Borneo had been one of our dream destinations for a long time: jungle / nature and beaches / diving. What more do you need?
Borneo is the world’s third largest island - behind Greenland and New Guinea - and is almost equally split between Southern and Northern hemisphere by the equator. The island is politically divided among three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei - the only such island in the world. Borneo has become mostly famous for its rainforest, and for its orangutans which are endangered due to deforestation, mainly because of palm oil plantations.
Borneo’s rainforest is one of the oldest in the world. (It is estimated to be 140 million years old!) Oddly enough Borneo is antipodal to the largest tropical rainforest in the world, Amazonia. Besides the orangutan it is home to many endemic species of plants and animals such as the Borneo pygmy elephant, and rare species such as rhinoceros hornbills and Proboscis monkeys - all of which can be sighted during nature safaris, one of the major reasons for visiting Borneo. The surrounding seas, especially the Celebes Sea, are home to a gigantic diversity of fish species: some dive sites are matched only by a handful on the planet.
This guide lists places located in Sabah, the East Malaysian State covering the Northeastern side of Borneo. They are best discovered through a road trip, to keep some autonomy while being able to hire nature guides when necessary. The landscapes of Sabah range from pristine beaches - for example around the Tip of Borneo - high mountains - with its highest peak Mount Kinabalu culminating at 4,095m - rivers with remarkable wildlife - the Kinabatangan River offering the best opportunities for river safaris - and almost desert islands - Mabul and Sipadan islands begin the best dive destinations. (Driving across Sabah unfortunately also offers endless views onto palm oil plantations; this is not a highlight, but oh so interesting to see how much of the rainforest is being destroyed by some of our global consumption choices.)
Kota Kinabalu or KK is the capital of Sabah and serves as the main gateway to visit this part of Borneo. As such it is not worth spending too much time there, although some places are pleasant!
OCTOBER COFFEE HOUSE
It is important to find a place where you can sit comfortably and drink good coffee on your first day in a new city and a new country. If this place also serves a good lunch and cake, then you are at the right spot! This is the case of October Coffee House, a simple café that roasts its own coffee beans and makes amazing French toasts with fruits.
Jalan K.K. Bypass, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu
Tip of Borneo
The road between Kota Kinabalu and the Tip of Borneo offers several opportunities to stop on the way on secluded beaches, where you will end up spending an hour (or more) by yourself, and you will also get a chance to discover a small village of community. Browse the coastline on satellite view of Google Maps and take your pick! Besides Kalampunian Beach, Kg. Kuala Abai beach is an example of such a beach.
This area is worth a visit for its nature and discovery centers located around the town of Sandakan, the second largest city in Sabah. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the first official orangutan rehabilitation project for rescued orphaned baby orangutans from logging sites and the best opportunity for visitors to see this great ape up-close. The Rainforest Discovery Center offers jungle trails with opportunities to experience walking on a giant canopy walkway, and to spot numerous trees, birds, animals: flying squirrels, gibbons, kingfishers, and Sepilok Giant, a Yellow Seraya tree, which is about 65m in height, and 800-1,000 years in age.
SEPILOK FOREST EDGE RESORT
With wooden chalets spread across a hilly terrain, this hotel offers a quiet environment and a real jungle retreat. The chalets are very simple yet very comfortable with all the necessary amenities. A balcony overlooking a lake, a large king-size bed, a bathroom with polished cement, bamboo walls and tap water that flows through a bamboo… Some chalets even have an outdoor shower and bathtub. A short walk leads you to a small but magnificent pool that ideal to soak in, and to the restaurant area with audacious but delicious cuisine.
Jalan Rambutan, Sepilok Mile 14, 90009 Sandakan
Balin is a roofgarden bar and restaurant located on the 8th floor of the NAK hotel, and offering a beautiful view of Sandakan town and the coastline. It is made of several spaces - a green house, a roof deck, a dining terrace - that are ideal for different times of the day, from a healthy breakfast, to a sunset cocktail and a relaxing dinner overlooking the town.
One of the ‘large’ hotels in the town of Sandakan, NAK is surprisingly pleasant with helpful staff and original rooms. The suite is large, has a baldaquin bed, and the bathroom has porcelain faucets.
Jalan Pelabuhan Lama, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan
Set on a small hill, with nature all around, Paganakan Dii is a simple secluded retreat with simple rooms. Food is served in a communal pavilion and serves a simple selection of dishes.
Known for its remarkable wildlife and amazing nature, this area offers numerous opportunities for immersing in nature: river safaris, jungle trails, night safari. Not to be missed.
TUNGOG RAINFOREST ECO CAMP
The real jungle experience! Getting there involves parking under a bridge amid a small community, taking a boat on the Kinabatangan River, and walking on an elevated wooden path to get to the Camp. There are no rooms there - simply jungle platforms that are elevated and offers a roof for the night. But you literally spend the night outside, and hear the animals pass by (elephants) or play around you (monkeys). Below this so-called room is a private toilet, but the bathroom is centralized and shared, offering you literally a jungle bathroom. Local village nature guides are on standby to look after visitors and arrange wildlife observation activities in the lakeside observation platforms, the 18km of trails, the tree hides and swamp forest board-walks, and of course cruises on the nearby river. Proboscis monkeys, langurs, hornbills, crocodiles, and even Borneo pigmy elephants can be seen here. A unique experience that justifies the rudimentary facilities.
PPM 538 Elopura, 90000, Sandakan, Jalan Feri Lama, Kg Mengaris, 90200 Kinabatangan
Located in the Celebes Sea, Mabul and Sipadan are two islands that have become famous diving destinations. They form a complementary pair, with Mabul being one of the richest destinations for exotic small marine life (macro or muck diving), and Sipadan one of the biggest ecosystem for large fishes and pelagic species. Sipadan is considered by many - including ourselves - as the real deal (close if not comparable to the Galapagos Islands) and requires a permit that needs to be booked months in advance, in order to limit the number of divers to 120 daily and therefore preserve its pristine state.
UNCLE CHANG DIVING
Uncle Chang gets bonus points for being the first to take us to Sipadan, for having great local dive masters, for its restaurant platform overlooking the sea, and for singing the Sipadan song on the guitar at night. It makes up for the rooms and food that are at best ordinary.
BORNEO DIVERS MABUL RESORT
With 30 chalets spread across a garden around a swimming pool and facing the ocean, this resort is a great option for divers who stay in Mabul (there are no accommodation in Sipadan). The chalets are spacious and comfortable, facilities pleasant (with an amazing cooking staff and companion cats) and you have permanent access to the dive center and house reef, which is particularly nice, especially for a sunset dive.