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This island shared by Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia in Southeast Asia is the third largest non-continental island in the world. While Borneo is most famous for its orangutans, with a wide range of tours that will bring you to see them, there are many other things to do here too. From climbing mountains to relaxing swims on pristine beaches, these are just some of the options to put on your itinerary.
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What Is It?: Located in Tanjung Puting National Park deep in the rainforests of Central Borneo, Camp Leakey is an active research facility where visitors can see orangutans that were once captive but have been returned to the wild, yet aren’t entirely independent.
Why Do It?: A visit offers the rare opportunity to watch orangutans, an animal that’s been predicted to be extinct in the wild in less than 50 years. They can almost always be seen at the feeding platforms where staff supplements the diet of the free-ranging orangutans with fruit.
Good to Know: To reach the camp you’ll need to take a riverboat called a klotok for the two-and-a-half-hour trip up the Sekonyer River which brings opportunities to see all sorts of wildlife like long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys and countless birds along the way.
What Is It?: The Kinabatangan River, which winds nearly 350 miles through the jungle in eastern Sabah, is an area with unique ecosystems and a popular place for spotting wildlife via a Kinabatangan River cruise.
Why Do It?: Millions of animals live in the lush landscapes that surround the muddy water, including pygmy elephants, the smallest Asian elephant species known for their oversized ears and plump bellies. Small communities of endemic proboscis monkeys live here too – just 7,000 of the long-nosed primates are believed to still be living on the planet.
Good to Know: Bilit and Sukau are two villages where you can stay to take a river cruise. There are offering plenty of accommodation options in each and all offer several cruises each day.
What Is It?: Turtle Island Park lies north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea. It’s made up of three islands, Selingan, Bakungan Kecil and Gulisa, and is known for its hawksbill and green turtles that lay their eggs on the beaches.
Why Do It?: Every night turtles come ashore, laying their eggs which are collected by the park staff. The eggs are carefully cared for until the newly hatched turtles can be released into the wild. Visitors can learn about turtle conservation, watch the turtles hatch and make their way to the sea.
Good to Know: Visitors can only come to Turtle Island Park as part of an overnight, two-day tour with a local company. Numbers are limited to 50 on any given day so you’ll need to book well in advance. There are a variety of options, some tours include other experiences like visiting orangutans.
What Is It?: The Gomantong Caves are an intricate cave system that lies beneath Gomantong Hill in Sabah, the largest limestone outcrop in the Lower Kinabatangan area. They’re most famous for their incredibly valuable bird nests, one of the most expensive animal products consumed by people, created from the bird’s saliva. They’ve been used in Chinese cooking for centuries, most commonly in Bird’s Nest Soup.
Why Do It?: The Black Cave is open to the public while the White Cave requires cave climbing experience. There is a boardwalk that loops around the chamber in the Black Cave, suitable for families who can learn about the history and geology of the cave while viewing all sorts of creatures like bats.
Good to Know: While many find the cave fascinating, the cave is smelly with the floor covered with bat guano, along with centipedes, beetles, scorpions and other insects. There is a wooden walkway above the estimated ten feet of guano, but you’ll want to wear closed-toe shoes and cover them with plastic to keep them protected.
What Is It?: Mount Kinabalu is the huge granite mountain that dominates the skyline in Sabah. It’s the highest point between the Himalayas and New Guinea, rising 13,435 feet and is part of a national park. Sabah’s indigenous people have deep cultural ties to the mountain with the belief that their ancestors rest here after death.
Why Do It?: Scaling the mountain offers spectacular views and a sense of accomplishment, but many come for the reward of watching the sunrise at the top. It requires rising very early but the sunrise view from the summit is well worth the lack of sleep and the effort, frequently named among the most breathtaking vistas in the entire Southeast Asia region.
Good to Know: It usually takes two days to complete the hike, and only a limited number of hikers are permitted each day so packages must be booked well in advance, typically six months or more. Accommodation provided in most climb packages are standard and based on run-of-house, meaning rooms are determined by the accommodation provider, according to availability at the time of check-in.
What Is It?: A living museum, the Sarawak Cultural Village is one of the top cultural attractions for learning about the local cultures and lifestyles of ethnic groups via longhouse replicas, programs and performances.
Why Do It?: It offers a fascinating look at local cultures showcasing the tribal lifestyles lived by the many ethnic groups across the region. There are about 150 people living in the village, demonstrating traditional daily activities for visitors who can experience arts and crafts, games and the foods of seven major ethnic groups.
Good to Know: Many tour agencies and hotels in Kuching offer organized trips to the village, which is about a 45-minute drive away although it can be reached independently by car or bus.
What Is It?: Sipidan Island is famous among divers around the world with the limestone pinnacle off its eastern coast renowned as one of the best places in the world for diving.
Why Do It?: It’s an opportunity to become immersed in an underwater world that’s like no other in Southeast Asia with clear, pristine waters, vast coral reefs and abundant marine life like sea turtles, parrotfish and schools of barracuda.
Good to Know: The island can be reached by a one-hour ferry ride from Semporna in East Sabah. There are just 120 diving permits issued per day, which typically sell out several months before the allocated time so be sure to plan ahead.
What Is It?: The Bajau on Borneo are referred to as ‘Sea Nomads’ or ‘Sea Gypsies,’ people who live in stilted villages above the sea after centuries of a seafaring lifestyle.
Why Do It?: It’s fascinating to learn about these mysterious people and their ancient traditions, which includes a remarkable ability to dive for 13 minutes without equipment.
Good to Know: Semporna is home to one largest Bajau floating villages.