If we consider Australia as a continental mass, Borneo is the 3rd biggest island on the planet behind Greenland and New-Guiney. It also has many of the biggest caves in the world, one of the best diving spot on Earth and an unimaginable biodiversity. Still, somehow, Borneo is unkown to most people.
Three countries cohabit on the giant-sized island: Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The first one is far from a prime touristic destination: a tiny petro-monarchy led by a sultan where selling/buying alcohol is prohibited, the cost of living is far higher than in the rest of Asia and being condemned for homosexuality might get you stoned to death. Charming, really.
The southern part of the island, Indonesian, is the opposite of Brunei. Covering most of Borneo, it’s also the poorest and the most populated part.
Finally, there is the Malaysian part, much more known and visited than the two others.
But I knew nothing of this when I landed a little bit (or a lot) randomly in March. The good side is that I had no expectation. The not-so-good side is that, obviously (and as usual), I hadn’t planned anything.
Fortunately for me, Borneo is gorgeous. Especially if one likes nature.
Because that’s what Borneo is all about: nature’s simplicity and magnificence, hand in hand.
First of all, there’s the impressive mount Kinabalu, highest summit on the island with its 4096m, standing above the clouds and looking over the jungle. Even though the climb is technically extremely simple for a high altitude trek, hikers are required to spend a night halfway and to book the accommodation a few weeks in advance (but there is a way to go around this obstacle: show up and ask for cancellations!).
In the end, you get two nice hiking days on a steep trail, walking from a hot jungle to a curious summit and its rocky peaks towering above Borneo.
According to my experience, countries with little tourists tend to be extremely welcoming toward those who dare to visit them. Borneo Island, not as frequented as Thailand, Bali and most of the other heavenly places in Southeast Asia, is not an exception.
I could say that hitchhiking all across the island made me discover its inhabitants hospitality and generosity, but the truth is that I noticed it well before that. Borneoans people come from all kinds of backgrounds, containing many native ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and undecided. All of this in a remarkably peaceful cohabitation atmosphere.
Diving on the islands near Semporna, northeast of Borneo, has a worldwide reputation. Even though I only snorkeled around there, I have to point out how astonishing the fauna and flora are in this part of the world.
Seriously endangered by dynamite fishing, the life swarming around those islands is fascinating, peaceful and colorful. If you enjoy scuba diving, a quick search about Sipadan island will convince you!
Borneo’s longest river also likes to offer its marvels to those who manage to make the effort to reach it. Life is bustling along its shores both at dusk and dawn, and going for a boat ride during these twilight hours might allow you to admire the animal kingdom in all its glory. Crocodiles, macaques, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants and hornbills will look at your boat sliding on the water with curiosity.
GUNUNG MULU national park
Such an isolated national park that it is easily accessible only by plane has always piqued my curiosity. But to know that Gunung Mulu is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site was the final argument to convince me to spend a few days there. You’ll find there absolutely astonishing caves, including the world’s biggest cave (for the area it covers) and the world’s biggest cave network, where I had the chance to do a day of caving.
Once outside, the jungle assaults all the trekker’s senses, offering all kinds of unexpected insects and a mystifying and dense forest. The recent movie The Jungle Book makes quite a poor impression next to this green, moving and very real immensity.
Visitors even have the almost daily opportunity to see the bats flying out before dawn. And considering the vastness of the caves in which they live, it’s between two and three millions of tiny flying mammals that come out all at once, putting on a very unique show.
BAKO NATIONAL PARK
Only accessible by boat, this small national park respects once again the fantasy animating Borneo’s biodiversity. Apart from the bearded wild boar of Borneo (yes, a boar with a beard!), you can easily admire many monkey species: the cunning macaques, the unbelievably cute silver leaf monkeys and the surprising proboscis monkeys. Bigger than the others and famous for their big nose and round belly, there were only 7000 proboscis left in 2007…
Beyond this unique fauna, hiking in the park allows tourists to plunge themselves in a flora just as captivating. Passing drastically from one type of vegetation to another, nobody has to be an expert to notice all the different carnivorous plants swarming both on the ground and in the trees.
There are were some orangutans all over the island, but clearcutting the rainforest to make place for massive palm tree plantations (for the palm oil production) is seriously threatening an amazing species that didn’t need it.
There are nonetheless a few wildlife reserves and rehabilitation centers like Semenggoh (where I went, the easiest to reach) that allow tens of orangutans to live freely in their natural habitat. The cherry on top: the curious nature of many of them that allows us to admire them from really, really close!
Nevertheless, life isn’t all rose-colored on Borneo. Nature lovers will be pleased, again and again, but the price to pay might sometimes be surprisingly high. To hike to the Pinnacles in Gunung Mulu National Park, to scuba dive in Sipadan Island and to have an authentic cultural experience in a local longhouse are all activities that I decided to leave aside for purely monetary reasons. And if it wasn’t of the opportunity we found out at the last minute, it would have been the same with mount Kinabalu.
Furthermore, if you want to visit Borneo one of these days, get informed about the situation of the part of Borneo that’s closest to the Philippines (where scuba diving is at its best). A Filipino terrorist organization has been operating in the region for a couple decades and beheads foreigners from time to time, usually kidnapped on boats between Borneo and the Philippines.
But hey, Borneo is gorgeous.