The island of Borneo is home to big beautiful rainforests, that makes the habitat of the Orangutans, Sun Bears and the Proboscis monkeys, where the Sun Bear and the Proboscis monkeys are only to be found on Borneo. Borneo is also the place for some of the best diving in the world, which is found in the north eastern part of the island. You will also find great culture with the classic local longhouses, beautiful dresses, traditional dancing and so on.
We stayed in the northern part of Borneo in the region of Sabah. Sabah is one of the two regions on the island that is under the Malaysian government. This region is the most touristy region, but also the easiest way to experience Borneo and get it all in one package – culture, diving and rainforests. We chose to stay longer time at a few places, to get the most out of our money.
At first where we surprised about the cost on tours around the region. Most places is only reachable with a guide and the entrance fees in national parks are quite high.
We knew we needed to apply for a 2 months visa for Indonesia in Kota Kinabalu, so we had to stay there for a while to get the visa done. We also really wanted to dive and experience the nature and of course the orangutans. So here’s how our trip around Borneo Sabah ended up.
We will here divide our travel in Borneo into the three different parts we experienced; Kota Kinabalu, diving and the wildlife of the rainforest. We also visited the small country Brunei for a few days which we will include in the end of this article.
Kota Kinabalu, also called KK, is the main city in Sabah and our way into Borneo through KK’s airport. The city center in KK is compact and easy to get around in. You can walk around the city in one day and see the harbourfront, the markets and malls. It is a quite touristy city with many young backpackers so you can easily find a fellow backpacker or two to hang out with.
KK is perfect for a night out with many bars and pubs. There’s also a big variety of cheap places to eat, everything from small local restaurants to nightmarkets. Check out the philippino market at the harbour front at sunset to get fresh fish and in general cheap food and snacks. Go at daytime to buy souvenirs such as pearls and handicraft.
KK have many hostels around. We will recommend Fat Rhino Hostel, because it’s central, has cheap dorms and the cleanliness and quality is in top. For couples that wants a bit more privacy, we would recommend the Red Palm hostel. Here is quiet, nice breakfast and a friendly host who is willing to help with most.
Find both hostels on our map!
We were planning to go back to Indonesia after our time on Borneo, so we needed to apply for the visa while staying in KK. The Indonesian embassy was easy to find and in walking distance from the city center. It takes 3 working days to get your visa and cost around 40USD. Just bring your passport and a extra passport photo.
Find the embassy on our map!
You can from KK take the bus to every destination on Borneo. The longdistance bus terminal is situated a little outside the city center. We mostly enjoyed the daytime A/C busses, because of the amazing views there is across borneo, especially the view at Mount Kinabalu - and you’ll never get a good nights sleep in a bus anyway.
To get around KK city center or to the bus terminal, use a GRAB taxi. They are well running in this city and very cheap. Check out our links site for tips of great transport apps!
You can also take a ferry to Brunei from the harbour of KK! It cost the same as the bus but is faster. It takes you first to the island of pulau Labuan for a 2 hours time, where you can buy taxfree cigarettes and alcohol for the cheapest prices we’ve seen in Malaysia. But book a day in advance, it is quite popular for locals.
Mabul is situated in the Celebes sea, north-east of Sabah and is without a doubt a divers paradise! This place was our biggest favourite of Sabah. We planned to stay 1 week on the island of Mabul but ended up staying for almost 3 weeks!
Mabul is a volcano island and is only 200 meter wide and 500 meter long. There’s shallow water around the island that drops at a big underwater wall, which in some areas go down to 100’s of meters. Mabul is populated by a mix of people from the Phillippines and Borneo who live in their houses on stilts extended from the island and out in the ocean. Really unique and fascinating place to visit.
The diving around Mabul is exceptionel, with loads of dive sites around. The underwater life is very diverse, with everything from turtles and eaglerays to a very interesting macrolife. It is also perfect for beginners with a lot of shallow dive sites with sandy bottoms and reefhouses.
Watch out for weekends on Mabul! Mabul is full of chinese tourists in the weekend and we really mean full!
Sipadan Island is the most spectacular place to dive, but also very expensive. Sipadan is a protected area and nobody lives on the island. You’ll need a permit in advance to dive there and 3 dives costs around 200 USD per person.
Sipadan is also Jaques costaux’s favorite divespot. You can be lucky to spot everything from many different sharks, whales, turtles, bumbheads, napoleons to schools of barracuda, jackfish and giant trevallys. The whole surrounding of Sipadan above and under the water is just very picturesque.
Mabul island is accessed by boat from the dirty and poor city Semporna, which is a big contrast to Mabul. You can go there straight to find a boat or if you’ve booked accommodation in advance they can properly pick you up. The boat trip takes around 2 hours.
Mabul boasts of resorts and hotels, which in general is very high priced. We managed after a long time searching the internet to find a very decent priced place compared to that we are on Mabul, with the cheapest diving we’ve ever found. The place is a dive school and a homestay in one and is called Spheredivers homestay. You’ll get a private double room and 3 meals a day for just under 20USD a day per person. The dives cost 20USD per dive. They are very flexible so you can decide day by day when and how many dives your’e up for. Great staff, calm place and situated right in the local stilt village.
After our 3 weeks stay on Mabul, we decided to book a 3D/2N river tour on the Kinabatangan river, to see the rainforest life of Borneo. These trips costs around 100USD with boat trips, rainforest night walks, accommodation and food and there is plenty of places to choose from. You’ll have the chance to see Proboscis, Orangutans, Pygmy Elephants and many other animals.
From Kinabatangan we took the bus further on to Sepilok town, where we stayed 2 nights to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre - SORC and the Bornean Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre – BSBRC who is right next to each other. We had a fantastic daytrip to the centres and we can only recommend it!
SORC is a completely open centre with no fence around which mean that the Orangutans can come and go as they want, they are not fenced in. The area they use is very big and natural. They’ll often get Orangutans coming by themselves that need help or just want to see what is happening. Unfortunately the monkeys and bears are threatened to extinction by the extension of palmoil plantations that is replaced with the old rainforests. The Rehabilitation centers is struggling to keep the population of animals in Borneo growing, but are going in the right direction. By visiting these places you’ll contribute to the help of the centres.
Brunei was for us a country we wanted to check of the list before leaving Borneo. And also an off the beaten path country! Brunei is a microstate who is very rich on oil and in the same time also very expensive to visit. When we arrived to the capital city BSB, we were very surprised about how empty and silent there was with almost no people on the streets. It’s a very clean city and you’re not aloud to smoke or drink on most streets.
We stayed 3 nights on Pusat Belia youth hostel, which is the cheapest place in town for 10B$. Find it on our map!
We took a river tour with a local boat guy, to see the biggest watervillage in the world, into the mangrove to see more proboscis monkeys and last the sultans palace. A very nice trip and a good way to experience the area. Find tons of boat guys at the harbour front, you can’t avoid them.
Hope you liked our article about Borneo, check out our gallery from Borneo here!