Asia

Why Malaysian Borneo needs to be on your travel bucket list

Wow, it’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and written anything! I recently got promoted at work and while I absolutely love my new role, it does means a lot more time at work during the work week and then I don’t really feel like sitting down and doing more “work” on the weekends! But the weather in Perth has started to cool down now and rainy days means more time inside and what better time to write again!

I already mentioned how much I love my job, but I think the thing I love the most is the perks we get. I work in the travel industry and we get so many opportunities for free trips, discounted travel and bonus gifts just because! This time last year I was brand new in my role and I went to an event evening put on by one of the airlines and was fortunate enough to win a four day, three night tour in Borneo.

Borneo? I bet most of you have never heard of it, or are unable to point to it on a map. I know I was the same 12 months ago. Borneo is the third largest island in the world (although I do dispute this because Australia is an island but it doesn’t count as it’s also considered a continent!) and is made up of three different countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Malaysia and Indonesia have hundreds of different islands which make up their countries as a whole but Brunei is an entire country on the island of Borneo.

The Borneo I was luckily enough to explore was the Malaysian part – my four day tour was in the small city of Kuching. Kuching is an up and coming destination and while it is still relatively new to the tourism it receives, this makes it all the more charming and more authentic. David, our tour guide from Brighton Tours and Travel, was the most informative and incredible tour guide I think I’ve ever had! He answered all of our questions we had about a range of things, and if he didn’t know the answer (which was very rare), he would find out within that day and come back to us!

But why should you visit Malaysian Borneo? Here’s my top reasons why…

  • The Orangutans, duh

The reason you may heard of the name Borneo is because they are famous for their orangutans. The Bornean orangutan is a species of orangutan native to the island of Borneo and is currently critically endangered due to the large number of corporations who are burning forests where the orangutans live, causing them to either flee to other areas and not survive or be killed in the process. A crazy number of orangutans were also being taken and kept captive by humans for an unknown reason. Some of these orangutans have been rescued and are taken to rehabilitation centres to be released back in the wild – we visited one of these called the Semonggoh Wildlife Centre. The wildlife centre is home to a number of semi-wild orangutans who are fed daily but are left to their own accord to explore the nature reserve behind the centre (no fences, cages etc). During fruiting season (when there is an abundance of food in the forest reserve), the orangutans often do not come into the wildlife centre for the extra food which is great for their rehabilitation back into the wild. Unfortunately, we did visit in fruiting season meaning no orangutan spotting for us but I’m happy for the animals! Semonggoh Wildlife Centre is only 30mins drive from Kuching and it’s best visited first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon.

  • The Malaysian Culture

I have to be honest, I haven’t experienced much of any Asian culture. I’ve been to Bali for about 5 days and that’s it! However the Malay people blew me away with how friendly, nice and down to earth they were. But not only the people, their background and history was interesting to hear about too – I won’t go into too much here as I’m nervous I’ll get it wrong but David really opened our eyes to the history of the place. One special place he did take us, was to the Annah Rais Longhouse. A Longhouse is a traditional communal village where all houses are built together, side by side, and everyone lives communally. They are often without modern technology, electricity and sometimes even sewage systems. The Annah Rais longhouse is close to Kuching city meaning it is more modern and up to date, I even saw a television satellite dish when there! I loved learning about the way of life when visiting, as well as sampling the goods they make on site (e.g. rice wine, mmm). Take some cash when you go because they do sell their delicious treats to visitors and it’s a great way to support the local community. Fun fact: they still headhunted up until the 1980s even though it was illegal after they got their independence in 1962.

Some skulls from head hunting, hanging in the longhouse
  • The food.

Oh my god, the food. So tasty and so cheap!! For our first meal, my friend and I decided we would try the restaurant in our hotel as we were too nervous to try anything outside – keep in mind Kuching is still very new to tourism so a lot of the locals don’t speak great English. I got the pineapple fried rice and she got a noodle and meat dish. We paid around $12 AUD for each dish which is cheap by Australian standards. It was definitely tasty but once David showed us good places to eat around the city, we realized we got ripped off big time! We could get the same dishes but tastier, for around $2.50 outside of the hotel. I can honestly say on this trip I was never starving as David fed us every few hours with local cuisine which was all fresh, delicious and so cheap. One must eat: laksa. Every regions laksa is different so of course we tried a few to see who had the best!

  • Bako National Park

The oldest and largest national park in Sarawak, established in 1957 and can only be reached by boat! The boat ride is an attraction in itself, hopping into dodgy looking dinghys (they all offer life jackets so no stress) which are then launched in crocodile infested waters! I kept my eyes peeled hoping to spot a crocodile but no such luck, let me know if you are more successful! Once arriving at the park, you jump into knee high water to make your way to the shore and explore the beautiful coastlines. You can also stay overnight in the national park but I’ve heard this sells out quickly so definitely book in advance! The park has a number of walks/hikes available to do ranging from 1hr round trip to all day ones. You may also spot one of the rare proboscis monkeys! When exploring the park, stop and listen. If you hear trees rustling together, this is more than likely a monkey jumping from tree to tree. Another highlight was seeing some Bornean bearded pigs – unlike anything I’ve seen before! Be careful eating your food however, the monkeys are very quick at coming to steal some and I wouldn’t of believed this unless I had seen it with my own eyes. Fun fact: Bako NP was featured on as the final pit stop on The Amazing Race Asia 1.

  • Island hopping in Kota Kinabalu

After we left Kuching, we headed up to KK to see another part of Malaysian Borneo and also do a little bit of island hopping. We spent two nights in the city of KK and honestly, we didn’t enjoy it that much. It didn’t have the friendly locals or the charm that Kuching did. It was busy, touristy and dirtier. However the islands nearby were stunning and I definitely suggest going island hopping for at least a day! There’s five main islands all a short boat ride from KK – simply head down to the Jesselton port, find the terminal building and choose one of the boat suppliers. They are all pretty much the same price and they will be yelling at you for your business anyways. You pay for how many islands you want to go to. I think we paid for 2 but managed to do 3 as we paid for a zip line (more on that later). Manukan Island is the second biggest but the most popular one to visit. There is often hundreds of people there, some scuba diving in the clear blue sea, some lying on the beach, others walking around exploring. There is also accommodation on this island which is SO CUTE and I would have definitely opted to stay there if I had known about it before arriving. There is also lots of food options available here so don’t worry too much about bringing a packed lunch. Keep an eye out for the lizards that inhabit the island – they are often 4 feet long so doubt you’d miss one but so amazing to see! The next popular island is Sapi Island which is a lot smaller and has less facilities to Manukan, but with still a lot of people so it feels quite crowded. I didn’t enjoy it as much but one must do is buy a ticket for the zip line on nearby Gaya Island! The zip line is the longest in the world between two islands and is SO MUCH FUN. Because we went in January, we didn’t have the best weather but I’d absolutely love to go back in summer time because these islands were incredible in winter, I can’t imagine how much better they would be in summer.

  • Stay at the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort and go on a sunrise hike

Now this one is definitely not for everyone. I wouldn’t say it’s a complete must do but was one of our highlights of the trip so I had to mention it. After staying in KK city, we ventured out a little bit and stayed a couple nights at the Rasa Risa Resort. Wow. I’m not usually a luxury accommodation type of person but this place was heaven. It had three pools, a masseuse in a little hut right by the pool, food could be delivered to wherever you were and its own private beach. One thing that made the place incredible thought was the staff. Every staff member went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable, fed, needed anything, one even sang Kylie Minogue to us when he found out we were from Australia! It also had the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen, catering to a range of different cultures – it even had a donut wall and a fondue fountain! But by far the best thing we did here was the sunrise hike to watch the sunrise over Mount Kinabalu and have breakfast at the top. Well worth the 4am wake up and hiking in the dark.

One main thing I would like to point out which was quite confronting and upsetting when visiting Borneo was the amount of rubbish everywhere. It was all through the river in Kuching, throughout the ocean in Bako NP and all over the beaches in KK. I feel like we have had a major shift in the western world about the importance of recycling, using less plastic, using environmentally friendly products but until that education spreads to the other parts of the world, this is unlikely to change. I still remember seeing the houses which sit on the riverbanks in Kuching with rubbish all under their balcony (it looks like they just throw their rubbish over the side of it) which will eventually end up in the ocean. These houses also had boats there looking like they fish for either a living or just for food for themselves. Do they not realize they are essentially eating the plastic they are throwing over the side of their own house? It was such an eye opener and it encouraged me to make changes in my own lifestyle to hopefully lesser this impact on the world.

The trash on the beach on Manukan Island… so awful

That’s all from me this time, hopefully it won’t be as long before I write again!

Courtney

xo

P.s. click the link below to check out some accommodation prices for Kota Kinabalu!



Booking.com

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