in Borneo | © Sam Bedford

Buy traditional handicrafts from sea nomads

The Bajau are a predominately Muslim ethnic group in Sabah with communities along the west and east coast of the state. West coast Bajau live in Kota Belud, a small town near Kota Kinabalu. Their wares are made from weaving a type of dried leaf into colourful baskets, boxes and food covers. The world-famous Bajau Laut, or Sea Nomads, live in the east of Sabah.

Find coconut shell turtles and monkeys

Empty coconuts rarely go to waste in Borneo as local artisans use the shell to make fascinating and creative handicrafts. Some turn them into turtles decorated with traditional patterns, while others make them look like the primates living in the rainforests. Few souvenirs from Borneo match their creative twist and outward beauty. Coconut handicrafts are usually on sale at markets or in souvenir shops.

Hunt for monkey-themed souvenirs

Borneo is known for orangutans and proboscis monkeys. Wild orangutans only live in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra while the long-nosed, pot-bellied proboscis lives solely on Borneo. Shops burst with primate-themed souvenirs from oversized teddy bears (or teddy monkeys) to bags, t-shirts and fridge magnets bearing their image.

Everything from musical instruments to boomerangs to baskets can be purchased in Borneo | © Sam Bedford

Collect bugs in a box

It’s no secret the Bornean rainforest has some of the most diverse species of insects in the world. To put this into context, scientists on average discover three new species each month. Stroll through the souvenir shops and find the weird and wonderful bugs presented as specimens inside a glass box. These souvenirs from Borneo make an attractive keepsake not only for amateur entomologists but anyone with an interest in the outdoors or the vast biodiversity in Borneo.

Bring home durian and tropical fruit chocolate

Durian may be affectionately called the King of Fruits by lovers, but detractors are quick point out its reputation as the smelliest fruit in the world. The spiky football-shaped fruit has creamy flesh and often tastes unique to different people. While it’s not possible to bring the famous (or infamous) fruit back home, you can buy durian chocolate from most souvenir shops in Borneo. You can also find mango and jackfruit chocolate on the shelves.

The notorious durian is known for its strong smell | © Jim Teo/ Unsplash

Get a tribal Iban tattoo

For a more permanent souvenir from Borneo, get a traditional tattoo in Sarawak. Iban tattoos date back centuries with roots in headhunting, paganism and ancient rituals. Expert artists use a series of razor-sharp bamboo needles to pierce the skin to create various motifs and patterns. Beware – the process is said to be extremely painful.

Tattoos rooted in Iban tradition can be a lifelong souvenir | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

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