Unforgettable 3 Weeks in Borneo

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Unforgettable 3 Weeks in Borneo

Borneo.  At the age of about 10, I remember scouring the pages of my Grandpa’s National Geographics and being captivated by pictures of strange looking monkeys, headhunter tribesman, thick jungles and exotic animals in a far away place called “Borneo”.

Twenty years later, the opportunity to explore Borneo kind of sprang up on us when a couple we met in Laos asked if we wanted to join them on a three week adventure across Borneo which of course we jumped all over.

In this post I talk about what we did over the course of 3 weeks in Borneo, a nature lovers dream.

Week One: Kuching, Bako and Semenggoh Wildlife Centre

After a “successful” flight from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur, we met up with our friends at the airport and jumped back onto another plane bound for Kuching in Western Borneo. Oh, the reason I call it a “successful” flight is that Alyse and I were not deported back to Canada for going bananas on the three (yes three) kids who would not stop kicking our seats for the entire flight!

Here’s one of the little devils…hard to spot his devil horns in this pic.

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Our first stop was the city of Kuching which is the second largest city in Malaysian Borneo and was recently honoured with the #11 spot on Lonely Planet’s “Top Things to see in Southeast Asia”. As we explored the city, which was said to be lively, full of great restaurants and nightlife, we were sadly disappointed.

Yes, the river walk was pretty, but there were hardly any restaurants open and the ones that were served some of the worst food we’d had in Asia which was a shame because we actually really love Malay food. We would find out over the coming days that 95% of the shops and restaurants shut down at roughly 5:30pm, which would be okay if we were all 80.

Early to close in Kuching

So the Kuching turned out to be a bit of a flop but we didn’t really come for the city, we travelled to this area for two things in particular, the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and Bako National Park.

First up we visited Semenggoh which in itself made up for our lacklustre start and really, was a major highlight of our entire 3 weeks in Borneo! We took the bus to the wildlife centre for the afternoon feeding which was a breeze so if you are heading here as well, save your money and take the public bus which drops you off and picks you up at the front entrance of the centre.  The centre assists in the breeding and rehabilitation of orang-utans; they provide scheduled daily feedings to supplement the diet of the semi-wild animals that return to the reserve.

Around 3pm as about two dozen of us waited anxiously for feeding time, one of the caretakers started whistling and then calling out, “Ritchie! Ritchie!”. Moments later, 100 yards away we began hearing branches breaking, trees swaying and then out of nowhere a gigantic orang-utan appeared, swinging confidently towards us.

Ritchie the orang-utan

Ritchie, the alpha male had arrived and behind him, his current queen; behind her, half a dozen females, some with babies.  The image of all of them appearing from what seemed like thin air and then swinging in right above our heads will be forever imprinted on our minds.  Watching them crack coconuts and drink from them, captivated by their human-like behaviour, we were awestruck.

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Make sure to check out our favourite photos and videos of Semenggoh Wildlife Reserve HERE.

A couple of days later we made our way to Bako National Park for one primary purpose, to spot the completely bizarre and rare Proboscis Monkey.  The proboscis is famous for its huge nose, pot belly and red hair and has been “lovingly” referred to by locals for generations as the “Dutchman”.

To get there the four of us had planned on taking the local bus once again but instead, we had a van approach us by the bus stop and ask us if we were going to Bako.  After negotiating a price that was only a couple of dollars more than the bus would’ve cost us, we were off to Bako in a luxury mini-van!  I was always told by my mom to never accept rides from strangers – but in Asia, this is sometimes the best/only way to get around.

After piling into a small motor boat, plus one frenchman who had been traveling nearly a year and by the smell of him, hadn’t showered since he left France, we were off to the island.  As we jumped off our boat into the warm shallow waters of Bako, we were greeted by views of gorgeous black volcanic, jagged cliffs with trees growing impossibly out of them, and thick jungle canopy in the distance.

Bako NP

After registering for our hike, it didn’t take long to spot our first animal as a bearded pig scoured around the bungalows for food scraps.  Minutes later, Alyse shouted, “Look over there!”.  Only a few meters from us a couple of proboscis monkeys sat munching away on wild fruit.  We hadn’t been trekking for more than 10 minutes before we had seen what we had come for!

Proboscis monkey eating leaves

In fact, we realized as we trekked that afternoon, that most of the animals in Bako can best be seen within a few hundred meters of the main check-in/cafeteria building.  During the afternoon we came face-to-face with dozens of long-tailed macaques (one of which stole our friends bag of peanuts right out of her hands!), silver lipped monkeys, and a few more proboscis monkeys.

Silver lipped monkey holds her baby

Bako was a fantastic rip and worth the money and time to get out there. We would recommend that you only spend the day like we did or perhaps stay for one night.  If you are planning on spending the night, make sure to book ahead as we found on the weekends, even in the off season, the bungalows and dorms are fully booked.  After speaking with the front desk we found out that if you come during weekdays, you should be fine to get a dorm bed if you show up without a booking.

See our favourite pictures of Bako National Park HERE.

Even if we didn’t care for the city of Kuching, Semenggoh and Bako made the first week for us.  After a rough night bus ride to the city of Miri in the centre of Borneo, we were excited to begin our second week in Borneo.

Week 2: Mulu National Park & Brunei Darussalam

After watching the ‘Caves’ episode on Planet Earth where they showed millions of bats pouring out of one of the biggest caves on earth in Borneo, we knew we had to make a stop here to see if for ourselves.  We were not disappointed!

To get to Mulu National Park where the bat spectacle is located, you really have two options.  One is to take a series of three boats from Miri through the jungle and into Mulu.  This option sounds like an awesome adventure as you pass through beautiful jungle and meet villagers along the way.  If you have come during the dry season and have the time, I would recommend this option but be warned the boats don’t run regularly while others won’t leave until they are full.   We opted for the quicker option which was flying via MASWings from Miri.  It was simple, quick, and fairly cheap as well.  After touching down in Mulu, we were shocked when we actually walked from the airport to our guesthouse (D’Cave Homestay) in under 15 minutes!  For Alyse and I, being able to walk from the airport to our guesthouse was a definite first.

After checking into our new home we made the very easy 10 minute walk into the park to register for all our activities.  First up, exploring Deer Cave, the second largest cave passage in the world, and then witnessing (if we are lucky) the mass migration of four million bats flying out together at sunset in search of insects.  We have seen some amazing caves already in Asia, but Deer Cave was by far our favourite.

Walking through we were of course captivated with how massive the passageway was but even more so, dumbfounded by the gigantic pile of bat shit that sat just off the pathway to the “Garden of Eden”.  I’d being lying if I told you I didn’t turn to Alyse and quote Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, “That’s one big pile of shit.”

Deer Cave Borneo

After the tour we all gathered around the opening of the cave anxiously anticipating the bats’ grand exit.  10 minutes went by, then another, and another and another.  Looking down at my watch I realized we had been waiting for over an hour and the sun was starting to disappear.  As the four of us started to discuss possibly coming back the next day to see the bats this happened:

In almost the same way that the orang-utans had awed us in Semenggoh, the synchronized spiralling of millions of bats flying out together transformed the entire audience into children.

During the following two days in Mulu we walked along the canopy of the jungle, hiked the park at night in search of insects, snakes and other creepy crawlies, bathed under a waterfall and saw some of the biggest trees we’d ever seen.  One thing we didn’t have time for but we will do when we return is the 3 day trek up to the Pinnacles which are beautifully formed jagged limestone formations sticking straight out of the top of the mountain.

Borneo frog

Make sure to check out our photo tour of  Mulu National Park HERE.

Brunei

There are a few options to get from Miri to Brunei but we found the best and cheapest option is to hire a van.  The border crossing was a breeze and in no time at all we had entered the infamous sultanate.  Before Alyse and I entered Brunei we were skeptical if it would look or feel any different then Malaysia, we were wrong.

Flag of Brunei

When you first enter the Sultanate, you can immediately feel a difference with how nicely maintained the roads and sidewalks are.  Meticulously manicured trees and gardens line most of the main boulevards.  There is almost no graffiti, garbage, or unkempt public spaces in Bandar Seri Begawan, the heart of Brunei.  The people are all very friendly, dressed in traditional Muslim attire and seemed to be a little more reserved than in Malaysia.

In the morning we visited the local market, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque which was stunning especially from across the pond and finally the Royal Regalia Museum which was one of the oddest museums we’d ever been in.  It’s basically the Sultan’s attic of old and unwanted crap he receives as gifts from royal dignitaries from around the world which I’m sure is worth millions. Ever dream of having a gold framed hologram image of yourself on display?  This is where you can view pure opulence in honour of the $40 billion dollar playboy.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

In the afternoon we decided to try and cross the river and find the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque while deciding as a group not to visit the Sultan’s Palace as visitors can only visit during the three day period coinciding with the end of Hari Raya Aidilfitri.  

Our journey to the Jame’Asr Mosque didn’t start out too well as our shitty map lead us across the wrong bridge putting us about half an hour away from where we needed to be.  We stayed positive, found some nice locals who pointed us in the right direction and we were back on track.  Thirty minutes later the four of us, drenched in sweat in the 40 degree heat, feet hurting, jumped for joy when we saw the mosque in the distance.  As we ran up to the entrance our smiles quickly disappeared as we found this sign taped on the door:

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We couldn’t believe we’d walked all afternoon in the stifling Borneo heat to find the mosque and it was closed!  That didn’t stop my amazing wife from asking someone coming out of the mosque if there was any way we could go inside if even for a few minutes.  Even though no visitors were technically allowed to go in, he agreed to take the four of us on a private tour through the mosque.  Great success!

Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Our day in Brunei finished up with some local food at the night market where the four of us sat in a hawker stall packed with locals eating fried chicken and rice.  Fantastic way to end our little adventure in the odd but strangely enticing Sultanate.  The next morning we rose at the crack of what the fuck and started our long journey to Kota Kinabalu which involved a public bus, a ferry and then another ferry.  Not something I’d like to do again anytime soon but it got us into KK in pretty good time and we didn’t have to overland bus the entire way which was a nice change of pace, providing some impressive views of Brunei’s and Malaysia’s off-shore oil rigs; the heart of both economies.

Kota Kinabalu

We stopped off in KK just for a few nights to organize the last part of our trip, which would be river safaris on the Kinabatangan and diving in one of the best places on earth, Sipadan.

We did a little site seeing along the board walk, checking out the local market and then treating ourselves to some fresh seafood.

Kota Kinabalu Fish Market

We were able to book with a guest house in Sukau (Kinabatangan River) right on the river called RB Lodge which also provided pickup from Sukau Junction (for 25 MYR each) working out well for all of us.

The seven hour bus trip from KK to the Sukau Junction was one of the toughest we’ve had to endure as the combination of winding roads, smells of vomit, shit and air freshener and a much longer than anticipated travel time were almost too much to handle.  We were deeply saddened by how brutal the absolute decimation of the rainforest was; almost entirely replaced by palm oil plantations.  I am not exaggerating when I say there is perhaps a stretch of thirty minutes while travelling through Mount Kinabalu National Park that you are not surrounded by palm plantations. What a shame…

Palm oil plantations in Borneo

During our three days at RB Lodge we went on four cruises, one morning, two afternoon and one night.  During those cruises we saw a lot of different monkeys including long tailed and pig tailed macaques, silvered lipped, red face and proboscis.  We also saw tons of other wildlife like hornbills, owls, wild chickens, wild pigs, snakes, and even a humongous monitor lizard sleeping on a tree.

Pig tailed macaque stares us down

The highlight had to be seeing an orang-utan on our first cruise, particularly because they are so rare to spot in the wild.  The safaris were bittersweet as we saw many different types of wildlife but learned that they are becoming easier to spot as the protected rainforest around the river is becoming smaller and smaller every year as the palm oil plantations continue to encroach upon the homes of many species of animals on this once untouched piece of paradise.  We also learned that that the pygmy elephants which have called Sabah home for centuries, have had their thousands old migration path cut off by plantation companies planting trees and setting up an electric fence to stop the elephants from cutting through.  Now your only chance of seeing them is to travel three to five hours upstream where they’ve apparently found a safe haven, at least for the time being.

Wild orang-utan at Kinatabangan River

Travel Tip: If you stay at RB Lodge and are staying for at least two nights, ask them about their tour package when you arrive as we saved about $50 CAD by doing this while also being upgraded to private bungalows from the dorms.

Make sure to check out our photo essay on our time on the Kinatabangan River HERE.

After saying goodbye to our friends who headed back to KK, we set off to the harbour town of Semporna.  Here we registered with Uncle Chang’s diving crew for our PADI Advanced Diving License Course as well as a few fun dives at Sipadan, bought a few drinks and the caught a shuttle boat out to our new home, the gorgeous island of Mabul.

Uncle Chang's Mabul

Check out our post, “We Survived Diving With Sharks In Sipadan”  to read all about our absolutely unforgettable time diving at arguably the best spot in the world, Sipadan.

Wrapping Up

Alyse and I will remember Borneo with fond hearts as we did get out of it what we came there for; getting back in touch with nature and seeing exotic animals in their natural habitat.  Seeing the orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, bats of Deer Cave, and sharks of Sipadan was a once in a lifetime thrill.  Although the cities of Malaysian Borneo didn’t impress us all that much, the national parks in Sarawalk and Sabah were worth every penny.

We really enjoyed Brunei even if it was only for the day as the mosques, museums and food were all wonderful.  I do wish we had a few more days to explore the national parks in Brunei as apparently they’ve done a much better job of protecting their rainforests than Malaysia and are rarely visited.

As I mentioned previously, the palm oil plantations and the rapid deforestation that is continuing to go on is already endangering their wildlife with more and more animals being forced to live in smaller pieces of protected land.  Speaking with guides in Mulu National Park and the Kinatabangan River, it is obvious that many locals are both outraged and embarrassed that their homeland is being raped by their government and foreign owned companies who care nothing about protecting their wildlife.  Our hope is that the government wakes up before it is too late.

3 weeks in Borneo absolutely flew by as we tried to take in as much as we could while at the same time staying long enough in places to really appreciate them.  We felt like we really did experience Borneo with what we saw, what we experienced and who we met along the way.  We trekked rain forests, we explored caves, we spotted exotic wildlife, ate the delicious local food and scubaed Borneo’s most idyllic islands.

I’m happy to say that even though the face of Borneo has changed quite drastically in recent years, it still has that old mystique and magic that I remember reading about as a child twenty years ago.

Cheers,

Ross & Alyse

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Ross

Lover of travel, photography, nature, movies, and nachos. If you love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings we'll probably become best friends.
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