An Adventure among the Natural Treasures of Borneo

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For many, the island of Borneo is one blanketed in impenetrable tropical forests which are home to many weird and wonderful plants and animals, or one where tribes of colourful natives would lop the heads off anyone who looked at them the wrong way. The historic accounts of adventurous exploration through Borneo still influence the way many view the island. While there are still remote parts of Borneo where elements of these romantic notions still exist (minus the headhunters, who have long given up the tendency to collect a memento of their enemies), the world’s third-largest island is, today, much more accessible, and much friendlier to contemporary travellers than many realise.

Sabah and neighbouring Sarawak are the two East Malaysian states on Borneo, with the sultanate of Brunei and Indonesian Kalimantan completing the territorial configuration. While many hardcore adventurous activities are possible in the wilds of Borneo, there are also various “soft” options for those who appreciate their creature comforts. With so many natural attractions on offer, travellers need to focus on specific parts of the island depending on their interests. Indonesian Kalimantan, for example, is vast and less accessible than Sabah and Sarawak, appealing to those who really want to get off the beaten track.

The interior of Sabah is still remote, as most of the state’s settlements cling to the coast around the capital of Kota Kinabalu and the former capital, Sandakan. While many survive the tropical heat and humidity with air-conditioned buildings, the climate becomes most apparent when outdoor adventures are undertaken. Despite the cooling mountainous peaks and the surrounding, refreshing waters of parts of Borneo, most adventures to be had are hot and sweaty activities. Visitors need to moderate the way they respond to them by wearing protective clothing and drinking lots of fluids.

Bearing all this in mind, here are six wild places in Sarawak and Sabah to explore.

Mount Kinabalu towers over Sabah and is frequently visible from destinations as far away as Kota Kinabalu, 90km to the west. At 4,101m tall, Kinabalu is often mistakenly referred to as Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, but peaks such as Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar (5,881m) and Puncak Yunin in Papua, Indonesia (4,595m) easily surpass it.

Don’t be fooled, though, Mount Kinabalu is still one heck of a climb. Conquering the mountain has long challenged those with an adventurous spirit, and card carrying members of the lunatic fringe run the 20km to the summit and back in under three hours during the annual October Climbathon, while mere mortals opt to take two days covering the distance.

In 2000, Kinabalu Park became the first Malaysian site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This inclusion was recognition of the park being one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas, providing a habitat for plants that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The rare slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, is one such example, while the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia – one of the most unusual plants known to biology, with flowers growing up to a metre in diameter – also calls Kinabalu Park its home.

While the mountain ascent requires no special abilities apart from endurance and good health, it’s no walk in the park. Most climbers arrive in the park the night before to complete paperwork and arrange for a guide. (All climbers must be authorised, insured, registered, and guided.)

Most climbers will take two days to conquer the peak, spending a night at Laban Rata located a challenging, five-hour walk from the park headquarters. Climbers crawl from their beds in the darkness of the next morning to make the ascent to the Low’s Peak summit in time for sunrise. Packages covering meals, guide, and accommodation at the halfway stop of Laban Rata are available from Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.


Although destroyed by Allied bombs in WWII, Sandakan was rebuilt and is now a hub for travellers who want to get close to nature. Most travel to Sandakan to see the orang utans at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, located on the city’s outskirts. This centre was established in 1964 to rehabilitate captive or orphaned orang utans, and there are visitor viewing platforms to observe the animals learning to feed themselves.

Sandakan is a pleasant city, with an essential stop being the English Tea House and Restaurant (, which could easily be the setting for a Somerset Maugham novel. Diners east malaysia can reminisce about the colonial past while dining or enjoying delicious scones, cream, and jam for morning and afternoon tea.

There are other “soft” adventures located around Sandakan, and the Lower Kinabatangan River, centred on the village of Sukau, is just two hour’s drive away. The Lower Kinabatangan is Malaysia’s largest, forest-covered floodplain and eco-activities can be found along the Menanggul River.

Wildlife concentrations here are some of Malaysia’s highest, with the main attraction being the proboscis monkeys and orang utans that live in the forests beside the narrow river. From the comfort of small boats, visitors can observe the monkeys swinging from branch to branch. Found only on Borneo, proboscis monkeys are identifiable by their large red noses. The forests are also a haven for other monkeys, macaques, gibbons, crocodiles, civet cats, and an extensive bird population including hornbills.

Mount Mulu National Park is one of three Malaysian UNESCO World Heritage Sites, selected for its astonishing caves and limestone formations that include stalactites and stalagmites. The list of superlatives is as large as some of the caves, with the four main ones being the Deer, Lang, Clearwater, and Wind Caves. The Deer Cave is the largest passage in the world, while the Sarawak Chamber is the world’s largest chamber.

Boardwalks traverse the various cave floors; this is for the best, as the ground is an oozing mass of insects consuming mounds of guano (bat droppings). Most evenings, millions of bats fly from the cave entrances over a period of hours to create one of Malaysia’s most stunning, yet little-known natural spectacles. Boats are used to reach some of the caves and several other park attractions.

Ba’Kelalan is a remote community in the Sarawak interior located near the border with Indonesian Kalimantan. The people here were once fierce headhunters before Christian missionaries put a stop to their wild ways. People here talk about walking, but discussions are peppered with how many days it takes to access various destinations. Considering that much of the surrounding countryside is tropical rainforest with undulating buttress roots and rapidly flowing rivers, the difficulty in moving around is significant. The nearest main town is Lawas, a five hour’s drive away along a rugged 125-km logging trail.

Walking is the main activity for most adventurous visitors, and being 1,000m above sea level means it is a little cooler than the lowlands. There are nine rice-growing communities in the valley, and to walk to all takes a full day. Another pleasant walk is to head up the hill opposite the tiny airport to a viewpoint above the flight path of the airport. Watching aircraft landing in the valley below offers the unusual perspective of being above the planes as they land.

Keen walkers may want to consider walking to other destinations such as the Kalimantan border or Bario in the Kelabit Highland. (From Bario, it’s possible to fly back to Miri.) Another possibility, with the assistance of local guides, is to attempt an ascent on Gunung Murud; Sarawak’s highest peak at 2,423m.

The Lun Bawang villagers are happy for visitors to observe their daily routine of growing rice (highland rice is known as adan or Bario rice, and is highly prized for its fragrance) and vegetables, hunting, raising livestock, producing salt, and making handicrafts. Being so isolated, the residents are resourceful, finding materials in the forest (such as bamboo) to craft utilitarian items. Apple Lodge is the best accommodation option and provides comfortable beds, electricity (generated by a micro hydro plant), solar-heated hot water, and great local food.


This community of 1,500 people can be reached by a one hour flight from Miri on a 19-seater MASWings Twin Otter. When a plane lands it can get downright hectic, as most of the villagers come out to welcome visitors.

Adventures in Borneo need not only be in remote places. Bako National Park is one of Sarawak’s most accessible parks thanks to being just one hour by road and boat from the capital Kuching. (Boats depart from Kampung Bako for the 20-minute journey into the park.)

Bako is one of the state’s most biologically significant national parks despite, compared to most parks in Sarawak and Southeast Asia, being quite small (just 2,742ha). Despite its size, the park has fascinated conservationists, naturalists, and botanists for years thanks to its ecological diversity.

Probably Bako’s most unusual attribute is its varied vegetation communities, where examples of most major plant communities from Borneo are found. It is a miniature botanical garden for those interested in discovering some of Malaysia’s bizarre botany.

These plant communities range from mangrove, peat swamp, and heath to mixed dipterocarp forests. On the plateaus, the vegetation changes to a heath-like scrub called kerangas. For an island best known for its dense rainforests, kerangas forests are dry, low in height, and with an open canopy. Here there are many varieties of carnivorous flowers such as pitcher plants and sundews. An extensive array of orchids is also on display, though they may not be that obvious.

Bako’s picturesque coastline is lined with sandstone cliffs, rocky headlands, and sandy beaches. These beaches are popular for weekend visitors who come to swim in the warm shallow waters. Millions of years of erosion have sculpted many unique formations such as sea arches and stone stacks situated off the coast. Traces of iron minerals in the parent rock have produced layers of hardened pink ironstone. The sandstone also displays unusual honeycomb weathering that gives the rock its unique texture and appearance.

Observant nature lovers may spot silvered leaf monkeys, long-tailed macaques, bearded pigs, squirrels, and mouse deer in the vegetation found throughout Bako. The rare proboscis monkey lives in the river mangroves, especially around Telok Paku, Telok Delima, and Ulu Assam. Bako is one of the few places in the world where the proboscis monkey can be easily seen.

Walking one of the sixteen trails is probably the most popular activity for park visitors, and the trails are colourcoded, taking between two hours and two days to complete. In all, there are about 30km of well-signposted trails, and those planning to walk all need to allocate a few days in the park. The park authorities have excellent pamphlets and maps to ensure visitors get to where they want to and can learn about the vegetation along the way. Some destinations are also accessible by boat, or by a combination of walking and boating.

The beach at the park headquarters at Teluk Assam is safe for swimming as it has a long shallow tidal range. The shaded casaurina trees lining the beach are a popular place to retreat from the sun.

There are several gateway airports to Borneo, with the mains ones being Sabah (Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Tawau), Sarawak (Kuching, Miri, Bintulu and Sibu), Indonesian Kalimantan (Balikpapan), and Brunei (Bandar Seri Begawan).

Accommodation on Borneo can range from simple park chalets to luxury resorts. Park accommodation is mostly in basic but comfortable lodges. Accommodation in some Sabah parks has been privatised and is managed by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (

Brunei Tourism (, Forest Department Sarawak (, Indonesian Tourism (, Sabah Parks (, Sabah Tourism (, and Sarawak Tourism (

David Bowden is the author of Enchanting Borneo distributed by John Beaufoy Publishing, UK and sold in all good bookshops.

This article was written by David Bowden for Senses of Malaysia.
Source: Senses of Malaysia Sept-Oct 2012

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