Have you ever been to Borneo? I had heard tales of how wonderful it was, but never been myself until this year.
That's why I was so excited to visit Malaysia with Singapore Air and fellow adventurers Rachel Rudwall, Kristen Kellogg and Justin Walter when the opportunity presented itself in March! It was a delightful trip to the beautiful Island of Borneo, and I won’t soon forget the memories and laughs we shared there. If you haven’t considered Borneo for your next trip, I highly recommend adding it to your list!
Borneo is the third-largest island in the world and an absolute gem of an island. Sabah is one of the 13 states of Borneo, located in the North. With its lush, ancient rainforest, it’s critical habitat for many of the world's most amazing animals, including the the endangered Bornean orangutan. It is an important refuge for many endemic forest species, including the Borneo elephant, the eastern Sumatran rhinoceros, the Bornean clouded leopard, the hose's palm civet and the dayak fruit bat, many of which we got to see on our trup. More than that, it’s also home to some of the kindest humans I have encountered on recent travels, and that’s saying a lot! If you’re planning a visit (and if you’re not, you should be), here are 7 travel tips and ideas to make the most of it!
1. Packing 101
If you’re like me, the first thing you do when planning a trip to a new location is research what to pack! I always want to be prepared for whatever comes my way, which saves time and money on the ground! For the most part, you won’t need anything super specialized to visit Borneo unless you’re planning to trek through the jungle, in which case you will need a few special items. If you’re sticking to river cruises and tamer walks like we did, these basics will see you through:
- Mosquito repellant. Bring your favorite brand from home and apply liberally whenever the bugs are out.
- An electrolyte supplement. It’s quite warm in Sabah so you’ll want to stay hydrated throughout the day.
- A reusable water bottle so you can travel responsibly. No need to worry about recycling or creating trash when you can simply refill your own bottle!
- Sunscreen and plenty of it!
- A hat
- A camera. There are so many amazing moments to capture, you’ll want to make sure you have a camera. If you’re aiming to capture the wildlife, check out this specific list of camera gear. Otherwise, whatever you have will do!
2. Food, food and more FOOD
The food in Borneo is delicious. Repeat after me: DELICIOUS! I’m always a fan of sampling local cuisine at little restaurants or markets and thankfully we found both to be abundant in Borneo! Whether you’re looking for a quaint restaurant or the more rustic food from a market, it’s ALL delicious. Pro tip: if you have Celiac disease like me, be sure to communicate clearly with your guide and companions before making selections. Malaysian food is rich with wheat-based soy sauce, but there are plenty of good options to be had! I definitely recommend using a food allergy translation app or service for added protection or if you’re heading out on your own.
3. Visit The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
When I heard we were visiting the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation center, I immediately hopped online and began googling these little cuties. With their small size and vibrant chest patches, they will steal your heart, just like they did for founder Dr. Wong. If you have the chance, visit the center early in the day when the bears are climbing to escape the damp ground in search of sunshine and snacks. You’ll be delighted to see them climbing!
4. Check Out the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Located just around the corner from the Sun Bears, the centre is home to to almost 80 orangutans of various ages. The centre focuses on teaching each animal the skills it needs to survive; whether in the nursery or by pairing a younger orangutan with one that’s more experienced with the ultimate aim of reintroduction to the wild! Make sure to stop by the nursery and prepare yourself for some adorable antics and if you want to increase your odds of seeing the larger orangutans, go during feeding time!
5. Go to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge and take a river cruise with Borneo Eco Tours
Founded in the 1990s, Sukau Rainforest Lodge is beautifully crafted with a focus on promoting sustainability from an environmental and social standpoint. They have implemented several different programs to achieve this, from hiring 80% of their staff from the local community to converting to energy practices that minimize their impact, to helping reforest the local area. In short: it’s the kind of place that makes you feel good about traveling. Take a dip in the pool, enjoy the occasional sight of the resident Orangutan as you walk along the boardwalks, then grab a life jacket and hop on a boat for a river tour of the Kinabatangan river. Wildlife is abundant and if you’re lucky, you’ll see monkeys, birds, and even a crocodile or two while your expert guide fills you in on the local scene. It’s an experience that you’ll carry with you well into the future. When you finally leave, make sure you stop by the Gomantong Cave. Go early, the best light is around 9-10am and if you're lucky, the cave won't be crowded!
6. Shop Local at the Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu
Located along the water, this market hums with life. Organized by categories of food, you can wander down the rows of fresh fruit, dry goods, spices, and fish and take in the sights, sounds, and smells. Sit for a minute and just take it in as the vendors call out their wares. I highly recommend sampling the local mangosteen and stopping for a tasty bite here and there. Double points if you grab an ice cold Milo as you walk around! There are options for every palate and it’s a sensory experience that you won’t want to miss!
7. Hit the Beach
Once you’re done exploring the markets and stuffing yourself with food, do a little beach hopping! No trip to Borneo would be complete without a boat tour of some local island destinations! Grab your swimsuit and your sunscreen, then hop onboard. Once you travel to the islands, you can snorkel, paraglide, and even do a zipline over the turquoise water. If relaxing is more your style, no worries. Sit in the sand with a freshly cracked coconut and watch the waves float by.
THANK YOU TO OUR TRIP SPONSORS!
A HUGE shoutout to our trip sponsors, who made this dream come true. Thanks to Singapore Air, for treating us to luxurious business class accommodations, including the use of the lounge during our layovers! We traveled in comfort and style thanks to you! I napped on my pullout bed, had access to endless gluten free snacks and drinks, and finally caught up on several movies and the entire first season of Handmaids Tale, all while being pampered by the kindest staff imaginable.
Huge thanks to Jeremy and the entire staff at the Hilton Kota Kinabalu for a feast fit for queens, and all of your kindness in taking care of us. I wish we had more time to spend on that rooftop pool!
To Jeffrey, Dean, Sonny and all of the other fine folks at Sticky Rice Travel: you took phenomenal care of us and made sure we got the most out of every experience on the ground! From pharmacy stops to the best iced coffee to showing us the gems of the Island, you made our trip so special!
Finally, to Sabah Tourism and Malaysian Tourism for hosting us so graciously and letting us see what Borneo is all about! It was an honor to visit and learn more about this special place and I am already dreaming up my next Bornean adventure!