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When planning your trip, some destinations require more preparation (physical and mostly mental) than others and Borneo definitely falls into this category.
Borneo can be indeed a challenging destination for most. A stroll in the jungle and you can collect an impressive numbers of leeches on your body. A swim in the ocean and you can encounter beautiful but deadly venomous sea snakes or box jellyfish. Not to mention a refreshing dip in Borneo’s rivers which huge crocodiles call home.
READ ABOUT OUR VOLUNTEERING ADVENTURE IN THE MIDDLE OF BORNEO JUNGLE HERE
So here it is – our collection of the best-to-know-before-visit tips based on our personal experiences. Enjoy the reading!
Swimming in harmony with a school of Jack Fish and a turtle in Sipadan, Malaysian Borneo
Nothing more tedious than sorting out your insurance before travelling. Believe us, that’s your peace of mind, so up your sleeves and get some research done.
Not every insurance is good for every country. You can save time by using websites which compare different Travel Insurances.
CHECK OUT OUR BLOG POST HERE FOR MORE TIPS BEFORE DEPARTURE
TIP – If scuba diving the amazing waters of Sipadan, climbing the highest peak in Borneo (Mt Kinabalu) or any other adrenaline activity are on your to-do list, then make sure you are covered for the activities you plan to undertake.
Hiking the Trig Hill in Malaysian Borneo on a glorious sunny day
There are no specific inoculations required to travel in Borneo. In our experience these are not necessary if you travel for less than a week in the country and stay in touristy destinations (taking all precautions to avoid contaminated food and water). However, especially if you’re travelling for a longer time in South East Asia, make sure to check with your local clinic and online for more updated information (we recommend the website of Center for Diseases, Control and Prevention).
IMPORTANT - Yellow Fever vaccination is required only if you are arriving from a country in the yellow-fever zone before entering Malaysia.
TIP – Some vaccines need at least 2 weeks to activate so consult your doctor at least one month before starting your trip. Make sure to register all your vaccinations in the yellow book to show during your trip in case of emergency.
DID YOU KNOW? – According to FitForTravel, malaria is only present in certain areas of Borneo, such as through the rainforest and jungle. There is low to no risk in urban and coastal areas. Therefore, anti-malarial tablets are usually not advised. However, if you plan a long stay in rural areas or in areas at higher risk, consult your doctor for medical advice. Keep reading below for tips on how to avoid their nasty bites.
Do not plan any dives if you use Lariam as anti-malarial medication due to its unwanted side effects for divers.
Working in the middle of the jungle with Mascot Organisation along Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
MEDICATIONS AND HOSPITALS
As a general rule we tend to bring medications from our home country or buy them in well stocked and reliable pharmacies around the world. Pharmacies in Malaysian Borneo appeared to stock lots of everyday use medication, however, you might want to stock up on more specific medications before your trip.
Luckily, we did not visit any hospitals or doctors during our stay in Borneo, however, we did not encounter many medical facilities while travelling in rural areas. Therefore, we would highly recommend to head for Kuala Lumpur main hospital in case of major issues.
TIP – Remember to pack medications in their original, labelled containers and have with you a letter from your doctor for any medication prescription. Check out other useful tips on how to prepare for your trip here
A volunteer for Mascot organization getting trapped in mud along Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
WATER & FOOD
As in most South East Asian countries, avoid drinking water from the tap as it might be contaminated. Boil it properly if you use it for cooking or washing. Use only bottled water for drinking or brushing your teeth and avoid ice cubes (which are usually made with untreated tap water).
SUSTAINABLE TIPS - To avoid buying unnecessary plastic bottles, please refill your bottle at water refill stations. As these are very rare in Malaysian Borneo, we bought the biggest water tank we could find to refill our thermos in order to consume less plastic.
If you drink from the tap or streams, especially during hiking, you can use iodine or chlorine tablets to purify the water or a water filter – we use this filter (Life Straw) as it`s compact and light.
CHECK OUT OTHER TIPS TO TRAVEL MORE SUSTAINABLY HERE
Cheeky rainforest squirrel looking for breakfast, Kinabatangan River (Malaysian Borneo)
We seriously love the variety and ingredients of Malaysian cuisine and we have eaten out in both touristic and local restaurants all the time as food in restaurants is very cheap and generally well cooked. However, use your common sense and do not eat anything if you are uncomfortable with its preparation or with the cleanliness standards of the restaurant. Street food is also very tasty, though you should avoid it if you believe the food quality is not acceptable.
TRAVELLER'S DIARRHEA - A special remark goes to the dreaded traveller’s diarrhea, which is one of the most common symptom after eating or drinking contaminated food or water. Do not take any medications which stops diarrhea unless it’s an emergency situation like a long bus ride. Instead, keep drinking liquids to avoid dehydration – water with salt and sugar is a great way to reabsorb the lost liquids and salts.
Fabulous local food at Kopel along Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo (Sabah)
SUN, ALTITUDE AND DEEP WATERS
Because of its humid and hot tropical climate, even a simple walk in the rainforest can be exhausting in the Malaysian Borneo. So drink, drink, drink to avoid dehydration!
And don’t indulge in excessive exposure to sunlight as sun can be quite fierce, especially along the coast during the hottest hours of the day. Whether you’re hiking up Mount Kinabalu or diving into the wonderful waters of Sipadan, remember to apply sunscreen multiple times a day.
HEADING TO BORNEO SOON? DON'T MISS OUT THESE WONDERFUL SPOTS IN MALAYSIAN BORNEO
Relaxing between one dive and the other on Sipadan Island (Malaysian Borneo)
Too much sun and heat are not the only “enemies” out there. With its 4,095 m (13,435 ft), Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Borneo and altitude sickness can result in your hiking trip being cancelled if you do not acclimatize properly before the climb.
MORE ABOUT ALTITUDE SICKNESS AND HOW TO AVOID IT IN OUR ANNAPURNA TREK BLOG POST HERE
Exploring deep waters on a dive expedition can also cause serious problems, such as decompression illness, if simple diving rules are not properly followed. Make sure to do a refresher course if you haven’t dived in a long time. And plan your diving according to your flight time – the latest guidelines recommend a 12-hour minimum surface interval between your last dive and your flight.
Do not drink and dive (especially during the dive =), Mabul Island (Malaysian Borneo)
If you are committed to visit the true Borneo, sooner or later you’ll get in touch with its forests’ and oceans’ friendly or not so-friendly inhabitants.
Let’s start with the most common and most dangerous of all: mosquitos. They are the deadliest disease vectors, able to spread infectious diseases such as malaria. Luckily, malaria is only present in certain areas of Borneo and the risk of being infected is not high. In any case it is better to take some precautions to avoid their itchy bites – especially in the rainforest and jungle. We used a natural DEET-free spray which is safer on your skin and eco-friendly though it didn’t work particularly well. In fact, no spray will cover you 100% against the nasty bite of jungle mosquitoes. Better to cover yourself with long sleeves and long pants, particularly at sunrise and sunset, and use a good mosquito net over your bed at night.
Twice "No swimming in the river": got the message? - Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
Let’s continue with one of the scariest animal in the jungle: saltwater crocodiles, also known as salties. During our volunteer project in Borneo, the first and foremost important rule of all was: do not swim in the river! We saw many salties sunbathing while we were travelling along the river. They are a big threat for villagers who wash their clothes and fish in the muddy rivers and swamps in Borneo, so keep your eyes peeled.
Friendly "saltie" sunbathing along Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
What about our least favourite friends in the jungle, the leeches? Yes, they suck your blood and they don’t look pretty, but they are generally harmful to humans as they don’t carry any infectious diseases or bacteria. There is no way you’re getting out of the jungle without first coming into close contact with at least one of them (it’s always more than that by the way).
Fashionable leeches socks along Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
We found the best way to avoid being bitten is to wear long sleeves, long trousers and leeches socks. The latter are pretty functional – they are relatively baggy covering from your feet to your knee so leeches can not perforate the fabric to reach your skin and are easier to spot on your socks so you can grab them, roll them in your palm and flick them away, as the locals do.
If you get bitten, slide your finger under the suction and be quick to roll and flick. Do not burn or use any chemical product on sucking leeches as they might regurgitate their stomach’s content into the wound before letting go – how “lovely”!
Tiger leech bloated with blood along Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
High in the “deadly dangerous” scale are snakes, both sea and land ones. Luckily, they are also the shiest animals around Borneo and only attack if threatened. Watch your step in the rainforest and the jungle and be extremely cautious of sea snakes when you enter the sea or snorkel - one drop of their poison can kill three men in one go!
Huge jungle python along Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo (Photo by our guide Norsalleh - follow him at @norsalleh_mescot1997)
With a staggering 425 (and counting) species of spiders, including tarantulas, huntsman, widow, wolf spiders, these relatively small guys are not only found into deep jungle, but also in cities. Avoid cobwebs in the jungle and keep your house free of them. If you are bitten and the bite looks pretty bad and hurts, then visit a doctor and try to identify the species of spider.
A timid tarantula makes its appearance in a cave close to Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
Other close encounters to avoid are with byawak, which translate to monitor lizards in Malay language. These reptiles do not attack people. However, despite their bite not being poisonous, it is highly prone to infect the wound and this can kill you if not treated in time.
Monitor Lizard on Mabul Island, Malaysian Borneo
We have not seen many stray dogs in Malaysia which is a good sign in comparison with their high number in other Asian countries. The major risk with stray dogs is to get infected with rabies by their bite. So it is a good habit to refrain from touching and feeding them.
The list of animals in Borneo can go on and on – monkeys, elephants, jellyfish, sharks… The golden rule is to respect all living beings and their habitat and do not get close to wild animals at any time, unless you are looking for trouble. Never underestimate the tiniest of them – be respectful!
Rainforest caterpillar in the Kinabatangan River region, Malaysian Borneo
CRIME AND TERRORISM
We felt generally safe when travelling through Malaysian Borneo and people have always helped us out rather than taking advantage of us tourists or volunteers. Even so, it is important to be vigilant to avoid being caught in pickpocketing, scams or any other potentially dangerous situation.
Petty crime is not uncommon in big cities but can still happen in rural settlements. We had minor things stolen, like a pair of sandals and a t-shirt, in a small village close to Kinabatangan river, so take sensible precautions to protect yourself and your valuables.
PHILIPPINES IS ONLY A FLIGHT AWAY FROM BORNEO - CHECK OUT HERE OUR TOP TIPS TO TRAVEL THERE
In recent years terrorist attacks have been carried out in Malaysian Borneo, even in touristy places, and the threat of kidnapping have particularly concerned foreigners. According to SmartTraveller, most of these episodes happened on the eastern coast of Sabah and, in particular, on the islands close to the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines (including Sipadan, Mataking and Pandanan) where terrorist groups seem to base themselves.
In our experience touristy places felt very safe to visit and no one amongst tourists and locals is really alarmed by the threat of terrorism. However, always stay alert and monitor local and international media.
Sea gypsies selling their products in Mabul Island, Malaysian Borneo