I had browsed Kuala Lumpur city breaks and spa getaways; I’d considered chowing down on Cendol in Malaysia’s foodie capital of Penang once again, but even the fanciest rooftop pools, air-conditioned malls and bustling city markets can get a little predictable. So the question for me was, what’s next?
The reason for writing this blog article is because I am finding a lot of clients whose wanderlust has been woefully unfulfilled in 2020 asking themselves the same question. Covid 19 has taught all of us the value of how short life can be and why it is so important to get out there and see new places, create new memories and revel in new experiences. My clients don’t want to go on the same holiday to the same destinations they have been going to for years and so I am now planning more complex itineraries to more obscure destinations for travel later this year and early next year.
When faced with my dilemma of what to do next, I found the answer by departing the Malay Peninsula and heading East to the island of Borneo, an island rich in new sights, sounds and experiences. If you’re wondering like I was about the best places to visit in Malaysia off the beaten track, then look no further.
A Malaysian Borneo adventure may seem like a daunting option, packed as it is with dense rainforests, strange critters and ex-head-hunting tribespeople (they don’t do that anymore, I promise). However, if you’re prepared to forego the usual poolside Pina Coladas in favour of a more rural getaway, you await something truly special.
Biodiversity beyond anything you’ve ever experienced, lush untouched beaches in coves only reachable by trek, as well as a cultural history defined by tribal life, pirates and British colonialism. A Borneo adventure is like getting a overenthusiastic hug from nature itself; sweaty and sometimes uncomfortable but one of the most memorable holidays you’ll ever have the joy of experiencing.
So if you’d like to break in your hiking boots, Malaysian Borneo is one of the must-see places to visit in Malaysia – no, the world. Read on for which National parks to choose; which cities to arrive in and what to expect.
To experience the best of Borneo you’ll want to choose one of the two states; Sabah or Sarawak. If heading to Sabah, the city of Kota Kinabalu has your creature comforts covered and if you chose Sarawak, like me, Kuching is where you’ll want to be. From there, you’ll not only be able to get one of those cocktails you so crave, but you’ll also be able to soak up the unique cultures and get insight into the multicultural identity of the locals. A mixture of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian immigrants, Borneo has an open-arm inclusive attitude towards foreigners, as was apparent the moment I stepped off the plane to the toothy grin of my taxi driver.
The great thing about Borneo is that adventure is never far from your doorstep. Within just an hour’s drive from Kuching’s city centre for example, you’ll have a choice of nine national parks, including Kubah, Bako and Santubong. But the city itself is more than just a stopover for weary trekkers; its riverside location, friendly seafood markets and welcoming atmosphere mean you may not want to leave.
If you’re looking for a cultural experience before getting lost in nature, Sarawak can satisfy you. You can try living like a local Iban tribesperson and spend the night in a wooden longhouse, take a trip to the Iban Cultural Village to watch a traditional dance or two or just walk around the city counting the cat statues and eating dim sum.
Sabah is famed for its hiking trails, and those who visit should consider scaling the 4,000 metres to the top of Mount Kinabalu, the country’s highest peak. If that’s too high for you, the immense surrounding national park is not to be sniffed at. After several days hiking, soak your aching feet along the coast off the Sipadan and Mabul islands, places famed for their coral reefs and muck diving attractions. Or, take to the Kinabatangan River and experience both wildlife and culture as you float past small rural villages and manoeuvre past basking crocodiles.
Those who don’t mind a few days of cold shower might consider camping on the beaches of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, just a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, or take a short trip south to Tanjung Aru for a glimpse of the local beach scene.
Once settled and sufficiently filled with Laksa and charming local stories, I soon wanted to begin exploring one of the region’s many national parks. Monkeys don’t just Instagram themselves, you know!
The term ‘park’ is not a good descriptor however. These vast jungles overflow with awesome flora and fauna I could never have dreamt up. Heads up: you’ll be in need of hiking boots, a considerate amount of mosquito repellent as well as a guide, if you plan to head off of the set trails. Mostly however, the trails are well maintained and it’s difficult to get lost. Although if you’d like to take a night hike, consider visiting Bako National Park and putting your life into the hands of your Iban guide and the forest. Here, bearded pigs scurry free, various types of primate (both thieving and benign) recline in the treetops, as well as the parks star act; the proboscis monkey.
That’s all without even mentioning orangutans. While on the brink of extinction, catching a glimpse of orangutans in the wild is still possible in Borneo, particularly within along Sabah’s Kinabatangan River or in Serawak’s Batang Ai preserve, an area so huge its spills over into Indonesia. While there is no guarantee of spotting one, the search will no doubt be part of the thrill of your Borneo adventure. Those who don’t get lucky can take a visit to Semenggoh National Reserve just west of Kuching or Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in East Sabah, where semi-wild orangutans frequently come down from the canopy to feast on the daily buffet of fruits served up by the rangers. And if that’s the consolation prize, then what’s to lose!
To get the best of Borneo you’ll have to allow for a number of day trips and overnight stays. While there are myriad of activities close to the main cities, the most exciting trips tend to be those further afield, meaning that you should expect to do a fair amount of travelling by bus or car. Inexpensive compared to KL, Grab is a good option to move about the city but to leave the city lights, hiring a car or booking a tour operator is advised for those wanting to see a number of sights in a short space of time. With so much to see and do, booking with me to plan your Borneo adventure can save time, effort and a lot of stress!
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