The first thing that used to come to my mind, when thinking of Borneo, was orangutans. However, since visiting Borneo, I have realised it is so much more than ‘a place to see orangutans in the wild’.
Borneo is split in half between Malaysian Borneo and Indonesian Borneo. Brunei is also sandwiched in. I visited the Malaysian half of Borneo, in the northern state of Sabah. The southern Malaysian state of Borneo is Sarawak, and it is meant to be quite a different experience to Sabah. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I could only fit in a trip to Sabah, so Sarawak will have to remain on my bucket list for another time.
We stayed in, what was possibly, the most amazing hotel I have ever stayed in, the Shangri La Rasa Ria Resort. It was not the cheapest of options by any means, but it was (in my opinion) worth every single penny. We upgraded to an Ocean Club room on arrival, for a discounted rate, and wow, the room was incredible. There was a large hall way, huge bathroom with double sinks, massive bed, seating area and then the balcony…amazing. There was a huge bath on the balcony and a very comfortable large, round chair for lazing on. There was an incredible view across the resort towards the white sand beach and the South China Sea. There were some building works going on at the time, which may have been why we were able to upgrade at the last minute, for a discounted amount, but to be honest, we didn’t notice the works at all.
If you are an Ocean Club guest, you not only get the amazing, upgraded rooms, but you also get exclusive use of the ocean club pool (only ocean club guests have use of this), breakfast is taken in the beach side restaurant, which is a much quieter, and a more civilized experience than in the main restaurant. You don’t need to jostle your way to the buffet! Getting to eat breakfast, whilst gazing out across the beach every morning, was just perfect.
We were only on a bed and breakfast basis, there are options to go half board or all inclusive, but we prefer the freedom of sorting your own lunch and dinner. Particularly as we tend to go out and explore during the daytime. However, it may be worth considering one of these options if you stay in this hotel, because it is very isolated, and you would need to travel some distance to find somewhere else to eat.
There are a good selection of restaurants available in the hotel, but you need to book in advance. Not all restaurants are open every night, so it is worth planning ahead to make sure you don’t miss out on a particular one. You can book them all on the same day you intend to dine there, except for the Teppanyaki restaurant, Kozan. Our favourite restaurant was Naan, the Indian restaurant. The curries and service was incredible. We ended up going to this restaurant more than once during our stay. There is also Tepi Laut, which serves street food from little huts. You pay a fixed amount and then load up your plates with all the local goodies and delicacies on offer. Another option is Coast (now Oceanic), where the ocean club have breakfast. It was primarily seafood when we visited, but it has been re-branded as Oceanic, so the food may have changed somewhat. It is a more sophisticated, quieter dining experience, but very enjoyable.
We spent many an evening watching the incredible sunsets from Sampan Bar. Sipping a cocktail, and sitting on the giant round chairs, completely mesmerised by the incredible blends of oranges and reds, lighting up the sky. Bornean sunsets are some of the best I have ever seen.
I was extremely sad to leave this hotel at the end of our stay, but as a leaving gift, we were given two orangutan toys, one boy and one girl, wearing swimwear. It was a really nice touch, and they take pride of place on our bed now we are back home.
We booked all our tours through a local company, Amazing Borneo. We cannot recommend these enough. They have a huge selection of tours ranging from day tours, to over a week long. They are run by locals who really know the area well, and are able to give an extra insight into local life. We had the same tour guide for the majority of the tours, Leo, and he was quite the character. So friendly and knowledgeable and also highly entertaining. If you do book with Amazing Borneo, and get Leo as your guide, you are in for a treat!
Our first trip was to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. We were collected from our hotel by Leo, and driven in an air conditioned mini bus to Jesselton Point, in Kota Kinabalu, to catch our boat to our first island. On our trip we visited both Manukan Island and Sapi Island. These are the main islands visited, but sometimes based on numbers, weather and season, the islands visited may change. Whilst on the islands, there are numerous activities you can take part in. We ended up parasailing and doing a sea trek. If we had taken more money, we would probably have done more activities! To be honest, I had not expected to really do any of the activities because I have a phobia of open water, and pretty much all the activities on offer involved the sea!
Turns out, I seemed to have left my phobia behind that day. I am still not sure what happened, but I ended up parasailing (and enjoying it!) and then at the last minute, decided I was going to give sea trekking a go. I am still shocked by this, as I struggle to put my head under water in the bath, let alone walk on the sea floor! To be honest, my breathing was all over the place, and I was extremely relieved when it was time to return to the surface, but I actually enjoyed the experience, and I am very glad I did it. I am definitely nowhere near being able to dive yet, but it is a step in the right direction.
Our next trip was to see the fireflies and Proboscis monkeys (google them, they are the most bizarre looking animals!). Amazing Borneo call the tour, the Little Kinabatangan, because it is a smaller version of the trip to the actual Kinabatangan River (if we had more time, this would have been top of our list, along with a trip to Sepilok to see the orangutans). Again, we were picked up from our hotel, and taken north to the river. We had some local cakes and drinks whilst waiting for others to arrive, and then we boarded the boats to go out and explore the river. After a while of floating up and down the river, we finally spotted some Proboscis monkeys high in the tree. They were quite far away, so I didn’t really get any good pictures, but with a good pair of binoculars (essential item for a trip like this) you could see them interacting with each other, high in the treetops. We then returned to land, and got back on the mini bus, and drove to another river to see the fireflies. We enjoyed some local food for tea, including a chicken (I think) curry and rice. Once the sun had set, we boarded our boats and headed out onto the river, in search of the fireflies.
Seeing the fireflies was amazing. It was as if someone has strung fairy lights up into the trees. We were unfortunate though, as our boat was full of some extremely loud people, which detracted from the peace and majesty of the fireflies. It did taint this part of the trip somewhat, which is a shame, as watching the fireflies light up the trees was truly mesmerising. I just wish the group we were with, had taken the time to quietly enjoy the experience, but I suppose this comes with the territory of a group tour. If it had not been for the group we were with, this would have been a highlight for me, and it is a shame it was spoilt in this way.
Our final trip with Amazing Borneo was to Kinabalu National Park. It ended up just being the two of us on this trip, so we were able to tailor it more to what we wanted to do. I was very impressed with how flexible Amazing Borneo were with their trips. We set off early for the long drive up into the mountains (remember an extra layer or two, the weather is completely different up there!). We stopped off on the way at a local town, and walked around their market. The people were so friendly and talked to us about the various food and items they were selling. It was good to experience a market more tailored to the locals, than to tourists. I am not sure if this is a set stop on this trip, but it is worth asking for a stop here to get a more ‘authentic’ experience.
We then headed on up to Kinabalu National Park, and wandered around the botanical gardens, our guide was amazing, she knew so much about all the different plants and flowers and their medicinal uses. I really wish I could remember her name, as she deserves a mention also. There were so many different types of Orchids flowering at the time. My particular favourites were the Lipstick and Santa Orchids. After a wander around the gardens, we then stopped off for some food. We sat outside and took in the view across the green mountains. It was such a contrast to the coastal areas we had been exploring before.
After lunch, we headed to Poring Hot Springs, which to be honest, were a bit of a disappointment. I had bathed in hot springs in Iceland and Ecuador, among other places, and these did not quite live up to expectations. They didn’t seem too well kept, and the water did not look very inviting. The facilities were also less than desirable. Toilets in Borneo were never really that nice, to the point that I found myself avoiding using the facilities at all costs, whilst out exploring. It was only in an emergency that I forced myself to use that on offer. I remember feeling very relieved when we returned back to the hotel each day, and having a nice, clean toilet to use!
Anyway, I digress, our tour guide (why cant I remember her name?!) clearly realised our less than impressed reactions, and decided to take us on the canopy walk nearby (much more worth while) and then took us on a slight trek to a nearby waterfall, which was amazing. The water was so cold and refreshing (a nice break from the humidity) and I stood on the rocks as little fish nibbled on my feet (you pay a lot for the same fish to do the same thing in the UK!). It felt really bizarre (particularly as I have very ticklish feet) but I did come out with smoother feet!
Although the hot springs themselves were a bit of a let down, our tour guide had such good knowledge of the area, that she was able to provide alternative options, which were very enjoyable. She also knew where we could see a flowering Rafflesia flower, which was a very rare site, and so we set off on a detour to see one. It was on private land so the farmer had set up a little shack and charged a couple of ringgit to enter (literally nothing at all). We walked across his farm land to where the flower was located. It was quite something to see considering it’s life cycle. The Rafflesia flower is a holoparasite and can only attach itself to a certain type of vine, which is one of the reasons why it is so rare. The flower looks (and smells) like rotting flesh, hence the translation of the name as “corpse flower”. It is the largest known individual flower in the world. It only flowers for around 5 days and takes 12 months to go from bud to flower. It is this short flowering stage, and long incubation period, that makes it so rare to see.
I love wildlife, and Orangutans were top of my list when visiting Borneo. The best place to see them is Sepilok, but due to time and budget constraints, we couldn’t work in a trip to Sepilok however, our hotel had its own orangutan sanctuary, and so we booked a slot to see them. We started off watching a video all about orangutans and the struggles they face in the wild. They are constantly captured and kept illegally as pets and their natural habitats are being destroyed, due to the increase in palm oil trade in the area. The Rasa Ria Orangutan Sanctuary works with Sepilok in rehabilitating these orangutans back into the wild.
The rangers in the on site reserve are fantastic and extremely knowledgeable, you can really tell that they care about the animals and the conservation work they do. When we visited, I think the reserve had 4 or 5 orangutans. They look after the orangutans here, and nurse them to a certain stage, before they are transferred to Sepilok for the later stages of their rehabilitation into the wild. I was completely enchanted by one orangutan, Ten Ten. She was just gorgeous, and for some reason, completely fascinated by me. Maybe it was because I was wearing a bright orange top?
You can watch the orangutans playing and swinging in the tree tops above you from their viewing platform, in the depths of their reserve. They feed the orangutans at this time to encourage them to come out and into view. They were extremely curious creatures, and all had distinctive personalities. One of the boys was pretty much only bothered by food and constantly had something edible in his mouth, by contrast another one of the males was definitely showing off and enjoying the attention and not bothered at all by the food! Ten Ten was extremely shy to start with, and hid behind her rangers legs for the majority of the time.
We had booked a combined trip, including a canopy walk, and so as people began leaving the viewing platform to head back, those who had booked the canopy walk got to stay a bit longer. It was then that the orangutans really began to get adventurous. Even Ten Ten came out of hiding, and started swinging in the trees above. At one point, she had got so bold she was within arms length of me, clinging onto a tree and looking directly at me. The rangers looked a bit on edge, and she genuinely looked like she was about to swing towards me at any point. It was an amazing moment, and one I definitely will not forget any time soon. I was very sad when I had to tear myself away from my new found friends!
I absolutely love Borneo, and I would love to return some day, as there is so much more to explore. It has completely captivated me with it’s magical wildlife, friendly people and tasty cuisine. If you do decide to pay a visit to Borneo (and I highly recommend you do) bring bug spray! I had bites the size of my hand on my legs! They even managed to bite through my trousers!