This article was originally published in December 2013 and updated in March 2020
Borneo is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, boasting incredible rainforests full of wildlife, sparkling white beaches, world-class snorkeling, pristine islands and even towering mountain ranges. Spread across two countries–Malaysia and Brunei–this tropical getaway has a fascinating mix of cultures, colourful cities and natural wonders. To pack as much as possible into your Borneo itinerary, base yourself in Kuching or Kota Kinabalu and take day trips to explore the surrounding areas, then head over to Bandar Seri Begawan to get a glimpse of what life is like in the oil-rich state of Brunei. From spotting orangutans to diving into the underwater world, here are some of the best things to do in Borneo.
Things to do in Kuching, Sarawak
As one of the largest cities in Borneo, there are plenty of interesting places in Kuching as well as a fantastic foodie scene. The capital of Sarawak boasts jaw-dropping architecture, serene gardens and a vibrant Chinatown, and is nicknamed the ‘Cat City’ thanks to its feline fascination which is apparent in its many cat-themed statues and museums.
Popular Kuching attractions include:
- New Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building: Dewan Undangan Negeri is truly impressive, and has become a fixture in the city since its completion in 2009. Serving as the assembly building, it was built for conducting state business and quickly became one of the top spots for photography and sightseeing in Kuching thanks to its unique architectural stylings.
- Masjid Bandaraya Kuching: This pastel pink palace serves as the State Mosque of Sarawak, and its rose facade is best viewed from the banks of the Sarawak River.
- Chinatown: Besides being one of the best places to eat in Kuching, Chinatown has beautiful attractions including the Harmony Arch, Hiang Thian Siang Temple andHong San Si Temple.
READ MORE: The best things to do in Kuching, Borneo
Around Kuching: Bodyaga Island
This stunning spot off Sabah’s east coast is a must to include on your Borneo itinerary if you want to get off the grid. Only accessible by boat, it’s the largest island in Tun Sakaran Marine Park near the town of Semporna and helps form a crater rim underwater between the southern points of Bohey Dulang and Tetagan. Its rugged terrain has wooded valleys, mangroves and volcanic rock, and two peaks with fantastic views of the crystal clear water surrounding Bodyaga Island.
Bako National Park
Love monkeys? Then Bako National Park is your place. When you visit Borneo, the lush rainforests are a haven for the little critters, with nearly a dozen different species scattered throughout the country.
The best way to catch a glimpse of them is by hitting up a national park and seeing them in their natural habitat. The Bako National Park day trip is easy to do from Kuching, as it’s a short drive and you can get there by public bus for about RM 2 each way. The bus drops visitors off at Bako Village where you’ll be asked to fill out a visitor form, then hop on a speedboat which whisks you into the park. After paying the RM 10 entrance fee, you’re free to walk through the numerous Bako National Park trails.
You’ll see the most wildlife if you stick close to Bako Village, since the hilarious looking Proboscis monkeys like to hang out there. They’re basically one of the most ridiculous looking mammals alive, the size of a teenager, with the belly of a man who’s drank a few too many beers in his day, and a honkin’ nose!
You’re also likely to see a few of the fearless macaques during a Bako National Park tour, who have been known to steal food right out of visitors’ hands—so hold on tight to that muffin! The park is also great for hiking, but keep in mind that it can be extremely hot so you’ll want to dress accordingly and bring lots of water. One popular trail is towards the Tajor waterfall which takes about four hours round trip.
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
If you’re an animal lover, start your Borneo orangutan tour off at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. Located about 24 kilometres from Kuching, it’s home to those loveable orangutans that Malaysia is famous for, as well as a number of wild animals who were orphaned or injured. The centre has been so successful at rehabilitating orangutans that it is now a place to study their biology and behaviour.
During a visit, you can expect to see the primates hanging out in the tall trees, as you walk through one of the many trails. There are also a number of gardens, including a botanical research centre. To see the orangutans up close, try to time your arrival with feeding time which takes place from 9-10 a.m. and 3-3:30 p.m.
Damai Beach resort
How does spending an afternoon on a deserted stretch of golden sand sound? That’s what you’ll find if you make the trek out to Damai Beach. Situated on the South China Sea and surrounded by a lush rainforest, Damai is actually part of a beach resort but is still open to visitors who aren’t staying at the hotel.
The drive to the beach is only about 40 minutes which makes it one of the easier Kuching day trips, and you can also get there by bus. Alternatively, book a room at the resort which has more than 250 rooms including suites with stunning views of the sea. Prices start around RM 165 per night and there are also restaurants and a golf course on site. If you choose to stay, you can also spend a day at the Sarawak Cultural Centre which is conveniently located next door.
Sarawak Cultural Village
One of the best places to visit in Borneo to get a dose of Malaysian culture is the Sarawak Cultural Village. Located 45 minutes from Kuching, the complex is tucked into the base of Mount Santubong which makes for a gorgeous backdrop, and showcases Malay customs and heritage. Traditional homes have been constructed on the property, including the Orang Ulu longhouse, a Melanau (tall house), and even one on stilts. Visitors are free to walk through them, and inside you’ll find the staff demonstrating pastimes like making cakes, spinning tops, and even shooting blow darts.
There’s also a cultural show twice a day with dancing, including the Iban- Ngajat Lesong where a warrior demonstrates the strength of his teeth by clenching down on, then lifting, a 20 kg mortar. In another, one man balances on his stomach atop a colourful pole about 9 feet up, held up by three men below. There’s also a blow dart demonstration where a warrior with a long blow dart walks up and down through the audience, then picks someone at random to teach them how to shoot at balloons set up about 50 feet away.
What to do in Kota Kinabalu
Bordering the South China Sea in the state of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu is one of the main industrial and commercial centres in Malaysia, and an important hub for Borneo travel. While there’s only one major landmark here, ‘KK’ makes a great base for exploring some of the other things to do in Sabah, and is the jumping off point for the surrounding islands.
Kota Kinabalu City Mosque is the city’s main highlight, which has a vibrant blue roof and is surrounded by a lagoon. ‘The Floating Mosque’ is particularly enchanting at sunrise when the colours reflect off the water, and the mosque can hold an astounding 12,000 worshipers.
RELATED: What to do in Kota Kinabalu
Around Kota Kinabalu: Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
One of the most popular day trips from Kota Kinabalu is to take the 20 minute speedboat ride from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Considered one of the most idyllic Borneo destinations, its five islands are the definition of paradise: think warm, brilliant blue bays, blonde beaches and swaying palm trees.
A couple popular ones are:
- Manukan Island: Palm-trees concealing cheeky macaques fringe the soft, white sand, and you don’t even need a snorkel to see tropical fish in the surrounding water.
- Pulau Tiga: The TV show Survivor put this spot on the map after filming a season here, and there’s great snorkeling around Snake Island and the option to enjoy a volcano mud bath. Book a tour
- Sapi Island: Families love this easy getaway from Kota Kinabalu, which is one of the most developed islands with its restaurants, bathroom facilities and a diving centre. Enjoy relaxing on the sun-soaked sand, or wading into the water to see the likes of water snakes and clownfish.
Book a day trip to the islands near Kota Kinabalu:
Hiking Mount Kinabalu
If you’re ready for a beach break, head over to Mount Kinabalu National Park which is home to the highest mountain in Borneo. Mount Kinabalu rises 4,095 high, and the arduous trek takes about two days to complete. Most climbers book a Mount Kinabalu tour from KK which includes transportation, one night’s accommodation on the mountain, a guide and food.
The trail winds past flora and fauna, through rainforests and towards viewpoints revealing breathtaking views of park below, as you get high above the clouds and finally make it to the craggy summit. Borneo trekking isn’t easy, but it’s sure to be a highlight of your trip.
Where to stay in Malaysian Borneo
- Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley Conservation Area– Treat yourself to a stay in this unforgettable, award-winning lodge in the middle of the rainforest, which is sure to be a highlight of your Borneo vacation. The gorgeous, huge suites (hello, outdoor showers!) are perched high above the conservation area, making this the next best thing to a treehouse. When you’re not indulging in a massage or lounging by the infinity pool, you can join a challenging trek for amazing wildlife viewing. Click here to book
- The Ranee Boutique Suites, Kuching– There’s nothing like a boutique hotel to capture the essence of where you are, and the Ranee has done it perfectly by stylishly rebuilding the property from two traditional 19th century shophouses. It’s wonderfully situated in the old town of Kuching and near the waterfront, and guests love the spacious rooms and delicious breakfast. Click here to book
- The Kebun– If you want a more authentic and local experience, then The Kebun in Kuching ticks all the right boxes. More than just accommodation, this is more of a homestay where guests enjoy home cooked meals and even have their laundry done. There’s an abundance of surrounding national parks to explore in the area, as well as easy access to water activities like kayaking. Click here to book
Cap off your Borneo trip and visit Brunei (ferries and flights connect the country with Malaysia), which is one of the world’s tiniest nations. Located on Borneo’s north coast, it’s known as being extremely wealthy thanks to oil reserves, and is ruled by a sultan.
Base yourself in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, then check out some of the main things to do in Brunei like:
- Royal Regalia Exhibition Hall: Exhibits hold a collection of items from the royal family, including a colourful chariot, sultan’s crowns and gifts.
- Sultan Omar Ali Saiffuddien Mosque: The crown jewel of Brunei, this grand building features a brilliant golden dome that can be seen from kilometers away.
- Kampong Ayer: Taking a boat ride through this water village allows you to see hundreds of shanty-type homes joined by rickety bridges which are perched on stilts, making it the biggest settlement ever built on stilts.
- Jerudong Park: An amusement park with 34 attractions including a waterpark, which makes this one of the best places to visit in Brunei for families.
Some of the other interesting places in Brunei are found a short drive from the city, including Tasek Merimbun and beaches in Brunei like Berakas, Meragang and Tungku Beach.
Brunei tours like this full-day, guided excursion are a great way to see some of the top landmarks without having to worry about transportation, and gives a great overview of the best sites. Click here to book
Where to stay in Brunei: The affordable Brunei Hotel is located in the heart of the action, so you can easily walk to most landmarks, including the waterfront. If you’re up for a five-star splurge, book a room at the beachfront Empire Hotel & Country Club which has gorgeous rooms, a spa, golf course, indoor and outdoor pools. Click here to book
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