Destination Malaysia

Malaysian Borneo: Can you top this for adventure?

Updated 13th November 2015
A settler's house in a forest clearing in Central Kalimantan province in Borneo island of Indonesia, home to the world's third-largest area of tropical forests.
Editor's Note — CNN Travel's series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However, CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.
(CNN) — Malaysian Borneo has long evoked visions of adventure in the West.
Many a kid has thumbed through their parents' National Geographic mags, dreaming that one day mom and dad might pass on yet another trip to Yosemite in the station wagon and instead take them to a land where headhunters lurk in ancient rainforests and wild orangutans play.
Today Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia, aka Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan) isn't the unaccessible impossibility it once was -- it's now serviced by a range of airlines and filled with resorts to suit all budgets.
The challenge is pinning down an itinerary. The place is huge.
A sea hut near Sipadan Island in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state.
A sea hut near Sipadan Island in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state.
-/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Malaysia shares the island of Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei. The Malaysian portion is home to two Malaysian states -- Sabah and Sarawak -- and the federal territory of Labuan.
And it's far from perfect.
Logging continues to eat away at Malaysian Borneo's natural resources. Some researchers estimate 80 percent of the rainforests in Malaysian Borneo have been heavily impacted by logging.
Meanwhile, officials there continue to battle the illegal wildlife trade.
But it's still an adventure.
These options give you a taste of what's out there.

Mount Kinabalu

Whether or not you climb to the summit, Kinabalu is worth a visit.
Part of the UNESCO-listed Kinabalu Park, it sits 4,095 meters above sea level.
Despite the altitude it's a relatively easy trek, though guides and permits are required. A variety of overnight trek options range from one- to three-night climbs.
More information on climbing the beautiful beast is available from the Mount Kinabalu Official Climb & Booking Information Centre.


The waters ​off Malaysian Borneo are legendary, with dozens of dive sites offering pristine views of some of the world's finest coral and sealife.
If you want the best of the best, it's Sipadan. A contender on any dive publication's list of the "world's best dives," Sipadan lies 35 kilometers off the coast of Sabah.
In order to protect Sipadan's fragile ecosystem, in 2004 the Malaysian government ordered all dive resorts off the island, banned night dives and set a limit of 120 divers per day.
The ultimate Borneo experience -- visiting Orangutans.
The ultimate Borneo experience -- visiting Orangutans.


The quintessential Malaysian Borneo experience -- playing with primates at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.
This rehabilitation center re-trains displaced animals for life in the jungle.
The sanctuary is reached by bus or taxi, a 23-kilometer ride from Sandakan town.

Rainforests and national parks

Famed naturalist and Darwin rival Alfred Wallace conceived his own theory of natural selection on Malaysian Borneo, following years of observation of the island's rainforests.
One of the best ways to experience the rainforests is to stay in an ecolodge.
North Borneo's Sukau Rainforest Lodge has its own generators and uses solar-heated water.
Down south, Rimba Orangutan Eco Lodges offer rainforest walks and wooden boat rides.
In terms of exploration, there are several protected national parks to choose from.
Gunung Mulu National Park is Sarawak's largest national park.
It's filled with caves and karst formations in a mountainous equatorial rainforest setting. It's also Malaysia's first World Heritage Area, given the honor in 2000.
Gunung Gading National Park is a mountainous rainforest two hours from Kuching, Sarawak. It's a popular spot to view rafflesia flowers in bloom.
A recent scientific expedition to Mount Kinabalu yielded thousands of DNA samples and about 160 new species.
A recent scientific expedition to Mount Kinabalu yielded thousands of DNA samples and about 160 new species.
Constantijn Mennes/Naturalis

Kinabatangan River

Another way to take in the rainforest is with a cruise down Kinabatangan River.
This is the place to see pygmy elephants, often spotted moving along the shores.
With an average height of 2.5 meters, Borneo's 1,500 endangered pygmy elephants are smaller than most of their Asian brethren.
Their habitat is under threat by encroaching plantations, logging activity and hunting.
The Sukau Rainforest Lodge offers full wildlife tour and lodging packages.

All those islands

Let's start with Pulau Tiga, part of the Pulau Tiga National Park. There's a reason that name sounds familiar -- it was the location for the very first season of "Survivor."
Richard Hatch might be a memory, but Pulau Tiga remains an incredibly beautiful destination.
Another gorgeous and popular destination is Gaya Island, where you'll find the Gayana Eco Resort.
Erected above water on stilts, the luxury resort has a 130-million-year-old prehistoric rainforest for a neighbor and provides guides for jungle-trekking -- if you're lucky you might even spot the megapode, a native bird that looks like a chicken but meows like a cat.
Selingan Island is home to green and hawksbill turtles that creep onto the beaches after dark to lay their eggs.
Since access to Selingan Island is restricted, joining a day tour is the best option
The Kuching Cat Museum in Sarawak, Malaysia pays respectful, sometimes wacky, homage to these fortune-bestowing animals.
The Kuching Cat Museum in Sarawak, Malaysia pays respectful, sometimes wacky, homage to these fortune-bestowing animals.

Kuching Cat Museum

For those who like a little meow in their travel mix, there's the Kuching Cat Museum.
It has several thousand feline-related displays and memorabilia -- including an Egyptian mummified cat.
Kuching Cat Museum, Bukit Siol, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia; +60 (0)8 244 6688


At the Mari Mari Cultural village, a 25-minute drive from Kota Kinabulu, you can learn about Borneo's infamous headhunters.
A tattoed Dayak tribesman from West Kalimantan in Borneo.
A tattoed Dayak tribesman from West Kalimantan in Borneo.
Visitors to the Sabah attraction receive a traditional welcome by the headhunters at the Marut Longhouse before checking out a demo on blowpipe making.
The real fun happens Inside, where you can jump and dance on the built-in "lansaran" -- traditional trampoline-like floor.
More well-known is the Sarawak Cultural Museum, 35 kilometers from Kuching and set in the the foothills of Mount Santubong. Dubbed a "living museum," the popular attraction is a celebration of all things Borneo -- longhouses and headhunters included -- and home to the annual Rainforest World Music Festival.