While Borneo isn’t wild with a buzzing backpacker scene or filled with travelling party animals, it is a welcome treat of getting back to nature and witnessing things that you’ve only seen in National Geographic. Borneo and its 140 million year old rainforest definitely knocks you on the head and shouts, “Wake up! This is nature at its finest!”, whilst simultaneously lulling you into a fascinated stupor.
I covered some reasons of why you should go to Borneo because of its wildlife and jungle last week, and the Orangutans are a highlight of those who can travel over to Sepilok! I’m now sharing with you my experience of the coast and mountains of Sabah. For those who love beach life and hiking in epic hills, then this should get you searching for a plane ticket over there.
This is the second half of my ‘10 Reasons to explore Borneo’ and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that A) it is the ONLY place you need to go to see a world-class sunset, and B) Borneo will make you feel very small and insignificant in the world.
6. Be breathless at the Gomantong Caves
Have you ever explored a deep crack in the earth? The Gomantong Caves are a large cave system that’ll wow you… but be sure to pinch your nose. The stench of bat poop and other animal waste is pungent, but the hidden space within the rocks is equally as breathtaking.
Simud Hitam (Black Cave) is the most accessible and it has a ceiling that’s as high as 90 metres. Swiftlets and bats live in this cave, and the bird’s nests are often collected to be eaten. I’ve never tried birds nest soup and the thought of it does make me turn a bit green around the gills, but you can watch licensed locals climb to the roof of the caves to collect abandoned nests.
If you arrive in the evening, you might see the hordes of resident bats leave the cave in a flurry for their night-time hunting, almost tag-teaming the Swiftlets returning after their day-time feedings. So with all this wildlife living side-by-side, you can only imagine the amount of poop that accumulates and attracts an entire population of bugs. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but sometimes nature is a touch messy.
The other crevice in the earth is Simud Putih (White Cave) and as it is more challenging to get to and explore, you’ll need to get that organised before you arrive. You can find the caves after an 1 ½ hours bus ride from Sandakan and they’re open from 8am to 6pm.
7. Marvel at Mount Kinabalu
Do you fancy feeling dwarfed by another feature of Borneo? Then take a walk up Mount Kinabalu! It’s a towering 4,095m that stands proud against the horizon with a constant mist covering around its peak.
My cousin who lives in Kota Kinabalu climbed this on a school trip, so I thought it might be something I could do, but the more I looked into it, the more I realised that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to trot up it as briskly as I’d hoped.
It’s a 14km walk to the summit and many who do the climb experience altitude sickness when they begin the ascent. But once you’ve scrabbled up to the surface and hit the summit at dawn, the sight of the sun rising makes it worth the effort! Hikes are staggered so you get to rest often and arrive at the summit at dawn. Clouds quickly roll in to spoil the view in the morning so it’s paramount to reach the top to see the sun breaking the horizon. Bear in mind, the weather can change quickly and can turn the ‘accessible’ walk into a treacherous one!
Although they say it’s one of the most accessible mountains to climb, I’m not even that adept at combating steep hills (let alone mountains that loom 13,435 ft above sea level) so I decided to take the scenic drive to its base and take in the view from below. It’s still an incredible landscape and to see the mountain towering above you, disappearing into creepy mist, is pretty cool. The mountain springs up from the scenic National Park that is filled with exotic flora that you can explore on the many trails that intertwine the area.
8. Wander the markets of Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu is the gateway to Borneo. It has a large airport and so is usually the first port of call when people fly over to Malaysia’s Western Peninsular. It’s a colourful place that overlooks the South China Sea, and is full of a variety of bustling markets, high rise air con shopping malls, delicious foods and handicrafts.
The maze-like Filipino Market (now known as the Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market) contains stalls upon stalls of handcrafted souvenirs and pearls. Gaya Street offers a great Sunday Market as well as multiple pubs and bars to toast to the humid climate.
Vendors sell heaps of delicious mystery foods, but pluck up the courage and have a munch as it’s usually something deep-fried yet delicious. Fried doughnuts, vast arrays of local produce and fruits galore are here to sample… just be wary of the famous Durian fruit. This local delicacy smells pungent (similar to rotting meat) with an interesting taste (fruity flesh that tastes of chicken), so pinch your nose and take a bite – the locals will certainly be impressed. However, if Durian doesn’t float your boat, strike out and try some deliciously authentic Malay cuisine in the awesome night market by the Filipino Market.
I hardly even know what I ate over there as my Malaysian auntie accompanied me and kept ordering mysterious and tasty dishes that melted in my mouth, but all I know is to say YES to everything and munch your way into oblivion.
Don’t forget to head up to the Signal Hill Observatory for a birds eye view of Kota Kinabalu and a view of the sea with the smattering of exotic National Park islands.
9. Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Over at Jesselton pier in Kota Kinabalu, you’ll be greeted with a whole host of boat touters wanting to whisk you away to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park islands. There are many companies to choose from and they don’t massively differ in price unless you’re wishing to visit numerous islands in one day trip. I would highly recommend hitting up more than one of them though as each island is so pretty and a delight to wander about on.
Try avoid going on Malaysian public holidays though as the National Park islands are a top spot for both locals and tourists to hit up – you can expect the beach to be crammed with beach goers. However, if you get a boat to take you to the quieter islands, it’ll feel like you’re the only one there.
Once you clock that turquoise water, it’s hard to care too much about any crowds! It’s lovely to snorkel about as the waters are crystal clear and you can watch shoals of sparkly fish dip and dive around you. On the larger islands, you can sunbake, dip in the cool waters and take in a delicious seafood BBQ. You’ll also spot some pretty huge lizards chillaxing beside inland pools which can be slightly surprising, but you’re safe as long as you don’t try pet one.
10. Enjoy a drink with the world’s best sunset
Now everyone always claims that they’ve seen the world’s best sunset somewhere, but I swear to god that my claim is totally true! This spot even made it into the Rough Guides list of the world’s best sunset spots… so there!
Imagine a view of vivid exploding colours washing the sky against a horizon spotted with distant islands. Imagine clear skies that stretch out the suns rays right until they fade into a deep, dark indigo. Imagine witnessing this whole lightshow whilst reclining on a comfy beach chair with a drink in hand, and voila. This is the perfect sunset spot that just cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Head to Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort for a drink on their comfy beach beds that line the water’s edge. This resort is luxurious and comfortable, and can provide you with a front row seat to one of Asia’s best sunsets.
So with this beautiful sunset, I’ll leave you to dream about Borneo: one of the most diverse and stunning places that I have ever visited. From exotic wildlife that I’d only seen on documentaries to natural formations that took my breath away; Borneo will be a trip of a lifetime.
If you’ve been to Borneo, please do comment below on what your favourite experience was. I’d love to read about it!