A first timer’s guide: highlights of Borneo

Travel expert Victoria Reynolds apes around in the Malaysian jungle, explores the largest cave network in South East Asia and puts her blow-pipe skills to the test. Here she shares her top places to visit on a whirlwind first time tour of Borneo.

Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary

The chance to see orangutans is, for many, the highlight of any trip to Borneo. That’s why a visit to Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary, a rehabilitation center for injured, handicapped or abused orangutans, tops my list.

Top tip: Be sure to arrive in time for the 9am feed to give yourself the best chance of seeing these great apes eating in a semi-wild setting. Spotting orangutans is a matter of luck that depends on how hungry they are on the day, but when I visited Semenggoh, I managed to see five—one up close with a baby!

Visit an Iban longhouse

If you’re starting your trip in Sarawak, a visit to an Iban longhouse is a must. It’s a unique chance to visit the Iban people and meet the Chief and the twenty-six families living in a longhouse. This authentic home is built on stilts to protect it from flooding and provide shelter for livestock below. Enjoy a traditional welcome dance and sample the home-brewed rice wine on offer (I was pleasantly surprised, it’s actually quite nice) before you explore the house.

After a morning in the company of the longhouse families where you’ll gain insight into their customs and routines, you’ll enjoy a delicious lunch that includes traditional dishes such as the famous ‘bamboo chicken’—chicken cooked inside a bamboo pole.

Ever wondered if you’d cut the mustard as a hunter? Then this is your chance to try your hand at blow-piping, an age-old hunting technique. Fire a shot at the dart board to determine whether you’d have been a fearsome hunter, or perhaps better suited to being chef. Incidentally, when you visit, it’s a nice touch to take some treats for the families at the longhouse, which they’ll divide between them after lunch.

On your visit to the longhouse, stay overnight on a mattress with mosquito nets in the hallway. Or at Batang Ai Resort, a short fifteen minute longboat trip away, with beautiful views of Batang Lake. I stayed there for a night and thoroughly enjoyed it. The resort is built in the style of a longhouse, but with all modern amenities.

Explore the caves at Mulu

A short, very scenic flight away from Kuching, Mulu National Park is home to the largest cave system in South East Asia. On your first day in Mulu, walk 3km (1.9 miles) in search of Lang Cave and Deer Cave. Deer Cave is particularly interesting—it’s the largest cave passage in the world. Once you’ve explored inside, head out to the bat viewing platform where, if you’re lucky, you’ll watch three million bats exit the cave in enormous groups and fascinating formations. Bat viewing usually takes place between 5pm and 6.30pm. Believe me, it’s worth the wait.

On day two, visit Wind Cave and Clear Water Cave, both of which are accessed by a 30-40 minute longboat from the Royal Mulu Marriot Resort. Stop off en-route at a local Penan village, located mid-stream along Melanau River, where you can look around and snag yourself some locally made souvenirs. In addition to Deer Cave, Clearwater Cave is often the highlight for many as you can swim in cave if you wish. Be sure to take your swimwear.

Spot wildlife along the Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River, Malaysia’s second longest river, is a hotspot for wildlife. Stay at Abai Jungle Lodge or sister property Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge and enjoy daily river excursions—I particularly enjoyed the afternoon cruise between 4.30pm and 6pm. When you take your slow boat along the river, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. I was extremely lucky to see probiscis monkeys, macaque monkeys, hornbills and, amazingly, pygmy elephants, which was a real treat. Seeing these animals in the wild really made the experience all the more exciting.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge

Set two and a half hours into the oldest rainforest in the world, Borneo Rainforest Lodge has wow factor galore—all the more remarkable for its remote location. The service is fantastic, as are the excursions (all included). The food here is delicious—without doubt the best during my time in Borneo. Indulge and enjoy, you’ll be doing plenty of exercise to walk it off.

Upon arrival, enjoy a sumptuous lunch followed by an afternoon walk. Keep your eyes open for wildlife. I spotted several orangutans with young in the rainforest. It’s an amazing experience to know that they’re completely wild and free.

The following day, take a trip up to the canopy walk in the early morning. It can feel very mystical up there, especially with the morning fog and jungle noises. Next take a two to three hour walk through the jungle to the view point. It’s not too challenging and you’re rewarded with vistas of the lodge and rainforest that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Top tip: Be prepared for life in the jungle and invest in some leech socks, which you can buy in the lodge shop. Infused with insect repellent, they’re usually cheaper than buying beforehand.

R&R on Gaya Island

Gaya Island is a 15 minute speedboat trip from Kota Kinabalu. It’s perfect place to enjoy some barefoot luxury before heading back home. I stayed at Bunga Raya Resort and was extremely impressed. Borneo is fairly basic in terms of accommodation but Bunga Raya Resort is stunning with chalets set between the jungle and a beautiful white sand beach. From the moment I arrived, the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming, and the crystal-clear waters are perfect for snorkeling and kayaking.

A highlight of my stay here was my massage treatment at the spa, set in the tropical rainforest and reached by a private suspension bridge.

Bunga Raya is the ideal place from which to reflect on all of the amazing experiences you’ve enjoyed. Gaya Island is absolutely beautiful, and I’d recommend it as the perfect end to a magical trip to Borneo.