Borneo is the planet’s third largest island (after Greenland and New Guinea).
More than 15,000 species of plants live in the 130-million-year-old rainforests. Hundreds of mammals including both orangutans and proboscis monkeys thrive in the dense jungles.
Add dozens of tropical islands, thousands of kilometers of beaches and Malaysia’s tallest mountain.
Borneo splits between three countries.
Malaysian Sabah and Sarawak covers approximately one-quarter. Indonesian Kalimantan spreads across most of the rest. Brunei Darussalam, one of the world’s least visited countries, is sandwiched between Sarawak.
Crazy Tourist identifies the 25 best things to do in Borneo for jungles, mountain climbing and scuba diving.
1. Scale Borneo’s tallest mountain (Sabah)
Mount Kinabalu is the highest point between New Guinea and the Himalayas.
At 4,095 meters (13,435 feet), the granite giant dominates Sabah’s skyline.
Scaling this mountain usually features on travel itineraries to Malaysian Borneo. Hikers complete a two-day expedition to the summit and stay overnight in a mountainside hostel.
Next morning, hikers wake at 2:00am and climb to the top in time for the sunrise.
Only a limited number of travelers can hike each day and places usually fill up months in advance.
Mount Kinabalu offers more than just the challenge and spectacular views.
Sabah’s indigenous peoples have deep cultural ties to this mountain. Kadazan-Dusun communities once believed their ancestors rest on Kinabalu after death.
2. Danum Valley: Borneo’s biodiversity hotspot (Sabah)
The name Borneo elicits images of rainforests, wildlife and biodiversity.
Nothing meets these expectations more than Danum Valley in eastern Sabah.
The 130-million-year-old jungle has changed little in its long lifetime.
Flourishing environments provide habitats for almost half the world’s animals and plants. This includes orangutans, pygmy elephants and meat-eating pitcher plants.
Danum Valley is two hours along logging roads from the nearest town.
The center combines a cutting-edge research facility with an ecotourism destination.
Travelers can go jungle trekking with some of Borneo’s most experienced guides. Or search for wildlife on a night safari.
3. Proboscis monkeys on the Kinabatangan River (Sabah)
The Kinabatangan River meanders 560 kilometers (348 miles) through the jungle in eastern Sabah.
Millions of animals and plants live in the verdant landscapes surrounding the muddy flow of water.
Small communities of endemic proboscis monkeys live in certain channels. Estimates suggest only 7,000 of the pot-bellied and long-nosed primates remain on the planet.
The most convenient way to reach the Kinabatangan River is from Sandakan. Spend the night in the riverside bungalows.
River cruises take passengers to see primates, crocodiles and tropical birds.
4. Island hopping in Kota Kinabalu (Sabah)
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, shares its coastline with five tropical islands.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is a favorite day trip.
Most of the hundreds of daily tourists head to Manukan for its beaches and crystal clear water.
More adventurous ones travel to Gaya, the marine park’s largest island. Visitors can explore a floating village, hike along trails and climb hills for panoramic views of the mini-archipelago.
Mamutik, Sapi and Sulug offer empty beaches, clear water for snorkeling and fewer people.
Regular ferries leave Kota Kinabalu’s Jesselton Point to each island. Or go island-hopping and visit all five in a single day.
5. Spend the night on an (almost) desert island (Sabah)
Sabah’s Pulau Tiga, translating to Three Islands, hosted Season One of reality TV show Survivor.
Flash forward from 2000 to the present.
Rather than a deserted island fit only for survivalists, Pulau Tiga has embraced its global fame.
Day-trippers visit from nearby Kota Kinabalu. Tourists can explore the beaches featured on Survivor and discover rare mud volcanoes.
Almost every tourist disappears in the late afternoon leaving only a handful of people on the island.
This is when the real magic begins. You really feel like you’re on a desert island.
Splash out and spend the night in the ultra-luxurious Pulau Tiga Resort.
Ferries leave from Jesselton Point.
6. Sepilok’s Baby Orangutans (Sabah)
Sabah’s lucrative timber industry leads to widespread deforestation. Orangutans lose their habitats.
Malicious business owners view these critically endangered primates as pests and actively hunt them.
This leaves the young and vulnerable without their parents or the skills to survive alone.
Sepilok rehabilitation center adopts and cares for orphaned orangutans.
Approximately 80 live inside the semi-wild enclosure.
Visit during feeding time (10:00am and 3:00pm) and watch the little orange haired monkeys swing in the branches.
Sepilok invests all its funds to caring for the orangutans.
7. Sabah’s metropolitan capital on the sea (Sabah)
Kota Kinabalu, or KK for short, sits on the South China Sea in west Sabah.
KK provides convenient access to Mount Kinabalu, tropical islands and Sabah’s highlands.
The city itself is microscopic compared to Kuala Lumpur. Nature surrounds the open spaces a few minutes from the city center.
Likas Bay’s Floating Mosque is the capital’s most majestic attraction. An artificial lagoon surrounds the blue and white structure giving the illusion that it’s floating.
Tanjung Aru, the city’s best beach, is a prime spot to watch the famous Bornean sunset.
Head to Gaya Street for food and entertainment.
8. Borneo’s best diving on Sipidan Island (Sabah)
Diving enthusiasts around the globe know about Sabah’s Sipidan Island.
The limestone pinnacle off the eastern coast ranks as one of the planet’s best places for diving.
PADI-certified scubas submerge into a marine world unlike any other in Southeast Asia.
Sprawling coral reefs thrive in the unpolluted and undisturbed waters. Schools of barracuda swarm while curious parrotfish swim nearby.
Turtles swim on the surface while basking in the warm tropical waters.
Sipadan issues 120 diving permits per day, which usually sell out several months before the allocated time.
Take the ferry (one hour) from Semporna in East Sabah to Sipadan Island.
9. Sabah’s secret lagoon (Sabah)
According to tourists, Bohey Dulang is among the most spectacular parts of Borneo.
A prehistoric volcanic eruption formed the mountainous island in east Sabah’s Celebes Sea. This created the spectacular lagoon known as Bohey Dulang.
Cross the small channel separating the lagoon from Bodgaya Island.
Follow the trails to the peak at 353 meters (1,158) feet. Marvel at the sapphire-blue lagoon below.
Other paths lead to natural pools, waterfalls and pristine stretches of coastline.
Bajau Laut, often called the Sea Nomads, live in the nearby stilted village.
10. Borneo’s most mysterious national park (Sarawak)
Gunung Mulu (Mount Mulu) has Sarawak’s most unusual (and spooky) landscapes.
Jagged limestone pinnacles point skywards next to towering mountains. Eerie trees tangle and intertwine to guard entrances into deep caves.
Gunung Mulu National Park ticks all the criteria for the adventurous ecotourist.
Jungle trails lead towards the mountaintops. Or follow the paths through the never-ending cave systems. Photographers revel in the contrasts.
Inside the caves, Sarawak Chamber is the world’s largest known cavity.
The protected region is far from civilization and human interference.
Travelers need to take a short chartered flight from nearby Miri. Otherwise the journey takes two days through the forest and along rivers.
Accommodation is available at Gunung Mulu.
11. Sarawak’s most accessible caves (Sarawak)
Sarawak has a nationwide reputation for caves.
The state has thousands of kilometers of passageways which traverse through the limestone cliffs.
Niah Caves near Miri is both the most accessible and tourist-friendly ones to visit in Sarawak.
Check out both Moon Cave and Great Cave. Guided tours will take you to both.
Or see some of Malaysia’s oldest cave paintings inside the not-so-creatively named Painted Cave.
Malaysia’s oldest human skeleton (40,000 years old) was discovered here too.
Spend the night in Miri. Rent a car and drive 85 kilometers (53 miles) south of Miri. Or join an organized tour.
12. Unusual rock formations at Tusan Cliff (Sarawak)
Tusan Cliff Beach sits along the South China Sea. A magnificent stretch of (almost) empty coastline is a canvas for the weird rock formations in the distance.
Sugar-like golden sand stretches against the almost vertical yellow sandstone cliffs. Gentle waves roll in from the azure-blue sea.
Gaze down the coast and (with a bit of imagination) you’ll see the ‘horse’s head’. This rock looks like a horse drinking from the sea.
The beach is about 39 kilometers (24.2 miles) to the south of Miri.
13. Proboscis monkeys in Bako National Park (Sarawak)
Bako National Park showcases the best of Sarawak’s jungle.
The relatively small protected area is approximately one hour north of capital Kuching.
Apart from countless hiking trails, Bako has beaches, cliffs and waterfalls.
Mangroves creep inland between the sea and lush rainforests. Boat tours cruises through these eerie labyrinths.
A small population of Proboscis monkeys live in the forest near Park HQ. Travelers have a high chance of seeing these rare and unusual primates.
Bako National Park is Sarawak’s most accessible rainforest.
14. Kuching: The colonial city of cats (Sarawak)
Capital Kuching in western Sarawak has an uncanny affiliation with felines.
The name itself phonetically resembles the Malay word for cat (Kucing). Dozens of cat statues and tabby-friendly cafés fill the city.
Aside from this quirky connection, Kuching is Sarawak’s colonial gem.
The exotic-sounding White Rajahs, a British dynasty lasting just over 100 years, made Kuching their capital.
This legacy manifests in the Astana (Palace) and Fort Margherita.
Stroll along the Sarawak River, visit colorful Buddhist Temples and explore floating villages.
15. Mount Santubong: Sarawak’s Sacred Mountain (Sarawak)
Mount Santubong is Sarawak’s version of Mount Kinabalu.
Located in western Sarawak near Kuching, Santubong soars 810 meters (2,657 feet) above sea level.
The mountain dominates the coastline and forms the backdrop to the classy Damai Beach Resort.
Several habitats and ecological zones cover the mountain including mangroves and rainforests.
Irrawaddy dolphins live in the muddy coastal waters. Lucky travelers often report sightings.
The Rainforest Music Festival held every July takes place at the foothills of Santubong’s in Sarawak Cultural Village too.
16. Discover the enigmatic Sea Nomads (Sabah)
Borneo’s Bajau are often called ‘Sea Nomads’ or ‘Sea Gypsies’
After centuries of a seafaring lifestyle, today’s Bajau live in stilted villages above the sea. Some in western Sabah have developed horse-riding skills and now live on the land.
Travelers can discover these mysterious people and their ancient traditions. This includes their ability to dive for 13 minutes without equipment.
Semporna in east Sabah has one of Borneo’s largest Bajau floating villages.
17. Learn about Borneo’s indigenous (Borneo)
Borneo has more than 200 ethnic groups who have lived in the jungle, coastal regions and along the rivers for millennia.
Dayak is the umbrella term used to refer to the diverse indigenous peoples living in Borneo.
A century ago, Sabah and Sarawak were notorious for their fierce headhunters.
Monsopiad Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu presents Sabah’s headhunting past. Or discover Sarawak’s heritage at Sarawak Cultural Village.
Kaamatan, Sabah’s Harvest Festival in May, showcases the best of the state’s ethnic diversity. Gawai is Sarawak’s Harvest Festival.
In Brunei, Malay Technology Museum is the nation’s most extensive ethnographic museum. This is a short drive from capital Bandar Seri Begawan.
18. Diving in duty-free Labuan (Labuan)
Labuan Island sits between Brunei and Sabah.
Labuan itself consists of seven islands, some more developed than others.
Malaysia’s government transformed the once unknown island into a financial center. Today it hosts thousands of off-shore companies and has a duty free status.
Despite its reputation for business, Labuan is a haven for diving.
Dozens of little-explored sites lie a few kilometers from the coast. Scuba-enthusiasts have the rare opportunity to visit four shipwrecks.
Labuan is also a gateway to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei.
19. Celebrate Borneo’s religious diversity (Borneo)
Borneo is a Southeast Asian multicultural melting pot.
Almost every religion is represented in Malaysian Borneo, Brunei and Kalimantan.
Discover Asia’s most stunning mosques in Brunei. Or embrace the colorful atmosphere inside grand Buddhist temples.
Before mainstream religion, many of Borneo’s inhabitants were pagans. Some of the older residents in Malaysian Borneo can still remember their parents performing these mysterious pagan rituals.
Relics of this bygone era still exist in the more rural communities.
20. The world’s largest floating village (Brunei)
Almost every resident in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan once lived in Kampong Ayer.
The stilted village stands above the Brunei River like it has for centuries.
Approximately 13,000 people still live in their traditional houses.
Rather than roads and cars, water taxis take residents from one place to the next. Rickety boardwalks replace sidewalks connecting 42 mini-neighborhoods.
Take a water taxi from the Waterfront and discover this world above the river.
Kampong Ayer is practically self-sufficient with schools, mosques and shops.
21. Green Jewel of Brunei (Brunei)
Ulu Temburong National Park in Brunei is a prime example of state-sponsored conservation.
Unlike their neighbors, Brunei doesn’t suffer from rampant deforestation for logging or palm oil plantations.
Brunei’s oil has directly contributed to the jungle’s conservation. Ulu Temburong has received an enormous state investment.
Both scientists and conservationists study the rare ecological habitats. Several types of new species, such as an unusual exploding ant, are regularly discovered inside the national park.
Travelers can visit this spectacular primary rainforest from Bandar Seri Begawan.
The journey to reach this remote region involves two boat trips and a long drive along dirt roads.
Inside, you’ll find hiking trails, waterfalls and Brunei’s best examples of biodiversity.
You need to join a tour to visit.
22. Brunei’s largest lake (Brunei)
Lake Merimbum, Brunei’s largest lake, is in central Brunei.
From above with a smattering of imagination, the lake looks like the letter ‘S’.
Bright green lilies float on its deep blue surface surrounded by lush forests. Wooden bridges pass over the water to viewing platforms.
Travelers can follow the boardwalks to most parts of the lake. Boats offer short trips out onto the water.
Lake Merimbun is about one hour from Bandar Seri Begawan by car.
23. Outdoor adventures in Tapin Bini (Kalimantan)
Tapin Bini has challenging hikes, river rafting and countless indigenous communities.
Apart from a few Indonesian tourists, the area in Central Kalimantan is far off the tourist trail. Only a handful of international travelers have ever set foot here.
Hike up Bukit Bolau (Bolau Hill) along impossibly steep trails. Or make the most of the river – go white water rafting, swimming or simply relax on the banks.
After a day of adventure activities, travelers can have a cultural experience with a local family in a homestay.
24. Borneo’s most biodiverse lake (Kalimantan)
Lake Sentarum National Park is among the planet’s most biodiverse lakes.
More than 200 species of fish and birds call the environment home. So do 150 types of mammals including both orangutans and proboscis monkeys.
The national park covers a mind-blowing 1,329 square kilometers in northern Kalimantan.
Kalimantan’s indigenous people live inside remote villages. Isolated Malay fishing villages line the coast.
But this remoteness is both a blessing and hindrance.
Getting to Lake Sentarum is a challenge. Travelers first need to reach West Kalimantan’s capital Pontianak. From here, it’s seven hours by boat to the lake.
25. Kalimantan’s most beautiful islands (Kalimantan)
A total of 31 tropical islands make up the Derawan Archipelago in Eastern Kalimantan.
The islands have picture-perfect beaches, gorgeous coastlines and overwater bungalows.
Travelers either come for a luxurious island break. Or embrace the marine wonderland beneath the waves.
Over 460 types of coral thrive along their coastline in the Sulawesi Sea. Almost 900 species of fish live in the corals including protected sea turtles.
Sangalaki, Kakaban and Derawan are the most accessible islands in the archipelago.