While wildlife is an enormous part of Borneo’s identity – it’s almost impossible to not think of orangutans when someone mentions the South East Asian island – there’s actually so much more to discover within this culturally rich and bio-diverse region.
So if you’re up for an adventure that includes savouring flavour-packed food, exploring natural wonders, learning about the indigenous ethnic groups and getting out of your travel comfort zone, Borneo will blow you away. Here are some of the best things to do in Borneo – without a ginger-hued ape in sight.
Climb Mount Kinabalu
Calling all thrill seekers! If you’re looking for adventurous things to do in Borneo, climbing Mount Kinabalu should be top of your list. As the tallest mountain in Malaysia and the third highest peak in South East Asia, reaching the 4,095-metre summit is no mean feat – but that doesn’t stop more than 40,000 people per year attempting the gruelling ascent. It’s best to tackle Mount Kinabalu over two days, with an overnight stay at one of the mountainside hostels. Most hikers then wake up at 2am in order to reach the top for sunrise, which is the best time to enjoy the spectacular views across Kinabalu National Park.
Pay Respects At Sandakan Memorial Park
Wondering what to do in Sandakan, Sabah’s second city? Well, along with a range of ancient temples, bustling markets or colonial-style mansions to check out, it’s important not to go past one of the city’s most important historical sites: Sandakan Memorial Park. A former Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II, it’s now a sombre and moving site dedicated to the approximately 2,400 Australian and British soldiers who were imprisoned and killed there. A small museum holds photos, relics and artefacts, and there’s also the remains of machinery. Beautifully manicured gardens allow for moments of quiet reflection and prayer.
Explore The Caves At Niah National Park
Ok, so they’re not the world’s largest (that honour goes to Sarawak Chamber at nearby Gunung Mulu National Park), but a visit to the vast and intricate cave system at Niah National Park is one of the coolest things to do in Sarawak, Borneo. An incredible archaeological site, the caves contain Iron Age-era drawings of early human activities and depictions of boat-shaped coffins. Scientists also discovered human remains here that date back almost 40,000 years ago. Make sure you stick around for the chaotic ‘changing of the guard’ at sunset – when hundreds of thousands of swiftlets return to the cave at the same time as an equal number of bats fly out into the rainforest.
Visit Teck Guan Cocoa Museum
Love chocolate? Add Teck Guan Cocoa Museum to your Borneo itinerary. Located in Tawau, Sabah’s third-largest city, it’s a chocolatey wonderland for anyone with a sweet tooth. The museum – the only one of its kind in Malaysia – opened to the public in 2005, and since then has been offering a mouth-watering glimpse into how cocoa beans are grown, processed and manufactured. Bookings are required for guided tours of the cocoa processing plant, which also includes a 20-minute video on the history of this magical bean, plus access to the sampling kitchen – where you’ll be able to indulge in plenty of the good stuff.
Feast In Kuching
We’re calling it: the best food to eat in Borneo is found in Kuching. Fast gaining a reputation as a foodie’s paradise, Sarawak’s capital is a melting pot of flavours that combine to create some truly special dishes. On your gastronomic journey be sure to try kolo mee, a delicious noodle soup considered the ultimate comfort food, and Sarawak laksa, which is slightly more spicy than other South East Asian varieties. If you’re not sure where to eat in Kuching at night, head straight to Top Spot Food Court. Located on the roof of a six-storey car park, you’ll find half a dozen food stalls serving up fresh and tasty seafood. And best of all, the cost of food in Borneo is super cheap, which means you can chow down without worrying about breaking the bank.
Ride The North Borneo Railway
When you think of things to do in Borneo, a train journey probably isn’t one of the first ideas that springs to mind. But if you’re looking for a relaxing and nostalgia-fuelled way to see as much of the countryside as possible, the North Borneo Railway ticks all the right boxes. The train – a fully refurbished Vulcan steam locomotive – departs twice a week from Tanjung Aru in Kota Kinabalu for a four-hour trip to the small town of Paper. Bypassing sprawling paddy fields, stilted villages and plantations of rubber and coffee, the train ride is ridiculously scenic, and is made all the more enjoyable by a delicious Tiffin-style breakfast and lunch.
Island Hop Around Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
Just a 20-minute speedboat ride from the mainland, the watery paradise of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is home to some of the best beaches in Kota Kinabalu. The marine park is comprised of five tropical islands, all of which offer their own unique experiences. Head to Gaya, the largest in the archipelago, for hiking trails, a floating village and vibrant nightlife, while Sulug, Sapi and Manukan boast pristine, empty beaches perfect for snorkelling, diving and swimming. And if you happen to fall in love with this little slice of heaven, there are a few luxury resorts dotted among the islands.
Go White-Water Rafting
Sabah’s capital is a busy city overflowing with attractions and activities, but if you’re totally stuck on what to do or what to see in Kota Kinabalu, perhaps consider something completely unexpected. White water rafting is actually a popular pastime in this part of Borneo, and there are quite a few places where you can take to the water. The two main locations are the Kiulu River and Padas River. The former is better suited to beginners, while the latter boasts wild rapids up to grade four. Guided rafting tours take place at both rivers, so you can get your thrills and spills no matter what your skill level.
See Wildlife in Danum Valley Conservation Area
There are many incredible wildlife expeditions in Borneo to experience if you consider yourself a budding David Attenborough. A favourite location is Danum Valley Conservation Area, which covers 43,800 hectares of tropical rainforest in eastern Sabah. Home to Borneo’s big five: the endangered orangutan, Sumatran rhino, Malaysian sun bear, clouded leopard and Bornean pygmy elephant, it’s recognised as having one of the most complex ecosystems in the world. And if you’re wondering where to stay in Borneo for a wildlife adventure, then Danum Valley Conservation also boasts a luxurious lodge complete with treetop canopy walk.
Visit Sarawak Cultural Village
Learn about Borneo’s diverse ethnic groups when you visit Sarawak Cultural Village, an award-winning living museum that will immerse you in the customs of indigenous people. Catch live demonstrations showcasing weaving, bead-making and bamboo-carving, or watch on as dancers and musicians in traditional garb perform elegant routines. The village is spread over 17 acres, and there’s also local arts and crafts to see, plus a model village where you can wander through an authentic Iban longhouse, Penan hut and wooden Malay house. A day trip here is one of the most fascinating things to do in Kuching.
Ready to discover all Borneo has to offer? Book flights to Kota Kinabalu, Brunei or Kuala Lumpur, and use these destinations as your launch pad for exploring this beautiful island. Find accommodation in Borneo with Webjet too, or combine your stay with your flights in a Webjet holiday package.