Borneo usually features in the guidebooks for its biodiversity, untouched rainforests, and indigenous cultures. The beautiful architecture in Borneo, including traditional, modern, and Islamic styles, are often overlooked and neglected by visitors eager to explore the wilderness. Here are our favourite buildings in Sabah, Sarawak, and Brunei.
Kota Kinabalu’s most iconic building, Masjid Bandaraya or the Floating Mosque, sits elegantly overlooking Likas Bay. An artificial lagoon surrounds the contemporary white mosque reflecting the blue and gold dome. The architect took inspiration from the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Visit both 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, approximately a 20-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu, Puh Toh Si is the city’s largest Buddhist Chinese temple. Featuring a traditional Chinese-style roof and several spacious halls filled with images of Buddha, the temple is often a popular stop on day tours. As visitors enter, they’ll encounter a 10-metre tall (33 feet) 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 15.25 metres (50 feet) on the bluff 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 has and always will be among the best architecture in Borneo. The clock tower is one of three buildings that survived unscathed after World War II air raids.
This temple along Jalan Tuaran has some of the most beautiful architecture in Kota Kinabalu. Located closer to the city centre than its cousin Puh Toh Si, Che Sui Khor is an 11-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.
In 1984 Sabah Art Gallery became the first Green Building Index Accreditation Pane Silver building in Sabah and Borneo. The eco-friendly structure resembles a traditional basket decorated with various motifs inspired by indigenous designs. More than 3000 permanent exhibitions and regular temporary displays include paintings, contemporary art, photographs and installations.
The JKKN, or Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara by its official title, is a federal government building in Kota Kinabalu. 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 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 on the radar, it undeniably has some of the most beautiful architecture in Borneo.
An icon of Sabah, the Menara Tun Mustapha rises 30 stories to the northern side of Likas Bay. Reaching a height of 122 metres (400 feet), it holds the title as 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 iconic 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 often described as one of the most beautiful 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 the height of 114 metres (374 feet), 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 featuring as 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 58 metres (190 feet). Along with Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, this is one of the two national mosques.
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is among Asia’s most majestic mosques with some of the best architecture in Borneo. 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 too.