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What to do in Borneo: jungle adventures, proboscis monkeys, and indigenous tribes!

In Borneo in East Malaysia the adventure begins for you in the deepest jungle! Borneo, the third largest island in the world, consists of two parts: Sarawak and Sabah, in the south and north. In between them is the independent state of Brunei. While Sabah is a paradise for diving, heavenly beaches, and snorkeling Sarawak is filled with jungle adventures and unique wildlife!

So get ready for a hell of an adventure from Off The Path. We’ll tell you all about what to do in Borneo!

What to do in Borneo: jungle adventure, proboscis monkeys and indigenous tribes!

Getting to Borneo

In Borneo there are a couple of cities and towns that have their own commercial airports. The largest of them are Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. For both cities you can only arrive by plane. The best route to take is from either Kuala Lumpur or Singapore with AirAsia.

The best time to travel to Borneo is from March to September as it gets the least precipitation at this time of year. The best months are generally April and July because the tropic temperatures are relatively low and nice.

The best things what to do in Borneo

1. The cat city Kuching

Kuching – meaning “cat” – is a nice town with a few notable highlights. Two days are plenty to see everything you want here. Since from Kuching there are a lot of great trips to the surrounding national parks, it is ideal to get an accommodation for a few days.

The landmark of Kuching is the cat. You’ll find various statues throughout the city. There’s even a cat museum if you’re a die-hard cat fan!

In recent years more and more street art has developed in the city as well. Behind Carpenter Street, for example, there’s a whole wall full of impressive works of art. If you stroll through the city you will find tons of cool street paintings – so keep your eyes open!

The central in Kuching is the waterfront. From there you can take a nice relaxing stroll all the way up to the Main Bazaar.

It’s the oldest street in Kuching and the heart of the city. It houses two really cool antique furniture stores. One is called John’s Gallery and the other is called John Galley Dayak. You should definitely go into both of these!
In the smaller John’s Gallery masks, tools, statues, and traditional weapons – some of which are originals from the Iban tribe – are sold. Asyilah, the owner, is more than happy to tell you more about the history and use of the individual pieces. The other store sells larger pieces of neat furniture instead!

As well as visiting all the little shops you have to try the layercake that’s sold by a few women at roadside stalls in the Bazaar. Across the river, an original bakery called Dayang Salhaha sells the cake for a little cheaper price and in tons of different color combinations. If you want to see a few typical Malaysian villages, travel by boat from the waterfront to the other side of the river.

Parallel to the Main Bazaar is Carpenter Street with a further selection of craft shops, cafes, and delicious food stalls.

Once you’re done with Kuching you should definitely make a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Center, about 45 minutes from Kuching. During feeding times at 9 am and 3 pm you can observe Orang Utans closely who have been rescued from imprisonment or are being taken care of after an injury. I was I little sceptic in the beginning but it’s really an unforgettable experience and there aren’t that many other visitors you have fight for the best spot with!

To get to Semenggoh you can either go by car or take a bus from the station on Jalan Mosque.

Food and drink in Kuching

Old Chinese Coffee Shop

A nice, simple café with good coffee. This place is located on Carpenter Stret. The coffee comes from different parts of the world, and is roasted here in house.

Pak Somet

This restaurant sees a lot of locals, and is ideal for a delicious lunch. You absolutely have to try Nas Ayam Penyet – a dish of rice with honey chicken. Also, as a tip, if you want a glass of water here, you have to specify you want it “cold” or else you’ll get warm water!

John’s Place

Like Pak Somet, even this place is home to mostly locals. The menu consists of local specialties and some international dishes like lamb and sandwiches. The Kueh Teow Kerang is especially good here – it’s a noodle dish with clams.

The Granary

The Granary serves delicious steaks, pasta, and pizza. It’s also got really cool decorations, and has a lot of industrial charm as it’s located in an old warehouse.

Topspot Seafood Foodcourt

According to locals, this is supposed to be the best place for seafood! Don’t miss the Midin if you’re going to eat here – it’s a type of fern that’s seasoned and cooked into a delicious meal!

Ruai bar

It’s crazy here! If you have not tried any local rice wine yet, this is the place to do it. For the very brave there are a couple special creations: rice wine with pickled crocodile penis, or scorpion!

Sleeping well in Kuching

Citadines Uplands

If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown, then this is the best sleeping quarter for you. The Citadines Uplands is a hotel of apartments situated just outside the city center. By taxi you’re still about 10 minutes away from the city center, but it has a great pool and amazing views of Kuching – well worth that 10 minute cab ride!

Singhasartha Lodge

This accommodation is the exact opposite; it’s just around the corner of the bazaar at the center of Kuching. The location might be ideal for you, but bear in mind that it’s a bit loud. The lounge is set up in a really neat tribal style, the rooms are rather simple.

2. Bako National Park

If you decide to go to Bako National Park you have to keep your eyes open for funny proboscis monkeys! You can either book a tour to the park or go alone on the different tracks through the park and even stay overnight in the lodge. If you’re by yourself, you’re more flexible but you don’t have a guide who shows you some amazing animals hiding in the jungle.

To get to the park it takes about an hour’s drive from Kuching. The first part of the route can be done by car, but then you have to catch a 30 minute boat ride for the second half. Once you get to the central point of the park you have the choice between different short and long hiking trails throughout the park.

If you opt to go on a tour, the hike going eastward will be your most likely starting point – it was for us. Along the hike everyone has their eyes peeled for exotic animals, and with any luck you’ll meet a few after a few kilometers: macaque, bristly wild pigs, bilious green snakes, and the so-called flying lemur!

As most monkeys live by the sea, the next part of your hike takes you along the water. You’ll travers over rocks and roots and stairs, constantly on the hunt for the elusive proboscis monkey! As you go you’ll most likely run into some silver leaf monkeys and macaques.

Once you get to the sea you’ll have the option to take a boat out to the famous rock formations in the sea. Although this does cost a little extra, it’s worth every single penny! After your little rock formation trip, the boat driver takes you back to the start of the trail where you can eat a nice filling meal before going on your next hike.

Starting your second hike is super exciting – especially if you haven’t spotted a proboscis monkey yet – because now you’ll be on the lookout for even more wildlife as you trek through the jungle. We were lucky enough to spot one little guys just before our guide decided to turn the hike around to head back to headquarter where we saw another one pretty close. It’s definitely very cool when you get to see the monkeys up close and personal!

The tour includes two walks, and goes from morning to noon. At 15:00 you then get on a boat that brings you back to the village of Bako. A two-day overnight tour is an even better route to go to be part of an amazing adventure, but it’s not always available. Before you go, see what’s on offer at what times so you’re not disappointed!

One thing to be aware of in Borneo is the humidity in this part. It makes a mini-hike of just 800 meters feel like several hours climbing a mountain peak in Austria! Be prepared for a fairly rigorous hike, and pack a lot of water!

A great company to book with and get information is Straits Central Travel and Tour. I also booked my trip with them. Here’s a link to get some more information!

3. Jungle trip to the Batang Ai National Park

An authentic jungle adventure is waiting for you nearly five hours from Kuching, close to the Indonesian border: four days and three nights in the jungle of Borneo!

You’ll be picked up in the early morning at 8:00 with a small group and then you’re off to Batang Ai National Park. The first stop you hit is a local market where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and delicious local specialties. They even sell cobra in pieces–to sell, which actually is illegal!

The second stop you get to is a place to grab some lunch. Be sure to stock up on snacks, buy a raincoat if you don’t have one and rubber boots (called Malaysian adidas) to protect against leeches!

In the afternoon you’ll finally reach the gate of the Batang Ai National Park, and change transportation: the next section of the journey is on a long wooden boat driven by a native Iban tribe member. This part of the trip is just amazing! Over an hour and a half the boat goes through the reservoir, through the jungle to the first camp. It’s idyllically situated on the river next to the village Nanga Sumpa.

The rooms of the camp are nice and located in a typical longhouse on stilts. You can jump into the river at this point if you feel like cooling down so be sure to bring your swimsuit or bikini! For the rest of the day you can relax before dinner. In the meantime try the local palm juice that actually tastes pretty sour and like alcohol. I personally didn’t like it too much.

The next morning starts with a two hour hike after a very special goal: spotting wild orangutans! If you have bad luck you only get to see their nests. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any in person, but it was still such a thrill because our eyes and ears were open for the sign of orangutans the entire time!

Once you’ve get your sweat on from the hike you take a boat to a waterfall where you can refresh yourself in the nice cold water.

At this point you get to have a lunch with the indigenous Iban tribe: a typical barbecue! Their way of doing it has them place meat on a “grill” of branches, and cooked over an open fire. The sticky rice and eggplant are quite tasty and uniquely prepared in bamboo tubes.

After the meal you then take the boat down the river to the next camp which is situated in a lonely little place deep in the jungle. The camp is a bit simpler than the last one. You sleep on a mattress on the floor covered by a mosquito net and there’s only a single small light for the night. You get to clean yourself in the river, which is really unique and adventurous!

At night the stars and fireflies light up the sky in all directions! You can see the movement and eyes of tons of spiders on the ground if you shine a flashlight at eye level – so creepy, but cool!

On your third day of hiking, you’ll definitely be exhausted and sweaty. The hike takes you up the mountain almost to the border of Indonesian Kalimantan. Right after breakfast you go on a four hour walk with the aim of trying to spot orangutans again! You’d be really lucky to actually run into one of these shy animals as they are not prone to being around people; they’re wild like that!

We didn’t see any orangutans that day, but it was still a unique and indescribable experience! You should also keep a constant awareness of leeches and check your shoes and legs frequently. They like to crawl on to you completely unnoticed.

In the afternoon you’ll have plenty of time to rest and recover. The morning hike that takes you on a 30 degree pitch in high humidity is quite a struggle for your body! Luckily, the river is nice and cold and feels just like a spa with little fish nibbling on your skin – a jungle spa for free!

The next morning you take a boat back to the first camp where a short visit to the village next door is waiting for you. Up to 25 families can live in the longhouse in the village! After the visit, you meet for one last lunch, and your adventure ends as you make the trip back to Kuching.

The cool thing about this tour is how authentic it is! You’re constantly surrounded by members of the Iban tribe, and unlike agencies that offer similar tours, the natives don’t play a role and dance for you or something similar. Moreover, Borneo Adventure is the only company that offers tours in the area. And the best thing is that you do something good with this tour: the Iban earn a little money from Borneo Adventure, so you can help support the locals financially.

All around it’s a really great program and a brilliant adventure – even if you don’t encounter orangutans! Here’s a link to learn some more, so you can go yourself:

4. Gunung Gading National Park

There’s another national park located two hours from Kuching. It’s best known for a rare attraction: the rafflesia. This is the world’s largest flower and its diameter can be up to one meter! You must have a little luck on your side, though, because to see one fully in bloom means you have to catch it within its rather short three to five day flowering period. The best thing to do is to ask Sarawak Forestry for advise. Your best time to get out there is in the rainy season from November to February.

Besides checking out that cool flower you can also swan dive into the cool waterfalls of the national park!

5. Mulu National Park

Mulu National Park is also part of Sarawak and located in the north. To get into the park you should hop on a flight to Miri and from there catch another into the national park. If you choose to go overland the journey is very slow and difficult. It’s much better to go the airplane route because the flights are cheap (from 100 Euros) and it’s fast.

In Mulu Caves National Park the largest cave system and the largest cave passage in the world is waiting for you! In the Clearwater Cave live more than 3.5 millions bats that you can watch in the evening in the Bat Observatory. There you have the chance to observe them fly out into the jungle – watch your head though, and make sure it’s covered!

The Garden of Eden is a wonderful place to cool down. You can head to a gorgeous green pond near Deer Cave to bask in the waterfall. A sweet adventure activity you can take on is climbing in the Adventure Caves with a guide.

Another highlight are the Pinnacles which are limestone formations in the jungle. It takes a three day trek to get to them though!

In Borneo you’ll never find yourself bored!

If it’s been your dream for a long time to see exotic animals like proboscis monkeys and orangutans in the wild then book your flight now! Borneo will engulf you in biodiversity within its jungles, and the cordial people will have you wrapped around their finger! There is really a lot what to do in Borneo.

Another reason Borneo is ideal is because you can catch a few days of beach and recreation time in Sabah and easily extend your adventures into the jungles and national parks of Sarawak! So what are you waiting for?

Have you been on a jungle trip before? What kinds of cool stuff did you see? Share it with us and your fellow readers in the comments

Sebastian Canaves
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