Borneo – The Wild Heart of SE Asian Adventure

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, located east of Singapore. The Borneo jungles are not only magnificently spectacular, but they are also relatively untouched. When one finds oneself amongst the many segregated worlds of lush vegetation that Borneo has to offer, one can only wonder … “How could an exotic land that offers so many species of wild life have escaped mass tourism?”

In the modern age, when tourism has a tendency to develop and then envelop any place of beauty, Borneo has so far escaped this fate. This is an extra benefit that heightens Borneo’s natural and unspoiled charm and which will, we hope, continue to enhance Borneo’s majestic splendour through the years. So remote is Borneo that one of its many superlatives, the world’s largest and most overwhelming cave system, the Mulu, was only discovered by the West in the latter half of the twentieth century.

About the size of Texas, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Most of it belongs to Indonesia, but the northern provinces of Sarawak and Sabah, former British colonies which are now part of Malaysia, draw most of Borneo’s visitors.

The primitive image of Borneo which we held in the last century is out of date. Malaysian Borneo is civilised; Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are modern, bustling little cities, plus the island has a reasonably effective tourist infrastructure. The blend of old and new in Borneo is nicely summed up by a sign in the Limbang airport that sternly prohibits the carrying of blowguns aboard aircraft.

Because of its great variety of attractions, Borneo trips tend to be smorgasbord-style affairs. You may be climbing 13,455-foot Mount Kinabalu one day (no technical skills required, but nevertheless a stiff hike) and sleeping in a longhouse with Iban tribesmen the next. Although headhunting is now outlawed, you may meet some folks who remember it—or may even have practised it in the ‘good’ old days. Jungle treks and cave explorations in Mulu National Park, visits to Sepilok orangutan sanctuary, white-water rafting trips and scuba diving along the 3,000-foot sea wall just off Sipadan Island are also popular Borneo diversions. Whatever you do, it’s virtually certain you’ll ride in a boat at some point—Borneo is so mountainous and densely forested that roads exist only along the coastline. In the interior, rivers are the only highways.

Practically speaking Borneo is not an easy place to see on your own. Attractions are widely scattered and require a variety of transportation. Many cool spots are reachable only by longboat or small aircraft, which require advance planning. On the major rivers such as the Baram and Rajang, however, there are fast, cheap express boat services (if you have the bottle to ride them). These incredibly sleek, speedy and claustrophobic craft look much like wingless jet airliners—the drivers even paint on fake cockpit windows to further the illusion—and have a terrible safety record. Local tour operators in the main towns of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu offer Kinabalu climbs and visits to Iban longhouses. The downside, of course, is that, almost by definition, any outing that’s easy to arrange on the spot is going to be more crowded with tourists.

Simple guesthouses in the larger towns go for $10-$20 a night, while Western-style hotels run in the $40-50 range. Jungle lodge prices are in the same range.

And don’t worry about the leeches. The pesky little critters usually manage to get through any protective clothing, but you won’t even notice that they’re sucking your blood because they first inject you with a local anaesthetic. It doesn’t hurt a bit, but it can be a bit of a jolt when you remove your shoes and find blood-soaked socks. But unless you’re seriously squeamish or a haemophobe, Borneo leeches are not that big a deal. Really.

Whilst in Thailand, why not visit one of the country’s currently best three beach destinations:

Koh Lao Liang:

Ao Nang:



simon ramsden