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If you are looking for a glimpse of truly untouched wilderness, you’ve come to the right place: sleepless rainforests where diurnal and nocturnal animals take turn in a constant cycle, overcrowded coral reefs populated by colourful fishes and bigger creatures, a look into ancient cultures and their modern struggle to adapt to the ever-increasing waves of tourists and to the pressure of the world’s demand for Borneo’s precious natural resources including the controversial palm oil.
A smoky rainforest after a hike in the Kinabatangan River region, Malaysian Borneo
A trip to Malaysian Borneo will surely have something for everyone, whether you look for hiking adventures, jungle trekking or diving expeditions. Here below are our favourite spots which are easily visited in a 10-day self drive trip, starting and ending in Kota Kinabalu, the biggest city in Malaysian Borneo.
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An undiscussed mecca for divers all around the world, Sipadan is worth the long drive from Kota Kinabalu if you really want to glimpse, just for one moment, what the ocean might have looked like many years ago in other parts of the world.
A school of jackfish while diving in Sipadan, Malaysian Borneo
Unfortunately, even this amazing underwater world is carrying the scars of decades of uncontrollable pollution and of the rising of water temperature in the ocean. Even so, you won’t be disappointed by the still plentiful animal and plant life which you can find off the coast of Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan islands. The opportunity to meet sea gypsies who have inhabited these waters for centuries is a plus.
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We spend 3 days / 2 nights on Mabul Island with an all inclusive package (accommodation in double room, food, three dives and return boat ride from Semporna) - good service, plenty of food and nice setting! Check out this company: Billabong Scuba
Sea Gypsies in Mabul Island living exclusively on boats, Malaysian Borneo
TIP – Semporna is not particularly a beautiful city to visit and it doesn't feel exactly safe to walk around, especially when it's dark. In any case, you might have to spend a night here as most flights or buses arrive too late during the day to allow you to take the boat ride from Semporna to Mabul Island (which is usually included in most packaged deals, unless you`re going totally private). Therefore, try to make the most of your stay - we definitely recommend visiting the local fish markets, the dry fish market is especially interesting.
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Dry Fish Market in Semporna, Malaysian Borneo
The fact we spent two weeks volunteering along this wild river only adds to our fascination with this place in the middle of Borneo’s jungle. Walking through dense rainforest, trying to locate the most elusive animals on the planet (such as orang-utans, crocodiles, moon rats, scorpions, bats, civets and the list goes on and on) is definitely an adventure – just be ready for legions of leeches and mosquitos attacking you from every possible angle.
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Caving in Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo
Even better, add a tree planting session to your visit or volunteer for longer time with Kopel / Mescot, a wonderful community organization in the middle of the Kinanbatang River. They also offer great accommodation in their eco camp only reachable by boat and their guides are available for boat trips, night walking sessions and caving too!
Ready to plant trees in Kinabatangan River region, Malaysian Borneo
If looking through a binocular is not enough for you and you would like a better look at the most human-like animals in the world, then visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Not only you get a close-by encounter with these smart creatures, but you are also contributing to their conservation and rehabilitation into the wild with your entry ticket.
Young rescued orang-utans (literally "men of the forest") in Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysian Borneo
The same concept applies to the Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre where orphan sunbears are rehabilitated and some are introduced to the forest again.
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Please be aware that these are not zoos – animals here behave out of their own free will so it’s not guaranteed you will see them as they might not show up at feeding times. You should not be disappointed if you don’t see them as this is actually a great sign – it means they have learnt how to look for food in the nearby forest by themselves and do not need the help of humans anymore.
A rescued sunbear in the Bornean Sunbeam Conservation Centre in Sepilok, Malaysian Borneo
MOUNT KINABALU NATIONAL PARK
Even though you decide not to reach the summit of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago at 4,095 m (which is the most popular activity around here), this national park is definitely worth a visit.
NOTE – We have not hiked to the summit of Mount Kinabalu as no unguided treks are allowed and the extremely high price for only 1 day and a half of hiking put us off. Check their website for more information HERE
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You will need to pay a small entrance fee to hike some of the treks inside the national park where you can reconnect with nature, and if lucky, get a glimpse of the elusive animals which inhabit this inhospitable rainforest.
Mount Kinabalu Summit on a clear day, Malaysian Borneo
You can have a soothing sulphur bath in the Poring Hot Springs after a half day walk (8km return) to the 120m high Langanan Waterfall, beautifully framed by lush green forest. On the way to this huge waterfall, you will pass by the smaller Kipungit Waterfall and a bat cave. You have to register at the ticket counter before starting this hike as it happened in the past some inexperienced people did not make it to the end of the walk before dark – the excessive heat and humidity of this place make every step more painful than normal hiking.
TIP – Don’t forget your lunch box and, for the brave only, your swimsuit for a dip in the hot pools or even better, in the refreshingly cold water of the waterfall – please be careful as there are snakes guarding these waters.
Wonderful Langanan Waterfall at Poring Hot Springs, Malaysian Borneo
Finally, if you are desperately looking for the biggest flower in the world (more than 1 meter in diameter!), the Raflessia, then you get a better chance to spot one or two close to the Poring Hot Springs or inside the complex – look out for pop-up signs indicating the blooming of this majestic flower. They are really rare and take six to nine months to bloom, so don’t get upset if you don’t see any during your trip.
Almost one metre diameter Rafflesia blooming close to Poring Hot Springs, Malaysian Borneo
KUDAT AND THE TIP OF BORNEO
Do not come the whole way up here only for the Tip of Borneo, the most northern point of Borneo Island. Rather, make your visit count and enjoy every single stop and sight – enjoy the rural feel of this stretch of land which hosts some of the indigenous tribes who still follow the way of living of their ancestors.
Swinging on the lovely beach of Dragon Pearl Beach Resort in Kudat Region, Malaysian Borneo
Particularly, you can observe their traditional longhouses, typical wooden elongated community houses where you can even spend a night or two, learning more about the Rungus culture. Many typical villages or longhouses might be closed if you do not booked a tour or cultural experience in advance. We recommend a visit to:
Kampung Sumangkap which is famous for its gong-making industry
Tajau Laut, a village between Kudat and the Tip of Borneo, where you can have a look into a typical coastal village in the peninsula (we stayed in an AirBnB Guest House here and it was great!)
Dragon Pearl Beach Resort along the coast close to Kota Belud – a great spot to swim and snorkel. There is an onsite restaurant and a campsite if you feel you need more days to relax
The Tampat Do Aman longhouse and restaurant in the Tip of Borneo for a fabulous pizza or local cuisine and a true immersion in local culture – don’t forget your swimsuit to get into the crystal clear water of Kelambu Beach
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Biggest gong built in Kampung Sumangkap, Malaysian Borneo
TIP – Swimming and sunbathing in most of the beaches is not great (or it might even be impossible) due to the plastic and garbage polluting these otherwise beautiful stretches of the coast. Diving is also not as exciting as in other parts of the country. Better to explore the local villages and enjoy the vibe.
Cleaning Tajau Laut beach in Kudat region, Malaysian Borneo