Peoples & Cultures

Borneo's indigenous peoples, known collectively as Dayaks, belong to more than 50 different ethnic groups that speak about 140 languages and dialects. Some live on the coast, others along the remote upland tributaries of great rivers. A few generations ago some tribes still practised headhunting; today many Dayaks are well integrated into 21st-century economic life, and it's not unusual to meet university professors, lawyers, government officials and airline pilots who grew up in longhouses.

Arrival in Borneo

Among the ancestors of today's Dayaks were migrants from southern China who came to Borneo about 3000 years ago, bringing with them elements of the Dongson culture, including irrigated rice cultivation, buffalo-sacrifice rituals and ikat (fabric patterned by tie-dying the yarn before weaving). These newcomers mixed with native groups – people such as the cave dwellers of Niah – and eventually developed into more than 200 distinct tribes.

Who's a Dayak?

Not all of Borneo's indigenous tribes refer to themselves as Dayaks, but the term usefully groups together people who have a great deal in common – and not just from an outsider's point of view.

Traceable back to about 1840, the term 'Dayak' (or 'Dyak') gained currency thanks to its use by colonial authorities. It appears to be derived from the last two syllables of 'Bidayuh', itself an exonym (a name originally used by outsiders). As a result, while contemporary Iban in Sarawak think of, and refer to, themselves as Iban (although this term is also an exonym), when they talk about Dayaks they are likely to be referring to the Bidayuh. However, shared cultural practices, values and political, economic and environmental interests – and several generations of Christian faith and inter-group marriages – make it beneficial for different groups to work together. The only term that embraces everyone is 'Dayak'.

None of Sabah's indigenous ethnicities are particularly keen on using the term 'Dayak', preferring instead to see themselves as Kadazan, Dusun, Rungus, Murut etc. Not so in Kalimantan, where native groups have rallied around the Dayak banner and the term has become a focus for political unity across tribal lines.

For the purposes of affirmative action (positive discrimination) in Malaysia, Dayaks, like Malays, are considered bumiputra ('sons of the soil', ie people considered indigenous under Malaysian law).

Sabah

More than 30 indigenous groups make Sabah a medley of traditions and cultures. The state's largest ethnic group, known as the Kadazan–Dusun, makes up 17.8% of the population. Mainly Roman Catholic, the Kadazan and the Dusun share a common language and have similar customs, though the former originally lived mainly in the state's western coastal areas and river deltas, while the latter inhabited the interior highlands.

The Murut (3.2% of the population) traditionally lived in the southwestern hills bordering Kalimantan and Brunei, growing hill-rice and hunting with spears and blowpipes. Soldiers for Brunei's sultans, they were the last group in Sabah to abandon headhunting.

Sarawak

Dayak culture and lifestyles are probably easiest to observe and experience in Sarawak, where Dayaks make up about 40% of the population.

About 30% of Sarawakians are Iban, descended from groups that migrated from West Kalimantan's Sungai Kapuas starting five to eight centuries ago. Previously known as Sea Dayaks for their exploits as pirates, the Iban are traditionally rice growers and longhouse dwellers. A reluctance to renounce headhunting enhanced their ferocious reputation.

The Bidayuh (7% of the population), once known as Land Dayaks, live mainly in the hills south and southwest of Kuching, near the Kalimantan border. Their ancestors are thought to have migrated from the Sungkong area of what is now West Kalimantan many centuries ago. As with many Dayak groups, identities and traditions are very local, and adjacent villages sometimes speak dialects so distinct that people find it easier to communicate in English or Malay. Few Bidayuh still live in longhouses.

Upland groups such as the Kelabit, Kayan and Kenyah – that is, almost everyone except the Bidayuh, the Iban and the coastal-dwelling Melanau – are often grouped together under the term Orang Ulu (upriver people). The Kenyah and Kayan are known for their elaborately decorated longhouses and the kalong motif, with its sinuous, intertwined creepers and vines.

Kalimantan

In Indonesian Borneo the terms Dayak and Dayakism imply pan-Dayak political and ethnic solidarity.

In Central Kalimantan the largest indigenous group is the Ngaju Dayak, who live along major rivers and do more fishing than hunting. The Ot Danum Dayaks, who live further upriver, grow fruit, collect natural rubber and make dugout canoes that they sell to downriver tribes.

Along East Kalimantan's Sungai Mahakam the Kutai are the main indigenous group in the lower reaches, hosting the annual Erau Festival at their capital Tenggarong.

The Kayan and the closely related Kenyah are found in the Apo Kayan Highlands, as well as in Sarawak and Brunei. They are known for building the most elaborately decorated longhouses and for having a strict social hierarchy.

The unique Punan cave dwellers live between the headwaters of the Mahakam and Kapuas rivers, spanning East and West Kalimantan. Today most have given up troglodytic living.

West Kalimantan is home to a large population of Bidayuh, most of whom are Catholic (in Sarawak quite a few of the Bidayuh are Anglican). Many identify strongly with the locality they're from – for instance Bidayuh from Terebung refer to themselves as 'Dayak Terebung'.

The Longhouse

One of the most distinctive features of Dayak life is the longhouse (rumah batang or rumah panjai), which is essentially an entire village under one seemingly interminable roof. Longhouses take a variety of shapes and styles, but all are raised above the damp jungle floor on hardwood stilts and most are built on or near riverbanks. For reasons of geography, traditional Dayak societies did not develop a government structure beyond that of the longhouse.

The focus of longhouse life is the covered common verandah, known as a ruai to the Iban and an awah to the Bidayuh. The Kelabits have two: a tawa' for celebrations and a dapur for cooking (other groups use other terms). Residents use these communal spaces to socialise, engage in economic activities, cook and eat meals and hold communal celebrations. It is also the place where, come nightfall, groups would traditionally gather to tell stories.

One wall of the verandah, which can be up to 250m long, is pierced by doors to individual family bilik (apartments), where there's space for sleeping and storage. If you ask about the size of a longhouse, you will usually be told how many doors, ie family units, it has. Traditional Iban courtship, known as ngayap, involved surreptitious night-time liaisons in the young woman's room.

Like the rest of us, Dayaks love their mod cons, so these days longhouses fuse age-old practices with modern conveniences – the resulting mash-up frequently mixes traditional materials (bamboo slat floors) with highly functional features such as corrugated iron, linoleum, satellite dishes and, out the front, a car park. The new longhouses built by the government for resettled Dayak villages usually follow the old floor plan, but use unremarkable modern construction techniques.

Most young Dayaks move away from the longhouse for greener pastures, seeking higher education and good jobs in the cities. But almost all keep close ties to their home longhouse, returning for major family and community celebrations. Some families that choose to remain in the longhouse community build a private house nearby, in part to escape the fire hazard inherent in living in a flammable structure with so many other people.

Visiting a Longhouse

According to long-standing Dayak tradition, anyone who shows up at a longhouse must be welcomed and given accommodation. Since almost all longhouses were, until quite recently, a considerable jungle trek or longboat ride from the nearest human settlement, this custom made a great deal of sense.

Generations of jungle travellers knew the routine: upon arrival they would present themselves to the headman (known as a ketua kaum in Malay, tuai rumah in Iban and maren uma in Kayan), who would arrange for very basic sleeping quarters. But in the last decade or two, as transport has become easier and tourist numbers have soared, this tradition has come under strain, and these days turning up at a longhouse unannounced may be an unwelcome imposition on longhouse residents – in short, bad manners.

The upshot is that in many areas of Borneo, the days when anyone could turn up unexpectedly at a longhouse and stay the night are largely over. And even if you make your own way to a longhouse that's happy to have you, you are likely to face significant communication and cultural barriers. Interacting spontaneously with locals isn't always easy, as the elders usually don't speak English, and the younger people are often out working the fields or have moved to the city to pursue careers.

Finding a Guide

Unless you are lucky enough to be invited by a local, hiring a guide who can coordinate your visit with longhouse residents and make introductions will help you avoid language and cultural barriers.

When considering a tour operator or freelance guide, it's best to keep an open mind about the itinerary, but do not hesitate to be upfront about preferences and concerns. Do you require a certain level of sleeping comfort? Do you have any dietary restrictions? How important is it that you be able to communicate with your hosts in English? Will you be disappointed if you see a satellite dish dangling off the side of the longhouse's mobile-phone tower? Do you want to be the only traveller around, or would you prefer to share the experience with others? Finding the right guide – and, through them, the right longhouse – can mean the difference between spending a sleepless night with other sweaty, bored tourists, or having a spirited evening (double entendre intended) swapping smiles, stories and shots of tuak with the longhouse residents.

Sarawak has plenty of tour operators and guides eager to take you (and your money) on Borneo's ultimate cultural adventure. From Kuching it's easy to arrange day trips and overnights to Annah Rais Longhouse, for example. For something off the beaten track, Kuching-based tour agencies and guides can take you to the remote Sri Aman Division, to rivers such as the Batang Skrang, Batang Lemanak and Batang Ai. The upper Batang Rejang has lots of longhouses, but it has become harder to visit them due to a lack of licensed guides (and reputable unlicensed guides) in Kapit – though it is still possible to arrange trips through Sibu-based agencies to longhouses there and in Belaga. Hikers interested in walking from longhouse to longhouse in the Kelabit Highlands should head to Bario and plan their adventure from there.

There are a number of reliable tour agencies available. The Sarawak Tourism Board (www.sarawaktourism.com) has an online listing of about 100 licensed 'travel service providers'. Some of the best guides work for tour operators, which saves them from having to go through the rigmarole of getting their own STB license. While many freelance guides are friendly and knowledgeable, unfortunately some are not – ask your fellow travellers for recommendations. In any case, it can be hard to hold an unlicensed guide accountable if something goes wrong.

What to Expect

When you arrive at a longhouse, don't be surprised to find that it wouldn't make a very good film set for a period drama about headhunters. Borneo's indigenous communities are living in the 21st century and many of their dwellings reflect it. Remember, though, that a longhouse, more than being a building, is a way of life embodying a communal lifestyle and a very real sense of mutual reliance and responsibility. It is this spirit, rather than the physical building, that makes a visit special.

Every longhouse is led by a headman. Depending on the tribe, he (or in a handful of cases, she) may be appointed by his predecessor or elected; either way, heredity often plays a key role in selection. In many areas longhouses are known by the name of the headman, so if you know the name of your destination you’ll already know the name of the chief.

Depending on the various goings-on at the longhouse you’re visiting, you may or may not spend time with the headman, though he will usually ‘show face’ as it is impolite for him not to do so. Your guide will usually be the one showing you where to sleep, which is likely to be on the longhouse verandah, in a resident’s living room, or in a specially built hut next door to the longhouse.

Do your best to engage with the inhabitants of any community you are allowed to enter, rather than just wandering around snapping photographs. A good guide can act as a translator when you strike up conversations, and he or she will keep you abreast of any cultural norms – like when and where to take off your shoes – so you won’t have to worry too much about saying or doing the wrong thing.

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

If you are travelling with your own guide, he or she will be in charge of organising your meals – whether it’s a separately prepared repast or a feast with some of the longhouse residents.

The Iban, in particular, like to honour their guests by offering meat on special occasions. Vegetarians and vegans should be clear about their dietary restrictions, as vegetable dishes are often served in a chicken sauce. Meals will be plentiful no matter what, though it is not considered rude or disrespectful to bring your own food, too. Two important things to remember when eating with longhouse residents: don’t put your feet near the food (which is always served in a ‘family-style’ communal fashion); and don’t step over anyone’s plate if you need to excuse yourself from the eating area.

After dinner, when the generators start clicking off, it may be time to hunker down with the evening’s bottle of bootleg spirits – tuak. The ceremonial shot glass will be passed from person to person amid chit-chat and belly laughter. Drink the shot when it’s your turn (you won’t really have a choice) and pass the glass along. Tuak may taste mild, but some types are pretty potent, and you can expect a stunning hangover the next day. When you reach your limit, simply press the rim of the glass with your finger like you’re pushing an eject button. If you don’t want to drink, you can claim a medical condition – just make sure you don’t get caught sneaking a sip later on. Smiles, big hand gestures and jokes go a long way, even in your native language (and it’ll all be second nature when you’re nicely lubricated).

Dayak ceremonies feature a variety of traditional dances. Accepting an invitation to join the dance and making a fool of yourself are sure crowd pleasers.

Indigenous Spiritual & Cultural Practices

Traditional Dayak animism, which varies from tribe to tribe, focuses on the spirits associated with virtually all places and things. In Kalimantan it is known collectively as Kaharingan.

Carvings, totems, tattoos and other objects (including, in earlier times, headhunted skulls) are used to keep bad spirits at bay, attract good spirits and soothe spirits that may be upset. Totems at entrances to villages and longhouses are markers for spirits. The hornbill is considered a powerful spirit and is honoured in dance and ceremony, with its feathers treasured. Black is widely considered a godly colour, so it features in traditional outfits. In some tribes women have special roles – for instance, a female priest, called a bobohizan, presides over many key Kadazan-Dusun traditional rituals in Sabah.

Ancestor worship plays a large part in Kaharingan. After death Dayaks join their ancestors in the spirit world. For some groups spirits may reside in a particular mountain or other natural shrine. Burial customs include elaborately carved mausoleums, memorial monoliths and interment in ceramic jars.

Most Dayaks now belong to mainstream Protestant groups (such as the Anglican Church), evangelical denominations (especially the Borneo Evangelical Church, also known as the SIB) and the Roman Catholic Church. Some evangelicals insist on purging all vestiges of previous beliefs, but in most instances Christianity overlays older cultural practices. Very few Dayaks still follow traditional religious practices.

Festivities such as Gawai Dayak, the harvest festival in Sarawak, are usually considered to be an expression of Dayak culture rather than of pre-Christian religious beliefs.

Tribal Body Art

The most striking fashion feature of many older Dayak women (and, in some groups such as the Kelabit, men) is their elongated, pierced earlobes, stretched over the years by the weight of heavy gold or brass rings. Young people rarely follow this custom, and older Dayaks sometimes trim their ear lobes as a sign of having converted to Christianity.

Iban Tattoos

Iban tattoos are closely linked to the concept of bejalai, which can be loosely defined as a journey, or a voyage of discovery. With each life skill mastered, an Iban warrior-to-be would traditionally add a tattoo to his body, creating a biographical constellation of swirling designs.

At around the age of 10 or 11, a young Iban would get his first tattoo, a bungai terung (eggplant flower) drawn on each shoulder. The design, created using soot mixed with fermented sugar-cane juice and hand-tapped bamboo or bone needles, commemorated the beginning of one's journey as a man (women were known to get them as well). The squiggly centre of the flower symbolised new life and represented the intestines of a tadpole, visible through their translucent skin. The plant's petals were a reminder that patience is a virtue, and that only a patient man can truly learn life's lessons.

Further attainments – for instance, mastering boatbuilding, hunting, shamanism and even traditional dancing – brought more ink, including the popular crab design, which symbolised strength and evoked the strong legs and hard shell of the crafty sideways walkers. Traditionally the Iban believed that when drawn with magical ink, the design could act like the shell of a crab, protecting bearers from the blade of a machete.

The bravest travellers received the coveted throat tattoo as they evolved into a bujang berani (brave bachelor). The design – a fish body that morphs into a double-headed dragon – wanders up from the soft spot at the centre of the clavicle, known as the 'life point' to the Iban.

Through all this, elaborate rules had to be followed. For instance only men who had taken a head were permitted to tattoo the tops of their hands. Also, every animal inked facing inward must have something to eat – dragons were always depicted with a small lizard near their mouths – because if the creature was left hungry it would feed on the bearer's soul.

When the warriors returned to their village, the tattoos were a bit like passport stamps, tracing borders crossed and frontiers explored. A large collection of blueish-black 'merit badges' greatly increased one's desirability as a bachelor and, it was believed, enabled a soul to shine brightly in the afterlife.

These days, after decades of decline, tattooing is making something of a comeback. In urban areas some young Iban get tattoos to commemorate achievements such as travelling abroad or completing their military service or a university degree. Sometimes the tattoos are eclectic, combining designs from tribes that once warred with each other with modern motifs.

Body Piercing

If you thought tribal body art stopped at tattoos, you are very wrong. Unlike the ubiquitous skin ink, however, you probably won't come head to head, so to speak, with a palang.

The palang, a long-standing Dayak tradition, is a horizontal rod of metal or bone that pierces the penis, mimicking the natural genitalia of the Sumatran rhino. As times change this type of procedure is becoming less common, but many villages still have an appointed piercer, who uses the traditional method: a bamboo vice in a cold river. The real macho men opt for some seriously extreme adornments, from multiple palang to deliberate scarification of the penis.

The impetus behind these self-inflicted 'works of art' is actually to enhance a woman's pleasure rather than personal adornment. Among some communities these radical procedures were once just as important as lopping off heads.

Land of the Headhunters

Headhunting (ngayau) has long been relegated to the realm of tourist brochures, T-shirts and Dayaks' self-deprecating witticisms, but for over 500 years it was an important element of Borneo's indigenous culture.

Many of the rites, rituals and beliefs surrounding this gruesome tradition remain shrouded in mystery, but one aspect was unchanging: the act of taking heads was always treated with the utmost seriousness. Warriors would go out on two types of expeditions: kayo bala, a group raid involving several warriors; and kayo anak, performed by a bujang berani (lone brave). The takers of heads often bore no personal animosity to their victims.

In the upper regions of the Batang Rejang, the kayo anak was a common method of wooing a prospective bride. The most valuable heads were those belonging to women and children because only the savviest and stealthiest warrior could ambush a child or woman as they bathed or picked berries. Such heads were usually hidden away from marauders near the longhouse hearth.

After a successful hunt the warrior would wander the jungle, wrestling with the taken spirit rather than letting down his guard for a nap. In the morning he would return to his longhouse, where the head would be smoked and strung up for the others to see and honour. Heads were worshipped and revered, and food offerings were not uncommon. A longhouse with many heads was feared and respected by the neighbouring clans.

The tradition began its gradual decline in 1841 when James Brooke, at the behest of Brunei's sultan, started quashing the hunt for heads, in part to attract foreign traders, who had understandably tended to keep their distance from Borneo's shores. A nasty skirmish involving a knife-wielding pirate and a Chinese merchant's cranium gave Brooke the opportunity to show the Dayaks that he meant business – he promptly executed the criminal.

Headhunting, to the extent that it continued, flew under the government's radar until WWII, when British commandos found the practice useful for the war effort – so long as the victims were Japanese. Many of the heads that now adorn longhouses date from this period.

These days sensationalised accounts of inter-ethnic conflict in Indonesian Borneo often describe the violence as latter-day headhunting. If press descriptions are to be believed, the last 'tête offensive' (so to speak) took place in Kalimantan in the early years of the 21st century, when migrants from the island of Madura who settled (or were resettled by the Indonesian government) in Dayak and Malay areas were the victims.

As Borneo's indigenous people embraced Christianity and rejected traditional animistic superstitions, many longhouses dismantled their dangling skulls. If you ask around, however, you'll quickly learn that the heads haven't actually been tossed away – that would just be bad luck!

Indigenous Land Rights

When a tract of forest is cut down for timber or to make way for a dam or palm-oil plantation, animals are not the only ones who lose their homes – Borneo's forest-dwelling indigenous people are also displaced.

The Penan have been especially hard hit by logging and forced relocations. In Sarawak the government under former chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud tried to quash Penan and other minority-group protests and often responded to any sign of civil disobedience with arrests. The appointment of Adenan Satem as chief minister in 2014 brought some hope to these groups. Adenan had shown a willingness to listen to native land-rights proposals and has said he is determined to protect the state's forests from further logging. In 2016 he blocked the building of the controversial Baram Dam. His death in 2017 was a major setback to indigenous rights, with the Federal Court of Malaysia subsequently ruling that indigenous people have no title claim over foraging lands, and plans for the dam going back on the table.

In Kalimantan, migrants from other parts of Indonesia have encroached upon the Dayaks' traditional lands, producing a sometimes violent backlash.

Feature: The Penan

The least integrated, and most economically disadvantaged, indigenous group in Sarawak and Brunei is the Penan, traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers known for never taking more than they required from the jungle – and for never having engaged in headhunting. Their distinct culture and lifestyle separates the Penan from other Dayak groups.

Christian missionaries and the Sarawak government have long pressured the Penan to settle in longhouses, and today many live sedentary lives in northern Sarawak's Baram, Belaga and Limbang districts; only a few hundred are believed to remain true nomads. Settled Penan may plant rice, but they continue to rely on the jungle for medicine and food, including sago from palm trees and game they hunt with blowpipes.

With their lands and way of life under severe threat from timber concessions and dams, the Penan have been known to engage in civil-disobedience campaigns that have included blocking logging roads. While many sympathisers – such as the celebrated Bruno Manser (www.brunomanser.ch), an environmental activist who disappeared near Bario in 2000 – seek to protect the Penan's unique way of life, Malaysian authorities argue that they should be assimilated into mainstream society, living in settled communities with modern medical facilities and schools.

A major recent campaign for Penan land rights focused on the proposed Penan Peace Park (www.penanpeacepark.org), an area of 1630 sq km around the Gunung Murud Kecil mountain range in the Upper Baram in Sarawak, close to the border with Kalimantan. Local Penan groups hoped that the area – estimated to be over 50% primary rainforest – could be designated their land, protecting not only the jungle, but Penan culture, but that hope seems to have come to naught due to the unfavourable federal ruling in 2017 that rejected indigenous claims over foraging lands.

Feature: Gawai Dayak

In Sarawak and Brunei the main pan-Dayak event of the year is Gawai Dayak (literally, 'Dayak Festival'), usually referred to as Gawai. Coinciding with the rice harvest of some groups, it brings Dayak singles and families who live in the city back to their ancestral longhouses for round after round of socialising, eating, singing, dancing and the consumption of tuak (rice wine). As one ebullient host once scolded, proffering tuak in bamboo cups, 'too much talking, no drinking, cannot!'

Many Dayak groups also hold community events such as dance performances, sports competitions and beauty contests, to which revellers (especially women) wear brightly coloured traditional costumes, including headdresses, bangles and beads.

Ceremonies marking the rice harvest are age-old, but Gawai as a festival celebrated simultaneously by once-rival tribes all across Sarawak was introduced by the state government and only dates from the late 1950s. The festival officially begins on the night of 31 May and lasts for two days (1 and 2 June are public holidays in Sarawak), but in some areas (eg around Bau), family-friendly, village-level events take place on other dates between mid-May and the end of June.

Gawai festivities in longhouses and villages are invitation-only, but thanks to Dayak traditions of hospitality, Western visitors are often welcome to join in the fun.

Feature: Gifts

Gift giving has become rather controversial over the last few years, with locals, tourists and tour operators offering a wide variety of advice on the subject. Longhouse communities do not traditionally require gifts from guests; in fact, some say that the tradition of gift giving actually began when travellers started visiting.

To avoid any awkward cultural miscommunications, your best bet is to ask your guide. Longhouses set far off the beaten track may appreciate bulk bags of rice or sugar, while communities that are a bit more in touch with the modern world might appreciate items such as pens or other such supplies. Some travellers bring something edible that can be shared over glasses of tuak. Any way you do it, gifts are never a must, nor are they expected.

Many tourists prefer contributing to the longhouse economy by hiring locals for a longboat trip or buying one of the craft items offered for sale.

If you are visiting independently, it's polite to bring a small gift for the family of the person who invited you.

Feature: Music of the Rainforest

A sape (pronounced sah-pey) is an Orang Ulu lute, shaped like a boat and often hand-carved with the traditional motifs of the Kayan and Kenyah people of the longhouses of the Upper Baram in Central Borneo. One of Sarawak's most celebrated sape players is Kenyah musician Matthew Ngau Jau, who is a regular at the Rainforest World Music Festival, an annual event held in the Sarawak Cultural Village near Kuching, at which Borneo's best musicians jam alongside bands from all over the world.

Sidebar: Hierarchies

Some Dayak societies, such as the Iban and Bidayuh, are remarkably egalitarian, while others, such as the Kayan, used to have a strict social hierarchy – now somewhat blurred – with classes of nobles (maren), aristocrats (hipuy), commoners (panyin) and slaves (dipen).

Sidebar: Deep Skull Secrets

A new study of the 37,000-year-old skull found in Sarawak's Niah Cave suggests that the ancestors of Borneo's indigenous inhabitants have much more in common with the people of northern Southeast Asia, rather than Australia's and Papua New Guinea's aboriginal people, as was originally believed.

Sidebar: Population

Indigenous non-Malays – mainly Dusun, Murut, Kedayan, Iban and Tutong – account for around 20% of Brunei's population. A small nomadic Penan population (around 200) is believed to reside in Brunei's rainforests.

Sidebar: Up the Notched-Log Ladder

Up the Notched-Log Ladder is Sydwell Mouw Flynn's memoir of her parents' missionary work among Sarawak's Dayaks from 1933 to 1950, and her return to the land where she was raised half a century later.

Sidebar: Stranger in the Forest

Stranger in the Forest tells the extraordinary tale of Eric Hansen's solo trek across Borneo and his encounters with various Dayak groups, including the Penan.

Sidebar: Headhunting

The White Rajahs of Sarawak allowed the Dayaks to live according to their age-old traditions and beliefs except in one area – headhunting – which they made great efforts to suppress.

Sidebar: Damming Our Future

The Borneo Project's 2014 documentary Damming Our Future, about a proposed dam in Sabah, can be viewed online at www.borneoproject.org (under 'Our Work'). The dam project has now been reintroduced.

Sidebar: Sarawak Cultural Village

At the Sarawak Cultural Village near Kuching, you can visit four Dayak longhouses – including the only remaining Melanau longhouse – constructed using traditional materials and techniques. No tin roofs or satellite dishes!

Sidebar: Faith

Many Dayaks take their Christian faith very seriously, so much so that some communities have banned alcohol, including tuak (rice wine), entirely.

Sidebar: Skulls

The Iban traditionally kept headhunted skulls outside the head-taker's family apartment, on the longhouse verandah (ruai), while the Bidayuh exhibited theirs in a communal headhouse (baruk or panggah), the Kadazan-Dusun suspended their trophies from the longhouse rafters and the Murut kept theirs inside a guritom (stone skull box).

Sidebar: Habitat Loss

Dayak slash-and-burn (swidden) agriculture is sometimes blamed for deforestation and forest fires, but in fact indigenous farmers are responsible for only a very small fraction of the island's habitat loss; most is down to the voracious spread of palm-oil plantations, fuelled by international demand.

Natural World

Borneo is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. It is also one of the most critically imperilled. Its ancient forests and towering mountains house a breathtaking assortment of life, which has made Borneo a prime target for exploitation. In an alarmingly short span of time, much of the island's old-growth forest has been logged and replaced with palm-oil plantations, with its animal and bird life threatened by ongoing loss of habitat.

The Land

At roughly 743,330 sq km, Borneo is the third-largest island in the world (after Greenland and Papua New Guinea). It is about one-third larger than France and almost exactly the same size as Chile.

Bisected by the equator, Borneo is remarkably flat, with over half of the landscape less than 150m above sea level. Lowland areas tend to be swampy, with serpentine rivers and poor drainage. Malaysia's longest river is the Batang Rejang (563km) in Sarawak, while Indonesia's three longest rivers are in Kalimantan: Sungai Kapuas (1143km), Sungai Mahakam (980km) and Sungai Barito (890km).

Mountains dominate much of the centre of the island, running on a diagonal axis from Mt Kinabalu in the northeast down to Bukit Raya, the tallest peak in Kalimantan, to the southwest. Borneo sits on the eastern edge of the Sunda Shelf, a relatively stable chunk of earth. Unlike many islands in Indonesia and the Philippines, there are no truly active volcanoes – though Mt Bombalai, on the edge of the tectonic plate in present-day Sabah, may have produced lava flows within the last 12,000 years. Earthquakes are relatively rare, but a magnitude-5.9 quake on Mt Kinabalu in 2015, which killed 18 people, rekindled concerns that the fault lines may be growing more active.

Extensive deposits of limestone in northern and eastern Borneo show where ancient coral reefs were buried under thousands of metres of sediment, then lifted to form ranges of hills and mountains. In some areas water has dissolved the limestone to form impressive caves. Sarawak's Gunung Mulu National Park is one of the world's premier limestone landscapes, boasting towering rock pinnacles and the world's second-largest cave chamber. Niah National Park is also famous for its huge caves, while the caverns and pinnacles of East Kalimantan are still relatively unexplored.

Borneo's most celebrated peak is 4096m Mt Kinabalu in Sabah, the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea and arguably the epicentre of Borneo's fabulous biodiversity. This colossal dome of granite was forced through the earth's crust as molten rock 10 to 15 million years ago, and continues to rise about 5mm a year. Despite its location just north of the equator, Mt Kinabalu was high enough to be exquisitely sculpted by glaciers during the ice ages.

At the time of the last glacial maximum, Borneo's rainforests were connected to the Asia mainland by a vast tropical grassland that allowed for the migration of animals and humans onto the island. This land bridge is now submerged under the South China and Java seas, where the average depth of around 40m creates unpredictable tides but protects much of the island's coast from tsunamis.

Habitats

Borneo has dozens of highly specialised ecosystems. Following are the main ones you're likely to encounter.

Coral Reef

Borneo's east coast is included in the Coral Triangle, a fantastically rich portion of the South China Sea that's home to 75% of the world's coral species and over 3000 types of marine fish. Reefs are in the best shape in the northeast, where the water is clear and free of sediment. The islands of Sipadan in Sabah and the Derawan Archipelago in East Kalimantan have the greatest concentrations of reefs. Other protected areas include Tun Sakaran Marine Park in Sabah and Talang-Satang National Park in Sarawak.

Kerangas (Heath Forest)

Sandy soils that are highly acidic and drain quickly support a specialised habitat known as kerangas, an Iban word meaning 'land that cannot grow rice'. This forest type is composed of small, densely packed trees that seldom exceed 20m in height. Due to difficult growing conditions, plants of the kerangas have developed extraordinary ways to protect their leaves from the blazing sun and acquire needed minerals. Some, for example, obtain nitrogen and other nutrients by providing a home for ant colonies that bring food to the plant. Others take a more primal approach, such as the pitcher plants (Nepenthes), which lure ants into their slippery-sided, enzyme-filled cups – and then digest them.

Borneo's remaining kerangas is increasingly restricted to protected coastal areas such as Sarawak's Bako National Park and remote mountaintops like those in Sabah's Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

Lowland Dipterocarp Forest

California has its redwoods, but Borneo has its dipterocarps. Occupying the lowlands, but found as high up as 900m, the towering trees belonging to the dipterocarp family include more than 150 species, some of which can reach a height of 60m. Collectively they define Borneo's most important ecosystem: the lowland dipterocarp forest, which has more species of flora than any other rainforest habitat in the world. A single hectare may contain more tree species than all of the US and Canada combined.

Most trees in lowland dipterocarp forests synchronise their flowering and fruiting in one of the world's most impressive ecological phenomena, known as masting. Seemingly triggered by El Niño weather patterns, a mast event produces so much fruit that seed predators – gorge themselves though they may – are unable to devour them all, leaving plenty left to germinate. In recent years, however, this pattern seems to have been less predictable, possibly as a result of deforestation, which has weakened the chemical signals trees use to communicate with each other. Dipterocarps also produce some of the most valuable tropical hardwood, making them a prime target for deforestation, though some are now harvested in a sustainable fashion.

Montane Forest

On mountains above 900m, dipterocarp forest gives way to a magical world of stunted oaks and myrtle and laurel trees. Montane forests are damp, drippy places due to their proximity to the clouds, but poor soils and more extreme temperatures stunt the growth of their resident trees. The canopy of a montane forest might not reach much above 10m. The landscape is full of ferns, rhododendrons, lichens and thick moss, as well as a stunning cornucopia of orchids and a diversity of pitcher plants and frogs.

Due to the difficulty of accessing them, montane forests are some of the most well protected on the island. Though gibbons, orangutans and other large mammals may occasionally be seen here, it is believed that these animals are unable to survive and reproduce in this challenging landscape without the lowland forests surrounding them.

Mangrove

Flourishing in a tidal world where land meets sea, mangroves have developed extraordinary ways to deal with an ever-changing mix of salt and fresh water, all the while anchored happily in mud. These remarkable trees protect coastlines against flood, erosion and even tsunamis.

Uncounted marine organisms and nearly every commercially important seafood species find sanctuary and nursery sites among mangrove roots. The forests' more endearing species include the proboscis monkey, crabs and the mudskipper, a fish that spends much of its time on almost-dry land, skipping along the muddy shore in search of food.

Mangroves were once ubiquitous around the entire island, especially in river deltas, but have been systematically cut for firewood, coastal development and aquaculture.

Peat Forests

Peat forests form in flatlands where dead plant matter, too waterlogged to decompose, accumulates in the form of peat several meters deep. The amount of carbon stored in peat can be many times greater than the carbon found in the forest growing above it, making their protection doubly vital. When peat land is deforested and drained – for instance, to establish palm-oil plantations – the below-ground peat oxidises and releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In addition, dry peat is frightfully combustible and can burn unchecked, underground, for months, releasing yet more carbon, the peat fires popping up in unexpected locations (eg inside protected areas) and carpeting much of Southeast Asia with haze. The smoke from Borneo's nearly annual peat-fire fiascos have grounded aircraft, caused widespread respiratory ailments and seriously ticked off neighbouring Singapore.

Plants

The stats on Borneo's flora are astonishing. The island has around 15,000 species of plant (at least 6000 of which are endemic), including as many species of flowering plants as the entire continent of Africa, which is 40 times larger. In Lambir Hills National Park scientists found a dizzying 1200 species of tree in a single 52-hectare research plot. The island is home to more than 1000 species of fern. Of Borneo’s more than 1700 species of orchid, over 1000 live on Mt Kinabalu.

Many of Borneo's plants struggle to survive in thin, nutrient-poor soils. Some trees hold themselves upright with wide, flaring buttresses that compensate for shallow root systems.

Strangler figs start life as tiny seeds that are defecated by birds in the rainforest canopy, where they sprout and then send spindly roots downward in search of the forest floor. Eventually some figs grow large enough to embrace their host tree in a death grip. Once the host tree dies and rots away, the giant fig stands upright on a fantastic hollow latticework of its own interlaced air roots. Orangutans, wild pigs and birds are only some of the creatures that feed on the fruit of the strangler fig.

Animals

With 688 bird species (59 of which are endemic), 222 mammal species (including 44 endemics and 13 primates), around 160 species of snakes and 100 amphibian species, you are sure to spot something remarkable in Borneo's rainforests. Add to that roughly 3000 arthropods, including more than 1000 species of ants, and the diversity of life is beyond astounding; it is incomprehensible.

You won't necessarily find these creatures dripping off the trees, however. Borneo's forests are much less creepy and crawly than you probably imagine and even trained researchers might never spot such shy creatures as the Western tarsier, clouded leopard and sun bear. Most rainforest residents are masters of disguise, wisely keep their distance from humans, and are therefore nearly impossible to see…but more than likely, they'll see you.

Orangutan

Borneo's biggest celebrity is an awesome sight to behold, especially if you are lucky enough to cross paths with a wild orangutan ponderously swinging through the trees of a forest. Endemic to Borneo and Sumatra, the orangutan is Asia's only great ape and all populations are severely threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Around 78% of them live outside of protected parks and reserves – that is, in forests that could be logged or turned into palm-oil plantations at any time. Scientists estimate that before human encroachment, the world's orangutan population was roughly 100 times what it is today. An estimated 70,000 to 100,000 remain in the wild, with the number having halved since 1999.

Wild orangutans are now difficult to find except in places such as Sabah's Sungai Kinabatangan and Deramakot Forest Reserve, Sarawak's Batang Ai region and Kalimantan's Kutai National Park. Semi-wild animals can be seen at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawak, Kalimantan's Tanjung Puting National Park and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah.

Proboscis Monkey

Borneo's most peculiar primate, named for the male's pendulous nose, lives mainly along the island's waterways, including in mangrove forests, as that's where they can easily find the leaves and unripe fruit that make up their diet. They are strictly herbivorous and have trouble digesting glucose and thus don't eat ripe fruit – which is why both sexes need prodigious quantities of cellulose-digesting bacteria (stored in their distinctive pot bellies) to turn their food into usable energy. Scientists are still not quite certain why the males have developed such a protuberant proboscis, but in addition to attracting a mate (right, ladies?), evidence suggests the nose swells when the animal is stressed, creating a resonance chamber to amplify warning calls.

The endangered proboscis monkeys are only found on Borneo, and can be spotted in Sabah at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary and along the Sungai Kinabatangan, and in Sarawak at Bako National Park. In Tanjung Puting National Park in South Kalimantan, they famously swim across the river behind passing boats that have hopefully scared off the hungry crocodiles.

Gibbon

This operatic, acrobatic lesser ape is Borneo's adorable daredevil. Winging effortlessly from branch to branch, gibbons move with such speed (up to 56km/h) and agility that it seems as if they are redirecting gravity, shooting around trees like a comet around the sun.

Unfortunately for primate lovers, the endangered gibbons are much easier to hear than see, staging melodic morning duets high in the canopy to stake their territorial claim. You can find gibbons throughout Borneo, including in Brunei's Ulu Temburong National Park and West Kalimantan's Gunung Palung National Park.

Elephant

Less than 1500 Borneo pygmy elephants (a subspecies of the Asian elephant) are estimated to live in northeastern Borneo, and the numbers are decreasing. These petite pachyderms can live up to 60 years in the wild, but their long birth intervals (four to six years) make them susceptible to population decline. The largest population is found in Sabah, where they regularly come into conflict with owners of the sprawling palm-oil plantations that have replaced their lowland habitat.

New genetic evidence puts to rest the theory that humans introduced the creatures to the island in the mid-1700s. It turns out this genetically distinct species has been here for at least 18,000 years.

Rhinoceros

Little is known about the critically endangered subspecies of the Sumatran rhinoceros, of which only two remain in Sabah, both at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Attempts to breed the two have been unsuccessful thus far, with the female's ovarian cysts preventing conception, so plans were being made either to cooperate with the Indonesian government and use a Sumatran rhino in Sumatra as a surrogate mother, or else seek a surrogate mother elsewhere in the animal kingdom – perhaps a horse.

It is the world's smallest rhinoceros in both stature and number. Its global population is estimated to be less than 100, with the only viable population residing in Sumatra. A camera trap in 2013 did record at least one animal in Kalimantan, while the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has recorded wallows and other signs near Putussibau as recently as 2015.

Rhinos have long been the victims of exploitation, hunted for over 1000 years for their horns, which natives traded to Chinese merchants, who sold them for traditional Chinese medicine. Now conservationists are desperately trying to bring them back from the brink through breeding programs, which have had little success.

Bearded Pig

Bearded pigs are encountered in nearly every type of forested area on the island. These rotund animals can weigh up to 150kg and will travel in large herds, migrating incredible distances in search of fruit, nuts and seeds.

Although they are an extremely popular game animal (except, of course, among Muslims), they are one creature that hunters truly fear. Aside from the tame pigs that live in and around the headquarters of Bako National Park, be wary of these unpredictable animals and their sharp tusks – they are capable of goring a human in the flash of a whisker.

Mouse Deer

Few Bornean mammals are more surprising than the lesser mouse deer, the world's smallest hoofed animal. It is the size of a rabbit (it weighs just 2kg), but looks like a tiny deer. Males defend themselves and their mates using protruding canines instead of antlers. They are also a delicacy among forest people, and numbers are dwindling.

Birds

A fantastic assortment of birds belonging to 688 species, 59 of them endemic, fill the forests of Borneo with flashes of feathers and ethereal calls.

The most famous of Borneo's birds are its eight species of hornbill, some of which have an oversized 'helmet' or 'horn' perched on their beak. The 105cm-long rhinoceros hornbill, with its orange-red casque and loud whooping calls, serves as Sarawak's state emblem. When the 125cm-long helmeted hornbill swoops across the sky, you might think you're seeing a pterodactyl, with the distinctive whooshing sound of its wings almost as primal as the maniacal laughter of its call.

Hornbills have a curious nesting habit: the females barricade themselves inside a tree hollow with the eggs, shedding their feathers as they do so, while the male feeds her from the outside through a small hole. Hornbills are revered and hunted by Borneo's indigenous people and are highly threatened by habitat loss.

Websites with great photos that may be of interest to birdwatchers:

  • www.borneobirdclub.blogspot.com
  • www.borneobirdimages.com
  • www.borneobirdfestival.com
  • www.borneobirds.com

Environmental Issues

Borneo is a land in ecological crisis. If used sustainably its vast forests could provide valuable resources for countless generations. When the forest is logged and fragmented, however, the entire ecosystem falls apart. Soils become degraded, peat dries out and catches fire, rivers silt up, plants and animals disappear and indigenous human communities lose their sources of sustenance, both physical and spiritual.

Despite the best efforts of local and international environmental groups, the governments that rule Borneo (except that of Brunei) tend to view rainforests as an impediment to 'progress', or as political spoils, with a handful of well-connected people deriving profits from logging concessions and plantation permits granted without much public oversight.

Deforestation

Borneo's forests are being destroyed twice as fast as the rest of the world's rainforests. In 1973 about 75% of the island still had its original forest cover. By 2005 the figure was just 53%. By 2009 over 80% of the forests of Sabah and Sarawak had been impacted by logging, with Kalimantan not faring much better. A 2012 study by WWF projected that Borneo's total forest cover would be reduced to 24% by 2020. The impacts of this destruction are immeasurable, both on a local and global scale.

Only a tiny fraction of Borneo's land is protected by law, and even less is subject to laws that are systematically enforced. Bowing to international pressures, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia make sweeping declarations about ending logging, but business continues as usual. Companies independently make grandiose pledges to end their deforestation, then turn around and hire local smallholders to clear and plant the land for them.

In Kalimantan, which suffers from an almost-complete lack of enforcement, local officials sell off timber permits in federally protected lands. Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan has been so completely devastated by a combination of logging and fires it has long been considered a complete conservation failure. Malaysian Borneo is used as a sales conduit for timber illegally logged in Kalimantan.

With this land clearing comes a whole assortment of issues. Floods and landslides wash away valuable topsoil and envelope cities, rivers become sluggish and fetid and haze from land-clearing fires blankets Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia every dry season, increasing international tensions.

Palm-oil Plantations

Alongside logging the greatest single threat to Borneo's biodiversity comes from expanding palm-oil plantations. Palm oil is in almost everything: shampoo, cosmetics, cookies, chips, chocolate bars, detergent, bread, margarine and biofuel, to name a few. It hides under a variety of names, including vegetable oil, palmate, sodium lauryl sulfate, vegetable fat and stearic acid, among others. However, what is completely obvious is the thousands of square kilometres of primary and secondary forest in Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan that have been destroyed to produce 85% of the world's palm oil.

Originally brought from Africa in 1848, oil palms produce more edible oil per hectare (about 5000kg, or 6000L of crude oil) than any other crop, especially in Borneo's ideal growing conditions. The oil is extracted from the orange-coloured fruit, which grows in bunches just below the fronds and is used primarily for cooking, though it can also be refined into biodiesel, an alternative to fossil fuels.

For all the crops’ benefits, unbridled, irresponsible and unsustainable expansion of monoculture plantations has had huge environmental consequences. In Kalimantan the area given over to oil palms has increased by 300% since 2000, while in Sabah around 21% of the land – about 15,400 sq km – is now carpeted with oil palms. To see what this means, just look out the window of any airplane flying over Borneo or check out Google Earth, where deceptively green swathes of the island resolve into neatly gridded rows of trees as you zoom closer in.

Palm-oil plantations may appear green – after all, they are covered with living plants – but from an ecological point of view they are almost dead zones. Even forest land that has been clear-cut can recover much of its biodiversity if allowed to grow back as secondary forest, but palm-oil plantations convert land into permanent monoculture (leases are usually for 99 years), reducing the number of plant species by 80% and resident mammal, reptile and bird species by 80% to 90%.

Oil palms require large quantities of herbicides and pesticides that can seep into rivers, polluting settlements downstream. Drainage canals lower water tables, drying out nearby peat forests, making them more susceptible to burning. Plantations fragment or destroy the natural habitats that are especially important to large mammals.

Further, local populations that depend on the forest for their livelihood have seen their land suddenly sold off and converted with little or no warning. Those villages that do have legal claims to the land are often bought off with token amounts of cash and promises of jobs, only to later find their water sources polluted and the forest resources they took for granted no longer available.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (a non-profit organisation that unites different sectors of the palm-oil industry) tries to look at the issue from all sides while seeking to develop and implement global standards to mitigate palm oil's impacts. However, in a comedy of errors, even companies that try to do the right thing are sometimes penalised by government regulations that dictate that land permitted for palm oil must be planted as such and can not be set aside as conservation easements.

Malaysia accounts for 39% of the world's palm-oil production, with the biggest consumers being China, India and the Netherlands. A series of public-awareness campaigns has begun to get the attention of the world's bigger consumers of palm oil. In 2010 Nestlé committed to 100% sustainable palm oil after an intensive Greenpeace campaign. Hershey's, Kellogg's and General Mills have followed suit, though all still need work to be true leaders in the field, according to the Rainforest Action Network's Snackfood 20 Scorecard (www.ran.org/sf20scorecard).

Hydroelectric Dams

Hydroelectric dams are touted as sources of environmentally friendly, carbon-free energy, but these huge projects often cause serious environmental and cultural damage. Projects are often planned without public access to feasibility studies, without public feedback and without proper environmental-impact assessments.

Sarawak’s controversial Bakun Dam submerged an area of pristine rainforest about the size of Singapore (695 sq km) and displaced 9000 indigenous people who were forced to purchase the homes where they were relocated. The dam was justified by Malaysia's growing power need, yet cables to connect Borneo to the mainland have proven to be too expensive, and efforts to sell the power locally have been mired in corruption. Further, failure to effectively remove enough biomass behind the dam combined with run-off from upstream plantations has polluted the water with high levels of nitrogen and aluminium.

Meanwhile plans stutter along for the Baram Dam, one of 12 more proposed dams in Sarawak, which will displace 20,000 people from longhouse communities. After being cancelled in 2016 the dam proposal is once again on the table.

In Kalimantan construction of a massive hydroelectric project has begun on the Kayan River with considerable Chinese investment, with a hydroelectric plant due to be completed in 2022 and a dam in the works.

Wildlife Trade

Although theoretically illegal, the hugely lucrative trade in wild animals continues. Baby orangutans, monkeys and slow loris are captured for sale as pets, while clouded leopards are killed for their teeth, bones and pelts. Pangolin (scaly anteaters) are smuggled off the island by the boatload and sun bears are shipped off to China and put on drips to drain their gall bladders of bile to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, despite absolutely no evidence to support their efficacy.

Protecting Borneo's Natural World: What You Can Do

Every time a traveller visits a nature site, hires a trekking guide, pays a boatman for transport to a remote longhouse, or supports a local ecotourism initiative, they are casting a vote – by putting cash in local pockets – for the economic value of sustainability and habitat conservation. Wherever you go, tread lightly, buy locally, support responsible tourism and give respectful, constructive feedback to local operators.

Be an informed traveller and visit the following websites to learn more about the campaigns to save Borneo's forests.

  • Borneo Futures (www.borneofutures.org) Brings solid, science-based solutions to the discussions about Borneo's fate.
  • WWF (www.panda.org) With its Malaysian affiliate, WWF Malaysia (www.wwf.org.my), it's fighting for change on an international scale.
  • Orangutan Land Trust (www.forests4orangutans.org) Supports a wide variety of projects throughout Borneo that protect orangutans and their habitat.
  • Mongabay (www.mongabay.com) One of the world's leading providers of rainforest conservation and science news.

Feature: Colonialism & Conservation

Borders established in the 19th century ended up having a profound impact on the fate of Borneo's rainforests in the 21st century. Vast areas of forested land pried away from the sultan of Brunei by the White Rajahs and the British North Borneo Company ended up being clear-cut in the decades after Malaysian independence, whereas the majority of the territory that the sultan managed to retain is now pristine and protected wilderness. Dutch Borneo, now Indonesia's Kalimantan, was late to the deforestation game, but is now rapidly converting what remains of Borneo's rich ecological diversity into plantations and strip mines.

Feature: Power Flower

One of the wonders of the botanical world, the rafflesia flower is astonishing not only because of its world-record size – up to 1m in diameter – but also because of its extraordinary and mysterious life.

Rafflesias are parasites that lack roots, stems or leaves. In fact they consist of just two parts: tiny filaments that burrow into the host vine – a member of the grape family called Tetrastigma – to extract nutrients; and the flower itself, which often erupts directly from the forest floor, bursting forth from a cabbage-sized bud that takes nine to 12 months to mature, if it isn't devoured by small mammals.

Scientists have yet to figure out the rafflesia's sex life. The red flowers are either male or female, but it is not clear how they manage to effect pollination since two flowers rarely bloom anywhere near each other at the same time. Pollination is carried out by carrion flies, which are attracted by the flowers' revolting rotten-meat odour, and the resulting fruit seeds are distributed by small rodents such as tree shrews and squirrels. How the plants manage to attach themselves to their host vines, and why they grow only on Tetrastigmas, remains a mystery.

There are approximately 17 species of rafflesia (estimates vary) and all are threatened to some degree, mainly by loss of habitat but also by bud poaching for medicinal use.

Borneo is one of the best places in the world to see rafflesias, which bloom irregularly, year-round, but only for three to five days before turning into a ring of black slime. It takes a fair bit of luck to see one. For the low-down on when and where, ask at your guesthouse or hotel, or contact one of the following:

  • In Sarawak, the park headquarters of Gunung Gading National Park, or the National Parks and Wildlife Booking Office in Kuching.
  • In Sabah, Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve. You can also look for signs around Poring Hot Springs.

Feature: An Epidemic of Endemics

Borneo's plants and animals are as unique as they are diverse, with many found nowhere else on earth. This phenomenon, known as endemism, occurs in isolated regions where species evolve without mixing with outside populations. The different habitats found in Borneo, which range from lowland swamps to high montane forests, also allows for a high degree of specialisation. It is difficult to know the actual numbers in a place this diverse (especially as new species are constantly being found), but Borneo is home to at least 44 mammal, 59 bird, 19 fish and more than 6000 plant species found only on this island, making them very susceptible to extinction.

Feature: Borneo's Flying Circus

Perhaps the most impressive of Borneo's animals are those that have taken giant evolutionary leaps to soar between canopy trees. Borneo is home to the world's largest collection of animals that glide – 33 species at last count – including squirrels, lizards, geckos, frogs and…snakes.

Interestingly these creatures have evolved several different and creative ways to cheat gravity and direct their free falls for more convenient landings. For the giant red flying squirrel (the world's largest flying squirrel, reaching about 1.2m in length nose to tail) and flying lemurs, it is a flap of skin stretched between their arms, legs and tail. The flying dragon lizard flails its rib cage, while some frogs and geckos prefer four independent wing flaps stretched between their toes. Paradise tree snakes don't have flaps of any kind, but instead shape their bodies into an air foil and manoeuvre different sections to direct their flight.

Scientists differ about why there are so many gliders in these forests, while the Amazon has none. Prevailing theories suggest taller trees make crawling down then back up too much of a resource drain, while others suggest a lack of liana and vine bridges between the trees pressured creatures to find another path. Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: catching one of these creatures in flight is one of Borneo's most rare and astonishing sights.

Feature: Palm Oil: Biofuelling Forest Destruction

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable biofuels made from palm oil sounded like a great way to reduce carbon emissions and thus mitigate global warming. Unfortunately it turned out not to be that simple. Palm oil production comes with significant ecological damage and carbon loss when forests are converted to plantations.

Beyond the destruction of habitat and displacement of indigenous people, there is quite a bit of carbon lost when you convert a forest to a palm-oil plantation. In the best of circumstances it would take a hectare of oil palm 60 years of biofuel production to offset the carbon lost while producing it. In the worst case it would be 220 years, with the actual number likely somewhere in between. The equation is especially unbalanced when the plantation replaces a peat-swamp forest, which releases colossal quantities of greenhouse gases as it dries out – even more so when it burns.

Feature: Heart of Borneo

The Heart of Borneo initiative, spearheaded by the WWF, has a hugely ambitious goal: to safeguard Borneo's biodiversity for future generations and to ensure indigenous peoples' cultural survival by protecting 220,000 sq km of interconnected forest land in Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan. That is almost a third of the island's land area.

Since Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei signed the Heart of Borneo Declaration in 2007, well over 600 new species have been discovered in the area it covers, including a 57cm-long stick insect, the world's longest.

Sidebar: Wild Borneo

For an excellent, colourful introduction to Borneo's landscapes, wildlife and the challenge of preserving the island's natural resourses, track down a copy of Wild Borneo by Nick Garbutt.

Sidebar: Unesco World Heritage Sites

Borneo's two Unesco World Heritage Sites are Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak and Kinabalu National Park in Sabah. Sangkulirang–Mangkalihat Karts in East Kalimantan and Betung Kerihun National Park in West Kalimantan are on the tentative inclusion list.

Sidebar: Rain

Most of Borneo receives over 200mm of rain a month, with the wettest pockets, such as Kuching in Sarawak, totalling over 4m of rain each year.

Sidebar: Sunlight

The rainforests of Borneo are exposed to twice as much sunlight as temperate forests, but just 2% penetrates all the way to the forest floor. That is why so much jungle biodiversity is up in the canopy.

Sidebar: Forest Types

Seven distinct forest types are found uniquely compacted together in Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, making it an excellent ecology laboratory.

Sidebar: Species Count

Borneo has over 15,000 species of flowering plant. All of North America – from the Panama Canal to the Arctic – only has about 20,000.

Sidebar: Gibbons

Gibbons swing by their powerful hook-like hands, a mode of travel called brachiation. It is not fail-safe, however: most gibbons have bone fractures from falling.

Sidebar: Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo

The 3rd edition of Phillipps' Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo: Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, and Kalimantan (2014) is the Borneo bird-watcher's bible.

Sidebar: Borneo Ironwood

Despite a ban on export, Indonesian companies still openly sell Borneo ironwood – the world's second-hardest hardwood – online for as much as US$3000 a cu metre.

Sidebar: Disappearing Forests

For a sobering dose of reality, watch Borneo's forests disappear in near-real-time at www.globalforestwatch.org. You can also learn about specific conservation efforts, forest communities and forest use.

Sidebar: Production Forest

If all of the remaining land in Borneo currently designated as 'production forest' were to be logged, only 11% of the island would remain forested.

Sidebar: Pollution

Everything from mining chemicals to human waste pours into Kalimantan's rivers. In a single generation the water at Samarinda has gone from drinkable to not batheable.

Responsible Travel

Cultural Etiquette

Borneo is a melting pot of different nationalities and faiths and, in the interior, an exotic ethnic quilt of indigenous tribes. While it's not possible to mention every social indiscretion you might innocently make, following are a few helpful tips to bear in mind.

Brunei

Brunei began introducing the sharia penal code in 2014. The laws mainly apply to Muslims, though non-Muslims can also be charged for certain offences, including drinking alcohol in public, adultery and homosexual acts committed with a Muslim. In April 2019 the full criminal code was rolled out, introducing severe penalties, such as the severing of limbs for theft and stoning to death for homosexuality and adultery. The application of rules regarding Friday prayers and fasting during Ramadan have also been toughened up. During Ramadan all eating, drinking or smoking in public is prohibited during daylight hours (and carries the penalty of a B$4000 fine or a year in prison). Dressing modestly (covering up one's knees and elbows) is a good idea.

Sabah & Sarawak

Although more tolerant than Brunei, many parts of Sabah and Sarawak adhere to the Muslim faith. Try to avoid no-nos such as pointing with your feet or index fingers, or eating with your left (toileting) hand. Malaysians pride themselves on being calm and not letting their emotions enflame, and as such you should endeavour to do the same, remaining patient even in difficult and trying situations. A common gesture seen in Malaysia is the touch of hand to heart to signify gratitude.

If visiting a longhouse or tribal village, ensure you show deference to the elder. Muslim women may choose not to shake your hand; don't be offended. During Ramadan Muslims continue to work on very little food and fluid (for a whole month); out of consideration, if you're climbing or traipsing through jungle, try not to drink in front of your guide.

Kalimantan

Kalimantan is heavily Muslim, so whether you are male or female, avoid wearing skimpy clothes in places of worship (covering arms and legs) and remove shoes when entering someone's house. If visiting tribal villages refrain from giving money or sweets to kids – over and above their dental health, it will encourage them to expect the same from future visitors.

Wildlife

Turtle Encounters

Green and hawksbill turtles will be a prominent feature of any underwater adventure in Borneo. You'll also be given the chance in numerous places to see turtles rising at night from the sea and digging nests to deposit their eggs on beaches, or to see the hatchlings – a magical privilege. Here is a list of questions worth asking the travel outfit or turtle sanctuary to ensure your turtle-watching experience is of benefit to (or at least has a minimal impact on) these magnificent creatures.

  • Do they give the mother space and privacy and discourage people from crowding around her? Groups should be kept small so as not to disrupt the progress of the female laying eggs.
  • Do they actively discourage the handling of baby hatchlings? Newly hatched turtles should make their own way to the ocean and should not be picked up (which exhausts and disorientates them).
  • Do they use only turtle-safe red LED-flashlights? Rangers and visitors should refrain from shining torches on the turtles, as bright lights can disorientate them.
  • How much of your money will go directly back into developing conservation for the animals?

Orangutan & Monkey Encounters

It's very hard to resist a cuddly orangutan extending its hand to you, but we strongly recommend keeping a safe distance – given our close genetic similarities (we share 97% of the same DNA) the closer you get to them the more likely they are to contract a cold or virus from you. At Camp Leakey in Kalimantan the rehabilitated apes roam free and have been habituated to humans to the extent that close and uninvited contact with tourists is a regular occurrence. Bear in mind that Kusasi, the now-retired but long-reigning, fully pouched monarch, has severely injured staff in the past and held tourists captive, with staff resorting to beating him to release the unfortunates. Male orangutans are much stronger than us and cannot be blamed for their actions if we get too close.

Feeding wild monkeys, be it macaques or proboscis, should be avoided. Your responsibility to their habitat is to leave it and them as unmolested by your presence as possible. Furthermore, anything other than their strict diet will make proboscis monkeys very sick. Macaques, if they feel threatened, can be very aggressive; avoid eye contact with the large males.

Diving

Diving in Borneo brings you into contact with some of the world's finest coral reefs, though it also places these rare havens of marine biodiversity under a great deal of pressure. Ensuring you observe a few common-sense rules makes a big difference:

  • Avoid touching living marine organisms, standing on coral or dragging equipment such as fins across a reef. Report operators and tourists doing so to Sabah Parks authorities. Coral grows extremely slowly; accidentally knocking a branch off can destroy decades of growth.
  • Never feed fish or allow your dive operator to dispose of surplus food in the water, as fish soon become dependent on these handouts and neglect their role of cleaning algae from the coral, thus causing harm to the reef.
  • If you've enjoyed your time in the deep, put something back by joining a clean-up operation with outfits such as Scuba Junkie (www.scuba-junkie.com) in Mabul.
  • Never collect shells or coral, or buy souvenirs made of shells or sharks' jaws and teeth.
  • Give sea turtles space, and don't try to chase or touch them.