I'm So There: Borneo, Malaysia

By Ariel Conant

If you are looking for adventure and excitement, this Malaysian island has it all

By Ariel Conant |

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The magnificent view from Laban Rata on Mount Kinabalu will make you feel on top of the world

When it comes to vacations, I've never been the type of person who is content to just lay on a beach or by the pool at a luxury resort. When I go on holiday, I want to get dirty. I want to spend each day exploring and doing as much as possible, and seeing the most exciting sights. This is why I set my sights on Malaysian Borneo. This island has it all: rafting, hiking, snorkelling, adventure, excitement, and one-of-a-kind experiences you can't find anywhere else.

Before you go 

Mount Kinablau is definitely worth a climb

Borneo runs on tourism, so there's tonnes of stuff to do. It can be a bit overwhelming trying to choose what to do, so do your homework before you go. Different parts of the island are best for different activities, and while transport is relatively cheap, you'll still need to figure out how to arrange it if you're going to be travelling between the areas. For example, Mount Kinabalu is definitely worth a climb, but if you want to see the orangutans as well, then the best way to do that is by taking a short flight to the other side of the island in the Sandakan region. It's helpful to take a look at what your options are and have at least a basic list of what you want to do.

Where to go 

You need a rest day after a trek to the Laban Rata base camp

If adventure sports are your thing, then Kota Kinabalu is where you want to start. Mount Kinabalu is a short drive away from the city, and well-worth the effort and cost of a hiking permit. After the recent earthquake, hikers are currently not allowed to climb to the summit, but you can still trek to the Laban Rata base camp which offers amazing views over the valley and will make you feel on top of the world - even if your legs might not work after the long climb! Protip: make sure to leave yourself a rest day after the hike, because I promise your legs will be too sore to walk the next day!

Kota Kinabalu also makes a good base for other day excursions like whitewater rafting or snorkelling.

If you're more interested in the unique wildlife of Borneo, then Sandakan is the place to be. Of course the orangutans are not to be missed, but don't forget about the sun bears or the very weirdly cute probiscus monkeys. If you want a unique, first-hand experience, take a boat out to Pulau Selingaan, or "Turtle Island". Apart from being a spectacular place for snorkelling, this island is the centre for Borneo's sea turtle conservation programme. At night, you can watch the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, and help the rangers release the newly hatched baby turtles into the ocean. Nowhere else can you get such a close-up experience, while helping to preserve Borneo's amazing natural environment.

Top selfie spot

Borneo is beautiful, and any spot can make for a great selfie. But nothing beats Sepilok Forest Reserve and Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where you might get the chance for a selfie with a "man of the forest". Just don't get too close ... the orangutans like to steal stuff from tourists, and once they grab it, there's no getting it back!

Must try 

Don't get sucked into fancy restaurants; there's plenty of fantastic food to be had on the street or in eateries around the corner. 

Ais kacang is a delicious dessert

Malaysian curry is delicious here, and more savoury than the spicier version served on mainland Malaysia. Be sure to also get some roti canai (pronounced roe-tee jah-na-ee), a buttery and delicious pan-made flatbread which goes perfectly with the curry. 

It's hot in Borneo, so cool down with an ais kacang, sold by many street vendors. Don't be intimidated by its look: this shaved ice dessert is layered with jellies, ice cream, red beans, peanuts, sweet corn and more, and can be a meal in itself. 

And while there's char siu bao aplenty in Hong Kong, try out the Malaysian version in Borneo. It's more peanutty and savoury than the sometimes-too-sweet Hong Kong buns. 

At the night market, be sure to try some of the steamed cakes. The apam balik is a pancake layered with a sugary peanut mixture perfect for munching while wandering the bustling stalls.

The Kota Kinabalu night market offers tasty treats, including steamed cakes