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.
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.
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
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
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.