Of all my travels, I must admit that Malaysian Borneo was by far the most exciting trip for me. I have never seen such dense wildlife in all my life, with so many species that are endemic to a particular place, such as the Orangutan, Pygmy Elephant, and Proboscis Monkey. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and is divided up by three countries; Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. During our two weeks in Borneo, we traveled in Malaysian Borneo only, and we focused our trip to the Northeastern section of the island, known as Sabah. Malaysian Borneo is divided into Sabah in the East and Sarawak in the West. We were able to to visit Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, the Kinabatangan River, Mount Kinabalu, and Kudat.
As an American, you are not required to have a visa before entering the country of Malaysia if you plan to stay for 90 days or less. For non-Americans, check https://malaysia.visahq.com/ for the latest information for your country. If you plan to visit Brunei or Indonesian Borneo, visa requirements are different.
Malaysian Borneo tends to be slightly more expensive than other South East Asian countries. Food, transport, and accommodation are still very inexpensive, however most adventure activities (basically the whole reason to go to Borneo) can run upwards of a couple hundred dollars. The taxi system in Kota Kinabalu can be expensive, so if you want to save on those expenses then make sure to book accommodation in a convenient location to the sites you wish to see, as the city is very walk able.
We did not receive any special vaccinations before entering the country, but if you are concerned you can check with the Centers for Disease Control on travelers to Malaysia. As with most of Asia, it’s good to be updated on your Hep A, Hep B, Typhoid, and Tetanus shots. There is always a risk for Malaria or Dengue Fever, however I don’t typically plan ahead for those viruses because they are treatable at hospitals in the major cities. In Malaysian Borneo the risk is quite low for both, and anti-malarials are not usually advised. A good quality bug spray will usually prevent you from most mosquito bites, and trust me you will want that!
Getting onto the Island:
An easy way to reach Malaysian Borneo is by flying into the Kota Kinabalu International Airport. Cheap flights to Borneo can be found from flying out of nearby cities such as Bangkok, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur. Airlines such as Air Asia, Malaysian Airlines, Thai Smile, Thai Airways, or Singapore Airlines offer flights that can be as low as $200 USD. From Thailand you typically will have a layover in Kuala Lumpur, but on a lucky day you may be able to find a direct flight from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu. If you plan to visit Sarawak instead of Sabah, you can fly into Kuching International Airport.
Malaysian Borneo Travel Itinerary:
If you have two weeks to travel through Sabah, I highly recommend following my plan, as it offers you the chance to see a lot of what the country has to offer while sticking to your budget. If you want to enter some of the remote National Parks and stay overnight with a guide, those trips must be booked long in advance and if you are a budget backpacker, could break your bank. Places such as the Maliau Basin or the Tabin Wildlife Reserve are top destinations for those looking for primary rainforests, however trips here can run $500 USD and up. Please also note that if you are planning to hike to the summit of Mount Kinabalu, it is recommended to book those tickets several months in advance. I highly recommend booking all tours with River Junkies, as they have excellent reviews, they are affordable, and we used them for our Kinabatangan River tour and were very impressed with their services.
First Stop: Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah and the major city to fly into. A relatively small city but a good place to find local food, cheap beer, and other travelers. Walking around the city is best if you can, because taxi drivers will charge you much more than other South East Asian countries. It can cost $15 USD to go only 10 minutes one-way.
Where to Stay:
Accommodation in Kota Kinabalu ranges from 5-star beachside luxary resorts to shared-room hostels. A great place to start is TripAdvisor to search your travel dates and the type of accommodation you might want. We stayed at the Zara’s Boutique Hotel ($40 USD) our first time in Kota Kinabalu but I do not recommend it. Quite a distance from the main action in town and not a very good breakfast. We stayed at Dreamtel ($50) on our second pass through the city however, and I do highly recommend this hotel. The rooms were beautiful and spacious, great showers, and a wonderful breakfast buffet included in the cost of the room. Located directly next the bus station, so it’s easy to move onto your next destination. There are much cheaper choices for accommodation with hostels however if you’re budgeting even more.
Where to Eat and Drink:
Close to the riverfront is where a lot of the action for Western food and drinks can be found. It is also close to the local night market, where you can find handicrafts, spices, clothes, and other items. Walking around less touristy areas of the city you will find the local food, particularly a lot of restaurants called ‘fish head curry’. At these restaurants you can find a wide variety of local cuisine, such as roti canai, curries, banana leaf dishes, etc. Skol beer is the local beer.
El Centro: Mexican and other Western foods. Delicious tacos and chickpea burgers. Margaritas are on point and cost 19RM ($4.50 USD).
Kohnoor Waterfront: Indian cuisine. Sit outdoors on the patio overlooking the ocean.
Krishna’s Fish Head Curry: Local cuisine with affordable prices. Recommend the banana leaf.
The Loft: Bar along the Riverfront with indoor and outdoor seating. Upscale prices.
What to See and Do:
Tanjung Aru Beach: Where the locals hang out after a hot day. Gorgeous for sunset photos. Look up into the trees to see the wild green parrots.
Kota Kinabalu City Mosque: One of the most picturesque mosques I have seen. Make sure to dress appropriately, being very conservative, especially for women, and try to visit around sunset for the best photo opportunities. A 10 min drive outside of town.
A number of different sites can be seen by heading 1-2 hours outside of the city, either by car or boat, such as Manukan Island, Tanku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, and Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre.
Second Stop: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Take the bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan (43 RM, 6 hours) but ask them to drop you off at the road leading to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. From here you either wait for a taxi or walk 20 minutes towards the centre. Another option is to fly from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan, and then get a ride to the centre. Many people opt for staying in Sandakan, but we chose to stay near the centre which I thought was the best choice, as Sandakan city doesn’t have that much to offer, and there are other great activities nearby the centre you may want to visit.
The ride from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan is breath-taking for the first leg of the trip. You pass through pristine forests and gorgeous mountainsides. The second leg of the trip shows you the terrible devastation that the palm oil industry has done to the country. Hours of driving through nothing but palm oil plantations is really disheartening about the future of the island and the species endemic to it.
Where to Stay, Eat, and Drink:
Sepilok Bed and Breakfast: 15 minute walk from this adorable B&B to the Orangutan sanctuary. 5 minute walk to the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Rooms with AC, fan, balcony, and breakfast included run only around $20 USD per night. Great restaurant on site and 9 RM beer.
Sepilok Nature Resort: Upscale lodge with prices ranging from $60 USD to $200 USD. Definitely a beautiful place to stay but not budget-friendly. We ate at the Nature Lodge Cafe several times, where we had delicious food (more expensive of course) and good coffee. Only a 5 min walk to the Orangutan Centre. Perfect for when it starts raining and you need a quick place with cover!
There are 3-4 other accommodations nearby, but the above 2 are my recommendations.
The Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre has a cafe as well, with cheap and delicious local food starting around only a few dollars. From the centre you can catch a transport bus to take you to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. I don’t think there is accommodation nearby there.
What to Do:
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: This is the whole reason you’re in Sepilok so don’t miss out! Located on 43 square kilometers of protected forest, no where else can you get as up close and personal with Orangutans as you can here. The centre is amazing. They rescue Orangutans from the wild and rehabilitate them back for release. The cost is 30 RM per person, 10 RM for a camera, and they only have two visiting times; between 9am-11am and between 2pm-4pm. I highly recommend staying for both visits, your ticket covers the whole day. Be warned that you are not allowed to bring anything accept yourself and your camera inside the centre, but they provide lockers for your convenience. Feeding times take place at 10am and 3pm, and I recommend you get to a feeding platform for both of those. Get there a little early, as the Orangutans know the times and usually arrive around 30 minutes early. Make sure to respect the rules. If an Orangutan (especially a male or a pregnant female can be violent) walks right past you (as they did for us several times) keep a safe distance and do not try and touch them. The centre tries the best they can to prevent disease from spreading from humans to the Orangutans, and you don’t want to end up hurt as well!
Tip: Skip the Nursery until either the very end or if you do not see any of the released Orangutans. Most people head straight to the nursery, and this is your time to head straight to a feeding platform so you can get up front and center. The nursery is indoors, and you can only few the babies through glass (not great for pictures). You have a better opportunity of seeing a mom with her baby near the feeding platform.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre: Unfortunately we did not visit this centre that is located directly next door to the Orangutans, but we had already visited a similar one in Luang Prabang, Laos. At the time of visit in 2017, the centre cost more than the Orangutan centre, and people were slightly disappointed that they couldn’t see the bears as well as they would have liked.
Rainforest Discovery Centre: 5 minute walk from the Sepilok B&B. This discovery centre has a 400 meter long canopy walkway and costs only 15 RM to enter. If you’re lucky you may see the rehabilitated Orangutans from the nearby centre swing past you, or other monkey and wildlife species. I recommend bringing binoculars and a camera with a decent zoom lens. We wanted to visit for sunrise, when the birds are most active, but unfortunately it was raining. For bird lovers- this is your paradise.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary: Not so much of a sanctuary, but a great place to get up close and personal with this species of monkey that are endemic to Borneo. Unique in appearance, these monkeys are playful and great models for photographs! The sanctuary is located about 20 minutes from Sepilok, but there is a shuttle bus running back and froth from the Orangutan Centre. The cost is a little high for this sanctuary, but it supports the local palm oil farmer who allows the monkeys to stay in his plantation, where they are protected and well-fed. You will see Proboscis if you visit the Kinabatangan River, but these here at the sanctuary are within 5 feet of you.
Third Stop: Kinabatangan River
From Sepilok your next stop should be the Kinabatangan River (2 hours). Most people had told me prior to my trip that this was their favorite place in Borneo, and I will admit it was mine to. I recommend booking your trip with River Junkies as they were recommended the most with the best reviews. For 450 RM per person, this tour included round trip transfer from our Sepilok B&B, all meals, 4 boat tours, 1 hike to Oxbow lake, and 2 nights accommodation at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. We decided to book the shared dorms, which has 2 bunk beds and sleeps 4 people, as this is the much cheaper option than a private room, but we were happily surprised to find that we were alone in our room, and that the lodge gives everyone private rooms until they run out of space and then begin adding people to each room.
Now I am sure everyone will say that their guest house along the river was the best, but the Nature Lodge was incredible. The food was delicious, the rooms clean, the wildlife abundant, and the people some of the best I have met on my travels. We absolutely loved Shah our tour guide, and Nelson, Ray, and Azlan that worked at the lodge. Our trip would not have been the same without them.
One night you can choose to go on the Night Safari, for an extra 15 RM. They have mud boots for rent, and make sure that you do! We were walking in 10 inches of mud at some points. The night safari was the best I had ever been on. We saw civet cats, colorful birds, kingfishers, among others. The mosquitoes were very intense however, so make sure to spray ahead of time. On the second night they offered a dance lesson with local dances, which was an exciting experience as well.
Our boat tours along the river were incredible. We saw herds of wild Pygmy Elephants, wild Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys, Dusty Leaf Monkeys, Crab-Eating Macaques, Eagles, Lizards, and much more. The Kinabatangan River has one of the densest populations of wildlife in Borneo, due to the fact that the surrounding land is continuously being turned into palm oil plantations. You can even see the palm oil trees creeping up on the banks of the river. The animals don’t have a lot of space to live, so they are all crammed in together along the river, co-existing. You’ll have a love/hate relationship with this place. You’ll love all the wildlife that you get to see up close and personal, and hate what humans are doing to our planet. Hopefully enough of the area is protected to preserve what remains of the species that call this place their home.
Fourth Stop: Mount Kinabalu
From the Kinabatangan River we had our round trip transfer take us back to Sepilok where we got a bus to take us to Mount Kinabalu. The ride is roughly 4 hours, and unfortunately we left late in the day (I recommend you leave early) and arrived to Mount Kinabalu at dark. We opted for staying right near the entrance to the park, and not in nearby Kundasang or Ranau. There are not too many accommodations near the entrance of the park, and if you arrive at night this will result in you walking to your guesthouse in the pitch black.
Mount Kinabalu was named Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Where to Stay:
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge: The most perfect place to stay near Mount Kinabalu. Walking distance (15 min) to the entrance of the park and local restaurants, with the most gorgeous view of the mountain in the background on a clear day. The lodge was less than 20 USD for a private room with shared facilities, and this included breakfast as well. The lodge has a common living space which is great for meeting fellow trekkers or travelers. A different meal is served for dinner each night, and if you want to order it you have to let the staff know the morning of. This is also a great spot for bird and butterfly watchers. Please note: Get your cash before arriving, you won’t find an ATM nearby unless you visit Kundasang or Ranau town (at the time of writing in 2017).
Nearby guesthouses include Jungle Jack Backpackers, and J Residence Nabalu which also have good reviews and affordable prices.
Kundasang Town: Located 6 kilometers from the entrance to the park, this town has several accommodations and restaurants. You’ll also find a surprising restaurant, KFC located in the town center. The town has a local market with incredibly cheap fruits and vegetables and local spices. On a clear day, you will get a panoramic view of the entire mountain. It’s unbelievable breathtaking, and definitely worth the trip if you’re staying up at the main entrance of the park. Most of the day the mountain is covered by clouds, so I suggest making an afternoon of it in town in hopes the clouds part. In town you can visit the War Memorial and Gardens, or take a taxi out to the Desa Cattle Farm to sample products. A drive outside of town will take you to the Poring Hot Springs.
Ranau: A much larger town 20 minutes further down the road which offers more accommodations, restaurants, and banks. If you haven’t rented your own car then the taxi trips back and forth from the entrance of the park will add up. Ranau offers camping opportunities or entrances to other areas of Mt. Kinabalu.
What to Do:
Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage Site: Home to Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The forests surrounding the mountain are rich in biodiversity, both of plants and animal species, and habitats ranges, such as tropical lowland, tropical mountain forest, and scrubs. Day hiking around the park is an incredible experience, with numerous different trails that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours to complete. If you start early enough you can wind through the different trails to see the largest variety of plants and animals. Look closely for the Pitcher Plant, a carnivorous plant species that traps small insects and animals inside a pit filled with digestive juices. Nepenthes rajah is the largest pitcher plant and carnivorous plant in the world, and Borneo is home to it.
Trekking to the summit is the major attraction here, and there are numerous tour groups to book through. I still recommend River Junkies for all your tours, and treks to the summit must be booked far in advance (3 months). Yes it is possible to book when you get there, but only if someone or a group has canceled will you get in. Treks typically are 1 night 2 day hikes.
If your not hiking to the summit, then the trails of the park are your next best thing. You can pick up an easy to follow map at the parts entrance, and decide which trails you want to do. Better yet is to find a description of each trail (a poster is located at Kinabalu Mt. Lodge) so you know what you’re getting into. Some of the trails are smooth going, others are treacherous and long. We hiked part of the Silau-Silau trail, as well as part of Kiau View Trail.
Where to Eat:
Panataran: Located at the entrance of Kinabalu Park, this restaurant offers delicious local foods at incredibly cheap prices. Make sure to try the teh tarik, a hot milk tea that is a staple of Malaysian culture.
Restoran Hidayah & Katering: Located in Kundasang town, this is the most perfect spot you could be if you’re waiting for the clouds to part and photograph Mt. Kinabalu. Cheap, local food.
Fifth Stop: Kudat
The last stop on our two week trip was Kudat for its beaches. There are many gorgeous islands to visit off of Borneo, and many resorts with the over-the-water bungalows that are a quarter of the price of Bora Bora’s famous resorts. We opted for staying on budget, and exploring the coastline of Borneo beaches instead of the islands. We read that Kudat was the best place to do this, up in the far Northeast of Sabah, and when we dug a little further, we read there was one place in particular that was a must-visit.
You can take a shared taxi from Kota Kinabalu to Kudat. If you’re up in Mount Kinabalu like we were, you’ll first take a shared taxi back to Kota Kinabalu (2 hours) and then catch a shared taxi to Kudat (3 hours).
Where to Stay, Eat, and What to Do in Kudat:
Tampat do Aman, which means ‘place of peace’ or a ‘place of friends’ in the local language, was the most highly recommended place to visit in Kudat that we found. Located on 6 acres of land, it is divided into its accommodation area (which consists of longhouses and little huts made of bamboo, or more private chalets with personal bathrooms) and its nature preserve which you are welcome to explore at any time. Howard is the owner, originally from the UK, that married a women from the nearby village of Marang Parang, and a lot of the profit from Tampat do Aman is put back into the local community. Howard has become a bit of a celebrity in the town, and even coaches a rugby team for the local boys, and takes them on trips to compete. Let him know when you are arriving into Kudat town, and he will provide transportation to pick you up.
Tampat do Aman offers Jungle trekking, Mountain biking, Jungle survival courses, Mangrove cruises, surf board hire, and surfing lessons. During the day you can crash on the beach (bring an umbrella, there is not much shade) or go snorkeling. There is practically no one on the beach as far as you can see, it’s truly breathtaking and peaceful. Be aware of the sand flies, they have a terrible bite. Bring spray with you.
The only place to eat nearby is Tip Top Restaurants, owned by Howard, and located directly on the beach. Howard offers shuttle times between the camp and the beach several times a day, or you are welcome to walk (20 minutes) which is nice at nighttime but not so nice in the heat of the day. If you plan to head down to the beach early, I recommend you take everything you need or the day, stay for sunset, and take the late shuttle back in the evening. At night the place fills with everyone staying at the resort, and it’s a great time to meet the travelers and eat pizza and drink beer. The restaurant is run by the local women who cook amazing food, and will even offer you a cooking lesson if you ask. Have an interesting dish you think they should add to the menu? Offer to show them how to cook it.
From Kudat you can take a shared taxi back to Kota Kinabalu to fly to your next destination! Enjoy all that Borneo has to offer and please let me know if you have any questions or need advice!