Nurtured by magical isolation, Borneo’s jungle is wondrous, heartwarming and irreplaceable. Dipterocarp trees shoot straight to the sky like giant rockets, burst open and spray branches into umbrella frames; orang-utans snap boughs into nests before curling up for the night; flying squirrels snooze in hollow trunks. Borneo can be strange or familiar, western or oriental, cheap or luxurious, remote or accessible. It’s developing fast, and the more we consume, the quicker its jungle disappears. Bringing kids to Borneo, opens minds and diverts tourist dollars into conservation.
Of Borneo’s four administrative areas – Brunei, Sarwak, Kalimantan and Sabah – Sabah has the most accessible wildlife. It’s Borneo in miniature – islands, jungle, mountains, sea life, mammals. Palm oil plantations and a looping (almost entirely) paved road have made it easy to get around, and destroyed habitation. But what remains of Borneo’s idiosyncratic evolution is spectacular and Mount Kinabalu resides here, wearing a snood of clouds round its peak.
What We Liked
Sepilok Nature Resort
Bliss. Bliss. Bliss. Wooden floors, hammocks, bathrooms the size of a bedroom, great service, lovely food. Trees, lakes and birdsong cocoon rooms. Monitor lizards sail past restaurant shores. If you’re lucky, you’ll see apes swing into the grounds or snakes snuggle in trees. The hotel’s a perfect five minute walk from the sun bear and orang-utan reserves, so you can pop home for lunch between feeds. Staying here’s a splurge that allows you to holiday amongst the trees, rather than hoping creatures swing into view as your tour group passes by.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Orphaned and injured orangutans are taken here to learn to live in the wild. Once they’ve progressed from the indoor to outdoor nursery, they can come and go as they please. Some only pop back for free medical treatment, a spot of lunch or to show off their new babies; others swing by every day. At 10am and 2pm, fruit appears on feeding platforms; branches and cables start to tingle; and apes (and the odd, shifty-looking macaque monkey) rock up for a take-away or sit in meal. Entrance fees cover both feeds, so you can watch babies at the outdoor nursery (from behind air-conditioned glass) or join tour groups at the outdoor feeding station. Between feeds, the reserve closes but you can pop to the cafe, or (if you’ve only got a day) the neighbouring sun bear reserve. All access is via board walks.
Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Next door to the Orangutan Centre rescued sun bears can be spotted from treetop boardwalks and viewing platforms. Telescopes make it easy for kids to spy on bears snoozing in trees. But the real reward lies in hanging about and waiting to see who turns up. Monkeys nicked food; a pygmy squirrel scuttled up a tree and a couple of orang-utans clambered across roofs, then leapt across the boardwalk while we were there. Entry for kids under 12 is free and, apart from a few stairs, access is easy.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
A half hour taxi ride from Sepilok, this tiny oasis amidst the tidal wave of palm oil plantations is the easiest place in Borneo to see proboscis monkeys. They’re fed four times a day at two different platforms. At platform B, you can also see incredibly cute silver leaf monkeys and their golden-haired babies, as well as regal, open-beaked hornbills. Proboscis monkeys aren’t blessed with natural good looks and have quite bad flatulence, but the more extrovert are willing to pose for photos, while others hang about in peaceable clusters: happy to eat and look after the kids. The macaques are less affable. Judith caught a couple of them rifling through my bag, while I was taking a photo. When they realised they’d been clocked, they scarpered. They’ll make off with anything that comes their way, so hold onto your handbag. You need a vehicle to get between platforms; from the car park access is by boardwalk. Entry is 60rm (about £12) for adults, plus 30rm for cameras. Kids under 12 are half price.
Rainforest Discovery Centre, Sepilok
Sunset is the bewitching hour in the jungle. Cicadas play pink skies into darkness, orangutans curl up in nests, birds snooze under leaf umbrellas and flying squirrels take to the skies. If you’re used to the glare of electricity, it can also feel a little unnerving. A guided night walk takes away the spookiness and means someone in your party knows where to look for creatures. Our guide spotted pit vipers curled on leaves, sleeping birds, mouse deer, flying squirrels floating above our heads, civets scurrying through undergrowth and the cutest, sweetest tarsier clutching a tree trunk. (Not to mention scorpions, tarantulas and stick insects.) An adult and two kids cost 60rm for a magical two hour walk. Booking’s a good idea.
Kinabatangan is the final corner of jungle in a field of palm oil plantations. Such is its rarity and richness, David Attenborough intervened to prevent a bridge being built across the river. Walking amongst slow, slow-growing dipterocarps is a muddy reminder of the fragility and inter-connectedness of evolution. This is the final bolthole for rare proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, orang-utan and clouded leopards. At bedtime, creatures huddle by the river and morning and evening cruises ply brown waters, stopping to watch sleeping kingfishers, an array of hornbills, owls, crocs and monkeys. We had a glimpse of pygmy elephants and good views of orang-utans and proboscis monkeys, but the clouded leopard hasn’t been seen for three years. Kinabatangan River oozes what has been and what could have been.
Balin Roof Garden, Sandakan
Sandakan’s scarcity of tourist sites provides the perfect excuse to take to the roof tops. Balin Roof Garden crowns Nak Hotel, with a layered terrace. Upstairs, in the sunshine, you can sip cocktails and admire the bay. Downstairs, you can dine at wooden tables and escape rain showers. The food – New York Cheesecake, pumpkin and pine nut pizza, seafood, noodles, curry – is fab. The drinks – cocktails, juices, coffee – are fab. If you’ve seen enough of Sandakan, base yourself here and wallow in western comfort.
The Workshop, Lorong Dewan, Kota Kinabalu
Round the corner from Borneo Backpackers awaits the best latte in town. This lovely gallery and cafe will sate any post-jungle cravings for frothy drinks, as well as supplying ice cream grown in plant pots. Like all the best places, the ethos is generous. The South African owner promotes local businesses, such as Salt and Paper – a neighbouring stationery shop that sells products created by local designers. The cafe is also a gallery for local art and, best of all, it sells Puro coffee, a Belgian brand that uses profits to buy up rainforest for orangutans to live in. A lovely treat after the wilds.
Useful Things To Know
Getting around Sabah’s towns is straightforward. Take an uber to the bus station, buy a ticket and go. In high season, it’s an idea to book ahead on buses; otherwise, it couldn’t be simpler. Visiting nature reserves, Turtle Island or popular dive sites is a different matter. Accommodation and access to beauty spots is often limited and it’s generally necessary (or far easier) to book with a tour operator. Day tours to neighbouring islands and Mount Kinabalu run from Kota Kinabalu and can be booked in town. However, Sanadakan is the hub for the east coast. Turning up without a booking often means a delay or paying a premium. If you want to save time, money and avoid disappointment, it’s a good idea to book from home. With young kids, Sepilok is an easy and rewarding option.
Malaysia adheres closely to rules so think carefully about weekend plans, or book ahead. National parks and many businesses, are often closed on Sundays, unless you’ve booked a guide in advance. Some businesses can also be tricky to get hold of on Saturdays.
Although buses, accommodation and food can be very cheap in Malaysia, the plethora of tour operators drives costs up in prime locations. Sepilok and Kinabatangan are reasonably cheap, but more touristy. Less accessible areas, like Turtle Island, are beautiful and unspoilt but expensive. Ubers are good value for local trips.
Sandflies and Pirates
Many beaches north and south of KK have sandflies, and some northern and eastern beaches and islands have armed guards because of occasional issues with pirates in the past. Nobody we met had been attacked (except by sand flies) but it’s worth getting up-to-date advice, as tensions seem to be rising in the Philippines. Sandakan can also feel a little restless at night.
Where We Stayed
Sukau Greenview, Kinabatangan
Sukau Greenview has very helpful staff, basic accommodation and a friendly, riverside restaurant. Tours can be booked online or in Sandakan. Along the river bank, luxury accommodation is available but, whatever your budget, the tour boats end up where the animals are.
Borneo Backpackers, Kota Kinabalu
Borneo Backpackers is on the corner of one of Kota Kinabulu’s coolest streets. It has a wooden floored bar that spills onto pavement, Laundry 45 opposite and great cafes and restaurants round the corner. School groups pass through in summer so it can be busy, but it’s cheap, cheerful and well located.
Borneo Sandakan Backpackers, Sandakan
Sandakan’s backpackers are mainly on the same pedestrian strip, close to the waterfront. On one side of the street they have sea views; on the other they don’t. This hostel doesn’t but staff are friendly, rooms cheap and air con working.
How We Got There
We flew from Kuala Lumpur to KK with Airasia, followed by an airport bus into town. To get to Sandakan, we took a bus (about four hours of lovely, mountainous views and a couple of hours of flat road) from KK’s express terminal. Then a taxi to town. Buses run hourly from morning to early afternoon.
We’d book everything from home, stay a night or two inside Mount Kinabalu’s park (the mountain looked tantalising through bus windows), visit in rafflesia season and go to Kalimantan.