Borneo – a rainforest escape known for its rainforests, beaches and headhunters and home to the endangered orangutan and other endangered species. Infamous for palm oil plantations and deforestation.Follow
Choosing an eco-friendly destination is no easy feat. Sourcing the right tour guides and places to stay takes time and patience and a lot of questions.
My husband and I were looking for a honeymoon destination that offered a variety of landscapes and activities to satisfy both our desires (we sometimes have a different idea of what holiday actually means!) Borneo seemed to be a destination that satisfied our need for nature, wildlife adventure and lazy beach days.
After watching a few episodes of Our Planet by David Attenborough we became intrigued by the wonders of the rainforest, yet saddened about what is happening to it. Not having experienced this landscape before, we chose to head to Borneo.
I can say that Borneo (Malaysia) is definitely not eco-friendly as plastic litter is commonplace. However, eco-lodges, wildlife conservation and eco-tour guides in Borneo are trying their best to preserve their lands and make tourism responsible and sustainable.
Quick “About Borneo”
Borneo is an interesting multi-ethnic island; the third largest island in the world! It is split into three countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
The mix of cultures can be confusing but also very intriguing… I found myself constantly asking locals where they are originally from and what tribe they form part of. Whilst I will leave the history of how this happened for your history lessons, I will tell you that the original inhabitants of Borneo were primitive tribal groups and were also once under the rule of the Sultan of Brunei. The tribal groups each have their own languages and in the past were often rivals. Some tribes are known to be “headhunters” … quite literally. This was outlawed in the 19th century under the Dutch and British rule.
I’m not quite sure why we chose the Malaysian side of Borneo over the Indonesian side but we are very happy with the choice we made! Borneo is extremely rich in wildlife, like the endangered orangutan pictured in the cover photo, and home to very important rainforests. Unfortunately, these are under threat as per this report from WWF.
11 days in Borneo Malaysia
Here is a snapshot of our 11-day itinerary which you can base on to catch a little bit of everything this wild island has to offer.
Day 01: Kuching, Sarawak
Day 02: Longhouse
Day 03: Kuching
Day 04: Kiulu Valley, Sabah
Day 05: Selingan Island
Day 06: Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
Day 07: Sukau Rainforest Lodge
Day 08: Sukau Rainforest Lodge
Day 09: Gaya Island
Day 10: Gaya Island
Day 11: Departure
Day 01 | Arrive in Kuching, Sarawak: We arrived early in the morning in Kuching (Sarawak) and stayed in a simple friendly lodge in the city – Singhhasana Lodge. The “lodge” also accommodate for lower budgets with shared bathroom. At the time of our stay, the lodge did not have a refill water station, but they said they have been requesting the water company to provide the large canisters.
Eco-Travel TIP: before booking your accommodation ask if they have refillable water stations at cost or free – this will help you minimise your plastic waste and make use of your water bottles!
Day 02 | A Night In a Traditional Dayak Longhouse: Today the adventure starts. We were picked up by our self-drive guide and began a 5-hour drive to Batang Ai, almost at the Indonesian border. Batang Ai is what seemed like a huge lake – but this was actually a dam built 1985 (construction completed) and actually displaced approximately 3,000 people from 26 longhouses (according to Wikipedia). From here we hopped onto a longboat and drove across the water dam. Whilst my heart was content being on the water, I couldn’t help to feel utter sadness about the wildlife that once called this place home.
Our longboat continued upriver, dodging logs from fallen trees, and then stopped on the bank of the river to disembark on a small poor looking jetty. A 5-minute walk through the jungle took us to a local longhouse where locals were preparing (already drunk!) for their much awaited Dayak Gawai. “Dayak” is the name of the tribe and “Gawai” means festival. The social and religious festival is celebrated annually on 1st June. It is celebrated as a day of thanksgiving for an abundant harvest and time to plan for the new farming season.
Lucky for us to be there on this auspicious day, our stay at the traditional Dayak longhouse was nothing far from a wild tribal party, and a genuine one in saying so.
Eco-Travel TIP: Carry your waste back to the city for proper disposal. Carry enough water in your re-usable water bottles to avoid using plastic bottles. Opt for natural personal care and hygiene products as wastewater goes directly into the ground.
Day 03 | Return to Kuching: Depending on how long your journey takes and if you’ve participated in any activities, you may have some time in the afternoon to stroll the lazy city of Kuching. In our case, a rough night in the longhouse left us longing for an early dinner and bed!
A quick visit to a local favourite rooftop eatery had us satisfying our taste buds for seafood (we don’t get to eat seafood where we live in Nepal). Top Spot offers a variety of vendors selling fresh fish and fresh veggies. They do make an amazing bean curd dish (tofu) if you are vegetarian. I am doubtful about how sustainable their farming practices are. In fact, finding ethical restaurants in Kuching was quite difficult – If you’re reading this and know of one please let me know!
Eco-Travel Tip: Support ethical and ecologically run restaurants when possible.
Day 04 | Flight to Kota Kinabalu: and onward to Kiulu Valley. Here we stayed at The Fig Tree, a sustainably built bamboo lodge fully equipped with commodities. It was the perfect spot cradled by the surrounding forests, paddy fields and refreshing pristine river, which the locals take pride in keeping clean.
Here at The Fig Tree in Kiulu Valley, the local young guide prepared some cultural activities for us to try. The local people in this area are professional rubber tappers – rubber from the trees are collected in the early morning and evening. We also had a go at blowpipe shooting. The blowpipe was used by local tribesmen in Borneo for hunting live food; however, it was also used to attack their rivals by putting some poisonous resin at the tip of the blowpipe dart.
After a pleasant walk through the local village enjoying the comfort and nature that surrounds the lodge was the perfect place to unwind and get in tune with nature.
Drinking water is available to refill your water bottle at no cost. The food was absolutely delicious prepared by a woman from the village. There is little reason to produce waste here.
Eco-Travel Tip: If you have more time, I recommend taking the bus from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu. When staying in places like these (longhouse or farm stay) it is important to opt for natural personal care and hygiene products that will not affect the environment or contaminate waters. Carry your own refillable water bottle to reduce plastic consumption.
Day 05 | Turtle Islands, a Conservation Project: Today we headed for Sandakan where we hopped onto a boat from the city’s jetty. It was so sad to see the shore completely littered in plastic waste. It is so important that as visitors we do not contribute to this mess. We arrived on Selingan island by late morning to enjoy the rest of the day lazing on the white sand and enjoying the views and occasional monitor lizard pass by. The water was surprisingly clean after seeing trash littered across the shore on the mainland in Sandakan.
The whole island is part of a Turtle conservation project however the restaurant was (at the time of visiting in June 2019) terribly disappointing in terms of its efforts to reduce waste. At each mealtime, small plastic bottles were placed on each table with no option to refill from larger vessels. The bar only supplies drinks in cans, no fresh juices etc.
Nonetheless, experiencing the work that is being done to conserve the population of turtles is worth being there. Groups are limited in number so booking is recommended. After dinner, you will wait for the call from the ranger and follow his directions to the beach where a turtle makes her way up to the beach to lay her eggs. She digs a hole and lays on average around 100 eggs. Sometimes even up to 200 per clutch size. You can read more about it on the Turtle Island Park site. The eggs are collected and placed in the hatchery to protect predators like monitor lizards from snatching them and are later released into the sea to begin their life journey.
If you’re not sure why turtles are so important in our eco-system read these 11 reasons why turtles are superheroes!
Eco-Travel Tip: Use natural products like mosquito repellent and sunscreen that are preferably organic and reef-friendly. Take some unpackaged fruits if you think you will need to snack. Carry enough drinking water for the day to refrain from using plastic bottles.
Day 06 |Orangutan Conservation Centre Sepilok: If by now you have not yet managed to witness an orangutan, the conservation centre is your chance. As we took the boardwalk into the rehabilitation centre we were greeted by a large male who was making his way through another part of the forest area. He was rescued with little chance of surviving and is now doing very well. Read more about the orangutan conservation centre in Borneo.
In the afternoon we returned to the jetty to take a boat ride to Kinabatangan River passing small fishing villages and finally to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge.
Day 07 – 08 | Kinabatangan River Sukau Rainforest Lodge: Every moment here is a wildlife safari. The floodplain of the Lower Kinabatangan River is a key conservation site, home to many rare and endangered species. It is one of the largest floodplains that also provide economic opportunities to the inhabitants. It is a declared Wildlife Sanctuary and highlighted as an ecotourism hotspot where people, wildlife, nature-based tourism and local agricultural industries thrive and support each other.
Staying at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge is a major bonus to the whole experience. If budget allows, book the villas in the jungle – you will not regret it. Early wakeup calls for sunrise river safaris are totally worth it. Each day presents new adventures and sightings of the varied species that migrate and live in this area. The knowledgeable guides take you up and down the river in search of wildlife that is endangered and in some cases on the brink of extinction.
Borneo is home to the proboscis monkeys. One-seventh of the population is found in Sabah region. The forests of the lower Kinabatangan River have the world’s largest concentration of orangutans. They are only found in Borneo and Sumatra.
One can also find the Pygmy elephants however we did not see any. Other wildlife spotted include langur monkeys, macaque monkeys, wild boar, monitor lizards, crocodiles… amongst others!
The variety of birds and monkeys is impressive. More than 265 bird species are found in this area including all 8 species of the Hornbill, Storm Storks and the Oriental Darters.
Eco-Travel Tip: Use only natural personal care products. Respect the wildlife around as well as the (many) tiny insects! Always keep your distance with animals and respect their space.
Day 09 – 10 | Gaya Island: Let’s get real for a sec – there’s no way I will go on holiday without enough downtime by the sea! It is my haven at the end of the day and what a perfect way to end this wildlife adventure in Borneo.
Since this was our honeymoon we had the opportunity to spoil ourselves in a luxury eco-resort hence why we chose the Bunga Raya Resort on Gaya Island (sister resort of Gayana Resort). They are classified amongst the top luxury eco-resorts in Borneo and definitely lived up to all my expectations!
Each villa is equipped with safe drinking water, refillable water bottles, natural soaps, shampoos and lotions, natural mosquito repellent and so many more details that make this my personal favourite eco-lodge (up there with Sukau Rainforest Lodge of course!)
Eco-Travel Tip: Use natural sunscreen and mosquito repellent. Carry your own water bottle and refill and designated stations.
Day 11: Departure
I cannot end this (long) post without thanking Borneo Eco Tours for their exceptional professionalism and patience with me when planning the itinerary. The guides we met were absolutely fantastic to be with and highly knowledgeable. The service from day one to the very last day was second to none. They really took away all the hassles of getting from one place to another – I practically did not have to think of anything! For a short trip and tours to specific places like Selingan Island, Longhouse and Sukau Rainforest Lodge it is definitely worth organising your holiday with them.
They also had water stations in the vehicles to top up your water bottle!