Places to visit in Borneo
Borneo is an island consisting of four parts, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan. Sabah and Sarawak belong to Malaysia, Brunei is an independent nation and Kalimantan belongs to Indonesia.
Our tours in Borneo concentrate on Sabah and Sarawak. If you are interested in Kalimantan, please see our Indonesia section. Both Sabah and Sarawak are packed with exciting things to do and see for children of all ages. We have put together a selection of the most popular places to visit in Borneo and can take you to the highlights as well as off-the-beaten-track. If you aren’t sure where you want to go or if you are ready to start planning your trip, just get in touch and we can put together an itinerary for you.
Kota Kinabalu (Sabah)
Most itineraries will start or finish in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah province. Although there isn’t a huge amount to see here there is an attractive seaside promenade and a colourful night market full of trinkets that the children might like to haggle over. One of our favourite spots is the Filipino Market, a food market that sets up in the evening near the seafront. Pick a stall and fill yourselves up on barbequed prawns, spicy satay chicken and a steaming bowl of fried noodles straight from the wok.
Borneo’s big draw-card is the orangutan and Sepilok is an essential stop on any itinerary. Here you find the orangutan sanctuary, a world-renowned centre for rehabilitating orangutans that have been rescued from captivity or displaced by logging activities. The sanctuary covers a very large are and there is a huge amount of natural forest through which the animals can roam. Although sightings of adult orangutans are not guaranteed as they could be anywhere in the forest, there is a ‘playground’ for the babies and here you will almost always see the younger animals swinging across the ropes and playing with each other.
There is also a twice-daily feeding when food is put out on the feeding platform. Many of the animals don’t need to come to feed as they are sufficiently rehabilitated to be able to forage for their own food in the jungle, but again the younger animals will usually congregate, making it the ideal time to visit.
Also in Sepilok you find the Sun-Bear Sanctuary which is home to a number of rescued bears. You will also be able to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre where you can follow quiet trails through a large park area to the canopy walkways. Here you get the most lovely views over the surrounding landscape and can watch the many exotic birds darting through the forest.
Sandakan lies on the east coast of Borneo and is the starting point for a visit to the Kinabatangan River, Sepilok and Turtle Island. However, the city itself is also worth a visit. There are a number of attractive colonial buildings and a beautiful hilltop Buddhist temple complete with brightly coloured lanterns and golden Buddhas. There is also a fascinating WW2 memorial park with a superb small museum that describes the horrors of the forced marches that took place during the Japanese occupation. This is of course quite harrowing but is very interesting for older children. Another favourite spot is Sim Sim Village, an area on the outskirts of town where all houses are built on stilts over the sea and connected by walkways.
If you are spending the night in Sandakan perhaps take a firefly cruise, which takes you to an island just off shore. You will have afternoon tea with the village headman before taking a boat ride through the mangroves at sunset, when hundreds of fireflies flit across the river.
Selingan Turtle Island (Sabah)
Just off the coast of Sandakan is Selingan (Turtle) Island. This picture perfect slice of white sandy beaches and swaying palm trees would be worth a visit even without its star attraction. But the main reason people come is to see the turtles that swim ashore every night to dig holes in the warm sand and lay their eggs. There is something magical about watching this natural spectacle under the moonlight on a remote island!
The turtle eggs are removed from the beach and kept safely until the baby turtles are ready to hatch. They are then released, also at night, and you can watch them slowly crawl across the beach to make their way into the ocean.
Kinabatangan River (Sabah)
The Kinabatangan River wends its way across eastern Borneo, passing through virgin rainforest that hosts an extraordinary variety of wildlife. It is here that you have the chance to see orangutans in the wild, perched high in the forest canopy or swinging slowly through the trees. There are also herds of pygmy elephants that come down to the river banks to drink, crocodiles that laze in the shallows waiting for breakfast, playful monkeys, gibbons, snakes and many exotically coloured birds.
Accommodation in this area is usually in a rustic jungle lodge. Rooms are in wooden bungalows connected by walkways and you can often see wildlife just whilst you walk to breakfast.
Kinabalu Homestay (Sabah)
One of our favourite places to visit in Borneo is a remote village homestay in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. Many cultural experiences in Borneo are very contrived but this is completely authentic and gives a really genuine insight into the way of life in rural Borneo. You will stay with a local family (so the accommodation is simple, although spotlessly clean) and spend time in the village. Perhaps join your host family tapping rubber in the nearby plantation or take a hike to a waterfall and swim in the pool at the base of the falls. Alternatively you could take a short walk to the river that runs along the base of the valley and clamber over the large boulders to find the perfect picnic spot. Later you can help the family prepare a meal and learn how to make spring rolls.
This is a real highlight and consistently rates as a favourite activity of both parents and children alike.
Climb Mount Kinabalu (Sabah)
At 4,095 metres, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia and an ascent is a great challenge for active families.
The 2-day trek takes you through very varied scenery from lush temperate rainforest to a sparse alpine landscape. You will spend a night in a mountain hut and then on the second morning you rise early to ascend the summit. When you arrive you will witness one of the most incredible sunrises you will ever see, with the ground falling away beneath your feet and the view stretching for miles. It is a challenging climb but the views from the top, combined with the sense of achievement, make the hard work worthwhile. On the way back down, you can soothe your tired muscles with a dip in the Poring Hot Springs!
There is no minimum age to climb the mountain. Usually we would say that children should be over 10 but our youngest ever climber was 5. It depends how fit your children are and you know this best! Please discuss with us. For more information see our blog on Climbing Mount Kinabalu with kids.
As an island, Borneo is fringed with beaches and these are just about as good as they get anywhere in Asia. Beautiful white sandy beaches shelve gently into clear turquoise seas whilst offshore there are colourful coral reefs teeming with fish. Spend lazy days relaxing in a hammock, wandering along the beach and taking the children snorkelling to introduce them to life underwater.
There is wonderful diving throughout the area and older children might also enjoy a day introductory course.
There is a huge range of beach accommodation. This ranges from large luxury resorts with private beaches and a wide range of activities to simple island resorts. These might not offer every creature comfort but they are in blissful locations and you can have your meals right on the beach, your toes curling in the sand as you have your morning coffee.
We will suggest a hotel that will suit your family and budget.
This vast national park is a World Heritage Area and undoubtedly one of the highlights of Borneo. It is home to ancient tropical rainforest, huge limestone cave systems, strange rocky pinnacles, cascading crystal-clear rivers and deep gorges. The views throughout are absolutely spectacular. You can spend a wonderful couple of days walking through giant natural amphitheatres, learning about the weird and wonderful bugs that inhabit the caves, watching millions of bats fly out of the caves at sunset and taking boat rides along quiet rivers.
More active families might enjoy taking the overnight jungle trek to ‘camp 4’ and spending a night deep in the heart of the rainforest. You could also do the ‘Pinnacles climb’ which is not for the faint-hearted but which is a great challenge for older children.
Mulu also offers a 480m long canopy skywalk, the world’s longest tree based canopy walk. This takes you high into the jungle canopy where you can see a wealth of butterflies, huge insects and lush ferns.
The capital of Sarawak, Kuching is a very attractive city with a blend of colonial buildings, bustling street markets, hidden Chinese temples and open-air restaurants. You can take a bike ride along the back-streets of the city, browse the markets in search of souvenirs or just relax with a drink and watch the sun set over the sea.
Bako National Park is the smallest but oldest of Sarawak’s national parks. It is located on the coast in a particularly picturesque area of lush mangroves, thick jungle, secluded beaches and sharp rocky outcrops. The park is home to a wide variety of wildlife including monitor lizards, wild boar and the rare proboscis monkey as well as the insectivorous pitcher plant. You can explore the park both on foot and by boat and will be able to stop and swim on remote sandy beaches.
The Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary is the biggest rehabilitation centre in Sarawak. It is home to many injured or orphaned orangutans as well as those that have been confiscated from owners keeping them as pets. As in Sepilok, there is a feeding time when you are likely to see the younger animals head to the feeding platform for food. At other times the animals roam wild within the reserve, so although sightings are frequent they are not guaranteed.
Call us and we will be happy to provide you with a free-of-charge no obligation itinerary and quotation designed for you.
Borneo in pictures
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