Borneo is made up of three countries, Indonesia (the biggest portion of Borneo is Indonesian), Malaysia, and tiny Brunei squeezed in the middle of the two Malaysia states on the west coast. For the purposes of this write up, I am referring to Malaysian Borneo, and its two states: Sabah and Sarawak.
Before setting off to travel, Borneo was my most anticipated destination. From seeing the Orang-utans, to trekking through one of the oldest rainforests in the World. I put high expectations on this Island in Malaysia, but after visiting, I was left with a sense of melancholy and thought yes it was nice to visit, but I did quite get the authenticity that I was craving.
There are perhaps a number of reasons for this on my part.
1. I virtually planned and researched nothing – I could have climbed the highest peak in SE Asia, but left it too late to book. I could have dived in some of my most beautiful islands in the World, but I hadn’t even heard of them. I could have stayed in a traditional Malay longhouse village, in an area no tourist ever goes to, but was too apprehensive about showing up and not having anywhere to stay.
2. I was travelling in the high season of July. There were so many tourists, and prices were hiked up. Again, lack of research on my part.
During my trip, I spent 8 days in Sabah, 6 days in Sarawak and then squeezed a visited into Oil rich Brunei for one day.
Some things that surprised me about Borneo
• It’s not a glorious rainforest after rainforest.
The Government in Malaysia are cutting away a lot of the Rainforest to make room to plant Palm trees, for the extraction of Palm Oil, one of the country’s biggest exports. As such, you drive from one side to the other passing empty sections of land. It’s quite saddening really, considering the wildlife that are now without homes
• It was more tourist focused than I expected
I love getting off the beaten track, and away from the normal tourist trail. Especially since I am travelling the typical South East Asia backpacker trail, where I’ll inevitably get quite annoyed with the 18-21 year old ‘Gap Year-er’. So I thought, although Borneo is a destination recommended in the ‘backpacker bible’ (The Lonely Planet – and yes I have a copy!) I thought that Borneo wouldn’t be high on the backpacker list. True, I avoided a lot of the younger crowd, and actually met some cool people my own age, but the country itself was highly tourist focused, with tours being shoved in your face, the common taxi driver scams, and in general tourist tack (think ‘I love Borneo t –shirts) in the local markets. I also paid to visit the cultural village in Sarawak, on the recommendation of another backpacker – don’t go here, it is the most touristic experience you’ll have. After 15 minutes of watching the ‘culture show’ I knew it was a poor choice.
So what did I like about Borneo
Ok, Borneo wasn’t all bad. I did have some really enjoyable experiences ..
I met Orang-utans and Sun Bears in Sepilok, in a more natural environment. I took a trip through the jungle by boat to spot wildlife, and I did a rainforest Kayak trip, which were all fantastic, yet very tourist focused activities. I explored museums, had some beach time on an island, had a lot of nice food, and met friendly locals.
Borneo just didn’t WOW me as much as I wanted it to.
What have I learnt from this experience?
• Research is key. I really do want to climb Mount Kinabalau one day, and possibly will return, with more money and a prepared rucksack for tramping. I should have researched areas better than I did. Although I covered a lot ground, I spent too long travelling, had a strange route, and was left with days wondering what to do.
• I should set myself lower expectations of places. I had heard a lot of wonderful things about Borneo, and yes whilst I did enjoy many things that I did, I have certainly had better experiences elsewhere in Malaysia.
• I just start to throw caution to the wind a little more and just go for it. I travelled down to Sarawak on a 14 hour bus from Brunei, rather than chancing it and going to a traditional Malay village.
A poorly planned trip can often lead to a disappointing one. In this case, there is a fine line between over planned and too flexible.
If you are planning on visiting Borneo, definitely plan it, and book in advance if travelling in July and August. It is a beautiful area, but perhaps Brunei, the relatively undiscovered country in Borneo, with its untouched rainforest may provide you with a more authentic experience.
I do intend to return one day. There is a mountain to conquer!
Have you been to Borneo? I’d love to hear about your trip there.