Malaysian Borneo on a single circuit
Venturing through the Danum Valley's dense and lively rain forests feels like looking back in time. (Miki Meek)
Orangutan spotting in mist-shrouded jungles, trekking through some of the world’s largest caves, foraging for one-of-a-kind goods at city markets -- the rich diversity of Malaysian Borneo will charm and challenge most adventure travellers.
Low-cost domestic flights also make it easy to hopscotch across the remote island’s rugged landscape, bound by the South China and Sulu Seas. For travellers hoping to see the most of Borneo on a single circuit, three destinations in the north, the south and the middle showcase a vibrant spectrum of adventures in an easily navigable, 10-day tour.
Danum Valley Conservation Area
Home to orangutans, pygmy elephants and clouded leopards, this northeast region in the state of Sabah is a hotspot for rare and endangered species. Venturing through its dense and lively rain forests feels like looking back in time.
I flew into Lahad Datu, a scrappy town in Borneo’s eastern coast, and hired a 4WD taxi for the two-and-a-half–hour drive over bumpy dirt roads to the Danum Valley Field Centre. It is strictly a research outpost, but when its dorm and cabins are not completely booked with biologists, you can rent a private room (286 Malaysian ringgit) or a bunk bed in a communal space (91 ringgit). Sometimes the offices for Borneo Nature Tours in Lahad Datu can arrange reservations and transport. Otherwise, email the centre well in advance, firstname.lastname@example.org.
While the accommodations are extremely basic, the chances of seeing wildlife are high. I started each morning with breakfast on the centre’s veranda, overlooking a cluster of fruit trees that doubled as a hangout for hungry orang-utans (you will know they have arrived when the treetops start to sway and shake). There are also more than 20 miles of nature trails around the centre, which can be hiked on your own or with a guide. Whichever you choose, make sure to wear hiking boots and leech socks -- the forest floor is muddy and thick with small, innocuous leeches. Admittedly squeamish, I packed a tongue scraper so I could quickly flick them off, and I occasionally sought refuge on observation decks perched high in the rainforest canopy. It turned out to be an excellent place to spy they valley’s some 300 bird species, including Bornean hornbills and black-throated wren babbles.
If you prefer an upscale scene, check into the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (rates start at 1,853 ringgit and include pick up at Lahad Datu Airport). Many of the trails are planked with wood, cutting down on the leech factor, and the lodge offers night wildlife drives to see nocturnal animals like the wide-eyed tarsier. Cushy cabins also have excellent views of lowland rainforest and are located near orangutan nests. During a single afternoon, I saw several orangutans climb down trees and craft umbrella-like hats out of leaves when an intense rainstorm rolled in.
Gunung Mulu National Park
Take a three-hour plane ride south to the Gunung Mulu World Heritage Area – a mecca for international cave explorers. Views of the park’s lush tropical jungle, winding rivers and limestone cliffs mesmerized me from the moment my plane descended into the tiny Mulu Airport, just outside the park’s entrance. My mood got even better when I went to visitor’s center and rented a simple bungalow with a porch (230 ringgit) in the middle of the park’s grounds, putting trailheads just steps away from my front door.
First on the to-do list should be a late afternoon hike with a ranger to Deer Cave, one of the largest cave passages in the world. We hiked two miles around massive trees and through gnarled vines before arriving at its massive mouth, about 410ft high and 479ft wide. There we sat and waited until dusk when hundreds of thousands of wrinkled-lip bats flew out in a single swirling line, looking for insects while rapidly moving like an Etch-a-Sketch across the sky.
Inside, Deer Cave extends for two-and-a-half miles, humming with the sound of squeaking birds and bats. By flashlight, a guide led me past mountains of bat guano towering more than 300ft high to a sun-filled spot with pools of water that was dubbed the Garden of Eden. A portion of the cave roof collapsed long ago, creating a natural, mossy window framed by a shock of green trees.
To increase the adrenaline factor, descend into other parts of Mulu’s massive cave system. Squeeze through tight crevices in Racer Cave or swim across underground rivers in the Clearwater Connection. For sweeping views of the park, head above ground and climb Mount Api to see the bizarre but captivating forest of razor-sharp limestone spikes called the Pinnacles.
Further south, an hour and a half by plane, Kuching is the perfect place to become an urban adventurer. The culturally diverse capital city was founded in 1839 by English traveller James Brooke. Over the last two centuries, Malays, Indians, Chinese, Europeans and local tribes have migrated to Kuching, set on the banks of the Sarawak River.
Most of my days were spent strolling past mosques, Chinese temples and colonial-style buildings painted in vibrant shades of red, yellow and blue. The shops in the main bazaar on Kuching’s waterfront are some of the best places in all of Malaysian Borneo to buy traditional handicrafts, made by indigenous tribes like the Bidayuh and Iban. I picked up rustic-looking teak bowls and deep green, hand-woven cashmere scarves.
For local flavour, spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon at the bustling weekend market on Satok Street, sampling jungle ferns and spiky red rambutan fruit that tastes sweet like a lychee. The tarp-covered stalls here are also good spots to pick up prepared foods like sweet Malaysian cakes, Indian rotis and spicy noodle soups.
Dinner at the Top Spot Food Court, a sprawling seafood market curiously located on top of a parking garage on Padungan Street, serves dishes like a whole crispy fried red snapper topped with hot chillies, pineapples and scallions. Counters display seemingly endless options of lobsters, prawns, scallops and wholes fishes, all lain on ice. Flip through menus at different stalls or point to whatever you are craving and a delicious hot meal will soon arrive. Wash it down with a chilled fruit juice or bottle of Tiger beer.
End your night full and happy in a stylish room at The LimeTree Hotel (rates start at 168 ringgit), an affordable boutique in the city’s low-key Chinatown.
Low-cost airlines like AirAsia and MASwings will get you around Malaysian Borneo quickly. Flights start as low as 63 ringgit, and AirAsia lets you book online up to four hours before departure time.