It is often said that the best places are those that take the most time to get to. My trip to Borneo took over 40 hours and after exploring the colorful and unique island, I can definitely say it was worth it. Keep reading to see the highlights of my excursion!
So where is Borneo, exactly? It is one of the largest islands in the world. The part of Borneo we explored was in Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country occupying parts of the Malay Peninsula. While in Borneo, we toured around with Sticky Rice Travel, a local tour operator. Our trip was focused around nature and conservation in the region.
Sabah is a Malaysian state that takes up the northern part of Borneo. It is most known for Mount Kinabalu, the country’s highest peak, rising at 4,095 meters. Sabah is also known for its many rainforests, beaches, and wildlife.
CONSERVATION – SUN BEARS + ORANGUTANS
We visited the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Ten years ago this project was founded by Dr. Wong, who we were able to spend time with walking around the property before it opened to the public.
The law to protect the Sun Bear was first passed in 1997. The Bornean subspecies is the smallest bear that exists, with the full grown male weighing in at about 100 lbs. Their tongues are long, their claws are big, and each has a unique, yellow chest patch, kind of like a fingerprint. Aside from their unique looks, they also don’t hibernate. They are the only true tropical bears in the world. In some areas the sun bears have become extinct, sadly. Deforestation and poaching are the biggest threats the sun bears face.
Dr. Wong referred to the sun bears as opportunists because they’ll eat just about anything from fruit, honey, ants, earthworms and millipedes to slow moving animals. They do play a big role in the forest ecosystem. For example, when they eat fruit they ingest the seed, resulting in seed dispersal that’s vital in the regeneration of the fruit. Also, they control the termite population by eating them. In order to protect this important species, the sun bear center visitors and donations help keep the sun bear center running.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, another conservation effort, neighbors the property. This center functions as a space to protect orphaned orangutans and provide them with a natural habitat to continue to flourish before releasing them back into the rainforest. The center brings both tourists and researchers alike to observe this critically endangered species in nature. Here you can witness (and swoon over) a feeding of orangutan babies through the glass in their nursery. Their most popular times of day would be at 10am and 3pm, when the orangutans are fed milk and bananas daily by the rangers.
WILDLIFE RIVER TOUR
Getting outside of town, we stayed at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Just like in South Africa, they have the Borneo “big five” animals. We were lucky enough to see four of them: Orangutans, Crocodiles, Rhinoceros Hornbill, and Proboscis Monkeys – the ones with the funny noses. We’ll have to return someday to see the Pygmy Elephant.
Other animals we saw here included the Snakebird, Kingfisher, Civet, Macaques, and some Swiftlets which had nested on the side of rocks near the river (see cave section of this post for more on Swiftlets).
Orangutan crossings have been built for them to cross the river. I was even able to witness a baby who thought he could just jump across the trees – he didn’t quite make it and ended up going for a swim.
NIGHT RIVER TOUR
We saw more animals in a short amount of time on the night river tour, though this one was obviously tougher to photograph. It was nice to take a break from the camera and just view the animals in their natural habitat up close and personal while many of the birds were sleeping.
On the way back from the lodge to the airport we stopped by Gomantong, a photographers dream! This cave is spectacular in morning light. This cave is home to Swiftlers, the bird that creates the bird’s nest – a famed Chinese delicacy.
Visiting this cave was a spur of the moment decision, but I’m so glad we decided to go. If you can get past the various creepy crawlers, you may just fall in love with Gomantong just as much as I did.
TIP: Wear shoes you don’t care about and make sure you don’t look up in awe with an open mouth. We went around 9 am and were the only ones there.
On the way to Sukau Rainforest Lodge we stopped off at San Da Gen Kopitiam for lunch. Modern design meets local food, I had my favorite meal in Borneo here. The Malaysian food did not disappoint!
One of the the things I always make time for in any new destination is a visit to the local market. You can get a real sense of place by weaving through the vendors as you’re overcome by familiar and unfamiliar smells alike. We followed our noses, tasted the local flavors, and exchanged smiles with strangers throughout the Filipino Market.
At night we made our way to Kota Kinabalu Night Market for dinner. Here you get to sample all kinds of delicious fresh fish cooked to your liking right in front of you. Bring your friends and order family style to try all the local dishes!
BEACHES AND ISLAND HOPPING
Borneo is home to some of the most beautifully clear water I’ve seen. If you are pressed for time but still want to get your feet wet, you have easy access to touring nearby islands like Dalam Laut Pulau Manukan from Kota Kinabalu Harbor. If you have all the time in the world, ask your guide about getting off the beaten path to check out some of the smaller, more remote islands.
We stayed at the Hilton, located in town. We had access to the executive level check in on the 12th floor, where they had snacks and drinks out throughout the day as well as breakfast, coffee, a complimentary happy hour and an afternoon tea. On the rooftop, there is a lovely pool to lounge by with city views. The Urban Kitchen, their on-site restaurant, serves global food that’s perfect for when you’re missing home or want to try something new.
GETTING THERE: BUSINESS CLASS WITH SINGAPORE AIR
Initially I was a little nervous about flying business class since I was unsure of how it would go. Now that I know how good it was, I could never go back to economy. I flew business class internationally from LAX to SIN and it was definitely a game changer.
I was able to fly Business Class with Silk Air in a round trip journey from Los Angeles to Singapore, and flew over to Borneo before landing in Kota Kinabalu. We had two stops – Singapore and South Korea which gave me an opportunity to check out two new places I hadn’t seen before. While flying Business Class, I sipped artisanal Guatemalan coffee, watched 5 movies, and pampered myself with a collagen face mask. In other words, I was in heaven.
SINGAPORE AIR BUSINESS CLASS HIGHLIGHTS
STORAGE + SPACE
Plenty of room to leave out my laptop, iPhone, hard drives, and charger cords so I didn’t have to repack and pull them out anytime I wanted to edit + write. Also there is space for your bag to the side of your foot room so it doesn’t take away from keeping your feet stretched out. Alternatively, there is a foot rest flat area you can prop your feet up onto as well.
Do not disturb + service buttons on the seat side, long socks, slippers, warm hand towels, toiletries to refresh your face, and a more spacious bathroom were all a bonus of flying business.
FOOD OPTIONS IN FLIGHT
The food was way beyond what I would have ever expected from a flight. After snacks like chicken satay and little chocolates to accompany wine or champagne to the in-flight three course meals, I disembarked the flight happy + full.
PLENTY OF PLUGINS
The USB + US-compatible three long plug for my computer meant that I could edit films in flight. When you fly business, you also get a small amount of free wifi data, meaning you can answer that last minute email you got on your way out or upload an image to Instagram.
NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES
These were great for watching movies or blocking out sound in the case of a snoring neighbor. I loved that I didn’t have to pack my own – space is always limited in a filmmakers suitcase.
ENDLESS IN FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT
I never ran out of movies to watch in our 21 hours traveling to Borneo + back.
YOUR SEAT TURNS INTO A BED
Your seat easily folds down into a bed. Two pillows and a blanket behind the seat. I have never slept so well on a flight, which helped me get back to normal on our swift trip on the ground through Borneo.
My journey to Malaysia was hosted by Singapore Airlines + Malaysia Tourism, but as always all thoughts and words are solely my own.
Special thank you to Sticky Rice Travel for being such awesome local guides on the ground.