11 Wonderful Souvenirs You Can Buy in Borneo

Souvenirs from Gaya Street Sunday market, Sabah
Souvenirs from Gaya Street Sunday market, Sabah | © Sam Bedford
Photo of Sam Bedford
6 June 2018

Borneo combines diversity in nature, wildlife and ethnic groups living on the world’s third-largest island. From local pearls and traditional instruments to handwoven baskets and tribal tattoos, here are the best souvenirs from Borneo.

Buy flashy pearls harvested from Sabah

One of the more popular souvenirs from Borneo are pearls. Sabah cultivates them in Lahad Datu’s Darvel Bay and Tabawan Island along the eastern regions of the state. Tourists can 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 one of the many souvenirs people would bring back home after visiting Sabah | © Sam Bedford

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 Malaysian lifestyle.

Local paintings from Borneo pictured with the artist | © Sam Bedford

Weird and wonderful musical instruments

Borneo’s ethnic diversity almost matches its biodiversity. Each group brings their 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 Kota Kinabalu’s Gaya Street Market to search for these instruments.

Some of the things you'll find are drums, flutes and other quirky instruments | © Sam Bedford
Panpipes and other wooden instruments can be bought as souvenirs | © Sam Bedford

Enjoy a brew or two of Sabah Tea

West Malaysia has BOH from the Cameron Highlands; East Malaysia grows Sabah Tea in Ranau and Kundasang near state capital Kota Kinabalu. Sabah Tea comes in eight different 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 directly from the source.

Hand-woven Wakid baskets

The Kadazan’s Wakid is another popular ethnic 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 the baskets from full-sized to miniatures.

Wakid basket (next to the gong) made from bamboo used to carry vegetables and other produces | © Sam Bedford
Wakid and other bamboo products widely available in Borneo | © Sam Bedford

Traditional handicraft from the famous sea nomads

The Bajau are a predominately Muslim ethnic group in Sabah with communities along the state’s west and the east coast. 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 Sabah’s east.

Coconut shell turtles and monkeys

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

You can fin musical insturments, turtles and orang utan head made from coconut shells | © Sam Bedford

Monkey-themed souvenirs

Borneo is known for its 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 Island. Shops burst with primate-themed souvenirs from oversized teddy bears (or teddy monkeys) to using their images on bags, t-shirts and fridge magnets.

Orang utans and proboscis monkey plush toys are quite popular | © Sam Bedford

Bugs in a box

It’s no secret Borneo has some of the world’s most diverse species of insects in its rainforests. 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 interest in the outdoors or Borneo’s vast biodiversity.

Bring home durian and tropical fruit chocolate

Durian: Affectionately called the ‘King of Fruit’ by its fans while the haters quickly point out its reputation as the world’s smelliest. Whichever way, some people love it and others hate it. The spiky football-shaped fruit has creamy flesh and often tastes differently to different people. While it’s not possible to bring the famous (or infamous) fruit back home, tourists can buy durian chocolate from most souvenir shops in Borneo. Visitors can also find mango and jackfruit chocolate on the shelves, too.

Bring home some Durian chocolates and other tropical fruit flavour | © Sam Bedford

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. But the process is said to be extremely painful.