When I visited the beautiful island of Borneo several years ago, I was won over by what can only be described as a nature lover’s paradise. The island, which is the third largest in the world, is divided into three uneven sections: in the north, the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak with the tiny sovereign state of Brunei between them and, in the south, Indonesian Kalimantan.

From beautiful beaches and stunning sea life to vast mountains and ancient, tropical jungles, Borneo has it all – and it’s the perfect place for adventure travellers looking to go off the beaten path. Home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, intrepid travellers visiting this true wilderness will catch a rare glimpse of some of the world’s most unique wildlife – and even some endangered species – in their natural habitat.

Proboscis monkey, Borneo Photo: Mewot/ Sabah Tourism

Proboscis monkey Photo: Mewot/ Sabah Tourism

While many tourists are drawn to the island specifically to see its famed inhabitants – the Orangutan – Borneo is incredibly biodiverse. According to WWF, Borneo is home to over 220 mammals, 44 of which are found nowhere else in the world; 420 birds (37 of those are endemic to Borneo); 100 amphibians and 394 fish – not to mention over 15,000 plants, more than a third of which can be found only in Borneo. Trekking through the dense jungle hoping for a sighting of Proboscis monkeys, critically endangered Sumatran rhino, flying squirrels, sun bears, clouded leopards, Pygmy elephants or Borneo Bay cats – one of the rarest cats in the world – is nothing short of magical.

Exploring this enchanting island is something I’ll remember vividly for many years to come.

Kinabalu National Park – Heavenly spirits and Wildlings of the Forest

The first stop for most visitors is Sabah’s busy capital: Kota Kinabalu – or ‘KK’ as it’s affectionately known. Once you’ve had your fill of delicious hawker street food at the night market, you can explore the city’s diverse culture.

Borneo Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu Photo: Tsen Lip Kai/ Sabah Tourism

Or you could relax on one of the five stunning islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, just a short boat transfer from from KK. Chill on the beach, go snorkelling or even try ‘sea walking’ along the seabed with a special helmet that allows you to breathe underwater! Those with more energy even might be up for the challenge of climbing to the 13,438 ft high summit of Mount Kinabalu.

Must-see Borneo: Sea Walking! Photo: Eric Madeja/ Sabah Tourism

Sea Walking! Photo: Eric Madeja/ Sabah Tourism

Legend has it that the local KadazanDusun people believe ‘Kinabalu’ is derived from “Aki Nabalu” or “revered place of the dead”. The KadazanDusun tribe believes that spirits dwell on the mountain top. According to another story, ‘Kinabalu’ actually meant “Cina Balu” or “Chinese widow”. Apparently, a Chinese prince from the mountain went about in search of a huge pearl guarded by a ferocious dragon. He married a Kadazan woman after tasting success, whom he soon abandoned to return to China. His heartbroken wife wandered into the mountains to mourn whereby she eventually turned into stone.

In Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site, weave your way through the jungle as your guide points out the native plants, birds and wildlife. You might even be lucky enough to see the rare ‘Rafflesia’ – the largest flower in the world. Its name translates to ‘corpse flower’ thanks to its distinctive, and rather unpleasant, smell (which is said to resemble rotten flesh).

Looking from the summit trail on Mount Kinabalu (at 4101m, the highest peak in SE Asia) past 4032m Kinabalu South towards the Crocker Range, western Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

Looking from the summit trail on Mount Kinabalu (at 4101m, the highest peak in SE Asia) past 4032m Kinabalu South towards the Crocker Range, Western Sabah. Photo: Rickshaw Travel

Poring Hot Springs – Sulphur Springs and Canopy Walk

While in the park, don’t miss the ‘Canopy Walk’ where you navigate a string of walkways suspended from the trees – some as high as 40m! It’s a great way to spot birds and wildlife amidst the lush greenery of the Menggaris tree. Then relax by taking a well-earned dip in the steaming sulphurous waters of the man-made Poring Hot Springs – first developed by the Japanese during World War II.


Canopy Walk. Photo: Rickshaw Travel

Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary – Meet the stars of Borneo

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true visit to Borneo without meeting the stars of the show: the orangutan. The words ‘orang’ and ‘hutan’ mean ‘person of the forest’ in the Malaysian and Indonesian language and when I was watching them interacting with each other and playing in the forest I could easily see why. The best place to see these fascinating great apes is the famous Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary where their number one priority is the protection of its orphaned and injured inhabitants before returning them to the wild.

The sanctuary lies around 25 km north of Sandakan and is spread across 40 sq km of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, a virgin jungle reserve rich in tropical forest and mangrove swamp. Learning all about these highly intelligent primates from our knowledgeable guides as we watched them at feeding time from a safe distance was a fascinating experience.

An adorable orangutan baby in Borneo. Photo: Rickshaw Travel

An adorable orangutan baby. Photo: Rickshaw Travel

Jungle Boat Cruise – Mangroves, monkeys and Magnificent Wildlife

After your first glimpse of the Orangutan in the rehabilitation centre, it’s time to try to spot them in the wild as you head deep into the jungle, travelling by boat along Kinabatangan: Borneo’s longest river. Kinabatangan is renowned for its incredible wildlife and I still get goosebumps remembering the moment we sat in quiet awe as a wild Orangutan swung from the trees just metres from our boat.

Proboscis Monkey, Borneo. Photo: Murphy Ng/ Sabah Tourism

Proboscis Monkey. Photo: Murphy Ng/ Sabah Tourism

My personal favourites were the cheeky proboscis monkeys whose long noses must make them one of the most bizarre-looking creatures on the planet. During my few days in the jungle, I kept having to pinch myself to check I wasn’t, in fact, dreaming I was in an Attenborough documentary (which I must admit is a relatively regular occurrence!). I was amazed by how easily our guide navigated his way through the jungle, picking up animal tracks to find a wide array of species we would easily have missed: macaques, crocodiles, gibbons, kingfisher, butterflies and countless other animals.

If I’m ever lucky enough to go back, I hope I might even have the chance to see the wild elephants that live in the jungle – a rare but spectacular sight.

Jungle cruise, Borneo. Photo: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere via Flickr

Photo: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere via Flickr

Beach bliss in Lankayan – Coral reefs, baby turtles, snorkelling, diving

The perfect way to end a trip to Borneo – particularly for ocean lovers – is in utter relaxation in a beachfront bungalow on one of its beautiful and remote islands. As an avid diver, while I’ll never get weary of seeing wild turtles, the closest I’ve come was diving with so many in Borneo that we genuinely lost count.


Lankayan island jetty. Photo: Rickshaw Travel

One island definitely worth visiting is the unpopulated Lankayan, known for its breathtaking white sandy beaches, crystal clear sea and remarkable coral reefs. Not to mention the baby sea turtles – as part of a project on the island which monitors turtle nests on the beach to protect the eggs, you can even sign up to watch the volunteers releasing tiny hatchlings into the sea. If that’s not a bucket list item worth ticking off, I don’t know what is!

Borneo Baby Turtles, Lankayan, Borneo

Baby Turtles, Lankayan. Photo: Rickshaw Travel

All good things must come to an end and, before long, it will be time to leave the beach bliss of Lankayan and return home – but not without some incredible memories from a once-in-a-lifetime trip.


A turtle on Lankayan island. Photo: Rickshaw Travel

From cheeky Borneo orangutans to the call of the spiritual Mount Kinabalu, Rickshaw Travel offers a range of authentic travel experiences to Borneo. To journey to the heart of Borneo and experience its incredible wildlife, take a 10-day trip with the authentic travel experts, Rickshaw Travel.


Also read in our Amazing Asia series:

How I discovered the Real Vietnam

Incredible Photos that Prove Myanmar is Asia’s new mystical hotspot

How I found Inner Peace on a houseboat in God’s Own Country

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