Borneo is one of Southeast Asia's top adventure destinations, with a spectacular mix of jungle, rock and water thrills that will wow both nature lovers and adrenaline junkies. If you like to experience a place by hiking it, climbing it, crawling through it or floating on it, you'll love Borneo.
Best Areas For...
- Wildlife Spotting
Tanjung Puting National Park; Mancong, Sungai Mahakam; Bako National Park; wildlife river safaris, Sungai Kinabatangan; Kuching Wetlands National Park; Gunung Mulu National Park; Deramakot Forest Reserve
- Mountain Climbing
Mt Kinabalu; Gunung Mulu; Mt Besar; Mt Trusmadi
- Jungle Hikes
Rafflesia Loop Trail, Gunung Gading National Park; Salt Trail; Lubuk Baji, Gunung Palung National Park; Danum Valley Conservation Area; Bako National Park; Similajau National Park; Maliau Basin; Imbak Canyon
- Rainforest Canopy Walks
Gunung Mulu National Park; Ulu Temburong National Park; Poring Hot Springs; Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre
When to Go
Borneo has some of the best jungle hikes anywhere in the world. While the island's forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, vast swaths of old-growth (primary) tropical rainforest still cover the middle of the island and much of Brunei, and pristine patches remain in parts of Sabah and Sarawak. If you've never walked through genuine tropical jungle, the experience – even if you don't see many mammals, which tend to be nocturnal, very shy or both – is likely to be a revelation: you simply won't believe the teeming fecundity.
Borneo has wet months and less-wet months – the timing depends on where you are – but precipitation varies so widely from year to year that a month that's usually dry can be very rainy, and vice versa. In short, no matter when you go you are likely to get wet.
What is seasonal, however, is the number of other travellers you'll be competing with for experienced guides and lodgings. For obvious reasons, northern hemisphere residents often come to Borneo (especially Sabah and Sarawak) during summer holidays in their home countries, so if you'd like to trek – particularly in popular national parks such as Gunung Mulu, Kinabalu and Tanjung Puting – in July, August or September, it's a good idea to book a guide or tour in advance.
Guides & Agencies
Many national parks have well-marked day trails that can be hiked unaccompanied. But only a fool would set out without a local guide for almost all overnight trails. Remember, trail maps of any sort are completely unavailable and signage along remote trails is nonexistent.
In Sabah, Brunei, Sarawak and, increasingly, Kalimantan, the national parks are very strict about allowing only licensed guides to show visitors around. We've heard stories of groups being turned back when they arrived with an uncertified leader. Before you fork over any cash, compare notes with other travellers and ask to see the guide's national park certification.
Guides for day walks can sometimes be hired at national park headquarters, but for overnight trekking you'll generally need to contact either a freelance guide or a tour agency before you arrive.
Hiking in the tropics is much more strenuous than in temperate zones – 1km of slogging through Borneo is roughly equivalent to 2km in Europe or North America. Thanks to the combination of high temperatures and high humidity, you will sweat enough to discover what eyebrows are for, so be sure to drink plenty of water. In kerangas (heath forests) and on high mountains, prepare for intense sun by wearing a hat and sunscreen. Make sure your guide is aware of the pace you can handle.
Borneo is hardly the Himalayas, but in places such as the Kelabit Highlands (1500m) and up on Mt Kinabalu (4095m) and Mt Trusmadi (2642m) you may feel the altitude, at least for a few days.
To the uninitiated, jungle trekking can be something of a shock – like marching all day in a sauna with a floor as slippery as ice. To make the experience as safe and painless as possible, it's necessary to prepare ahead:
- On overnight trips, bring two sets of clothing: one for hiking and one to wear at the end of the day (keep your night kit dry in a plastic bag). Within minutes of starting, your hiking kit will be drenched and will stay that way throughout your trip. Never blur the distinction between your day and night kits, or you'll find that you have two sets of wet clothes.
- If you'll be hiking through dense vegetation, wear long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. Otherwise shorts and a T-shirt will suffice. Whatever you wear, make sure it's loose fitting.
- Bring fast-drying synthetic clothes. Once cotton gets wet, it won't dry until you bring it back to town.
- Evenings can be cool in the mountains, so if you'll be spending time at higher altitudes, bring a fleece top to keep warm.
- If you're going to be trekking on well-used trails and don't need a lot of ankle support, consider hiking in trekking sandals or running shoes with good traction. Many locals opt for rubber shoes, sometimes known as 'jungle Reeboks', with rubber cleats that offer good grip on the slippery trails. The other big advantage is that they are quick drying, and only cost around US$2 a pair.
- To keep the leeches at bay, buy Lycra pants or a pair of light-coloured leech socks. It's not always possible to find these in Borneo (guesthouses in Miri may carry them), so buy them online before your trip.
- Drink plenty of water. If you're going long distances, you'll have to bring either a water filter or a water-purification agent such as iodine (most people opt for the latter to keep weight down).
- Get in shape before coming to Borneo and start slowly. Try day hikes before longer treks.
- Always go with a guide unless you're on a well-marked, commonly travelled trail, for example in a national park. Navigating in the jungle is extremely difficult because most of the time – even when you're on top of a hill – all you can see is trees.
- Bring talcum powder to cope with the chafing caused by wet undergarments. Wearing loose underwear will also help prevent chafing.
- If you wear glasses, you might want to treat them with an antifog solution (ask your optician). Otherwise you may find yourself in a foggy whiteout within minutes of setting out.
- Your sweat will soak through the back of your backpack. Consider putting something waterproof over the back padding to keep the sweat out, or trekking with a fully waterproof canoe rucksack. Otherwise consider a waterproof sack for your stuff or line your bag with a heavy-duty garbage bag.
- Keep your camera gear, including extra batteries, in an airtight plastic container, with a pouch of silica gel or other desiccant.
Towering above the forests of Borneo are some brilliant mountains. Even non-climbers know about 4095m Mt Kinabalu (www.mountkinabalu.com), the highest peak between the Himalayas and the island of New Guinea. This craggy monster simply begs to be climbed, and there is something magical about starting the ascent in humid tropical jungle and emerging into a bare, rocky alpine zone so cold that snow has been known to fall. But beyond the transition from hot to cold, it's the weird world of the summit plateau that puts Mt Kinabalu among the world's most interesting peaks. It's got a dash of Yosemite and a pinch of Torres del Paine, but at the end of the day it's pure Borneo. Following the June 2015 earthquake, in which 18 climbers died, most trails have now been repaired and reopened.
Borneo's second-tallest mountain, Mt Trusmadi, may be only 2642m high, but it's a tougher and more relentless slog than Mt Kinabalu.
Gunung Mulu (2377m) isn't quite as high, but it's almost as famous as Mt Kinabalu, thanks in part to it being a Unesco World Heritage Site. If you're a glutton for punishment, you'll probably find the five-day return trek to the summit of this peak to your liking. Those who make the journey experience a variety of pristine natural environments, starting with lowland dipterocarp forest and ending with rhododendron and montane forest.
Climbing one of Borneo's iconic mountains is like a jungle trek except more so – more exhausting, more psychologically challenging and, naturally, more vertical. Be prepared for ascents that turn your legs to rubber and for much colder weather. Book guides, permits and accommodation well ahead.
Guides & Agencies
Many of the agencies that handle trekking also offer mountain ascents. Some of the more experienced guides in Sarawak's Kelabit Highlands can take you to two rarely climbed peaks, Batu Lawi and Gunung Murud.
Slice one of Borneo's limestone hills in half and chances are you'll find that inside it looks like Swiss cheese. Borneans have been living, harvesting birds' nests, planning insurgencies and burying their dead in these caves for tens of thousands of years. These days the island's subterranean spaces – including some of the largest caverns anywhere on earth – are quiet, except for the flow of underground streams, the drip of stalactites, the whoosh of bat and swiftlet wings and the awed murmurs of travellers.
Sarawak's Gunung Mulu National Park is a place of spelunking superlatives. It's got the world's second-largest cave passage (the Deer Cave, 2km in length and 174m in height), the world's largest cave chamber (the Sarawak Chamber, 700m long, 400m wide and 70m high) and Asia's longest cave (the Clearwater Cave, with 225km of passages). Several of the park's finest caves are – like their counterparts in Niah National Park and Sabah's Gomantong Caves – accessible to non-spelunkers on raised walkways.
A pitch-black passageway deep in the bowels of the earth is not the ideal place to discover that you can't deal with narrow, confined spaces. Before heading underground, seriously consider your susceptibility to claustrophobia and fear of heights (some caves require scaling underground cliffs). If you have any concerns about a specific route, talk with your guide beforehand.
Be prepared to crawl through muck, including bat guano, and bring clothes you won't mind getting filthy (some guides and agencies supply these).
When to Go
Rain can flood the interior of some caves at any time of the year.
Gunung Mulu National Park has a shortage of trained spelunking guides, so unless you'll be hiring a private guide or going with a tour agency, make reservations in advance. Some (but not all) dates in July, August and September can be booked out several months ahead.
Guides & Agencies
Jungle River Trips
The mountains and jungles of Borneo are drained by some of Southeast Asia's longest rivers. Whether it's tearing up a mainline batang (Iban for 'large river') in a speedboat, rafting down a sungai (Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia for 'river') or kayaking on a narrow ai (Iban for 'small river') in an ulu (upriver) part of the interior, you'll find that these watery highways are one of the best ways to experience Borneo.
Many parts of Borneo's interior can be reached only by river, so hopping on a boat is a necessity. There's something magical about heading to a human settlement not connected by road to anywhere, especially if you're in the safe hands of an experienced boatman and accompanied by locals.
On larger rivers, transport is often by 'flying coffin' – passenger boats so named for their long, narrow shape, with about 70 seats, not including the people sitting on the roof. Thanks to their mighty engines, these vessels can power upriver against very strong currents. Note that ferry safety is a major issue in Kalimantan.
In a smaller upriver craft, such as a temuai (shallow-draft Iban longboat), be prepared for you and your (hopefully waterproofed) kit to get dunked – and to get out and push if it hasn't rained for a while. Whatever the size of the vessel, be aware that rivers can suddenly rise by 2m or more after a downpour. If a boat looks unseaworthy or lacks basic safety equipment (especially life vests), don't be shy about speaking up.
Seagoing craft travelling along the coast and out to offshore islands have to deal with rougher waters than their inland counterparts. In Sarawak and parts of Kalimantan this is especially true from November to March, when the northeast monsoon can bring choppy conditions.
Travel by boat does not come cheap, mainly because marine engines and outboards, which must shove aside prodigious quantities of water, really slurp up the petrol. For a small motorboat with a capacity of four to six people, count on paying about RM500 per day. While the boat is moored somewhere – at an island or a remote beach, for instance – you'll have to remunerate the driver but, obviously, there are no fuel costs when the motor is off.
Guides & Agencies
The following agencies can organise longboat trips, rafting, kayaking and other water-borne adventures (and in many cases day hikes, too).
Diving Pulau Sipadan
Few sites around the world can really deliver the thrill of a once-in-a-lifetime dive, but Sipadan is definitely one of them. Regularly topping best lists compiled by serious divers, there is no doubt that the island's walls and reefs attract some of the world's most diverse marine life.
Best Times for Diving
- April to September
This is turtle time, when hawksbill and green turtles come to the archipelago to lay their eggs in the soft sand. You're unlikely to actually see turtles laying eggs, but you may spot them dancing their slow ballet beneath the waves. That said, turtles are always present in these waters – they’re just more highly concentrated during this period.
- July to August
Visibility is often stunning at this time of year, and clear views to 25m are common. You’ll likely have to deal with more crowds as well, as this is prime holiday time in the northern hemisphere. Book well in advance if you want to visit during this period.
- December to February
This is the local wet season. The rain doesn’t impact visibility too badly, but monsoon winds may keep boats from accessing Sipadan and the other Semporna islands. On the other hand, crowds have thinned out a bit by January. The rains sometimes continue into March.
Visiting Pulau Sipadan
Every year thousands of divers come to the Semporna Archipelago to explore Sipadan's plunging sea wall, which is home and a transit point for a staggering array of marine life, including green and hawksbill turtles, hammerhead sharks, parrotfish, manta rays and schools of fish so massive they resemble silver tornadoes or shimmering walls of armour.
But those same divers make it hard for Sipadan to remain what Jacques Cousteau once described as 'untouched art'. Sipadan is many things, including one of Borneo's most popular tourism destinations, but untouched it is not. The Malaysian government has seen the need to preserve the integrity of Sipadan and as a result, visiting the island is a tightly regulated process (though visitors never have to deal with the paperwork themselves). No tourists are allowed to stay overnight on the island of Sipadan itself; rather, it is the surrounding waters that attract mobs of divers, many of whom have travelled great distances to embark on a marine trek they will never forget.
When to Go
The good news: there isn’t a bad time to dive Sipadan, at least as far as visibility and marine life go. But consider how much you want to balance factors such as weather (ie rain or no rain), crowds and abundance of marine life. The general rule of thumb: the better the conditions, the larger the crowds. However, wildlife spotting is almost always good and, thanks to the strict permit process, crowds rarely feel too overwhelming.
Getting to Sipidan
Sipadan is an island in the Semporna Archipelago, situated just off Sabah's eastern tip. Eight islands within the archipelago form the Semporna Marine Park, the largest marine park in Malaysia. The closest town is also named Semporna – a nearby naval station has the area’s only decompression chamber. The closest airport is at Tawau, 72km west of Semporna town; a taxi from the airport to Semporna will cost around RM150. Otherwise there are numerous bus connections between Semporna and the rest of Sabah. Note that unless you arrive in Semporna town early in the day, you will probably have to stay there overnight.
Permits & Dive Operators
Access to Sipadan is regulated by a tightly controlled permit process. You can’t get out there on your own; you must book with a tour operator, who will determine the day(s) you are allowed to dive Sipadan (note: you can dive other sites in the Semporna Archipelago without a permit).
The dive operators also run places to stay. Most accommodation (and all budget options) is on the small island of Mabul. Other possibilities include ritzier choices on the islands of Mataking, Kapalai and Pom Pom. Note that diving is the main event here – while the islands mentioned are pretty, they’re too small to be enjoyed as island retreats in and of themselves.
Best Diving Sites Pulau Sipadan
There are roughly a dozen delineated dive sites orbiting Pulau Sipadan:
The Sea Wall The water here drops into a blue abyss some 2000m deep. Arising from this cleft are clouds of marine life, the abundance of which almost defies hyperbole. It's the most famous marine destination in the Semporna Archipelago.
Mid Reef The central, eastern-facing portion of the Sea Wall, which often contains one of the finest concentrations of marine life in the entire archipelago.
Barracuda Point Schools of undulating barracuda form seemingly impenetrable walls of scales and fins.
Coral Garden A sloped wall inhabited by macro sea life. Whitetip reef sharks sometimes roll by, pecking the coral clean – but don’t worry, they’ll leave you alone.
Hanging Garden Sea fans peek out among the many overhangs that give this area its name.
South Point Excellent spot for larger marine life such as manta rays.
Turtle Tombs/Caves You can’t fit into these coral caverns, which may be for the best, as they shelter the bones and shells of countless sea turtles that got lost inside and drowned.
Best Diving Sites Around Semporna
Other diving locations around Semporna include the following:
Mabul Rich in all types of marine life, and particularly good for muck diving (searching out smaller life forms in the sea mud), though you’re also likely to spot rays and sea turtles.
Mataking Vertical wall dives here lead you past grey reef sharks and manta rays, among other outstanding forms of marine life.
Kapalai Relatively easy, but offers exceedingly rewarding diving in conditions that are often shallow and sandy. Also one of the best places in the world for macro diving, with an excellent chance of seeing blue-ringed octopus, bobtail squid, cardinal fish and orangutan crabs.
Elsewhere in Borneo
Derawan Archipelago Has some brilliant pier, cave and wall dives.
Layang Layang A remote island renowned for wall dives, pristine coral and real adventure.
Pulau Mantanani Two little flecks of land ringed by a halo of colourful coral.
Brunei Burgeoning dive scene, pristine reefs and accessible wrecks.
Miri Visibility is variable, but the area has some interesting wrecks.
Here’s how you can do your part to keep the Semporna Archipelago healthy for future generations of fish and divers:
- Don’t touch or stand on coral. Even a strong flipper kick can irreparably damage a reef.
- Practise neutral buoyancy. It makes for a more pleasant dive, and keeps you off the coral.
- Keep your gear tight. Don’t let gauges, fins and other accessories scrape the sea floor or coral.
- Observe the sea life, but don’t try to handle any living creatures, especially turtles. Trying to touch them causes them stress and can be especially detrimental to egg-bearing females.
- Don't feed sea creatures. When you feed wildlife, it stops being wild.
- Make sure your operators don’t anchor on coral (this isn’t much of an issue in Semporna, where operators are quite conscientious, but it’s always a good idea to be vigilant).
- Put all rubbish into a bag and take it out. Don’t toss anything overboard.
- Participate in local conservation efforts. Every now and then accommodation owners in Mabul try to clean up rubbish in the local villages – give a helping hand.
- Avoid eating the local marine life – especially shark fin soup (sold at local Chinese restaurants).
Semporna Travel Warning
Depending on the current situation, you may read warnings from European and Australian governments advising against travel to the Semporna Archipelago because of the threat of kidnapping by militant groups from the Philippines. At the time of writing, however, 120 divers a day had been enjoying one of the world's best dive sites without incident for more than a year.
Be sure to check the latest security situation before travelling.
Are You Experienced?
Sipadan rewards advanced-certified (and beyond) divers, but you don’t have to be a scuba veteran to enjoy the island, and nearby places such as Mabul are easy for beginners. Even if you’ve never dived, every tour company we list can get you open-water certified, at very reasonable prices compared to most of the rest of the world.
If your travelling companion is a diver and you are not, consider snorkelling. The underwater world that can be viewed from the water's surface may not quite match the world-class dive sites, but the waters here are so clear and teeming with life that you may see stingrays and turtles, as well as other kinds of macro-marine wildlife.
Travellers know Sipadan as a diving destination, but if you’re a marine biologist (or a fish), you'll know Sipadan as, essentially, the grand highway interchange for the Indo-Pacific basin, one of the world’s seminal marine habitats. Any tropical fish worth its fins ends up swimming by here at some point. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the Semporna Archipelago does sit atop a pretty incredible watery confluence, and Sipadan is the crossroads of that confluence. Part of the reason is the excellent condition of local reefs – sadly much of the nearby coral, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia, has been seriously degraded by pollution and dynamite fishing.
Travel Literature: Stories of Adventure
Borneo has fired the world's imagination for centuries. Perhaps the best recent title is Stranger in the Forest by Eric Hansen, in which the author recounts his 1976 journey across the island in the company of Penan guides. It is not just the difficulty of the feat, but the author's brilliant and sensitive storytelling that make the book a classic. One cannot read it without a sense of sadness, for the world and the people described are now almost completely gone.
The most popular book about Borneo is Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo, a humorous account of the author's 1983 journey up a river in Sarawak. While O'Hanlon makes a bit much of what was a fairly unremarkable journey, it's an enjoyable and colourful narrative.
Espresso with the Headhunters: A Journey Through the Jungles of Borneo by John Wassner tells of a more extensive trip by an Australian traveller (and inveterate caffeine and nicotine addict). Not nearly as famous as O'Hanlon's book, it gives a more realistic account of what life is like in Sarawak.
If you climb Mt Kinabalu, you'll notice the gaping chasm of Low's Gully to your right as you ascend the final summit pyramid. Kinabalu Escape: The Soldiers' Story by Rich Mayfield tells of the British Army's ill-fated 1994 attempt to descend the gully. The expedition, a textbook case in how not to run an expedition, led to an expensive rescue operation and the near deaths of several team members.
Leeches Suck (Blood)
There's just no getting around it: if you want to experience Borneo's magnificent tropical rainforests, at some point you're going to find yourself getting up close and intimate with a leech – or, more likely, with lots of them. If you can't stand the sight of blood, wear dark-coloured socks.
Common Leech Varieties
There are two main varieties of leech in Borneo: the ground-dwelling brown leech and the striped, yellow-reddish tiger leech, which often lives higher up on foliage. Leeches, which are attracted by the vibrations and carbon dioxide you produce, are probably the jungle's quietest creatures. Since you can't feel the bite of the brown leech, you'll only realise what's going on when you actually spot it, or when you notice blood seeping through your clothing. But you can feel the bite of a tiger leech – it's similar to an ant sting – which means that if you're quick, you can take action before making an involuntary blood donation.
Leeches may look unappealing, but are almost completely harmless. In Borneo they don't generally carry parasites, bacteria or viruses that can infect humans. Unless you protect yourself from getting bitten (or, alternatively, let the leech drink its fill before it falls off after it injects a coagulant into the wound), a bite may bleed profusely for a few hours due to the anticoagulant the leech originally injects in order to feed. The spot may itch for another week, and then it will scab over and resolve into a small dark spot that completely disappears after several weeks. The only danger is that the bite may get infected, which is why it's important to disinfect the bite and keep it dry.
Self-Defence Against Leeches
Like hangover cures, everyone has a favourite method of protecting themselves from leeches. The problem is, most don't work. There is only one really effective method of keeping leeches at bay: wearing an impenetrable fabric barrier. Knee-length leech socks, made from tightly knit calico, work, as does Lycra. The best leech socks are light coloured so you can see the leeches ascending your legs and pick them off. You can find these online; guesthouses in Miri may also sell them.
If you do discover a leech making a pass at you, don't panic. Yanking off a leech can leave part of its jaws in the wound, so roll it instead with your finger as if you're rolling up a piece of chewed gum to break the suction. Don't squirt DEET directly on sucking leeches as the chemical may get in your wound.
Jungle Kit List
- waterproof backpack liner (or waterproof backpack)
- day pack
- water bottles
- personal medical kit including tick tweezers
- water purifier
- insect repellent (DEET)
- pocket knife
- head torch (flashlight)
- spare mini-torch
- small binoculars
- jungle boots
- breathable socks or boot liners
- leech socks
- Lycra bras
- long trousers (2)
- long-sleeve shirts (2)
- lightweight waterproof jacket or poncho
- warm top
- sweat rag/chamois towel
- basha (tarpaulin) sheet
- mosquito net
- sleeping mat
- sleeping bag
- sleeping-bag liner
Cooking & Eating
- mess tin
- wash kit
- toilet paper
- sewing kit
- waterproof ziplock bags