Borneo was long on my bucket list. Whilst there are so many amazing things to do in Borneo, the main draw for me was seeing Orangutans, my favourite animal on this planet.
That said, when I started to research my trip, I came across so many other awesome things to do in Borneo that I realised it’s not JUST a cool place to hang out with Orangutans. There are beautiful beaches, rainforest safaris, cultural tours, huge mountains, buzzing cities and some of the worlds best diving all on offer.
I only had a just over a week to visit Borneo but I crammed an awful lot in by taking a G Adventures tour in Sabah in Malaysian Borneo – where many of the amazing wildlife activities in Borneo are based. One day, I’d love to go back and explore the rest of Borneo.
Top Tip | If you only have a short time in a place, taking a tour with a company like G Adventures is the absolute best way to maximise your time and cram a LOT into a short time period knowing that all the practicalities have been taken care of!
So I decided to create this article about the best things to do in Borneo, partly for you guys and partly for me to inspire my next visit to Borneo.
For the parts of Borneo I haven’t seen yet, I asked some travel experts about their personal favourite things to do in Borneo. They came up with some brilliant ideas which have me itching to book a flight back already…
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Best Things to do in Malaysia Borneo
Things to do in Sabah
See Orangutans at Sepilok Rehabilitation centre
Visiting Sepilok Orangutan sanctuary is one of the most popular things to do in Borneo. Whilst there are no guarantees you will see the Orangutans (as they are free to roam into the wild if they choose,) the odds are good, especially at the feeding platforms.
However, my best experience was seeing them swinging freely in the trees just a few metres away as we walked along the boardwalk. One of the Orangutans we saw was a wild one, the other currently being rehabilitated. Seeing them befriend each other and swing through the trees flirting and play flighting was one of the most magical wildlife moments I have ever had.
Visit Kota Kinabalu City Mosque at sunset
Whilst you can go inside and explore this city mosque (as long as prayers are not ongoing,) the real beauty lies outside with the crisp white building with the striking blue turrets reflecting off the moat around the outside.
My favourite time to visit was at sunset when the pink sky contrasts with the blue turrets and the palm trees are lit up with twinkling fairy lights. Prayers were taking place whilst I was there so I couldn’t go inside but I loved listening to the musical prayers over the speakers as I watched the stunning sunset. It was extremely peaceful.
Take a boat Safari on Kinabatagan River
Staying at a jungle resort on the banks of the River Kinabatagan was one of my personal trip highlights and favourite things to do in Malaysian Borneo.
For 2 days, I took twice daily river safaris spotting cute Probiscus Monkeys with their huge noses, huge crocodiles and even a wild Orangutan.
We took day hikes through the rainforest and at night explored the jungle in the dark finding creatures like tree frogs and colourful sleeping birds.
Between safari’s, we relaxed at the rainforest lodge enjoying views of the rivers and watching the resident naughty monkeys get in trouble with the hotel staff.
Enjoy a homestay at Tambatuon village
Learn about local life by enjoying a homestay in a village such as Tambatuon. Take a tour around the village seeing daily life, swim in the river and then enjoy a cooking class with your hosts before watching the sunset over the village.
The food is wonderful and you will be made to feel completely at home with this delightful family. Accommodation is basic but clean and comfortable.
Visit the markets in Kota Kinabalu
Most flights will arrive at Kota Kinabalu so the best thing to do with a few hours when you first arrive, is to visit the local markets and observe day to day life for the fish and market traders.
Wander amongst the fish market, try some street food then visit the stalls selling colourful souvenirs.
Island Hop in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Visit any of the five islands which make up the lovely Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park just a few miles out from Kota Kinabalu and reached by small (very bumpy) boats.
You can take a day tour or buy tickets for the ferry and plan your own day visiting the different islands with their white sandy beaches and perfect aqua clear water. You can hire a snorkel or take a dive trip and there is even a zip line between Gaya and Sapi Islands.
Visit The Sun Bears in Sepilok
Visit the worlds smallest bears, native to Borneo at the Sun Bear sanctuary where rescued sun bears are rehabilitated with the plan to release them back into the wild.
They are currently endangered animals so this is a great opportunity to see them as it is not is easy in the wild.
Climbing Mt Kinabalu
By Emily Cole of KidsAndCompass.com
Climbing Mt Kinabalu has to be one of the top things to do in Borneo (pun intended). Standing at 4095m, Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Malaysia.
Kinabalu looms imposingly above the lush cloud forest filled park below, it’s grey peak shrouded by clouds much of the time. The usual route to the top takes two days, beginning with a 6km uphill hike through the surrounding cloud forest to Laban Rata Resthouse. The trails through the forest aren’t particularly difficult and the views of the surrounding area are phenomenal. Look out for enormous pitcher plants and friendly shrews during the climb.
Once you reach Laban Rata you can spend a few hours resting and trying to sleep before waking in the middle of the night to scramble up 2km worth of bare rock to the peak. This part of the climb is more difficult, and you need to pull yourself up some sections using ropes. Altitude sickness can also kick in at this point.
The aim is to catch sunrise at the summit, before walking the whole 8km back down to the foot of the mountain (don’t worry – you can stop for breakfast back at the resthouse). It’s an exhilarating achievement!
Kinabalu is climbable all year round. We climbed Kinabalu in August and the weather was ideal. The rainy season runs from November to March and climbing conditions can be made more tricky by heavy rainfall. Just don’t forget to bring hiking boots, warm clothing and a head torch.
You will need to book your permits to climb Mt Kinabalu in advance – don’t just show up. You can’t ascend the mountain without a guide.
World Class Diving at Sipidan Island
By Lora Pope of ExploreWithLora.com
Sipadan Island in Borneo, Malaysia, is regularly ranked as one of the best dive destinations in the world and it’s not hard to see why upon visiting. This small island, formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct undersea volcano, is one of the richest marine habitats in the world.
You can expect to see giant green sea turtles and hawksbills all over the place, tornadoes of barracudas, parrotfish, sharks, and morays, all in one dive. More than 3000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in the waters surrounding Sipadan.
Sipadan Island has twelve dive sites and each has its own distinctive views of coral and aquatic life, but Barracuda point is definitely the highlight of the trip.
This dive site has a great barracuda shoal where you can see thousands in a tornado-like formation. It was so much fun swimming through them! During interval stops, divers get the chance to relax and recharge on the beautiful beaches of Sipadan island.
If you plan to go diving at Sipadan Island be sure to book in advance, as dive permits are limited to 120 a day and space can fill up quickly.
Visiting a Head Hunting Tribe in Mari Mari Cultural Village
By Christine of IrelandTravelGuides.com
Mari-Mari is a cultural village that offers an insight into the life of the headhunting tribes in Borneo.
Located on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu, Mari-Mari village acts as a museum to preserve the culture and to share the history and tradition of the ethnic tribes especially the Murut tribe – the famously feared headhunting tribe in Borneo.
The Murut tribe is the last headhunting tribe in Sabah to renounce the practice of headhunting. This is only after it was prohibited by law to practice headhunting.
As part of their tradition, the Murut people used to put a decapitated head on their door to scare thieves. Without doing so was a sign of weakness and perceived as less worthy of respect.
Also, if in other cultures, a dowry is a requirement before marriage. In Murut culture, men could only get married if they present at least one skull to their prospect’s family. This is a sign that the Murut men can protect their future family. Headhunting was basically a rite of passage to manhood for Murut tribe.
Aside from learning about the headhunting tradition, visitors can also witness how the tribes live. They show people how to hunt using a blowpipe, how Murut men court the women, how to make rice wine and demonstrate some amazing cultural dance and song performances.
Visit Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley
By James of TravelCollecting.com
Borneo Rainforest Lodge is the only place to stay inside the Danum Valley Conservation Area, which is one of the few remaining pockets of completely virgin rainforest in Borneo. You can feel the age of the jungle. Towering trees, half smothered in thick vines, with enormous buttresses are home to red leaf monkeys, meter-long monitor lizards, and, of course, the orangutans that Borneo is famous for.
A stay at the lodge includes daily guided hikes into the jungle. Hikes go up past an ancient primitive cemetery to an overlook with views of the lodge far below and to a waterfall, perfect for cooling down after hiking in the steamy jungle. You can get a foot spa, where fish come to nibble the dead skin off your feet – yes, you can feel their teeth!
There is also a canopy walk with bridges, platforms and towers through the tops of the trees so you can more easily see a variety of birds including hornbills. A guided night walk and night drive on the back of an open truck with a powerful spotlight give you the opportunity to see flying frogs, flying giant red squirrels, flying lemurs and, if you’re lucky like I was, a rare (non-flying) cloud leopard.
All meals are included and are served in a large open-air lodge house with fabulous views of the river and a jungle-covered escarpment. This is roughing it in style!
Visit Dermakot Forest Reserve
By Margarita of TheWidlifeDiaries.com
Deramakot Forest Reserve is a hidden gem in Sabah’s network of protected areas. Part of the reserve is set aside for sustainable logging, but the part that is protected for wildlife is the best place in Borneo to see some of the rarer species of the island’s wildlife.
It is the top spot in the world for spotting the elusive Clouded leopard – one of the most spectacular wild cats in the world. In fact, Deramakot is home to all five species of Borneo’s felines. But it’s not all about the cats, of course. Borneo Orangutans and the adorable Pygmy Elephants are regularly seen in Deramakot, as well as a variety of flying squirrels, civets and deer. The slow loris and the colugo, also known as the flying lemur, are both common in the reserve. And if you are very lucky, you might even spot a sun bear!
Wild and remote, Deramakot can only be visited on an organized tour. There are no shops or petrol stations within easy reach, and the tour will include all supplies as well as a guide, a driver and a cook.
The accommodation is surprisingly comfortable in Deramakot, consisting of three-bedroom tiled chalets that come equipped with air conditioning and hot water showers. Most of the exploring is done in the open 4×4 trucks, but there are also some walking tracks available.
Kudat Turtle Beach, Northern Tip of Borneo
By Warren of SlingAdventures.com
Nothing says getting off the beaten track more than a trip to the northern tip of Borneo. If you like camping and getting away from it all you will find yourself, and no one else, at Kudat Turtle Beach. A kilometre stretch of sand that houses turtle hatchling in breeding season and provides a remote getaway for the lucky few who take the time to discover this untouched corner of Borneo.
The local village who provide access to the beach, are a welcoming family and also have a traditional longhouse for non-campers to stay in just beside the village. They can also provide great home-cooked meals if you don’t bring your own. However, if you bring a hammock and some basic supplies you can swing in the warm breeze by the beach and sleep safe knowing you’ll wake up to the sunrise over the shimmering sea.
Visit Lankayan Island
By Rachel of RachelsRuminations.com
Lankayan Island is a tiny tropical paradise off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo. Privately owned, located in the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area, it is home to a small resort and a turtle sanctuary. Close to the sea border with the Philippines and a 90-minute speedboat ride from Sandakan, it is a place to enjoy the peace and quiet and do some excellent snorkelling or diving through the island’s professional and well-supplied dive centre.
Other than diving, the only excitement in this remote place is when eggs hatch at the turtle sanctuary. Word of a hatching spreads quickly, and visitors can watch the hatchlings as they are released to rush down the sand to the water.
Spending time on Lankayan Island forces visitors to slow down and relax. The resort has no television and limited wifi. A stroll around the whole island only takes about 15 minutes. Lankayan is a place to lie on a beach, listening to the lap of the waves on the sand, or to float lazily over the house reef, watching the colourful underwater wildlife. In the evening, chat with the other residents over dinner in the main building, then enjoy a game of cards or watch the sunset over the sea. Read more about Lankayan at Lankayan Island Resort in Malaysian Borneo.
Things to do in Sarawak
Bako National Park
By Vicki Franz of VickiViaja.com
Borneo is amazing. We are more than happy that we have included it in our Malaysia itinerary and if you ask us what has fascinated us most about Borneo Island, the answer is quickly found: its unique nature.
First and foremost is our visit to the Bako National Park. In this National Park, you can not only observe various species of animals that exist exclusively on Borneo in the wild but also discover incredible landscapes.
In the jungle of the National Park, there are various trails with different levels of difficulty. Here you can meet different species of animals. The most common are the macaques. But also the bearded warthogs, which only exist here on Borneo, can be seen.
The real highlight, however, is the Proboscis monkeys, which are also found only in Borneo. With their huge noses, these animals are really impressive and absolutely cute.
Since Bako National Park is so closely surrounded by forests, it can only be reached by boat. Especially in the rainy season, getting there can be quite adventurous, so you already have an exciting start of your trip to Bako.
Near the beach, you can find a camp, where there are different accommodations for all types of budgets.
Visiting Sarawak Cultural Village
By Ania of The-Travelling-twins.com
During the week we spent there, one of the best things to do in Kuching with kids was a visit to Sarawak Cultural Village.
It’s a great idea to come here at the start of your visit to Borneo. Sarawak Cultural Village will introduce you to the island and the different ethnic groups living there – the Bidayuh, Iban, Orang Ulu, Penan, Melanau, Malay & Chinese.
Sarawak Village is a living museum. Houses representing each group are occupied by people in national dress, showing how they used to live there. Here you can learn about history by watching the traditions and crafts played out before you. Especially memorable for us were watching basket-weaving, hearing traditional live music and seeing a demonstration of shooting darts.
Every day they are two performances of traditional dramatic storytelling. These are a lively introduction to the village, since you can then visit the houses of all the tribes which you have seen in the show.
Sarawak is about 50 minutes by road from Kuching. We used Uber to get there, but as an alternative you can use the Vab shuttle which runs from Gran Margherita Hotel to the village.
All-day entry for an adult costs RM50.00 and for children RM25.00
Visiting Gunung Mulu National Park
By Sylvia of WapitiTravel.com
The Mulu caves were one of the highlights of our trip to Malaysia. The caves are located in Gunung Mulu National park on the exotic island of Borneo.
The national park is a tropical rainforest. It can be visited all year round but as the vegetation suggests you have a good chance of rain. The wettest months are October to January and May to June.
Mulu has been recognized as a World Heritage Site in 2000. The Unesco recognition is for the famous karst structures called “The Pinnacles”, these draw many tourists to the park every year. The Mulu Caves are a second sight that attracts many visitors.
The park has a huge cave system, a major part is still unexplored but a large part is open to tourists. Some caves are large enough to fit a plane. The park offers 2 kinds of tours, one tour is open to all and visits the large caves. Another tour is more adventurous and involves squeezing in between rocks and crevices and swimming through undergrounds Rivers.
Millions of bats live in the caves and they fly out in huge swarms at dusk. This is an impressive sight and something you shouldn’t miss when you visit the park.
Visiting Bario in Kelabit Highlands – Having Some Internet Detox and Staying with the Locals at the Longhouse
By Marya of TheBeauTraveler.com
Bario is an off the beaten path in Sarawak, Malaysian part of Borneo. Located in Kelabit Highlands, it’s close to the Indonesian border of East Kalimantan province. According to the locals there, you could reach the border by walking for around 4-5 hours as the infrastructure there won’t enable you to take any other way to travel there.
To get to Bario, the most convenient way to take is through a flight from either Miri or Marudi. Make sure that you wouldn’t mind to have limited access to the internet, if none at all. Bario is a bit secluded, as the only place where you’re able to get internet connection is a hundred meter from the Internet Center at the town square. Even for that, you need to register your device first for 5 ringgits.
Since they have limited access to the internet, cash is the only option in town. Make sure you have enough money before you get off the place since even the locals frequently fly to Miri in daily basis for this.
But hey, putting away your phone is a great idea to have a much more fruitful life. And that’s what you’ll get in Bario. You could opt to stay with the locals at the longhouse in one of the villages. It is quite common that they also offer the night rate with meals included. There are so many things to do in Bario that only require your smile and approachable attitude since most of the locals are ready to help you.
The best period to visit Bario is during the summer as they frequently celebrate Pesta Nukenan, when they showcase their local food and cultural heritage in Kelabit Highlands.
Visit Satang Island in Sarawak (also known as Turtle Island.)
By Jyotsna of WanderWithJo.com
Satang island aka Pulau Satang Besar or Turtle Island, lies in one of my favourite parts of Borneo – Sarawak. Having spent a month exploring different parts of Sarawak, when my friend suggested a trip to watch sea turtles laying eggs on a weekend trip to an isolated island – I was psyched.
This is perhaps one of the best things to do in Borneo but you must stay at least one night on the island to experience this magical event. We were lucky to see a sea turtle lay 118 eggs while the local forest rangers supervised. This happened around 3 am so day visitors basically only get to enjoy some snorkelling and beach time.
Satang Island boasts of amazing natural beauty, dense jungles, lovely rangers and a hatchery where they protect sea turtle eggs from predators. Must visit on your next trip to Borneo!
See semi-wild orangutans at Semmengoh Nature Reserve
By Emily of Wander-lush.org
Getting up close with the orangutans is one of the best things to do in Borneo – and one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife experiences you can have anywhere in the world.
Close to 90% of the world’s wild orangutan population lives in Borneo’s interior jungles. Sadly, poaching, palm oil production and other encroachments on their habitat has put the native Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) on the critically endangered list. It’s still possible to see wild orangutans on a deep rainforest trek. For a more accessible option, you can visit one of the many orangutan sanctuaries on the island.
Semmengoh Nature Reserve is located just outside Kuching city in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Founded in 1975, the centre rehabilitates and protects orphaned and rescued orangutans on a 600-plus hectare swathe of jungle, which they steward. Semmengoh has strong ethical principles and strictly prohibits interacting with the orangutans. Instead, a limited number of visitors are invited to join one of two daily viewing sessions, which involve a short trek through the forest to observe orangutan feeding time. (The orangutans forage for their food, but the jungle does not have enough resources to support them, hence why centre staff supplement their diet.)
There’s no guarantee you’ll lay eyes on any members of the Semmengoh troop, which numbers up to 30 individuals but fluctuates – it’s completely up to them whether or not they make an appearance! We were lucky enough to see six orangutans of different ages when we visited Kuching. The 10 RM ($2.40 USD) entrance fee goes toward supporting the reserve’s work.
Best things to do in Kalimantan Borneo (Indonesian Borneo)
Tanjung Puting National Park
By Wendy of TheNomadicVegan.com
Tanjung Puting National Park is home to the largest wild orangutan population in the wild, and you have a better chance of spotting wild orangutans here than anywhere else.
Since the land inside the park is mostly swampy, coastal terrain, the best way to visit is on a local type of houseboat, called a “klotok”. These tours typically last for three days and two nights. During this time you will sleep on the boat, and your captain will prepare simple Indonesian meals for you.
Viewing wildlife from the deck of your boat as it floats down the river is incredibly romantic, and it’s also unobtrusive for the animals you are viewing. In addition to orangutans, you are likely to see other animals too, such as Proboscis monkeys. They are very easily identified by their trademark big noses.
Your boat will stop at research stations and rehabilitation centres along the way, such as Camp Leakey, the oldest primate research station in the world. Here, you can watch orphaned and formerly captive orangutans being fed and see how they are rehabilitated before being released back into the wild. These stations are much less crowded than the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Malaysian Borneo.
Temple-Hopping in the City of a Thousand Temples, Singkawang
By Marya of TheBeauTraveler.com
Singkawang is a small city located in West Kalimantan province, the Indonesian part of Borneo. In 2018, it is named as the most tolerant city in Indonesia according to the survey held by SETARA Institute.
The city is also known as the City of a Thousand Temples as you can find many temples around the city and its surrounding. Apart from the temples, the city has also gained its popularity for Tatung Parade, a mixed of Chinese and Dayak people rituals held around Cap Go Meh, the 15th day of Chinese New Year. For this year alone, Indonesian Tourism Board even marked the festival as one of their Top 100 Calendar of Event.
Apart from its popularity during Cap Go Meh, Singkawang is also well-known as a must-visit place for foodies due to their signature dishes like Tjhia’s choi pan or Thai Pui Ji’s rujak.
But other than that, you can still spare some time to do some temple-hopping in the city. Nearly every god and goddess in Chinese Mythology are worshipped here.
In the city center, you’d understand why Singkawang is named as the most tolerant city in Indonesia. The central mosque is located next to a temple, strategically. The view, while it is not aesthetically pleasant, is still a great way to symbolize the life in Indonesia: unity in diversity.
And you can still find plenty of temples around the city. In the city centre, you can just stroll around to visit a few temples, some are built with great architecture that you couldn’t stop yourself from taking pictures. Further away from the city centre, you could also hail a cab to go to Dharma Suci Mulia Vihara. The latter is also known as the highest temple in West Kalimantan.
Best things to do in Brunei, Borneo.
Kampong Ayer Stilt Village
By Penny of GlobeTrove.com
Kampong Ayer is located in the capital city of Brunei. Unlike Malaysia or Indonesia, the entire country of Brunei is situated in Borneo.
One of the most iconic places to visit in this country is the water village called Kampong Ayer. Located on the banks of the river, it extends inward making it look like an island on Google maps.
The houses are constructed out of wood and in a few cases, concrete, and are supported by stilts that protrude out of the river bed. You have to take a boat to get across but once you do, you can walk around the village on a raised platform that is made of wood. Alternatively, you could choose to take a river cruise and explore it from the luxury of a boat.
In fact, one of the popular options is the lunch and dinner cruise which takes you down the river where you can spot crocodiles and monkeys on the forested banks of the river. The Kampong Ayer, however, remains one of Brunei’s highlights.
Hopefully, this awesome list of the best things to do in Borneo including Malaysian Borneo, Indonesian Borneo and Brunei will have inspired you and helped you plan your trip. If you have any questions, please pop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them!
In the meantime, here are some pretty pins for your Pinterest board to make it easier to find this post next time you need it!