We just returned from a blissful week in Borneo. We weren’t really sure what we expect travelling to the Malaysian part of the region – we didn’t really have many expectations at all – but we were delighted in the things to do in Borneo.
Our days were filled with exploring the rich culture of the rural people, island hopping from one white sandy beach to another, searching for orang-utans in the green and tropical jungle, and trekking up mountains.
Keeping in mind I’m now nearly four months pregnant, we tried not to overdo it and went to bed early most nights, having packed in quite a lot during the days. We also took a week off work and really enjoyed spending some quality time with each other.
Things to do in Borneo
A did map out a rough plan of things to do before we left, and we loosely followed it throughout our week long stay. It turned out to be a really good itinerary, so I thought I’d share our details on things to do in Borneo with those of you wanting to explore this picturesque and idyllic part of south east Asia for yourself.
Day one – Sarawak Cultural Village
We flew into Kuching in the late afternoon, so the rest of the day was simply spent checking in and then relaxing by our hotel’s pool. The next morning, we got up reasonably early and caught a taxi out to the Sarawak Cultural Village.
We spent roughly two hours exploring the village, where the people from the Sarawak region live when they’re not entertaining tourists. Each hut represented a different area of the region, and explained how those particular people went about their daily lives. Some of the tribes are nomadic, dismantling their huts and moving every few months, whereas others stayed put.
Many of these villagers still hunt with blow guns and practise traditional handicrafts like wood carving. Music and dancing is prevalent too, and at the end of our exploration we watching a 45-minute stage show where performers from different regions showed off their area’s traditional music and dance.
Although the restaurant on site looked appealing, we crossed the road from the centre and ate at the inexpensive food court next to the beach. We then snuck into the resort’s pool area next door and had a swim before heading back on the shuttle bus.
What you need to know:
Where: Sarawak Cultural Village is about 35km from Kuching, and takes roughly 50 minutes to get there. It’s in a beautiful setting, at the bottom of mountain foothills and close to a beach.
When to go: The village is open from 9am – 5pm every day, with the performances on twice daily, one at 11:30am and the second at 4pm.
Cost: MYR60 per person (AUS$20) which is quite expensive for things to do in Borneo, in my opinion, although I think the show makes it worthwhile.
How to get there: Our taxi cost MYR65 (AUS$22) to get there, and we bargained the driver down a little although we probably could’ve got it cheaper. The shuttle bus on the way back was MYR12 (AUS$4) per person one way and drops you and picks you up from the Grand Margherita Hotel in central Kuching.
Day two – Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, longhouses and hot springs
The next day we decided to hire a car to get around. It frustrated us that there’s no metered taxis in Kuching, and Uber wasn’t available either. Because car rental was cheap, we opted to go for that instead (more details below).
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
We drove out to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre for our first stop, keen to see orang-utans in the wild. The centre didn’t disappoint. Although the area is a wildlife park, so the apes are free to wander as they please, the keepers feed them twice a day, so they know to come to certain spots at certain times for food.
Because it wasn’t fruit season, meaning there wasn’t that much fruit growing on the trees in the wild, there were quite a few orang-utans about. We saw six altogether, including a mum and her baby, and a huge, 18-year-old male.
The employees at the park are tough on safety – both of the animals and the humans – and you receive an in-depth briefing before feeding times. They know a lot about the animals too, so feel free to ask questions. We thought the centre was very professionally run, but were dismayed to find crocodiles kept in tiny cages at the back of the place. After how well they treated the apes, we felt this was a huge letdown.
Longhouses near Annah Rais
We drove on for about half an hour and saw a sign pointing to longhouses. We knew this was a traditional way of living so we drove into the village to check it out. We stopped at a small hut and two women charged us MYR8 (AUS$2.50) to enter. They told us the buildings were up the road and gave us a key. It was quite the adventure!
We got lost driving to the longhouses but eventually found them. It was basically a huge round hut, which we had the key to enter, and some adjoining longhouses that were private homes which we couldn’t access.
Inside the hut it was eerie. There was a big fire pit in the middle and what looked like human skulls were hanging from the ceiling. What the? It was interesting to explore but certainly not a must see.
We got back in the car and realised we were running rather low on fuel. We were pointed in the direction of a shack corner store, and bought a couple of litres of a fuel for a few dollars. An elderly woman went out back and filled a tin container with fuel from a huge barrel, which we used to top up the car. A rural petrol station in the middle of nowhere!
Annah Rais hot springs
We drove on for a further half an hour before coming to the Annah Rais hot springs. By this point we were feeling rather hot and sweaty but were looking for the chance to refresh in the springs.
We were, unfortunately, bitterly disappointed. The hot springs were overrun with screaming children, who threw their rubbish everywhere and completely destroyed the ‘tranquillity’.
The hot springs themselves were small – just two little pools – and the river surrounding them wasn’t really deep enough to fully immerse yourself and cool off. The only redeeming factor of the visit were the butterflies that could be found everywhere. They were stunning as they fluttered over the water.
Needless to say, we got out of there pretty quickly and drove back to Kuching feeling far from refreshed. I would skip this off the itinerary of things to do in Borneo.
Top Spot food court
That night we walked along the Kuching waterfront as the sun set and it was a breathtaking view. Boats went up and down the river, bands played along the foreshore and little stores were setup along the waterfront, selling trinkets.
On recommendation from our friend Evie from Mumpack Travel, we went to Top Spot food court in the centre of town. Housed on top of a parking lot roof, this sprawling food court specialises in fresh seafood. You simply point at what you want to eat and they cook it up for you on the spot. We ate like kings, and probably over ordered on the squid, prawns and fish, but the total bill was just MYR45 (AUS$15) a head. A must do on your list of things to do in Borneo.
What you need to know:
Where: The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is a 24km drive from Kuching and the longhouses and hot springs are further down the road – you’ll have to drive another hour to get to both of them.
When to go: The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is open from 8am – 5pm every day, and the feeding times are at 9am and 3pm. The centre shuts for lunch between 12:30pm and 2pm.
Cost: It’s only MYR10 (AUS$3.50) to visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, which I think is very reasonable and worthwhile. Especially compared to the longhouse and the hot springs, which cost roughly the same amount and I don’t think they were worth it.
How to get there: Bus number 6 leaves from the centre of Kuching from the main bus terminal. When you arrive at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, you have to walk about half an hour to get into the park, so it’s quite a trek in the heat if you don’t have a car.
We hired a car for two days through Car Rental Kuching and found them to be very professional. They dropped off and picked up the car to us, and the rate was a very reasonable MYR90 (AUS$30) a day for their cheapest car.
Day three – Hiking in Bako National Park
The weather was perfect on our third and final day in Kuching. We drove our hire car out to Bako jetty, which is roughly an hour from the centre of town. We had to wait about 45 minutes before the organisers got their act together to get us on to a boat. The frustrating thing is that if you’re without a guide, and are doing the trip solo, they prioritise those on guided tours who skip the queue. My advice is to get there early.
The boat trip takes about 15 minutes, where you’re sitting in a metal dingy with some shade protection, and during this time you can take in the sweeping mountain views of the surrounding area. It’s quite spectacular.
Preparing to hike at Bako
Once you arrive at the park you have to register at the office and write your name down in case you get lost, so they know where to look for you. There are a lot of trails throughout the park and we opted for ones with the biggest chance to see proboscis monkeys.
The rangers are knowledgeable and they brief you before your hike so you know what to expect. You can also ask them about the trails and they give you a map, with walking distances and times, to guide you.
The biggest warnings are to be careful of macaques – cheeky monkeys that will attack you for food – and not to swim as there are alligators in the water. Indeed, a macaque did try and steal my sandwich, as we were lunching on the beach. All of a sudden, she appeared from the other side of the boulder and Dave yelled at me to drop my sandwich. I only had one bite left though, so I stuffed it into my mouth. Cheeky thing!
The hiking trails are really beautiful at Bako, and even if you don’t see any wildlife it’s quite an adventure trekking through the jungle landscapes. We were lucky though and saw quite a few proboscis monkeys. They’re quite a sight with their long noses.
You can actually stay in bungalows in the park and if we went back I would do that, because we love to hike and there are just too many trails to explore in one day!
What you need to know:
Where: The Bako National Park is only accessible by boat, and the ferry leaves from the Bako jetty.
When to go: The boats seem to depart from about 8am, with the last returning at about 4pm each day. It’s a shame the last boat returns so early – you have to pay more if you wish to return later.
Cost: It is MYR40 (AUS$13) per person for the return boat trip, and then a further MYR20(AUS$6.50) to enter the park
How to get there: We drove our hire car to the jetty but you can also get a bus from the wet market in Kuching, which is next to the Electra building. It is the red public bus, number 1, and they depart roughly every hour from 7am. The last bus returns from Bako at about 5:30pm. The bus is really cheap, only MYR3.50 (AUS$1) one way.
Day four and five – Island hoping around Kota Kinabalu
The next day we flew to Kota Kinabalu – a flight that takes a bit over an hour from Kuching – and after dropping our bags off at the hotel went island hopping on the nearby islands.
There are four main islands which make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, the furthest one away is only 15 minutes by boat. On our first day, we decided to visit Sapi and Manukan.
Sapi is one of the smaller islands and when we bought our tickets we were told it had good snorkelling. When we arrived, we were at first dismayed because there seemed to be hundreds of people crowding the small stretch of beach and the water.
We found a small patch of sand to dump our things and went snorkelling. The further out we swam, the less crowded the waters and the more reef and fish there were to see. The waters were also clearer. Unfortunately, as is the way with South East Asia, there was a lot of rubbish floating in the water which really puts you off snorkelling and swimming. Even though this is reportedly a protected area, it’s still dirty. It really made us appreciate the pristine beaches of Australia even more.
We then got picked up by our boat company (more information below) and headed to Makukan, a five-minute boat ride away. The beach here was much, much larger, and we chose the uncrowded end near the high end resort. We almost had the beach to ourselves and it was lovely. The snorkelling here wasn’t as great, but we spent the hours relaxing on the beach. These giant, komodo type lizards were scurrying in the rubbish pile further up the sand, which gave us a bit of a fright!
We took the last boat back at 4pm and then decided to do it again the next day, adding it firmly to our list of things to do in Borneo, because we had so much fun. This time we chose to go to Manukan Island (again) and Mamutik Island. For something different, we hiked the trail on Manukan, up through the jungle path through to the cliffs on the other side. The crashing waves pounded the boulders and we ate our lunch in a little hut up there. We had the place to ourselves and it was stunning. It took about two hours, to complete the round trip.
We then went to Mamutik. Once again, the beach was smaller but the snorkelling was better, although probably not as good as Sapi island. This island was less crowded though, and because we got the last boat back, we were almost the last people on the island.
If we could have our time again, I think we might like to have splurged and stayed in the resort on Manukan Island because it looked beautiful and it would be nice to have the island to yourself when all the tourists go home at the end of the day.
What you need to know:
Where: The ferries to the islands leave from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal which is on the northern side of the city.
When to go: The boats depart from around 8am, with the last ones returning at 4pm.
Cost: It’s MYR40 (AUS$13) per person to visit two islands, and MYR30 (AUS$10) if you just want to visit one. You must also pay a MYR10 (AUS$3.20) conservation fee at the first island you visit. We also hired a snorkel each for MYR10.
How to get there: We mostly got Ubers around Kota Kinabalu, as they were much cheaper than taxis and it avoided getting around the bargaining strength it takes when all the taxis are without meters. When you get to the ferry terminal, go to the terminal hall where there are about 10 different ticket booths, all with vendors screaming at you to buy from them. Essentially though, they all seem to charge the same price and all their boats look the same. When getting off on an island, someone will meet you at the jetty and tell you what time you need to return back to that spot so the boat company can pick you up. Make sure you hold on to the ticket!
Day six – Hiking in Mt Kinabalu National Park
On our final day in Borneo we hired a car again and drove out to the Kinabalu National Park, a world heritage site. It takes about two hours one way. The drive is spectacular, with the mountains around you, and even though the weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms, the weather was perfect.
Mount Kinabalu dominates the park, and the mountain is actually the biggest in southeast Asia. Keen hikers can do the 2-3 day guided hike to summit and back if they wish. There are cabins along the way, so you don’t even have to sleep in a tent! Unfortunately, the mountain has been hit by earthquakes in recent years, in which some tourists and guides have died, and this has dampened tourism a little.
Some of the hiking trails in the park are still closed because of the damage done to the trails, but it didn’t affect our day hiking. We spent about four hours hiking the trails and the weather was very pleasant – less humid than the lowlands of Borneo and cooler too. The rainforest was beautiful and very clean, with the trails quite well maintained. We didn’t see any monkeys but we saw a lot of forest squirrels, which were cute. We also spent half an hour wandering around the botanical garden in the park, which had some huge orchids on display.
The park also has lodging and if we go back I’d love to spend the night there and do some more hiking – you should definitely add this spot to your list of things to do in Borneo.
What you need to know:
Where: Kinabalu National Park is a two hours drive from the centre of Kota Kinabalu.
When to go: The park seems to be open all year round, but if you want to climb the mountain then you should book some months in advance, because they limit the climbers to 135 people a day.
Cost: It’s MYR15 (AUS$5) to enter the park and MYR5 ($1.50) to visit the botanical gardens.
How to get there: We rented our car from Borneo Express Rent-A-Car but we didn’t find them as professional as our Kuching car hire company. They didn’t check Dave’s passport or driver’s license before handing the keys over, and they didn’t offer our deposit back – they nearly drove off with it until I asked for it! It was also more expensive, at MYR135 (AUS$45) for the day, although the car was a newer model.
You can also catch a bus from Padang Merdeka in Kota Kinabalu, and this costs MYR25 (AUS$8) one way. The buses only leave once they are full, so you might be waiting around a little.
Other information: Pack something warm because it can get cool in the park thanks to the high altitude.
Day seven – Returning home
Unfortunately, our flight left early on our final day, so we didn’t have time to do what else we wanted to in Kota Kinabalu. If we had of had more time, we would’ve perhaps added some of the below activities to our list of things to do in Borneo.
Proboscis monkey and firefly tour
We decided against this activity because the bus trip was tour hours each way, even though the tour company picks you up from your hotel. We thought that was a bit much. But the tour seemed quite decent – you cruise the river looking for monkeys, then you have a buffet dinner, before setting out again on the boat to look for fireflies. Apparently they only give the firefly part 15 minutes though, which seems rather short!
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park
This park has lots of endangered Asian animals living in it, like tigers and monkeys, and it’s about 45 minutes outside of the city. I read mixed reviews about it, so couldn’t decide if they were treated well or not, which is why we didn’t go. If you’ve been, please let us know what you think!
Mari Mari Cultural Village
This village is close to the wildlife park, so you potentially go to both in the same day. We decided not to prioritise the visit having gone to the cultural village in Kuching.
North Borneo Railway steam train ride
This is something we really wanted to do, even if it was expensive at about MYR420 (AUS$140) a ticket. Unfortunately, I tried to book the train ride the day before and they were fully booked. The train only runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it seems quite popular. The train journey takes you through breakfast and lunch, when they feed you meals out of tiffin tins. It sounds ridiculously colonial but we were curious to see what it would be like! The views from the train are meant to be spectacular too.