In school, I have a vivid memory of doing a presentation on Borneo’s rainforest and being completely absorbed by a place that seemed so full of nature and adventure that it was almost too good to be true, never mind being over 7000 miles away from my doorstep. This place has always seemed like a far off dream from my childhood, but moving to Asia quickly put it on the map as a very reachable paradise. Borneo exceeded every single one of my childhood expectations in every way and I’ve barely even scratched the surface – This island is home to culture, nature and adventure that are second to none and you could easily spend months exploring.
Borneo is the world’s third biggest island and has states belonging to Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. You’ll therefore find that it’s much quicker to use the domestic airlines to fly between the various areas on the island as travel on the roads can be long and the opposite of smooth.
Currently, I’ve only got any experience of Sabah and the area surrounding Kota Kinabalu, towards the North of the island. Sabah is one of the Malaysian states within the island of Borneo. For me, its allure was none other than the 4095m Mount Kinabalu, which shouldn’t be missed, even if you’re just going to have a look with no intention to climb. Whilst Kinabalu is by far the pride of this territory, there are lots of other things you can do to occupy yourself.
Kota Kinabalu has an international airport that welcomes flights from all over Asia, and gives you ease of access to other parts of the island or back to mainland Malaysia. From here, you can jump on the airport bus into the city for 5MYR or get in a taxi.
Top tip: Taxis don’t tend to be metered here so agree on a price before you jump in the car. Bare in mind that the airport is only about 20minutes away from the city centre. Also consider that uber is in full working force around here and will charge you about half the price of the hail and jump in cabs.
Admittedly, the transport system around Borneo is pretty dire. There are taxis, obviously, or various buses. Most people seem to use tours to get around, and whilst this is easy, it’s about triple the price of what you would pay if you’re doing it by yourself, so my recommendation would be to try and work it all out for yourself.
What to do.
Kota Kinabalu and the surrounding area offer a variety of things to do no matter what you’re looking for and who your travel partners are.
Borneo isn’t just home to dense jungle, you’ll also find yourself confronted with some pretty sweet coastlines. From Jesselton point, which is within walking distance from anywhere you stay in the city, you can get on a boat to a handful of islands.
Amongst all of these Manukan is by far the prettiest. It’s very small, but has some nice stretches of beach, the opportunity to snorkel and dive, jungle trek or just chill and watch a glorious sunset. It’s about 20 minutes from the mainland and you’ll easily find a boat that’ll leave within ten minutes of your arrival. Just arrange a time to head back and keep a hold of your ticket. There are about three other islands to choose from. Lots of people head to Sapi, but I would go as far as to say it’s not really worthy of your time.
Every Sunday this street is closed to vehicles for the market. It’s a good opportunity to pick up some of the local produce.
KK night market
Along the front of KK you’ll find a pretty decent night market. Here you’ll find clothing and accessories and further along some good food and excellent deals on delicious fruit.
Mari mari cultural village
For a dip into traditional village life, head to the Mari Mari cultural village and see how the people of Sabah have lived. Unfortunately, at least as far as I’m aware, you can only go here as part of a tour, but if you’re interested in the village culture then this could be worth the amount you have to pay. You’ll also get to try some of the traditional delicacies of each tribe.
So, I’ll be pretty biased in encouraging you to do this because it was the whole purpose of my visit to this area. But, if you are looking for a stretch of the legs then this mountain will most certainly do the trick. It’s the tallest in South East Asia and if I’m being completely honest, besides occasionally being a bit steep, it’s a very simple and straightforward pull up so I’d say that if you’re of reasonable fitness you can get yourself up the side of it. Saying that, I’d still ensure you’ve got all the gear because the weather can change within seconds, as with any mountain. (I found this one out the hard way when ascending in a sudden downpour and then being freezing cold for three hours once I had arrived at camp. Dry bags are an essential)
Top tip: if you’re not fully equipped, then you can find a shop called Club tech, near Jesselton point in KK, and they have anything and everything you need for any outdoor activity.
There are various climbs you can do, and if you don’t want to go to the top, then you can do low lying ones within the park, although regardless you’ll need a guide once you enter the park gate as it’s now a heritage site. Most people opt to do the 2d1n package and on top of this you can do the Via Ferrata providing the weather is good.
To go to the summit, you’ll start ascending on your second day at about 3am, or earlier or later depending on your speed. You’ll hopefully be at the top for sunrise, where you’ll get a stunning view of Sabah. I caught the sunrise on my descent, just when the clouds were clearing, and the place looks vaguely similar to Neverneverland. For want of better words, it’s beautiful in every direction.
Have a shop around various tour companies and don’t be afraid to ask for lower prices. If you have the time then try to arrange it once you’re in KK, because you can bargain in person or hostels sometimes can get you a good deal.
Poring hot springs
I’m writing this one after Mt Kinabalu for a very specific reason – it’s a steep climb, and that means a steep descent, which also means that your muscles might be a little bit achey for a few days afterwards. They’re a little built up, but they definitely do the trick. Choose a bath, open the tap and let the hot and cold water pour in whilst you soak.
Top tip: avoid the weekend as it is heaving with locals.
Alongside the hot springs, you can also find a canopy walk, waterfalls, bat caves and maybe even a butterfly garden, should that float your boat.
Sabah tea garden
Sabah is famous for its tea and there’s no denying that it’s very tasty. A visit to the tea garden will no doubt prove that although it’s a bit of a pain to get to without joining a group. It’s definitely not top on the list of things that you should be doing with your time in Sabah, as the tea is readily available pretty much every place you visit here, but if you have a day to kill then you can head up to the plantations nestled high in the mountains and have an explore.
White water rafting
If you’re into something a bit more exhilarating and want to get your heart racing, then Sabah offers white water rafting at an array of grades. You’re pretty much bound to go with a tour group for this one, but you can sign up to various levels to get your adrenaline rush, and you’ll be in and amongst the gorgeous scenery of Sabah.