Borneo travel guide & tips
What to expect in Borneo
From ancient rainforests, filled with some of the world’s most unique species of wildlife to the enchanting cultural riches of Borneo’s cities, and the indigenous communities found deep in the jungle, your senses are sure to be wowed by this diverse island.
Throw in some truly idyllic beaches, crystal clear waters, and tantalising street food, and you’re sure to have an unforgettable trip. Take a read of our Borneo travel guide to get you inspired and ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
Borneo’s great for:
- Getting back to nature: Borneo’s finest asset is most definitely its glorious variety of flora and fauna, from the world’s biggest flower (known as ‘Rafflesia arnoldii’) to its endangered orangutans and stretches of lush national parks. Borneo really is a nature lover’s dream.
- Trekking & walking: Keeping on the adventurous side, Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s highest mountain and offers some of the most beautiful views of Borneo (if you don’t mind putting the work in). Trekkers will find it challenging but not too demanding, and for those who prefer walking, with jungles, beaches and national parks galore, you’ll be delighted too.
- Learning about tribal life: Borneo is one of the rare places on Earth where tribes can be found deep in the jungle, from the Rungus people in Kudat to the Iban tribe in Batang Ai. Staying with these communities offers a rewarding opportunity to learn about another culture and way of life.
Top 4 Borneo experiences:
- Meeting the Iban tribe: What could be more exciting than heading deep into the jungle, and meeting some of the Iban Headhunters who live in the Batang Ai National Park? Luckily, no headhunting is done any more (phew), but the area has been turned into a self-sufficient eco-tourism spot, giving the locals jobs and sharing their customs with you.
- Spotting orangutans – Of course, we can’t talk about the top experiences in Borneo without mentioning orangutans. Borneo is one of only two regions in the world (the other being Sumatra) where orangutans can be found in the wild or semi-wild. Our endangered ginger friends can be visited in Semmenggoh Orangutan Centre in Sarawak or the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, both sanctuaries do incredible work to reintroduce these great apes back into the wild.
- Bako National Park – Another fascinating primate, endemic to Borneo, is the proboscis monkey. Famous for its long nose (hence the name) proboscis monkeys can can be spotted in the jungles of Bako National Park, near Kuching.
- Escape to Lankayan Island – After your travels and adventures in Borneo, we highly recommend Lankayan Island for an idyllic paradise; perfect for snorkelling, lounging on the white sands or even watching turtles hatch if you go at the right time.
Borneo Essential Information
Best time to go
Borneo can be visited during the entire year. The most rain falls from October through February, with December and January producing the most rainfall.
Other languages spoken include Chinese, Tamil and English.
Unlike other countries in Asia, it isn’t customary to tip in Borneo, and restaurants generally include a service charge. In areas visited more frequently by tourists however, tipping has become more common.
There are no direct flights to Borneo from the UK. Stopping over in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Hong Kong are popular choices.
The national Malaysian currency is the ringgit (RM), also referred to as the Malaysian Dollar. All hotels and banks offer currency exchange services, however the best exchange rate can be found at smaller currency exchange desks in shopping malls.
Borneo – tips for travellers
What to wear in Borneo
In the heat and humidity of the rainforest, we recommend packing lightweight and loose-fitting clothing. Merino wool is a great option here as it has thermoregulating properties and is also sweat/odour resistant too. Alternatively, thin cotton works well. Don’t forget, your clothing will get wet (you’ll likely be in rainforest after all), so it’s worth packing clothes that are quick-drying. Brightly-coloured or dark clothing often attract unwanted mozzies, so we’d also suggest sticking to pale colours like khaki and beige.
Having a good hat to protect yourself from the sun and rain is really important, especially for boat journeys, as the sun’s reflection off the water and deck can double-up your potential sunburn. Make sure you pack a poncho, kagool or light jacket with you.
Malaysia is a Muslim country, so dress respectfully in populated areas, wearing clothing that covers the knees and shoulders.
Trainers with good grip are essential here, the paths and pavements can be very slippery given the climate, but expect them to get muddy. Lightweight walking boots are also great if you have them.
Most places in the rainforest sell rubber shoes that cost around £2-5 and are just perfect. Similar to football boots, with rubber studs to grip the mud, you can simply rinse them in the water afterwards, so they’re very easy to clean.
Wildlife in Borneo
Borneo is one of the most biodiverse islands. With 15,000 species of plant, 1,400 species of amphibian, 222 species of mammal and 10 species of primate, you’ll be venturing through one of the richest biomes in the world.
Some of our favourite wildlife from Borneo:
- Bornean Pygmy Elephant
- Bornean Bearded Pig
- Short-Nosed Fruit Bats
- Bornean Gliding Frog (discovered 2013)
- Proboscis Monkey
- And of course… the orangutan
Wildlife evolution history
Borneo has been a hive of scientific interest for over 150 years. Alfred Wallace (one of the fathers of evolution, along with Charles Darwin) spent many years in Sarawak in the 19th century which led to his theory of natural selection.
Protection from wildlife
You’ll be surrounded by diverse and unique wildlife wherever you go in Borneo, however jellyfish and leeches can be a nuisance in some places. Leech socks are handy but can also be pricey, so we recommend tucking long socks into your trousers to keep the leeches away from skin- it’s not the strongest fashion statement, but it saves pennies and can work just as well.
If you’re snorkelling on Lankayan Island, take a rash top or skinny diving suit with you to stave off any unwanted stings from pesky miniature jellyfish. Don’t worry, their strings aren’t dangerous but we’re sure you’d rather avoid them!
Which is best for me, Sabah or Sarawak?
Sabah is perfect for first-time travellers to Borneo, with incredible wildlife, beaches and an easier terrain to navigate. Whether you’re up for meeting the tribes of Northern Sabah, and learning from the locals how to make handicrafts, or seeing the vivid colours of Kota Kinabalu with Mount Kinabalu as your backdrop, you’re sure to love it.
Ideal for: Honeymoons, families, mature adventurers
Sarawak is perfect for more seasoned travellers or those looking for a unique, authentic and off-the-beaten-track experience with local encounters. It’s ideal for people who haven’t been before but is a little more demanding than Sabah. You’ll have the chance to get to know the Iban people of Batang Ai, staying in the community Nanga Sumpa Lodge, right in the heart of the rainforest. Here, you’ll learn from the locals about their crafts, how they live off the land and the history of the infamous headhunters. If you’re lucky, you might even see the orangutan in its natural environment.
Ideal for: Adventurous families or couples, seasoned travellers, culture lovers
When to visit Borneo
Depending on when you want to visit Borneo, you might find the weather a little easier from one side to another. However, it can be visited all year round and some people prefer going during the rainy season as the humidity eases off, although chances of seeing primates may be reduced.
Sabah has two weather seasons: the dry season from February to August and the wetter season from September to January. If you’re looking to see turtles hatching in Lankayan, we suggest going from May to September.
Take a peek at our favourite Borneo itineraries
Food & drink in Borneo
The majority of trips with Rickshaw in Borneo include breakfast. If you like a cheeky tipple, then buy a bottle or two in duty-free before you arrive as alcohol is expensive, especially in Sabah.
Food you can expect to find:
- Sarawak Laksa – Sarawak’s signature dish is a delight for the senses. Comprising a spicy soup of chilli paste, coconut milk and thin (mee hoon) noodles topped with beansprouts, chicken and shrimp. Tone down its spicy kick with a squeeze of fresh lime.
- Kolo Mee – A stir-fry dish of yellow egg noodles, barbequed pork and vegetables. This is a street-food staple.
- Mee Sua – Made with wheat rice noodles, chicken and mushrooms as part of a large broth that’s laced with wine.
- Lok-Lok – Delicious skewers of fish, meat or veg that are deep-fried or boiled and eaten with sweet and sour or satay sauce.
We suggest eating at busier local restaurants whenever you can as the locals obviously like them. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the authentic dishes on offer, plus the local cuisine will likely be cheaper in smaller-run eateries, compared to western restaurants. In bed and breakfast resorts, make the most of the buffet in the morning to fuel you up for the day. Have a light snack in the afternoon and then you’ll be ready to devour your main meal in the evening.
How to get to Borneo?
In quieter months, we’ve seen air fares as low as £550 so it always pays to consider travelling in the low or shoulder seasons.
There are no direct flights to Borneo from the UK, unfortunately. However, there are several major hubs nearby which will get you there fairly easily. The costs vary depending on the season, but you can expect to pay between £800-£900 per person.
The best airport hubs are:
- Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia Airlines)
- Singapore (Singapore Airlines)
- Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific)
These airlines fly from London Heathrow and can be combined with connecting flights to Kota Kinabalu or Kuching.
Getting around Borneo:
- Domestic flights – Most trips will have at least one domestic flight, as destinations are quite far apart and often less developed in between. These are surprisingly inexpensive and can be sorted before you go.
- Private car & driver – We recommend most of your transfers being done by private car with a driver. Giving you the flexibility to stop where you fancy, and you might get some insider information from your local driver.
- Boats – During your adventure, you’ll undoubtedly encounter a lot of rivers. Luckily, boats are one of the most commonly used modes of transport in Borneo and will help you find the real heart of the country.
- Bikes – We obviously want to do as much as we can to reduce carbon emissions and keep Borneo beautiful. When you’re in a rural area you can rent bikes to explore yourselves.
Photography & gadgets
Having a decent zoom or telephoto lens on the camera is a must if you’re wildlife spotting. Alternatively, if you don’t want the worry of lugging a big camera around, having a good pair of binoculars will come in very handy when spotting wildlife from afar. There’ll be so many opportunities to see and capture incredible wildlife, it’d be a shame to miss them.
- Nikon Prostaff S7 binoculars: These are water resistant, good for low light conditions, lightweight and shock resistant.
- A headlamp: If you’re up early or late, it’s good to be able to see where you’re treading.
- A telephoto lens: (for SLR/DSLR users) depending on the camera you have, we recommend taking a reasonable telephoto lens if you can.
- Tripod/Monopod: It’ll be challenging to find flat support while you’re in the jungle, so if you can, bring a lightweight tripod, or a monopod to stabilise your shots.
- A rain cover: This doesn’t need much explanation. Keeping your camera safe while there’s a flash shower is crucial.
Tips for fitness
Depending on which trips you’re up for, there might be some trekking involved. We’ve put together 5 training tips for preparing for a trekking holiday with one of our local personal trainers in Brighton.