The backpacker scene
Backpacking in Borneo isn’t on the same scale as the likes of West Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Langkawi. Relatively few take the two–hour flight to Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak and even less visit Brunei and Kalimantan. But the biggest allure relates to eco-tourism, nature and the chance to see wildlife in Borneo. Most towns and cities are near the jungle, national parks and rich cultural heritage sites. Don’t expect late nights and a partying scene outside of Sabah’s Kota Kinabalu or Sarawak’s Kuching and especially not in Brunei, which uses Sharia Law. But do anticipate having an experience unlike no other in Southeast Asia and possibly the world when it comes to nature-based experiences.
Making the most of it
Get into the rainforest: From Sabah’s Danum Valley and Maliau Basin to Sarawak’s jungle covering 80% of its landmass, Borneo epitomises the term nature. When the rainforest is accessible, make the most of it by hiking near Kota Kinabalu or visiting reserves such as Kuching’s Bako National Park.
Don’t wing it: Experiencing the best of Borneo’s eco-tourism and wildlife needs time and patience. Getting to the more secluded spots to see wild proboscis monkeys, visit orangutan rehabilitation centres and the world–class diving spots often takes several hours.
Embrace Borneo’s ethnic diversity and culture: Borneo is among the planet’s most diverse regions for wildlife, landscapes and culture. The Dayak people, or Borneo’s indigenous, include the fierce Iban and Murut headhunters, the Bajau Laut ‘Sea Nomads’ and former pagan/animist Kadazan-Dusun. Kuching’s Cultural Village and the Monsopiad Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu showcase their customs and traditions.
Staying safe and avoiding theft
Most people backpacking in Borneo encounter fewer risks compared to West Malaysia. But tourists shouldn’t let their guard down. Cities transform after dark. Foreigners might get unwanted attention and petty theft is a concern. Stealing something from a foreigner might be viewed as a badge of honour, regardless of if it’s valuable or not. Be vigilant with possessions at all times. Drive-by bag snatching on motorbikes are common too, especially after dark. Solo female travellers are also likely to experience catcalls and unwanted male attention throughout Malaysian Borneo, especially in some parts of Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu.
Security concerns in East Sabah
The eastern part of Sabah from Kudat, the northernmost tip of Borneo, to Lahad Datu towards the southeast is designated as the Eastern Sabah Security Zone. Ongoing territorial disputes between Sabah and Sulu culminated when 200 armed insurgents attempted to invade in February 2013. Regional security is high and land and sea travel restrictions apply as of 2018. It’s not unheard of for foreign tourists to be targeted as hostages for ransom in Eastern Sabah too. Piracy is a concern in the waters off the coast of Sabah and through the Straits of Melaka. While this is unlikely to affect anyone backpacking in Borneo, tourists should consult their foreign offices for travel warnings before making any plans.
Food and accommodation
Cheap stays in Borneo: Affordable accommodation suitable for backpackers in Borneo is easy to find in towns and cities. Hostel beds in major cities like Kota Kinabalu start from as little as RM40 ($10.20) or less per night, while budget-friendly hotels and guesthouses often begin at RM80 ($20.40). Be aware that non-Malaysians need to pay RM10 ($2.60) per room per night as a tourist tax. Finding budget accommodation in Brunei is more challenging. Anticipate spending two to three times more than in Sabah and Sarawak. As Kalimantan is relatively unexplored, cheaper options are often more limited.
Affordable food in Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan: Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak offer the typical selection of Malay, Indian and Chinese dishes as well as Dayak specialities in some restaurants. The cost of meals in Sabah tends to be slightly higher than in Kuala Lumpur, but will still come to less than RM20 ($5.10). Sarawak, especially Kuching, has a reputation for its delicious and ultra-affordable meals. Expect a dish in some restaurants to cost as little as RM5 ($1.30). Foodies backpacking in Borneo can enjoy street food and meals at family-owned restaurants and food courts. Anyone crossing the border into Brunei will find a meal is much more expensive while Kalimantan offers spicy Indonesian favourites at prices similar to Sarawak.
According to tourists backpacking in Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak’s locals tend to be friendlier compared to Kuala Lumpur. The Dayak, including Sabah’s Kadazan-Dusun and Sarawak’s Iban, have laid-back attitudes and often up for a chat. Cultural events, especially those with few foreigners, are gold mines and it’s advisable to learn a couple of phrases. Grab drivers, restaurant staff and coffee shop customers as well as freelance guides found online are excellent sources of information too. In Malaysian Borneo, take advantage of Meetup.com, a website where locals advertise activities such as hiking trips. Backpackers tend to hang out in hostels and bars. Tourists visiting Brunei and Indonesia’s Kalimantan might face more challenges.
Money, money, money
Better rates in Borneo: All tourists need to change money into the Ringgits, and it’s better to do this in the country. Rates in Malaysian Borneo, Kalimantan and Brunei tend to be quite good and probably better than back home. Change some at the airport and exchange the rest in the city.
Bring larger denominations and major currencies in Sabah and Sarawak: Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo offer various rates for different denominations. Customers get better value by changing a $100 bill compared to $20, and not all accept lower value notes. Unlike other Southeast Asian destinations like Cambodia or Lao, it’s not advisable to go backpacking in Borneo with $1 bills!
Planning an adventure? Change enough money: Tourists want to explore Borneo’s vast rainforests and exotic islands. But don’t expect to find ATMs or currency exchange offices in the jungle, on islands or in rural villages. Anyone backpacking in Borneo who plans to go off the beaten path should bring plenty of Ringgits.
For convenience, the following prices are approximations for travel costs in Malaysian Borneo, Brunei and Indonesian Kalimantan quoted in USD rather than Malaysian Ringgit, Bruneian Dollar or Indonesia Rupiah.
1 meal – $1 to $10. Expect Brunei to cost two or three times more than Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.
1 beer – $3++. Beer sets are available in Sabah and Sarawak. Brunei practices Sharia Law and buying alcohol in the country is prohibited (though foreigners can bring in a reasonable amount, providing they declare it at customs). Finding beer in Kalimantan is challenging, but possible.
1 night at a backpacker hostel – $10 to $20
1 cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel – $0.50 to $5
1 hygiene/medical essential (at a local shop) – $0.50 to $10
1 affordable experience – $5++. Expect widespread dual pricing in Sabah and Sarawak.
Where to go
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and Pulau Tiga, Sabah: The first port of call after arriving in Kota Kinabalu is to jump on a speedboat and island-hop over the five islands visible from the shore. Tunku Abdul Rahman consists of five islands, with Manukan rating as the favourite for beaches and snorkelling. Pulau Tiga, a little further away, was featured on the first season of TV series Survivor. Expect a desert island with an unusual mud volcano in the centre.
Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah: Deep in the heart of Sabah’s jungle lies Danum Valley, an eco-tourism paradise. Located approximately two hours west of Lahad Datu, the conservation area combines research facilities with the chance to experience the rainforest. Wildlife, including orangutans and pygmy elephants, among many others, call this area home. Hostel beds and chalets are available for overnight stays.
Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak: Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, has a reputation for its cave systems. UNESCO-listed Gunung (Mount) Mulu National Park boasts a series of jagged limestone cliffs and caves, including the world’s most voluminous chamber: The Sarawak Chamber. Three summits of the surrounding mountains exceed 1500 metres (4921 feet).
Niah National Park, Sarawak: Archaeologists discovered what are believed to be some of the earliest human remains in Asia dating back approximately 40 millennia inside Niah’s caves. The national park, one of 25 in Sarawak and a popular day trip from Miri, has rock art, boat-shaped coffins and an abundance of the Asian bird’s nest delicacy.
Derawan Island, Kalimantan: Located in East Kalimantan, Derawan is a relatively unexplored island with white beaches, thousands of turtles and a reputation for world-class diving. Expect to see stone fish, grouper, snapper as well as ghost pipefish and a plethora of colourful corals. Both day and night diving trips are available. Most tourists stay in the overwater bungalows.
Bucket list experiences
See an orangutan: Everyone recognises the orange-haired primate of Borneo and Sumatra. With increasing deforestation and human activity, seeing one in the wild isn’t easy. Lucky tourists might catch a glimpse at Danum Valley, along the Kinabatangan River or in Bako National Park. If not, head to rehabilitation centres such as Sabah’s Sepilok near Sandakan and Sarawak’s Matang Wildlife Centre to see baby or orphaned orangutans nursed back to health.
Have an unforgettable cultural experience at the Rainforest World Music Festival: The Rainforest World Music Festival is an annual three–day cultural event in the jungle near Kuching. With Mount Santubong in the background, musicians from around the globe descend on Sarawak in July. Activities include mini-concerts, folk music, traditional music as well as other arts and culture related activities. Tickets aren’t cheap and it might feel like a splurge for those backpacking in Borneo. But attending a jungle concert isn’t an everyday experience!
Embrace the underwater wonders: Head out from Borneo’s shore and find dozens of islands and hundreds of diving spots. From snorkelling in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park near Kota Kinabalu to spending a day diving at Sipadan, both in Sabah, the diversity of coral and marine life is stunning.