I've been to many beautiful places so far on this year-long trip around the world, and I went into Borneo having very high expectations. I had heard about the diverse nature and wildlife. I knew it was more off-the-beaten-path, and therefore may be trickier to navigate. I had heard it was safe, but then again as a solo female travelling, you never really know until you get to a place.
I can truly say that Borneo exceeded all of my expectations. Amazing food, mind-blowingly beautiful jungles and islands, extremely easy to get around and some of if not the kindest locals I've ever met.
Below I'll go into my two weeks in Borneo - the things I saw, costs for activities, routing options, as well as some things I missed that I would go back to do. And for this post, I've decided to switch things up and do it diary style, because why not.
Day 1 -
I flew into Kuching from Krabi, Thailand via Kuala Lumpar. After a quick 6-hour overnight airport nap, I was ready to board my flight and begin my journey through Borneo. When I arrived I was picked up by a lovely Grab driver who gave me some tips on some must-have food. He suggested Laksa, a spicy noodle dish as well as Mee Kolo which is not spicy but is very filling with a lot of... well everything in it. After my standard safety chat about being a solo female travelling (happens literally everywhere), I arrived at Marco Polo Hostel. Marco Polo is a no-frills hostel run by a woman and her husband. It's not luxury by any means, but it was more than enough. A/c in the evenings, fast wifi, free breakfast, laundry on-site and a nice outdoor patio area to chill at. What more could a budget backpacker ask for?
I bought a SIM card through Airalo since I had forgotten to grab one at the airport. It cost a lot more than I usually spend on SIM cards when you go to the stores themselves (to put it into perspective, I probably spent about $40 USD for 5 gbs with Airalo). I'd suggest for Borneo just getting a regular SIM as wifi is unpredictable and you'll go through a lot of data.
After not having a very restful night, I took a walk around the city, grabbed some Laksa (which was absolutely phenomenal, I highly recommend) and grabbed a beer at a riverside cafe before calling it for an early night in.
I decided to wake up early (6 am) and do a self-guided trip to Semenggoh National Park. This is an orangutan rescue sanctuary only about 30 mins from Kuching. There is a bus, but it takes 1.5 hours and a grab is only 30RN and gets you there quicker, so in my tired state I opted for that instead. The park first opens at 8 am and they have two daily feedings: 9-10 and 3-4. The park closes between those hours but reopens at 2 pm. Since I took a Grab, I got there a bit early and had the time to have an early morning hike around the grounds. I got to the feeding site at 8:30 when there was hardly anyone there, and lucked out major as one of the orangutangs was already there being fed by the staff. It was a teenage female, so in regards to size, she was considered "small". If you had told me this was a human in an ape suit, I would have believed you. You truly don't understand the size of these things until you see them directly in front of you. I can't even fathom the size of the biggest male in real life (Ritchie).
There are two types of Orangutangs, Bornean and Sumatra. They are becoming an endangered species due to their habitats being destroyed by the Palm Oil industry (that's a far heavier topic to discuss on another day). By the time the crowd from the bus got there at 9 am, the orangutan I saw had left and the keepers said no more would be returning for the day. I was there in October and that is fruit season, so sightings are rarer since they don't need to come to the keepers as often for food as the forests are plentiful enough.
I grabbed the free shuttle bus which runs about every two hours back to downtown and grabbed a few beers at a riverside cafe called James Brooks. I had gotten back in the hostel just as another guy was checking in. I was waiting to buy a bottle of water when I heard him talking to reception about wanting to go to Bako National Park the next morning. I had wanted to go as well, but I heard it was expensive to go alone as you had to split the cost for the boat to/from based on your group size - obviously as a solo traveller, this cost would be heavy... about $150 USD heavy. Obviously, I jumped at this opportunity and made a new friend as well as a buddy to visit the National Park with the next day.
Another 6 am wake-up call to Bako National Park! There is a bus downtown that will take you there for $1, which is great considering it's an hour drive away. There was a french guy at the hostel who was also down to go, so the three of us headed there after breakfast. We met an Australian couple while registering at the park to join our boat, so between the 5 of us, the cost for the boats was minimal. Something odd about how the boats are set up though is that you are required to take the same boat there and back with whoever you ride with, so be prepared to coordinate your plans with complete strangers if you want to save some money. There is also a 20RN park fee in addition to the boat.
I won't sugar coat it, the boat ride there was ROUGH. I'm talking like, multiple times full-blown almost capsizing on this rickety little jetty in crocodile-infested waters. We eventually made it there in one piece where you have to literally jump out of the boat at waist level to walk onto the beach - not ideal in running shoes and full hiking gear, but it's all part of the experience, baby.
There are many trails you can walk on at the park, and reception will answer any of your questions about which ones are best in regard to views, activity level, wildlife sightings etc. We did 4 of the trails but unfortunately didn't see anything more than macaques and a green pit viper (I was on the lookout for Probiscos monkeys). Oh, and also ants the literal size of your big toe.
After a long day of hiking, my new buddy and I went out to try my Grab driver's second recommendation: Mee Kolo. After a walk along the waterfront promenade at night (which is gorgeous with all the lights), we headed to a family-run restaurant called Borneo Delight. The dinner was fantastic, and we ended the night barhopping around Kuching. A solid place we found was a speakeasy-style bar called "Junk Room". We had some Soju and made some local friends before I took a Grab back to the hostel to catch my early flight the next day.
Woke up at... you guessed it... 6 am to catch my flight to Kota Kinabalu. I stayed at Akinabalu Youth Hostel which is a hostel right on Gaya street. Gaya street is the front of Chinatown and is a fantastic area to stay in KK. Friday and Saturday nights they have a street food night market, and Sundays they have a day market. I got there on a Saturday, so after wandering the town and going to the mall, I had dinner hopping around at the night market. There are live bands as well, so I ate my food listening to some great local music, and then called it a night.
Today I could finally sleep in a bit, and after breakfast went to the Sunday market. It was one of the most comprehensive markets I've ever been to. You could literally find everything from electronics to clothing to plants to live animals - that part made me feel very uneasy. Everything from chickens to bunnies to kittens and puppies. All in crates in the heat. It didn't sit well with me. Afterwards, I walked around and found Sunny Reef divers and booked a scuba dive trip leaving the next morning.
Planning an early night (because there's not much worse than hungover diving), I went to Tujung Aru beach to catch the infamous sunset; Tujung Aru beach is said to have one of the best sunsets in the world. It's best to head there early, I would come to find out, because apparently all of KK had the same plans as me and the traffic heading there was absolutely mental - I ended up walking half the way there because it was honestly faster. There was a crowded area with stalls, but I opted to have dinner and drinks at a nearby golf club where it was quieter. I had some good chats with a club member and his daughter who was around my age and caught the stunning sunset, before heading back to the hostel to prepare for my dives.
Dive Day! Weather was partly cloudy and we took off to three dive sites around Mamutik, Manukan, and Sulug islands. Sunny, who owns Sunny Reef, was a great instructor and gave me several suggestions for other dive sites throughout Malaysia. We did not luck out and see any big marine life, unfortunately, but the corals were definitely unique and we saw many species of fish and eels. There were also a lot of puffers, which made me happy. I love their little, smiley faces.
This evening, I went to grab a seafood dinner. Normally after diving, I can't touch seafood for some time over the guilt, but I was told KK had some of the best seafood in the world, so obviously I had to try it from the source. I went and had a crab dinner with rice at KK Seafood Garden and OH MY GOD - it was one of the top 5 meals of my life. I had the flower crab with the wet butter sauce and it was *chefs kiss*. It also wasn't all that expensive for the quality of the meal. I highly recommend heading here if you are in the area!
Today I went to the pier and booked a boat to Sapi Island, a quick, roughly 20-minute ride from KK. Sapi is stunning. While tiny, it hosts crystal clear water and soft white sand beaches. It makes for the perfect day to lay back and snorkel and enjoy that Borneo sun. The boat ticket cost about 40RN and there was a park fee of 20RN. I also rented snorkelling equipment for 11RN and a locker to keep my things for 5RN. Overall, it was an inexpensive and relaxing way to spend the day.
If I had the time and could have added one more thing to my itinerary in KK, it would be to hike Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Malaysia. There are various treks with the most popular being the 3-day-2-night. Not only did I not have the time, but to take on that kind of trek after diving is, well, lethal.
Today I headed to the bus station north of town and embarked on an 8-hour bus journey to Sandakan. You can fly which is of course faster, and only about $40, but I opted in for the but which was $9 and some incredible scenery as you make your way south through small villages and around Mt. Kinabalu. You can easily book transport through Borneo using EasyBook.com.
Once arrived and checked into my hostel in Sandakan (I stayed at Sandakan Backpackers hostel, which was great!), I just grabbed beers and dinner at a small oceanfront cafe. I only had one night in Sandakan before heading into the heart of the jungle to spend a few days off the grid and traverse the Kintabatang river. Borneo is not a heavily touristed place, and you definitely feel this in Sandakan. I'll be honest I felt a bit like a spectacle. People running up to you from every direction asking to take photos with you and people snapping photos as you walked by. This isn't all that unusual though, as I've found in some Asian countries as a Western tourist.
Off to what I had been told was going to be the highlight of my time in Borneo and an absolute must-do! The trek between Sandakan and Sukau is about 3 hours and can be a bit expensive to do via taxi, so I opted for a public car. Public cars are kind of like Uber Shares and they only cost about 60-70RN each way. I got the contact numbers of a few different drivers from my homestay hosts, so if you're unsure how to book one just contact wherever you're staying in Sukau and they should be able to arrange (or send me a DM on Instagram and I can help)!
My car ride there ended up being me, the driver, a man from NYC, 3 local kids, and a lovely local older woman who spoke an impressive amount of English. I got dropped off at the river and took a jetty over to my homestay. I stayed at Osmans Homestay which is only accessible by boat with their family which consisted of Osman, his wife Yanti, two of their daughters and 3 adorable grandkids. Osman is actually a pretty big deal, I would come to learn, in the area. He is the go-to guy for BBC when they come down to film documentaries on the wildlife there, and he was actually filming with BBC while I was there, so I did the majority of exploring with Yanti's brother. If the absolutely massive camera on their boat was not enough proof, the photos of David Attenborough hung in their home with their family is. It was neat to know I was about to embark on an incredible and genuine part of this trip.
The home was quiet. No wifi or signal. I had my own room with a fan and enjoyed 3 meals a day cooked by Yanti which were all incredible. When I wasn't enjoying boat rides on the river, I was sitting out on the porch having life chats with Yanti or playing ambulance for hours with one of the younger boys (our toys consisted of my water bottle, bug spray and a ruler).
You do truly get up close and personal with some incredible wildlife on the river. I must have seen hundreds of long-tail macaques and proboscis monkeys, as well as a mangrove snake and tons of unique birds and birds of prey (I had no idea there were so many kinds of eagles). Out of everywhere I visited in Borneo, this was the most diverse if your aim is to see animals in their natural habitat.
I woke up at 5 am and had a quick breakfast before embarking on a sunrise river tour. The key to seeing the most wildlife is going at dusk and dawn, since the monkeys sleep near the river and head inland to eat during the day. It was so relaxing being on the boat and watching the sunrise with my coffee, seeing all the monkeys waking up at the same time.
When the seasons right, you can also spot pigmy elephants in the river, although at the time of year I was there, they head more towards the plantations to eat as they are more fruitful. Osman was telling me how sightings are growing rarer and rarer though as palm oil groves continued to be destroyed by big food and gas companies. I knew of the palm oil issues facing the world, and Borneo specifically (this was a big reason I wanted to visit Borneo now before it got too late), but its especially heartbreaking hearing about it from someone who's watching their home and wildlife be destroyed by the guys with the fat paychecks and way too much power.
Soo... for today my original plan was to take another public car back to Sandakan and head to the airport - But after talking to Yanti and my NYC car buddy, I knew I'd regret not making one final stop on the way. I got the driver to drop me off in another jungle town called Sepilok. I stayed at a lovely resort called Paganadan Kii which was on a hill with stunning views into the jungle.
I had some phenomenal in-house Nasi Lemak before taking the free shuttle to the Rainforest Discovery Center (20RN entry). I spent the day hiking through various skywalk canopies, suspension bridges and footpaths through the jungle. I saw monkeys, a variety of birds, as well as one of the tallest trees in the world, the Kabili Monster, which stands 75m tall (equivalent to a 25-story building). You can also go on a night walk (extra 30rin) for a chance to see some nocturnal animals, such as flying squirrels, pigmy monkeys and slow loris'! Overall it was such an amazing day of hiking and a perfect and bittersweet way to end my time throughout Borneo.
I leave this beautiful island feeling the love and humbled with a new-found appreciation for nature, wildlife and conservation. I will never forget the fantastic weeks I spent here and I encourage everyone to add Borneo to their travel bucket list!