Money and time… wouldn’t we all love it if we had more of both. Sadly though, after ten months travelling we have only a few weeks until we need to think about heading home and our bank account has definitely seen better days. We’re not letting this hold us back too much though and our recent Borneo itinerary been a massive highlight of our trip.
It was by chance really that we found ourselves in Borneo. As I’ve written about before our plans were to head to China for three weeks, but changes to processing visa applications to those on tourist visas meant we needed to explore alternative options. Having visited Malaysia for a week (again unexpectedly) earlier in the year, we were keen to take advantage of cheap flights and low costs generally and see more.
Borneo is one of those dream locations that features on many a bucket list so when we discovered that we could actually see a huge amount of what the island has to offer in less than a week and for less than £350 each!
(This includes several flights and a night in the jungle – full breakdown of our budget for our Borneo itinerary here).
We managed to spend time in three fab cities and two countries on our trip – visiting both Malaysian Borneo and Brunei on a whistlestop tour where we hoped to take in plenty of wildlife as well as some history and city sights.
Borneo is an incredible place and I would urge anyone to visit – it’s not only home to some of the oldest rainforest and most impressive wildlife on the planet, in Malaysian Borneo you’ll find one of South East Asia’s highest mountains and some fascinating colonial and WW2 history. Brunei is another fascinating place to visit on the island – one of the world’s smallest but wealthiest countries, rich in beautiful Islamic architecture and even more awesome jungle landscapes.
It’s worth us mentioning that throughout the whole of our Borneo itinerary we felt completely safe at all times (even when ended up accidentally hitchhiking!) and were made to feel extremely welcome by everyone we met. It’s a very easy place to travel independently in our experience.
Our Borneo Itinerary
It’s very simple and cheap to reach Borneo first of all. The main tourist spots in Malaysian Borneo are Sandakan, where you’ll find the famous orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok and the most popular jungle destination – the Kinabatangan river and surrounding lodges. Cheap flights run many times a day from locations in South East Asia and we paid about £40 each (including luggage) to fly to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur.
We had 6 nights and 5 full days on the island, which isn’t much, but it was a great length of time for a budget trip and if you’re happy to be active and on the move then it’s a great short and sweet Borneo itinerary. For those wanting to stay longer, I’ve included everything we missed and more info on costs below our day by day itinerary.
Day 1: Sandakan & Sepilok
We flew direct to Sandakan, the first stop on our Borneo itinerary, and spent a day exploring the city and surrounding wildlife sanctuaries before heading into the nearby jungle. Our recommendations of the top things to do in Sandakan include:
This sanctuary does some fantastic work rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans and is an absolute highlight of the Sandakan area.
Right next door to the orangutans, these are the smallest bear species and are just adorable.
We chose not to visit for reasons included in my next post, but some may choose to spend time at this sanctuary where you can see the famous proboscis monkeys.
A little trail of the city’s highlights, including the 100 steps, Australian war memorial and more.
A colonial style tea house that’s perfect for afternoon tea and very budget friendly.
We’ve also written a more detailed breakdown of our three days in Sandakan and Kinabatangan where you can find all the extra info on what to see while you’re there, transport etc.
Where to Stay in Sandakan
For accommodation in Sandakan, we stayed at the Sandakan Backpackers Hostel which we really liked – good facilities, a helpful tour desk and very budget friendly. There are also lots of other options here.
Day 2: Kinabatangan River
Our second day was spent travelling to Kinabatangan, the most popular spot in Sabah for exploring the jungle. There are lodges at all levels you can enjoy and we booked our stay easily through our hostel for just 329MYR each for two days and one night.
These tours mainly consist of river cruises, where you can spot animals like Proboscis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, macaques and Pygmy elephants, as well as tropical birdlife including many species of Hornbills and even eagles. You’ll also usually spend an evening enjoying local music and dancing as well as taking a night walk into the surrounding jungle.
Day 3: Kinabatangan & Kota Kinabalu
After a morning spent on another river cruise, we spent day three of our Borneo itinerary travelling to Kota Kinabalu and exploring the local sights here.
Highlights in Kota Kinabalu include:
Seafront & Esplanade
Sadly it was very rainy on our visit, but a wander along the waterfront is well worth doing.
Kota Kinabalu Heritage Trail
Similar to Sepilok, this is just a few of the city’s highlights, including a lookout point and a watchtower dedicated to a former mayor.
Kinabalu National Park
Home of the famous Mount Kinabalu, this is the main highlight for visiting this part of Borneo.
Diving & Island Hopping
Not something we indulged in, but there are plentiful day trips to nearby islands and dive spots.
Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu
We stayed at Akinabalu Youth Hostel, another great value backpacker friendly place with cheap private rooms although ours didn’t have air con which was a bit of an error! Lots of choice of hostels and hotels here for you as well 🙂
Day 4: Brunei (Bandar Seri Begawan)
We’ve written a full post about how to spend a day in Brunei, and it’s so easy to reach from Kota Kinabalu it would be a shame not to visit. Flights take only 20 minutes each way and can be snapped up for as little as £50 each for a return.
This tiny nation is surrounded on all sides by Malaysian Borneo and chose to retain its status as a British Protectorate until 1984. It’s governed by Sharia law, and ruled by a sultan with an immense private fortune. We loved our visit to the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan and found it one of the most welcoming places we’ve been.
Day 5: Kinabalu Park
Our final full day of our Borneo itinerary was spent hiking in Kinabalu Park. This is a UNESCO world heritage site and home of the famous and much loved mount Kinabalu.
You can read about our full day in Kinabalu Park here, but it’s a very easy day trip to make from Kota Kinabalu city and if you have a little more budget available there are also a lot of tours, many of which also take in nearby Poring Hot Springs.
What Our Borneo Itinerary Is Missing
(AKA What You Should do In Borneo if you have more time and money!)
Now, we know that we travel faster than most people like to, and that it would have been great for us to see more of Borneo than we did. However, we did decide to visit on a bit of a whim and wanted to have an active week on the island fitting in as much as possible. As I’ve mentioned we were also on a very tight budget which restricted us from enjoying some of the more expensive activities.
If you have more time and money – here’s what we feel our Borneo itinerary is missing and what you should include if you have the chance.
Kinabatangan River Extension
Given the chance we would have spent an extra day and night here. It’s relatively inexpensive and whilst I don’t think you get to partake in anything other than an additional nightwalk and couple of River cruises, it’s just a brilliant place to relax and enjoy being around the wildlife and nature of Borneo. Our lodge was fab and it was a great jungle experience.
We’re not divers so wouldn’t have taken full advantage of any boat trips but a trip to turtle island would have been a good addition. From what I’ve read you can only visit on an approved overnight tour which costs a fair bit so better for those with a bit more budget to invest in their Borneo itinerary.
I’ve mentioned this in our post on visiting Kinabalu Park but we would have loved to climb the mountain. Had it been more cost effective we definitely would have done, but it’s at least 250USD per person and needs booking several months in advance.
This was mainly down to time and lack of planning on our part but visiting this part of Borneo would have been fantastic. Highlights include many national parks like Niah, Bako and Gunung Mulu. It’s another great spot for exploring the Bornean rainforest and jungle landscapes. I think perhaps a week in Sabah and a week in Sarawak would be a good option for those looking for a more extensive Borneo itinerary.
Overall we saw lots of amazing wildlife, some beautiful landscapes and rainforest and had a great week in Borneo, so it’s definitely enough time to see a lot if you’re in a hurry.
Things to Know Before Visiting Borneo
We’re not in a position to lecture anyone on sustainability and saving the environment, and we did find Borneo very safe to travel around, but there are a couple of things it may be worth being aware of before your visit.
The Borneo rainforest is in a pretty dire state. 56% of low lying protected tropical rainforest was destroyed between 1985 – 2001 due to the timber industry and deforestation continues to be an enormous problem. We were truly shocked to see mile after mile of palm oil plantations on what would have been rainforest as we travelled through Borneo. Wildlife hunting and trade are also huge threats.
This is probably the one place we’ve travelled where we saw the most devastating destruction of natural landscapes – we’ve written before about how miserable it is to constantly discover serious threats to so many places we visit around the world – but this was the worst. There’s more information on the link here and we’d just like to suggest that people take a little time to read up on how to travel sustainably in Borneo if they can. Every little helps as they say!
There are travel warnings in place for Sabah and this is just a friendly reminder that they’re worth reading before travelling. I know that they’re often a little emphatic but it helps to know more about the area you’re visiting and plus, your travel insurance may not cover you if you visit any areas that you’re recommended not to as part of your Borneo itinerary.