Asia,  Destinations,  Malaysia

Borneo Backpacker Travel Guide

I visited Borneo (the Malaysian side) in July 2023, focusing on wild animal and trekking activities. Borneo is a wonderful place to visit if you’re interested in ecotravel in particular– you can go hiking through ancient rainforests, spot wild orangutans and pygmy elephants, and go scuba diving!

These are the places and activities I particularly recommend while visiting Borneo. It’s not ALL you can do (you could spend 3 months there and still not do it all), but it’s what I experienced and liked doing.

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Resources

SabahTourism.com – official website from Sabah’s tourism board.

SarawakTourism.com – official website from Sarawak’s tourism board.

Guidebooks

Most guidebooks for Borneo are currently being updated– a lot changed after 2020’s shutdown, so many hostels and tour agencies listed in older guidebooks are now closed. However, for a good overview of the history of the island, what types of tours are possible, and what animals/plants to seek out, I still recommend checking out a guidebook or two.

My favorite guidebook companies are Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. LP just updated their Borneo guidebook for 2023 and RG has an updated one for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Borneo Travel Itinerary

Here’s an overview of what I did during my 3 week visit:

Fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Visit Bako National Park, Semenggoh Nature Reserve (semi-wild orangutans), Siniawan Night Market, Borneo Cultures Museum, Cat Museum, day trip to longhouse.

Fly to Mulu National Park. Do hiking trails, showcave tour, canopy walk.

Fly to Miri and recover from Mulu. Take taxi into Brunei for a sidetrip. Take bus from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu.

Take bus from KK to Sandakan. Go to night market, waterfront area, etc. Visit Rainforest Discovery Center in Sepilok before getting picked up by tour company.

Kinabatangan River tour, 3 days 2 nights. See wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, and maybe even elephants!

Take bus from Sukau to Lahad Datu, then continue to Tawau. Get sick and spend rest of time on Borneo recovering, eventually fly back to KL from KK. Well– ideally you won’t get sick. 😛

My travel buddy went to Tawau Hills Park to do a tour there, and then did diving in Semporna. When she flew back to KK she did some hiking; people also go up Mt. Kinabalu there, but tickets are hard to come by and are expensive as well.

Transportation

Borneo is the third largest island in the WORLD, and though the Malaysian part of Borneo is “only” a small part of it, it still takes a surprising amount of time to get from one end to the other. If you’re short on time, you might want to stick to flying to get around.

There are several domestic airports and a few international ones, but most flights center around Kota Kinabalu. Domestic airfare ticket prices tend to be around $50 USD one way. I used Malaysia Airlines and MyAirline (Malaysia Airline’s budget branch) and had no difficulties. In fact, the two flights with MyAirline were really nice– the nicest budget airline experience I’ve had so far!

Other transportation options are: intercity buses, taxis/rideshare, private transfers, and renting a car. I don’t drive, so I have no recommendations for rental places. However, Grab works well on Borneo and prices are typical as in the rest of Malaysia (under RM20 / $5USD for short distances).

There’s also a lot of private drivers you can hire, though the prices seem fairly high (for instance, RM400 / $86 USD pp for a two hour drive). Private drivers also seem to charge per person and not per car, from my experience.

Intercity buses are plentiful and ticket prices are pretty good. A bus from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu will run you about RM150 / $33 USD compared to a flight closer to $200 USD. From KK to Sandakan it’s about RM47 / $10 USD compared to a $25-50 USD flight. Just keep in mind that distances are LONG; while a flight may be only 1 hour between cities, the same distance will be 9+ hours by bus.

Book buses online using EasyBook, 12Go, or redBus. However, some buses may ONLY be able to be booked in person or by phone; in that case you can ask your accommodation to help book a ticket for you.

Tip: there are more stops available than what's shown online. For instance, you can book a ticket from KK to Sandakan, but get off at Sepilok. This can be helpful if you've booked a Kinabatangan River tour which does pickups from Sepilok-- you'll save almost a whole hour by not having to backtrack out of Sandakan. 

Where to Stay (Accommodation)

There’s a wide range of hostels, hotels, AirBNBs and homestays throughout Borneo, at all price points.

Tip: Book accommodations through WhatsApp if you can. It’s sometimes cheaper than online prices, and they’ll often be more flexible with rescheduling or canceling than if you booked through an OTA.

Here’s my favorites:

Homy Seafront Hostel – A-04-11, 4TH FLOOR, BLOCK A, Warisan Square, A-G-18 Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia – Private rooms/dorms, free breakfast. Well designed and has a great view of the waterfront in KK. Good showers, with separate stalls for toilets. Unfortunately also has VERY thin walls, so you can hear everything. Earplugs recommended.

Mulu Backers Homestay – Jln Mulu Airport, Sarawak, Malaysia – Private rooms/dorms, free breakfast. Located 10 minutes walk to Mulu park and about 5 minutes walk from the airport. The owner is super nice! No a/c but the fans are surprisingly comfortable, and the owner keeps the generators running all night which is handy.

Sandakan Backpackers Hostel – Lot 108, 1st Floor, Block HS-11, Sandakan Harbour Square, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia – Private rooms/dorms, free breakfast. Real old school style hostel with amazing art on all the walls from previous guests and local artists. Low water pressure and not really hot water. Good roof terrace and big shared seating spaces throughout.

Sukau Backpackers Bed & Breakfast – Malaysia, Sabah, Kinabatangan, Jalan Sukau – Private rooms, free meals (as part of tour package). Nice jungle lodge with friendly staff and good food. We booked our Kinabatangan River tour through them and had a great time. They also were able to book us bus tickets from Sukau down to Lahad Datu. No wifi but good cell coverage.

Stuff to Eat (Restaurants)

Borneo has a lot of great food to try! Not only can you find amazing Chinese and Malay food, but also native Borneo restaurants which are different enough from the other two to be fun eating experiences.

Kota Kinabalu

Yee Fung Laksa – 127, Jalan Gaya, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia – Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Truly excellent local laksa (spicy soup) for good prices. Always busy but seating is fast.

Kuching

Borneo Cultures Museum Restaurant – Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg, 93400 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia – Open daily. Fancy restaurant for a museum, with actual good food! A little pricey but worth the stop if you’re in the area.

Choon Hui Cafe – 34, Jalan Ban Hock, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia – Closed Mondays. Famous for their popiah, a kind of local spring roll.

Jing-Si Books and Cafe (Kuching) – 152, Jln Padungan, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia – Open daily. Very nice tea/coffee/hot chocolate in a calm, relaxing environment.

Little Fairy Cafe – Ground Floor, 231, Jln Padungan, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak Padungan, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia – Closed Thursdays. Amazing restaurant owned by a local, serving Malay and Bidayuh (Borneo tribe) food. Delicious! Highly recommended!

Stuff to See (Attractions)

Bako National Park – Sarawak, Malaysia – RM20 entry fee plus RM40 for return boat ticket. A nice park about an hour from Kuching, where you can do trekking and animal-spotting. Potential spottings: proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, bearded pigs, monitor lizards, ,silvered leaf monkeys, flying lemurs. They also have on-site accommodation, and if you stay overnight you can do a night tour!

Gunung Mulu National Park – Sarawak, Malaysia – RM30 entry fee (5 day pass). Highly recommended! If you’re short on time, do this park and a river tour. Trekking through rainforest looking for animals, climbing through caves, hiking up the Pinnacles– lots of stuff to do here and it’s all amazing. Only downside was we didn’t see many animals during the day, but the night brought out interesting insects, frogs, squirrels, etc.

Kinabatangan River tour – Sabah, Malaysia – varies, RM450 for 3 day 2 night tour from Sukau Backpackers Bed & Breakfast. If you only have time to do one thing, then do this one. You go out onto the river on small boats with a guide and look for wild animals– and you’ll most likely find them! I saw proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, saltwater crocodiles, hornbills, cranes, kingfishers, etc. and potentially you could see pygmy elephants, monitor lizards, snakes, etc. The boats get you surprisingly close to the animals and having a guide explain things is great.

Rainforest Discovery Centre – Jalan Fabia, Sepilok, 90715 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia – RM20 entry fee. A good place to stop off if you’re doing a Kinabatangan River tour. There’s the Centre for hiking (and birdwatching! saw tons of birds!), plus the sun bear and orangutan reservations next door. Mix of trails with wooden walkways and just plain forest floor, and a free canopy walk with viewing towers. The RDC does a night trek which I’ve heard is also good.


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Anastasia is a former librarian turned digital nomad. She's been traveling the world full time for two years and has visited 18 countries so far! Just Gone Wandering is a travel resource for solo female travelers on a backpacker's budget-- or slightly more-- and highlights amazing places to visit as well as providing tips and tricks for traveling smart and frugal. Read more...

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