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Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei share the world’s third largest island: Borneo. With its dense rainforests, biodiversity, tropical islands and indigenous culture, travelling to this relatively off-the-radar tourist destination guarantees incredible photographs and lasting memories. Here’s some of the must-visit attractions to check off.
Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu boasts impressive orange-sand beaches, the Floating Mosque and a long stretch of coastline along the attractive Likas Bay. Often the first port of call in Sabah, most visitors tend to stay for a few nights. From visiting the nearby Monsopiad Cultural Village to learn about the indigenous tribes to snorkelling and watching one of Borneo’s best sunsets, Kota Kinabalu has several things to keep tourists busy.
Stand on Kota Kinabalu’s coastline and see the five islands near the shore. Belonging to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, they make a favourite day trip from the capital. Manukan, the second largest, is the most popular with clean beaches and clear water perfect for snorkelling. Others include Gaya, Manumtik, Sapi and Sulug. Regular speedboats depart from Jesselton Point. Tourists can visit one or island hop all five.
On first appearance, Ranau might not seem like a must-visit attraction in Borneo. But peel away the concrete and embrace its eco-tourism as well as the historical and cultural experience. Nearby Kinabalu Park and Mesilau Park offer hikes, wildlife treks and houses carnivorous pitcher plants. Ranau also holds a profound historical significance marking the final location of the infamous World War Two death marches.
Malaysia’s tallest peak, Mount Kinabalu, reaches a height of 4,095 metres (13,435 feet). Apart from being one of Southeast Asia’s most challenging climbs for enthusiastic hikers, the views of this majestic structure from a distance will humble almost every visitor. With deep cultural roots to Sabah’s ancient paganism and featuring on the state emblem, this is among the must-visit attractions in Borneo. Climbers should plan the trip at least six months in advance; limited spots sell out fast.
Featuring as the inaugural location on the hugely successful TV series Survivor, Pulau Tiga, or ‘Three Islands’ in English, is near Kota Kinabalu. Visitors can join tours from the capital or visit independently for the chance to experience a desert island, see mud volcanoes and go snorkelling. Less budget-conscious travellers can spend the night at either Gaya Island Resort or Pulau Tiga Resort.
Borneo is an eco-tourism paradise. Virgin rainforest covers most of the island’s surface, which is said to house around 50% of the world’s flora and fauna. Danum Valley in East Sabah provides the ultimate jungle experience. Located approximately two hours in the rainforest, the centre offers accommodation, jungle activities and in–house scientists as well as expert local guides. Lucky visitors might spot wild sun bears, orangutans and pygmy elephants.
Located a short drive from East Sabah’s Sandakan, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is one of the most famous attractions in Borneo. Since opening in 1964, the centre adopts and cares for baby or orphaned orangutans, victims of deforestation and human activity. Approximately 25 of the 80 or so resident primates are babies. The best time to visit is at either 10:00am or 3:00pm for feeding time.
Malaysia’s second longest river meanders 560 kilometres (348 miles) through the dense forests of Eastern Sabah. Not only does it provide long stretches of beautiful landscape but it also houses a variety of animals including wild proboscis monkeys, crocodiles and hornbills. Accommodation ranges from bungalows and chalets to jungle lodges, which are available along the river. Join a cruise to see the wildlife.
For diving enthusiasts, Mantanani Islands, some 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of Kota Kinabalu, are one of the must-visit attractions in Borneo. With more than 20 diving sites, of which some remain relatively unexplored, as well as three shipwrecks, visiting the islands promises a memorable experience. Divers might even see the occasion dugong too.
Want to experience Borneo’s plethora of endemic wildlife without having to spend days in the jungle? If so, check out Lok Kawi Wildlife Park. The zoo and botanical gardens are approximately 30 minutes from Kota Kinabalu and house gibbons, proboscis monkeys, orangutans, the Malaysian sun bear and pygmy elephants. While animals aren’t in the wild, it does provide an opportunity to see and take photographs.
Covering a vast area of protected rainforest in East Sabah, Tabin Wildlife Reserve lures adventurous and nature-loving tourists. With a variety of activities from bird-watching and jungle safaris to eco-friendly accommodation, a trip to Tabin ranks highly. Reaching the reserve and admission costs are on the pricey side, but visitors tend to rate the experience worthwhile.
Sarawak’s claims to fame are the vast networks of cave systems. Niah National Park offers some of the more intriguing caves in the state within a few hours of Miri. Not only are the mystical caverns photogenic but they were also the location of one of Asia’s oldest archaeological sites. Bones believed to be 40,000-years-old were discovered here.
All visitors are wowed by the majestic and rugged beauty of Gunung Mulu National Park. Limestone pinnacles and sheer cliffs contrast with deep caves and dense jungle. Housing the world’s largest cave chamber, the Sarawak Chamber, and hosting endemic flora and fauna, a day trip to the national park is sure to satisfy adventurous urges.
A short drive from Kuching, Mount Santubong at 810 metres (2,657 feet) is a dominating sight. Head closer and find several habitats including rainforests, mangroves and rivers. Lucky visitors might catch a glimpse of rare Irrawaddy dolphins and finless porpoises as well as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins near the coast. Mount Santubong has always been a place of biological importance since colonial times. British naturalist Alfred Wallace collected specimens in the 1850s which formed the basis of his ‘Sarawak Law’. This paper is said to be the precursor to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
With a name translating to ‘cats’ in English, Kuching is Sarawak’s capital. The city boasts an impressive selection of colonial and heritage buildings, while other attractions are floating villages, colourful temples and endless statues of cats.
Derawan Islands, a group of five in the Sulawesi Sea, offers some of Indonesian Kalimantan’s best diving spots. Consisting of islets and submerged reefs and housing an incredible 872 species of fish and over 500 types of coral as well as protected sea turtles, it’s little wonder Derawan is a top must-visit attraction for divers.
Few know of the tiny duty-free Labuan off the coast of Sabah and Brunei. And fewer still take the time to visit the small seven-island archipelago often referred to as the ‘Pearl of Borneo’. While Labuan might not feature as a must-visit attraction in Borneo for tropical beaches like duty-free Langkawi, it does boast impressive diving sites including four shipwrecks. Other attractions include water villages, bird parks and golf clubs.
The Sultanate of Brunei covers a tiny slither of land on Borneo Island sandwiched between Sarawak. Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, has the floating Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, the stilted Kampong (village) Ayer and the Sultan’s opulent displays at the Royal Regalia Museum. Apart from being among the world’s least visited countries and capitals, it offers a very different experience to Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan.
Brunei’s largest national park covers a vast area of protected rainforest. Scientists and conservationists use the region to study flora and fauna and recently identified a new model species of the unusual exploding ants. Tourists only have access to a small part of the reserve but can join treks, canopy walks and swim in the refreshing water.
A final must-visit attraction in Borneo needs an element of good luck. When the conditions are right, tiny bioluminescent organisms transform the shallow waters into a glowing and mesmerising blanket of colour. Tusan Cliff Beach, approximately one hour south of Miri, offers this once in a lifetime experience. But don’t set the hopes too high. By design, natural phenomena are not guaranteed.