Boreno, here I come!
January 31, 2010 3:55 AM   Subscribe

TravelFilter: Going to Borneo in June/July for 3 weeks. Give me some advice.....

I'd like to get my scuba licence and climb Kota Kinabalu. Other than that I'm pretty happy to just experience the place and do some walks/see some nature.

Can you give me advice on your own experiences or websites that you'd recommend for planning the trip? Thanks!
posted by micklaw to Travel & Transportation around (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A bit more info about your intended plans here would have been good! The caveat here is that I have only been to Malaysian Borneo (i.e Sabah and Sarawak, so I can't speak for Brunei/Kalimantan).

It would be a good idea to base yourself in Kota Kinabalu - not only is it easy to get to and from, but all touristy stuff in Sabah is based from there, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, hiking to Mt Kinabalu etc. From there it is also easy to get to Tawau and Sandakan for some scuba diving and orangutans. Most of these can just be booked at the time, but anecdotally, lodgings at Mt Kinabalu are scarce, so you may need to look into that in advance. Take some time to relax as well, as there are alot of nice resorts around KK, which will be a welcome end to your Bornean adventure.
posted by ryanbryan at 6:47 AM on January 31, 2010

We only had enough time to stay in Sabah, so that's all I can recommend.

Stay two nights (at least) with the Rungus. We recommend Misompuru home stay.

Danum Valley Rainforest Lodge is worth the money. More than four days might get overwhelming, and don't count on being able to wash or dry any laundry while you're there - it's too wet. The leech socks aren't worth the money. Nor do you need waterproof boots. Watertight waterproof protective things for every inch of your camera gear is a necessity.

Speaking of, we never found a clothes dryer in the entire country. When you're packing, just remember that laundry will take 24 hours, not two.

In Kota Kinabalu, there's a nice little contemporary art museum up the hill a bit. The ticket gets you into Sabah State Museum which is ok (you can jump on a bamboo trampoline thing), and also the art museum which you definitely should not skip. It's a short taxi or bus ride from town.

Transportation in KK - there's a central plaza, a short walk from the pier, and you can pick up buses, taxis, or cars-that-pick-up-people-and-then-go. Taxis can only be got at a taxi stand, and not if it's raining. Hotels in KK are only soso at being able to flag down taxis for you. Almost everything in KK is walkable - even the state musuem is walkable if you're not in a hurry.

The fish market in KK is worth a gander, just for the smell. There's a huge fish restaurant that's worth poking your head into for the experience, but the rest of the restaurants in that strip are overpriced and not terribly good. Also, the Asian Mall is a fun place to go people watching.

Definitely try the corn icecream.

If you wind up staying the night in Lahad Datu, we recommend the Grace Hotel. Just don't tip the bellhop. In KK, don't stay at the Kinabalu Daya or Winner hotel unless you like fungus. The Capital hotel is ok.

The scuba diving off the coast of KK isn't bad. It's got some pollution, and it's nothing like the Galapagos, but it's a good place to learn. Don't miss the gigantic lizards when you get out to the islands. Keep in mind the flight restrictions around scuba diving. You could also save all the diving for Sipadan.

We didn't use websites to plan Borneo. When you get to KK there are a hundred travel agents who all speak English, and we didn't have any problems booking anything. It might have been a good idea to book Danum Valley ahead of time, but it wasn't any big deal. The only tricky bit was finding an open hotel in KK when the Australians all went on some big holiday together all at once. Oh, and the ATMs limit how much ringgit you can take out in a day, so once we booked everything, we had to hit up multiple ATMs in KK, drain them of cash, and hope our home bank didn't shut off our card. But it worked out ok. Some places will take credit card but will charge you a percentage fee, so if you're booking 1000USD, it's worth it to scrounge up the cash. It's relatively easy to walk into an airport and book a ticket for the same or the next day. Everyone is very nice and helpful and laid back and forgiving of cultural oddity. It's worth it, as always, to learn the basic politeness phrases in Malay. The payphones never work so if you can, it's VERY much so worth it to get a cell phone.
posted by arabelladragon at 6:48 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was in Kota Kinabalu last summer and got my scuba license there too. After Kuala Lumpur, KK was much better, a lot smaller and I felt a lot safer. I did my diving with a company called Downbelow, and they were great. The diving itself was awesome for the first couple of days, not so great after there was a storm. I wish I had left some time to go to Sipadan, it's apparently one of the best spots in the world (I also heard a rumour that spots book up months in advance though).

If you do want to climb Kinabalu, you'll need to book way in advance, I had to join a group tour to do it, and they booked a year in advance. I also had friends that just showed up and climbed, but I'm pretty sure they did it illegally...

If there's anything I'd recommend it would be turtle island, it was the best part of Borneo. You get to stay overnight on this tiny island where all the sea turtles come to lay their eggs and there are baby turtles everywhere, it was amazing!

Oh, and in KK I stayed in a hostel called the Lavender Lodge, it was great, if a hostel's what you want.
posted by piper4 at 12:14 PM on January 31, 2010

Three weeks will give you a good amount of time to see Malaysian Borneo.

You should definitely make the trip to Sipadan. The diving is phenomenal; better than the diving I have done in the Red Sea and Belize. Diving around KK was not even close to being in the same ballpark. I cannot possibly describe how beautiful the diving was. Go there.

The Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary is a cool spot. It is also near the Kinabatangan River, which has lots of nature lodges where you can see proboscis monkeys (among others). The monkeys are amazing, but you will also see that palm oil plantations are encroaching on the few remaining slivers of their habitat.

If I were you, I would also spent some time in Sarawak. Kuching is a neat town with a rich history and great food.

You should also consider doing some hiking in the highlands of Sarawak, staying in a Penan longhouse or two. This sounds like a true adventure, a fascinating visit to another world. I wish we had had the time to do this on our trip. Alas. That's what the next time is for ....
posted by huzzahhuzzah at 1:31 PM on January 31, 2010

I would also recommend heading to Sipadan for diving. If you plan on being in Borneo and plan on diving while there it would be an absolute crime to miss out on Sipadan. I'd heard so much about it before I went and didn't think that it could live up to the hype, but after I first jumped in the water and put on my mask to check out what was below I was amazed to see a turtle right below me. I must've seen at least 30 in total on my five dives.

That being said, getting your certification in KK would be fine. To access Sipadan you'll stay in a little town called Semporna. It's definitely lacking in charm and there isn't any reason to stop there if you're not a diver. So if you're going to be spending time in a class studying from the book and doing the quizzes for the first day or two before your dives start you're probably better off being in a city with more action, like KK. While in Semporna I dived with Scuba Junkie, whom I would highly recommend.

Two other spots I'd like to recommend are Mulu National Park and Bako National Park.

Mulu is in the interior. You can get there either by boat or plane. Apparently the boat is cheap, but I heard that it can take upwards of eight hours, whereas the plane ride was about twenty minutes. And the difference in cost was minimal.

Once there you'll stay in cabins. The government can be pretty strict about development in national parks so it was surprisingly quiet around there. There are plenty of trails to hike through the jungle but the real reason to go is for the caves. This is where Deer Cave is located. If you saw Planet Earth you'll remember it as the cave with the largest opening in the world (large enough for a hot air balloon to fly through, although I believe that last year scientists discovered an even bigger cave in Vietnam.) After the tour through that cave there's a viewing platform where you can watch the two or three million bats who live in it come out at dusk to feed.

There are guided tours to all the caves, each of which is incredibly impressive and unlike anything I'd ever seen before. There is also one of the world's longest jungle canopy walks there. This whole trip to Mulu was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.

Bako National Park is located right outside of Kuching in Sarawak. You take an hour bus from the city and then a small boat ride and you're there. There is a ton of hiking there and an impressive number of monkeys. There were a ton of macaques running around the main lodge and they were fearless. Within thirty seconds of arriving in my room one had broken in through the window and stolen a bag of nuts from my backpack!

The main reason people go to Bako is to see the proboscis monkeys. They live in the sprawling mangrove forest in the park. There are boardwalks over the forest and at dusk one can see troops of them emerge from the rainforest and climb the mangroves to eat.

Also, check out the orangutan reserve near Kuching. It's much smaller than the one at Sepilok and apparently much less crowded.

All in all I'd say that you'll have the time of your life. My Borneo trip a couple years ago was the best travel experience I've ever had!!
posted by fso at 3:57 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice and experiences.......I now have to sit down and plan my 3 weeks (fun!)......
posted by micklaw at 2:54 PM on February 1, 2010

I'm born and bred in Borneo (Kuching, Sarawak specifically).

Seeing that you'll be there in July, there is an annual event in Kuching called the Rainforest music festival. It's Borneo's version of WOMAD. This year's event takes places from 9-11 July. The shows all take place outdoors under the star-lit sky.

I have a special fondness for Bako National Park as I visited it regularly in my teenage years. I also climb Mount Kinabalu every year & is a must see.

If you need any other help, message me.
posted by lahersedor at 4:47 AM on February 7, 2010

We spent 10 days in Sabah in Spring and these were our highlights:

-If you want to see wildlife, I'd be surprised if there's a better way than booking with Red Ape Encounters on the lower Kinabatangan. However, it's not for everyone. Firstly, their packages aren't the cheapest: we paid USD1100 for a 4 day / 3 night package including accommodation, meals, transport, trips etc. Secondly, it's a homestay, so although the food our family shared with us was excellent local nosh, the facilities were basic. Clean bedroom and bathroom, but washing with river water and no aircon.

Having said all that, anyone who wants to see animals in Borneo should consider them. Red Ape Encounters is the locally owned and operated ecotourism arm of a conservation, research and community development programme, so plenty of the fee goes towards ensuring that the animals are there for generations to come. On a more selfish note, our guide (and I believe all of the others) is on the research staff, so his ability to spot, identify and discuss wildlife as we walked or boated through the forest was outstanding. But for us the #1 reason was that, unlike other tour companies or lodges, they can take visitors (in small numbers) into the protected research areas where they work. Some lodges have their own land, but it's not on the same scale - there are 50 villagers working as research assistants, so Red Ape can take you directly to where they have spotted something interesting that day.

As a result, within 24 hours of meeting our guide at our hotel in Sandakan, we had seen, in the wild, a pygmy elephant, a mother (30yo) and child (5yo) orangutan, a Maroon Langur, long-tailed macaques, a mouse deer and several species of birds, including Hornbills, Egrets and Eagles. At times we envied those staying in luxury lodges with hot showers and iced drinks on tap, but looking back (and looking at our photos), it was absolutely the best choice for us.

-We climbed Mount Kinabalu with Mizume Tours, since they offered us the lowest package price at 780MYR p/p. The packages are all pretty much identical, but most of them come in at over 1000MYR. Access to the mountain is now controlled by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, who have been rapidly ramping up prices over the past few years, much to the dismay of many Malaysians. Any tour you buy will be a reselling of their services, but they will generally put you off if you try dealing with them directly.

You can save quite a bit by staying at one of the hotels just outside the park the night before and after your climb, rather than buying a package including in-park accommodation.

-Tempurung Seaside Lodge is as good a beach resort as I've found anywhere in Asia, much as I love Thailand. It's decent value with attractive little chalets, though there's no aircon and no choice of food in the restaurant. However, the beach is huge, the water azure and there's just one small resort, so we ended up sharing 2km of sand with one German. There are a few jellyfish in the sea, but they don't appear to be the stinging kind.

-Agnes Keith's house is not worth a journey to Sandakan for, but if you're in town on your way to somewhere else, it's definitely worth climbing the hill to see. It's been tastefully restored and we were left alone to imagine what life must have been like there, aided by the lack of guard ropes around the furniture. Next door is the English Tea House, a great break from Malay food, unless you're on a tight budget.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:42 AM on June 26, 2010

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