Borneo is well catered for by very reasonably priced flights. Air travel is the only practical way to reach some destinations, such as Sarawak's Kelabit Highlands and Gunung Mulu National Park.
Tickets for most flights can be purchased online.
Airlines in Sabah & Sarawak
Air Asia (www.airasia.com) Kuching to Sibu, Bintulu, Miri and Kota Kinabalu (KK); KK to Tawau, Sandakan, Miri and Kuching.
Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) Kuching to KK, Miri, Sibu and Bintulu; KK to Sandakan, Tawau, Miri, Labuan and Bintulu.
MASwings (www.maswings.com.my) In Sabah flies from KK to Sandakan and KK to Tawau, and from Tawau to Tarakan, Kalimantan. Also flies from Kuching to Sibu, Bintulu and Mulu; Bintulu to KK; Sibu to KK; Miri to Bario, Limbang, Lawas, Long Banga and Gunung Mulu National Park. ATRs and Twin Otters board from the tail, so the most accessible seats are at the back of the plane.
Airlines in Brunei
Malaysian Airlines (www.malaysianairlines.com) and Royal Brunei Airlines (www.flyroyalbrunei.com) connect Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) to KK. There are currently no direct flights to Kuching.
Airlines in Kalimantan
Kalimantan has a comprehensive network of air links. The main domestic carriers are Lion Air/Wings (https://lionair.co.id), Garuda (www.garuda-indonesia.com) and Swirijaya Air (https://swirijayaair.co.id).
Smaller carriers include the following:
Trigana Air (www.trigana-air.com) Only flies to Pangkalan Bun from Jakarta.
Xpress Air (http://xpressair.co.id) Flies minor routes in East Kalimantan.
Susi Air (http://susiair.com) Flies from Berau to Maratua and other minor routes.
Road and all-terrain cycling have recently taken off around Kuching, while organised mountain-bike treks are increasingly popular in Sabah. If riding independently take extreme caution with traffic and remember to bring a helmet, a reflective vest, high-power lights and a wealth of inner tubes and spare parts.
Within cities some guesthouses rent or lend bicycles to their guests and local cyclists come out for a spin in central BSB in Brunei on Sunday mornings, when motorised traffic is banned on certain streets. Out in the country locals still use bicycles to get around small kampung (villages), and if you can get hold of a bicycle – rental options are rare – this can be a very pleasant way to soak up the atmosphere. Cycle tourism is becoming more popular in parts of Sabah and Sarawak, with several tour companies offering day trips and multiday cycling adventures.
Rivers still play a major transport role, and in some trackless areas, such as Sarawak's Batang Rejang and parts of Kalimantan, they're the only way to get from A to B.
On wider rivers 'flying coffins' – long, narrow express boats with about 70 seats – are the norm. Way upstream the only craft that can make headway against the rapids are motorised wooden longboats.
Rates for water travel are often quite high, the crucial factor being the cost of petrol. Chartering a boat costs much more than taking a water taxi.
Nature sites accessible by boat include Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, the Semporna Archipelago and Pulau Tiga National Park. Numerous lodges along the Sungai Kinabatangan are reachable by private boats.
In the west, sea ferries link Menumbok with Muara in Brunei, KK with Pulau Labuan, and Pulau Labuan with Muara. In Sabah's southeast corner speedboats link Tawau with Tarakan and Nunukan in Kalimantan.
Sarawak's Batang Rejang is sometimes called the 'Amazon of Borneo' and a journey upriver is still very romantic, despite the lack of intact forest en route.
Along the coast speedboats link Limbang with Pulau Labuan. In western Sarawak motorboats are the only way to get to Bako, Tanjung Datu and Talang-Satang national parks.
Speedboats link BSB with Bangar (in Brunei's Temburong District), and car ferries go from the Serasa Ferry Terminal in Muara, 25km northeast of BSB, to Pulau Labuan. The only way to get to Ulu Temburong National Park is by motorised longboat.
The ferry from Tawau (Sabah) to Tarakan (North Kalimantan) runs three times a week, with daily ferries connecting Tawau with Nunukan. You can also take the regular speedboat services from Tawau to Tarakan via Nunukan. A visa on arrival is available if you're entering Sabah, and now also at the seaport of Tarakan.
To get around Kalimantan the only scheduled public boats are found on the Sungai Mahakam. These go as far as Long Bagun if the water is high enough; otherwise they stop at Tering. For other rivers it's necessary to charter, or else wait for a local boat to fill up.
Bus, Van & Taxi
Malaysian Borneo's coastal cities are connected by a network of cheap, comfortable buses.
Intercity buses generally depart from long-distance bus terminals on the outskirts of towns, linked to the city centre by bus and taxi. For many destinations departures are most frequent in the morning, but on some routes (eg Miri to Kuching) there are also afternoon and overnight buses.
An arc of excellent sealed roads extends from KK southeast to Tawau, passing Mt Kinabalu, Sepilok, Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Semporna (gateway to Sipadan) along the way. Large buses ply this route on a daily basis, as do minivans, share taxis and jeeps. Getting from KK to any towns north, all the way to Kudat, and southwest to the Brunei border, is easy. The same applies if going from Sandakan to any towns south to Tawau.
The road connecting Tawau to Sapulot is paved, with a bus journey from KK to Tawau taking only seven hours. Getting to very remote villages by public transport is tougher – in these situations you need to hope share taxis and jeeps have enough passengers. These vehicles typically leave very early in the morning.
Frequent buses run by a clutch of companies ply the Pan Borneo Hwy from Kuching to Miri, stopping along the way in Sibu and Bintulu, near Niah National Park, and at Lambir Hills National Park. From Miri several buses a day head via Brunei to Sabah.
Long-haul buses link Sarawak's coastal cities, including Kuching, with Pontianak (West Kalimantan) via the Tebedu–Entikong border crossing.
Bus service from Kuching to destinations in Western Sarawak is very limited or nonexistent, except for Lundu, Kubah National Park, Matang Wildlife Centre, Bako Bazaar (near Bako National Park) and Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. For some destinations the only transport options are hiring a car or taxi or joining a tour group.
Two PHLP Express buses a day go from BSB southwest to Miri (via Seria and Kuala Belait), while a single daily Jesselton Express bus runs northeast to KK (via Limbang, Lawas and various destinations in Sabah).
Buses and Kijang (4WD minivans that ply intercity routes) are a mixed affair, ranging from comfy to purgatorial. The same can also be said of Kalimantan's highways and minor roads, which vary from silk-smooth asphalt to a muddy, potholed pumpkin soup during the wet season, when you may have to disembark and push. VIP-style buses with air-con operate between Balikpapan and Samarinda, and from Samarinda to Banjarmasin and Bontang. The road between Pontianak and Putussibau via Sintang is now in reasonably good condition and served by frequent buses.The rest of the country involves patchy roads, inhumanly quick drivers and, often, overcrowding on woefully smoky, dilapidated buses. Bring with you patience, an inflatable neck cushion, a portable music player and anything else to ease the journey.
The only official land crossing between Kalimantan and Malaysian Borneo serviced by long-haul buses is at Tebedu–Entikong, in western Sarawak between Kuching and Pontianak. Long-haul buses link Pontianak with Kuching, the cities of Sarawak's central coast and Brunei.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving is on the left in all three countries that share Borneo. The (generally) nicely paved Pan Borneo Hwy runs all along Borneo's northern coast, from Sematan in Sarawak's far west via Brunei (and its many border crossings) to Tawau in the southeast corner of Sabah. Kalimantan's road network is limited, with lots of sections yet to be sealed and frequent washouts and flash floods. It is now possible, however, to travel around Kalimantan from Pontianak to Berau on mostly paved road, with plans to connect through to Tawau.
Road signage is often haphazard, with many junctions – including T-junctions – lacking any indication of where to go.
Driving a rental car gives you maximum flexibility, and it's relatively easy to drive around Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah. Road signage is generally not bad, most roads are passable by 2WD car and if you have a smartphone, the Maps.me app is very useful for getting around. If you're renting from major local companies, vehicles tend to be only a few years old. Since you'll be paying for the entire rental period upfront, be clear about exactly what's included, as some companies may, in error, try to overcharge you once you return the car. In Kalimantan you may have trouble asking for directions unless you speak Bahasa Indonesia. On the brighter side, petrol in Brunei costs US$0.50 per litre, while in Malaysia petrol costs only about US$0.54 per litre.
Car-hire companies have desks in the arrivals halls of larger airports, while in city centres, hotels and guesthouses can help find an agency. We've heard reports that small local companies sometimes try to rent out 10-year-old cars with bald tyres and leaky boots (trunks). Before you sign anything or hand over any cash, check over your vehicle very carefully (eg for seat belts in the back), especially if it's an older Malaysian-made model such as a tiny Perodua Kancil or Proton Wira.
In Sabah and Sarawak prices for a four-year-old 1000cc Perodua Axia start at an absolute minimum of RM120/700 per day/week. If you rent a 4WD, a Toyota Hilux is likely to set you back around RM400 per day. Renting through an international company such as Hertz (www.hertz.com) is usually pricier than a small local company, but your vehicle is likely to be newer, safer and better maintained. As always, verify the insurance excess/deductible, the default of which may be RM2000 or more; reducing this to RM500 can cost as little as RM15 a day.
In Brunei prices start at about B$60 a day, and in Kalimantan – where available – at about 1,500,000Rp per day.
With some Malaysian companies you can visit Brunei for no extra cost, while others charge a fee of RM50 or RM100. Renting a car in one city and returning it in another can be expensive – count on paying RM500 extra to pick up a vehicle in Miri and drop it off in Kuching. Some insurance plans are only valid in a limited geographical area.
A valid overseas licence is needed to rent a car. An International Driving Permit (a translation of your licence and its provisions) is usually not required by local car-hire companies, but it's recommended that you bring one. Minimum age limits (generally 23, sometimes 21) often apply, and some companies won't rent to anyone over 60 or 65.
For travel to places within a 50km or 70km radius of where you're staying, hiring a taxi on a per-trip, half-day or per-day basis is often a good option, especially for three or four people. For day trips from public-transport-challenged Kuching, for instance, count on paying about RM280 for an eight-hour excursion. When you factor in fuel, this often works out only slightly more expensive than renting a car. Bonuses: you bear no liability if the car is damaged, and you've got the driver to take care of navigation and mechanical problems – and to find places to eat.
In Kalimantan taxis are scarce, but can usually be found at major airports. More common are illegal (but commonly used) taxis (called taksi gelap), which ask a per-seat fee for set routes between major towns. In East Kalimantan these are so prevalent they have killed off the public bus market.
Hitching is possible in most parts of Borneo, but as hitching is never entirely safe, we don’t recommend it. If you do choose to hitch, it will be safer travelling in pairs and letting someone know where you are planning to go, and when you expect to arrive.
Some drivers will expect a small 'tip' or assistance with petrol costs for driving you. At the very least, if you stop for food, you should offer to pay for the driver's meal.
Small motorboats and motorised longboats are often used for short trips across rivers and bays. Examples include traversing Kuching's Sungai Sarawak, transport from central BSB (Brunei) to the water village of Kampung Ayer and river crossings in Pontianak, Samarinda and Banjarmasin.
Taxi, Dart, Grab & Gojek
Taxis are common in Borneo's larger cities; meters, drivers who use them and fixed rates are not, except in Kuching. Luckily you'll find that most drivers in Borneo are quite honest. Just be sure to set the price before starting out and only pay upon arrival.
Grab is Malaysia's answer to Uber. Grab rides tend to cost around 40% less than taxi rides and Grab drivers are widely available in KK, Sandakan and Tawau in Sabah and in Kuching, Miri, Sibu and Bintulu in Sarawak.
Grab is available in Kalimantan's cities such as Pontianak, Singkawang, Balikpapan, Banjarmasin and Palangka Raya, but Gojek is more popular. It works the same way, using a phone app, but the mode of transport is usually a moped. It’s a third to a quarter of the price of a taxi. Gojek riders wear a green jacket and carry a spare helmet. Gojek is gradually killing off the minibuses (variously known as an opelet or angkot) that ply set routes in Kalimantan's cities.
Dart is Brunei's version of Grab, making it cheaper and easier to get around BSB.
Borneo's only railway line, run by the Sabah State Railway, stretches from Tanjung Aru, 4km southwest of central KK, to Tenom, a distance of 134km. Two trains run daily from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort, and two separate trains run daily from Beaufort to Tenom. Inaugurated in 1896, part of this scenic line (Tanjung Aru to Papar) is also plied by a twice-weekly tourist train with a vintage steam engine.