What do you do when your backpacking friends don’t want to go to Borneo: a country on your dream wish-list?
Book a flight and go by yourself, of course!
This is what I did when my group wanted to continue south from Singapore to Indonesia and skip the beautiful island of Borneo…. (I know, crazy right?)
I had always dreamt of seeing Orang-utans in the Bornean wild and supporting the important wildlife conservation that takes place there. So I booked my flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and threw myself into solo travel.
This guide will only cover my time in Sabah, the north section of the Malaysian island. I would have loved to explore Brunei and Sarawak but time was not on my side… Despite this, Sabah was rich with everything I wanted to experience.
After my short time there I felt like I had spent a week filming with David Attenborough! The Borneo guides are so knowledgeable and have
super-powervision when it comes to spotting hidden wildlife.
I not only saw a huge variety of creatures, I also placed myself completely out of my comfort zone. Being able to remove myself from my already established travel group and going it alone was thrilling, challenging and gave me a new confidence that I proudly use to this day. Thanks, Borneo!
So here are my top tips for your visit:
1. Kota Kinabalu
My flight landed in Sabah state’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, and I got a cab to my hostel. The city is busy and surprisingly Westernised (I definitely indulged in a KFC…Sorry not sorry)!
As there isn’t much to do in the city itself, I used this as my main hub, as there is a bustling station with buses that leave regularly to the Sabah tourist hotspots.
After meeting a Canadian girl at my hostel, we spent a night walking through the busy night market along the city’s waterfront. However, we couldn’t believe the unwelcome attention we got from male locals. It was clear that Western tourists are seen much less here than in other places we had previously visited in SE Asia, so you end up being somewhat of a commodity – So please be aware of this.
Masada Backpacker – Cheap,
2. Mamutik Island
Kota Kinabalu’s main waterfront is pretty dirty. We quickly heard of the various islands you can visit that are only a 5-minute boat ride away from the city’s marina and quickly booked our tickets.
A local told us that Mamutik Island is the quietest so we chose that one with a day of relaxation in mind… and that is definitely what we got!
With paradise white sand to the right, jungle to the left and skyscrapers in the distance, we had the entire ocean to ourselves and spent the day topping up our tans.
3. Mount Kota Kinabalu National Park
You cannot visit Sabah, Borneo, without hopping onto one of the buses leaving Kota Kinabalu and heading to the famous National Park.
This is the place where many people head to complete the challenging 4,095m trek up to the summit of Mount Kota Kinabalu. I was interested in doing this but found out that you have to book the trek way in advance of your arrival and it comes with quite a hefty price tag… So if this is on your list, do your research and make sure you pre-book!
I was happy enough just being at the base of this beautiful mountain…
Despite not completing the climb, I enjoyed walking around the area at the foot of the mountain. There is a multitude of boardwalks that vary in different lengths and difficulty that you can complete – and the view of the mountain above you is breathtaking.
There isn’t a great deal of choice when it comes to accommodation around the National Park. Especially if you’re on a budget and don’t want to sleep in one of the more upmarket hotels. After some research, I found D’Villa Rina Ria Lodge which is about a 10-15 minute walk from the main National Park entrance and is a pretty basic and cheap hostel.
Don’t expect luxury but if like me, you just need a place to rest your head, the owners were really friendly and it provided me what I needed for a night!
Local buses leave regularly from the main National Park entrance onto further Sabah destinations.
4. Kinabatangan River
Back in Borneo ‘s city of Kota Kinabalu, I had pre-booked a Kinabatangan River tour package at one of the local travel agents I was recommended to by my hostel. Travel via bus and accommodation were included and it was great to meet a variety of travellers of all ages and nationalities to experience the river with.
I was excited to start seeing some of the famous Bornean wildlife!
As soon as we arrived, we boarded a long boat and silently started to sail down the jungle river. With binoculars in hand and anticipation in our hearts, we eagerly scanned the surrounding trees and the water’s edge for any creature movements.
I could not have been more grateful for booking this tour experience, as the guide repeatedly stopped the boat and pointed out camouflaged wildlife that none of us would have ever spotted! We were even lucky enough to spot the comical face of the Proboscis Monkey which can be seen nowhere else on the planet.
As dusk fell, we boarded the boat once again to try our luck at seeing any more creatures. As we shone our flashlights and searched our surroundings, I saw my first crocodile sinisterly sliding through the dark water. I definitely kept my arms in the boat from that moment on…
Back at the hotel, we put on some sturdy shoes, soaked ourselves in bug spray and headed out on our guided night walk through the forest. Avoiding tree roots, spider webs and branches, we stumbled upon rainforest frogs, exotic birds and to the delight of the tour guide we even spotted the extremely rare (and completely adorable) Western Tarsier Monkey!
The tour package was really flexible and I was able to tell the bus driver to drop me off at the closest local bus stop heading to my next destination (Sepilok). The buses are pretty regular so I didn’t have to wait long and I was soon on my way.
By the time I arrived in Sepilok, I was eager to expand my already overflowing list of wildlife sightings. Home to the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, the Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre, if there is one place to see wildlife, it is Sepilok!
Sepilok Forest Edge Resort
Despite its expensive-sounding name, there are cheap hostel rooms available a short walk away from the main private huts. With full use of the (very warm) swimming pool, cocktail bar and restaurant, it is definitely worth every cent – Plus buses stop right outside the entrance to take you to the various nearby centres.
- Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre
Watching Orang-utans slowly be re-introduced into the wild was one of the most incredible experiences I have had to date! The work completed here in Borneo to help the orphaned or abused primates is really inspiring. Young babies are nurtured in a protected playground until they are strong enough to be released back into the wild.
Once released, the keepers leave out bananas and other fruit on a platform just on the outskirts of the forest, secretly hoping that they won’t come back as this means they have truly adapted to their new life in the wild. Sadly (but lucky for us I guess!), a couple of them decided to come and say hi the day we watched this special lunchtime.
Definitely going to start saving my pennies to volunteer here one day…
- Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
These beautiful mini bears have sadly been declared a vulnerable species so this conservation centre plays a crucial role in their protection. Watch them as they sleepily trip over branches and tumble around playfully together. You leave the centre with a deep understanding of the loss it would be if they were no longer here in this world.
- Rainforest Discovery Centre
We woke up extremely early and headed over to the rainforest discovery centre for the dawn tour. As the sun started to rise over the beautiful forest skyline, we walked across the canopy walkways and waited for the wild flying squirrels to wake up and take flight from the top. The collective gasp from our small group as we shared this treasured experience was very special. After our sighting, we took some time walking around this educational centre learning about the Sepilok rainforest and all its flora and fauna. I would definitely recommend it.
Borneo may not be on a lot of people’s travel list. Many backpackers heading to South-East Asia look forward to the alcohol buckets of Thailand and the paradise beaches of Bali. If you’re heading that way and you want to break away from the crowd, cross the ocean to the island of Borneo – You will not regret it.
Where have you gone that is off the mainstream path?
Share the creatures you would most like to see in the wild!