Borneo is renowned for its rich biodiversity, tropical rainforests and indigenous cultures, but its beautiful architecture – including traditional, modern and Islamic styles – is often overlooked by travellers eager to explore the wilderness. To help you make the most of your time in Borneo, we’ve our favourite architectural gems in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak and the tiny nation of Brunei.
Visit Sabah, in the northern region of Borneo, with the company of a Local Insider and a small group of culturally curious travellers on Culture Trip’s specially curated 10-day Borneo adventure.
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Kota Kinabalu’s most iconic building, Masjid Bandaraya – also known as the Floating Mosque – overlooks Likas Bay. An artificial lagoon surrounds the contemporary white mosque reflecting the blue and gold dome – where it’s been said that the architect took inspiration from the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Visit during the day to admire its majestic beauty – and again after dark to see it bath under the spotlights against the inky darkness of the South China Sea.
Located on Jalan Tuaran – around a 20-minute drive from the centre of Kota Kinabalu – Puh Toh Si is the city’s largest Buddhist temple. Featuring a traditional Chinese-style roof and several spacious halls filled with images of Buddha, the temple is a popular stop on day tours. As you enter, you’ll encounter a 10m-tall (33ft) statue of the Goddess of Mercy. Puh Toh Si has typical Chinese elements and architectural styles: a series of halls, pavilions and a garden set among the trees on a hill.
Standing proudly at just over 15m (49ft) near Signal Hill Road, Atkinson Clock Tower is one of Kota Kinabalu’s few remaining colonial buildings. When Francis George Atkinson, Jesselton’s First District Officer, died from malaria at the age of 28, his mother commissioned the clock tower as a memorial to her late son. Acting as both a clock and lighthouse in the colonial days before land reclamation pushed it further inland, Atkinson remains one of Borneo’s architectural masterpieces. The clock tower is one of three buildings that survived unscathed after World War II air raids.
This temple along Jalan Tuaran features some of the most beautiful architecture in Kota Kinabalu. Closer to the city centre than its cousin Puh Toh Si, Che Sui Khor is a 12-tiered, symmetrical pagoda. The architect modelled the building – which opened in 2006 – on Hangzhou’s Leifeng Pagoda in China. Che Sui Khor stands on an elevated platform against the backdrop of a hill.
The JKKN – or Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara by its official title – is a federal government building in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. But unlike most square and concrete structures so prevalent in the state, this one implements a strong cultural influence in its design. Look closely at the roof and you’ll see the traditional styles found on indigenous buildings around Sabah. Even the windows take their inspiration from the spread of native Rafflesia flower. While this isn’t often on the radar of travellers, it’s well worth stopping by if you’re in the area.
An icon of Sabah, the Menara Tun Mustapha rises 30 stories to the northern side of Likas Bay. Reaching a height of 122m (400 feet), it’s the third tallest building in Borneo. At the base of the deep blue, cylindrical tower is a central core supported by steel brackets. When the building opened in 1977, it was one of three structures around the globe using this style of support. The best way to photograph Menara Tun Mustapha is on a cloudless day against the blue sky with Likas Bay in the background.
The Astana ranks as one of the most elegant buildings in Sarawak. In 1885, Charles Brookes commissioned the Astana – or Palace – for his soon-to-be wife Margaret on the northern bank. The Astana consists of an elegant, white-washed colonial facade with a thatched roof surrounded by a perfectly manicured lawn that’s enclosed behind a fence. The best place to marvel at this beautiful architecture in Borneo is from the opposite side of the river.
Another magnificent structure in Kuching, the State Legislative Assembly Building is arguably one of the most attractive buildings in Southeast Asia. The number nine is the theme in this structure: nine stories, nine arches, nine pillows and its nine-pointed star that forms the roof. At a height of 114m (374ft), the structure combines various cultural elements and motifs with contemporary and state-of-the-art facilities. Enjoy the views from the waterfront as it lights up after dark.
The tiny Sultanate of Brunei occupies a slither of land sandwiched between Malaysian Sarawak. Apart from being one of the least visited countries in the world, it’s also completely governed by Sharia Law – making it an Islamic State. The Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque in Brunei’s Capital is one such example of the contemporary Islamic styles found in the city. This is the largest mosque in the country – reaching a height of 58m (190ft). Along with Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, it’s one of two national mosques.
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is among Southeast Asia’s most majestic mosques. Built inside an artificial lagoon with a giant dome visible from most places in the small capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, the mosque is one of the top attractions in Brunei. A ceremonial barge sits inside the surrounding lagoon, which is a marvel in itself to behold.
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meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
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Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
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