Borneo may still hold a huge amount of mystery, but if you are looking for jungle, wildlife and adventure, then this is our outline to an adventurous escape in Malaysian Borneo.
You can find individual destination blog posts in the links below but this should definitely wet your appetite.
Welcome to Borneo, an of the beaten track destination that offers endless adventures for families seeking unforgettable experiences. In this blog post, we’ll dive into why Borneo should be on your family travel bucket list, sharing our personal journey and exploring captivating destinations of Brunei, Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, and Kuching.
Brunei: Our Home Away from Home
Let’s start our Borneo adventure with a place close to our hearts—Brunei. As teachers at an international school, we had the privilege of calling Brunei home for five incredible years, and it truly holds a special place in our family’s memories.
Brunei is a small but captivating country, known for its oil, Islamic heritage, Sultan and serene beauty. We had the chance to explore its nooks and crannies, quickly understanding why this place is known as the ‘Abode of Peace’ from the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan to the tranquil rainforests that envelop the landscape.
One of the highlights of living in Brunei was the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a slower, and chilled way of life. This is a country which doesn’t make it onto too many tourist’s radar and if it does, a few days is usually enough. There are very few sights or attractions and a bustling city centre is non-existent. But there are many places worthy of a visit if you have a visit or stopover in the capital planned. For a photo opportunity head to the majestic Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, with its golden domes and stunning architecture, it serves as a constant reminder of the country’s deep religious roots and is the most iconic landmark. The eco park and river walk offers the chance to spot crocs basking on the banks, and the water village provides an insight into a traditional way of life.
Living in Brunei, our children grew up with a unique blend of influences. They attended an international school that embraced diversity and celebrated the multicultural tapestry of the community. Together, we explored the Kampong Ayer water village, where stilt houses stood as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of its inhabitants. Brunei is not renowned for its cuisine but it is a country where there is a big focus on food or ‘Makan’. You can find a good mix of indonesian, malay and western dishes. If you are keen on discovering the flavours of Bruneian cuisine,try some dishes like nasi katok and ambuyat.
For us, the most amazing thing about Brunei was our access to nature. From being in the middle of a jungle, 5 minutes after leaving the house to travelling to Temburong with areas of primary rainforest, nature was never far away. This obviously included animals too, some a little closer to home, from Macaques at the park, crocodiles in the river next to the supermarket, snakes in the garden, or scorpions in the kitchen, this all became very normal for our life in Brunei.
While Brunei offers remarkable beauty especially in its jungle walks, Temburong National Park and wild beaches, it’s important to paint a complete picture of any destination. Like any place, it has its own set of challenges and nuances. The conservative nature of the country, rooted in Islamic traditions, means that certain customs and social norms may need to be respected. The tropical climate can be unforgiving at times, with high humidity and occasional heavy rainfall. Also the sand flies on the wild beaches are a real pain in the butt, come armed with suncream and bug spray to attempt to avoid them.
If you are heading to Brunei then we would definitely recommend a night on the Kampong Ayer at Kunyit Lodge, a 2 day stay at Trandie in Temburong National Park and if you can squeeze a night in at the Empire Hotel, then go for it.
Public transport absolutely sucks in Brunei. You will need to hire a car or attempt to arrange transport through the very few taxi’s in the country or by downloading DART (the Brunei equivalent of Uber- although pretty average).
You can catch a flight between most of the destinations in Borneo but we choose to hire a driver to take us from Brunei to Kota Kinabulu as it was cheaper than the flights.( $250BND for mini van or $500 for flights at the time of writing)
Kota Kinabalu: Gateway to Borneo’s Natural Wonders
Now, let’s journey to Kota Kinabalu, the vibrant capital of Sabah and the gateway to Borneo’s natural wonders. As we set foot in this bustling city, we were immediately drawn to its lively markets, colourful streets, and inviting islands across the water.
Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, stands majestically on the horizon, enticing adventurous hikers.Our kids were a bit too young to conquer it this time, but those with older kids and teens will want to look into trekking up this beast. We did see it from the plane as we flew directly over, that will have to do for now.
Another highlight of Kota Kinabalu was the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, just a short boat ride away. We spent blissful days exploring its five picturesque islands, snorkelling in crystal waters, and basking in the sunshine on sandy beaches. Warning these islands do have some pesky inhabitants. The sand flies can be brutal so go prepared.
We also enjoyed the great food options in town, topped up some supplies in the malls and enjoyed the street markets for fruit, veg and snacks during the day.
Sandakan: Wildlife Encounters and Rainforest Treks
Our Borneo adventure wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Sandakan, a coastal town renowned for its incredible wildlife encounters and rainforest treks. Sandakan holds a special place in our hearts, as it allowed us to get up close and personal with some of Borneo’s most fascinating creatures.
Our first stop in Sandakan was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, a sanctuary dedicated to the rehabilitation and conservation of orangutans. As we watched these incredible primates swing through the trees and interact with their caretakers, our children’s faces lit up and fuelled plenty of conversations about our environment, conservation and our role in protecting other endangered species. Learning about the efforts to protect these endangered species instilled a sense of appreciation for wildlife conservation in our entire family.
But orangutans were not the only stars of the show in Sandakan. We also visited the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where we observed the world’s smallest bear species—the adorable and charismatic sun bears. Witnessing their playful antics and understanding the conservation challenges they face deepened our understanding of the delicate balance between humans and wildlife.
A river cruise along the Kinabatangan River is also a popular wildlife experience. We didn’t take the tour as we had done something very similar in Brunei previously. Boat tours will cruise you down the river while you search for proboscis monkeys, known for their distinctive long noses, pygmy elephants, crocs and a wide variety of birds.
Switching to the southeast of the island, Kuching is a city that has its own blend of natural beauty, indigenous culture, and modern amenities. Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, offers a unique and laid-back atmosphere that is perfect for family exploration.
In the charming city of Kuching, there exists a unique and endearing connection with cats that adds a touch of whimsy to its cultural fabric. Kuching, which translates to “cat” in Malay, proudly embraces its feline heritage.
The tale of how cats became intertwined with the city’s identity is as fascinating as it is amusing. Legend has it that during the colonial era, Kuching was plagued by a rat infestation. In a stroke of creative problem-solving, the British government parachuted in cats to combat the rat population. These feline heroes not only succeeded in their mission but also won the hearts of the locals, who saw them as protectors and good luck charms.
Since then, Kuching has embraced its feline friends, with cat statues adorning the streets, cat-themed souvenirs lining the markets, and even a dedicated Cat Museum celebrating all things cat-related. It’s a quirky and delightful aspect of Kuching’s identity that never fails to bring a smile to the faces of visitors and locals alike
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
A highlight of visiting Kuching is the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, where semi-wild orangutans roam freely in their natural habitat. Witnessing the playful interactions between mother and baby orangutans, their gentle swings from tree to tree, and their intelligent eyes is an incredible opportunity to observe these unique primates. You can hardly help but be moved by the dedication of the caregivers who work tirelessly to protect these magnificent creatures.
To gain a deeper understanding of the indigenous cultures of Borneo, visit the Sarawak Cultural Village. This living museum offers a glimpse into the rich tapestry of traditions, dances, crafts, and cuisines of the various ethnic groups that call Borneo home. The kids can participate in traditional games, learn how to play the sape (a traditional instrument), and even try their hand at weaving and the blow pipe.
As we wrap up our Borneo adventure, it’s important to note that every journey has its realities. Borneo’s dense rainforests and tropical climate can pose challenges such as humid weather, occasional rainfall, and encounters with insects. It’s crucial to come prepared, armed with insect repellent, lightweight clothing, and a spirit of adaptability.
However, it is precisely these challenges that add depth and authenticity to the experience. Borneo is not a sanitized theme park; it’s a living, breathing ecosystem with its quirks and nuances. Embracing the realities of the environment helps us appreciate the sheer beauty and resilience of the natural world.
Borneo is a treasure trove of adventure, culture, and natural wonders that will ignite the imagination and create lasting memories for families. Our personal journey through Brunei, Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, and Kuching allowed us to forge connections with wildlife, immerse ourselves in diverse cultures, and discover the true essence of this remarkable destination. Borneo invites families to embark on a journey of exploration, where the realities blend with the magic, creating an experience that is both transformative and unforgettable. It’s a place where our children learned to appreciate the wonders of nature, respect diverse cultures, and develop a sense of adventure and curiosity.
While Borneo is generally safe for family travel, it’s important to be mindful of your surroundings and follow local customs and guidelines. Be cautious during jungle treks, ensuring you have a knowledgeable guide and proper equipment. Keep in mind that wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, as they are dependent on various factors such as weather and animal behaviour.
It’s also worth noting that Borneo’s rapid development has brought about changes to its landscapes, with deforestation and palm oil plantations impacting some areas. As responsible travellers, we must be conscious of these environmental concerns and support sustainable tourism practices. Consider choosing accommodations and tour operators that prioritise conservation and contribute to the well-being of local communities.
Despite these realities, the allure of Borneo remains undeniable. The raw beauty of its rainforests, the enchanting wildlife encounters, and the rich tapestry of cultures make it a destination that resonates with families seeking meaningful experiences.
So, if you’re looking for a family travel destination that offers adventure, cultural immersion, and the chance to connect with nature, look no further than Borneo. Explore the wonders of Brunei, embrace the natural beauty of Kota Kinabalu, witness the wildlife treasures of Sandakan, and soak in the captivating blend of nature and indigenous culture in Kuching. Borneo will leave an indelible mark on your family’s hearts, creating memories that will be cherished for a lifetime.
Remember, it’s not just about the destinations you visit but the journey you embark upon as a family. Borneo invites you to step outside your comfort zone, explore the unknown, and create bonds that will endure for years to come. So pack your sense of adventure, open your hearts to new experiences, and let Borneo work its magic on your family. A world of wonder awaits in the captivating realm of Borneo.
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