An Idiot’s Guide to Surviving Borneo

Borneo. The home of jungle, oil, Islam, and the Equator. Not too many people travel here nowadays, so what should you know and what should you do?

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Satellite Image: NASA

Amazing Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world and is nowadays the location of three separate countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the tiny Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak sit at the north of the island, sandwiching Brunei. The lower 2/3 of Borneo consists of the 5 provinces of Indonesian Kalimantan, which is almost entirely covered in dense rainforest, aside from a few major cities in the east such as Balikpapan and Banjarmasin.

Basic map of major cities (click for larger version)
Basic map of major cities

So how will you arrive in Borneo? Well, unless you’re specifically visiting Brunei (which is omitted from the simple map above), then you will probably be landing at Kota Kinabalu Airport in Sabah, or Balikpapan Airport in Kalimantan. I would always recommend one of these two cities as the base for your first foray into Bornean territory. It is much too difficult to fly to Pontianak in the west, for example, and then travel eastwards (unless you want to visit Pontianak especially), so landing in Balikpapan and then travelling westwards – including to Pangkalan Bun which is close to the famous orangutan sanctuary deep within Tanjung Puting National Park – is by far the best bet.

Speaking of which, let me start with Indonesia as I guide you around Borneo.

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Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, covers some 580,000 km2. Yet this vast area is home to only 12 million people, so most of the provinces, especially the interior, is very sparsely populated. As such, the sprawling rainforest here contains some of the most impregnable and diverse areas in the world.

Banjarmasin is one of the major cities in Kalimantan. You can actually arrive in Banjarmasin by ferry from Java, which is a 21 hour journey from Surabaya port, or a whopping 48 hours+ plus from the Jakarta ferry terminal. It is, therefore, much easier to fly directly to Banjarmasin Airport if you want to check out the historic city! The main attractions in Banjarmasin are the Lok Baintan Floating Market, and the Meratus Mountain range, which is the grandest in all of Borneo.

Pontianak is the capital of the province of West Kalimantan and it can be reached by road from Kuching in Sarawak in under 8 hours, or by ferry from Jakarta in around 11 hours. Of all the MAJOR cities in Borneo, not many tourists choose to visit Pontianak, although it is the site of the famous Equator Monument, which should certainly be on your bucket list if you’re in the area.

Tanjung Puting National Park is a national park in Indonesia located famous for its orangutan conservation, and is located in Central Kalimantan. The nearest town to the park is Pangkalan Bun, where there is a domestic airport that has flights from Banjarmasin and Balikpapan to the east. Tanjung Puting is the BEST place in the whole of the island to check out the wildlife, and not just the Bornean Orangutans. A cruise (and perhaps an overnight stay) on a narrow ketolok boat that sails the rivers here may the best way for you to indulge in the rainforest – but remember to take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints!

Balikpapan is a huge oil city in the east of Kalimantan, with not much to do for the tourists apart from the great bear sanctuary. Make sure you check out the Margomulyo Mangrove Forest, and Bukit Bangkirai, which are both highly-regarded by visitors to the city, and THEY will get you back in to contact with nature – but remember that mosquito repellent!

Now let us see what is going on in Brunei Darussalam.

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I don’t want to spend too long going over Brunei, as I have already asked why would you want to visit Brunei in another post. Yet in this country of newfound Sharia Law, you can be sure of finding some of the friendliest people in all of Borneo.

Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of Brunei Darussalam and it is very short on attractions for tourists. However, it is regular Bruneians who make the country what it is, and this sense of community is no more evident than at Kampong Ayer, a charming water village that sits in the shadow of a grand mosque.

A day trip to Ulu Temburong National Park is a sensational way to introduce yourself to the Bornean jungle! No orangutans are found here, but you will see the weird and wonderful proboscis monkey, if you’re lucky! My advice is to book an overnight stay in the jungle, so you can experience the sights and sounds of Borneo after dark. This is especially a good idea if you are not planning to visit any primary rainforest in Kalimantan (such as Tanjung Puting) further south on the island.

Finally, the northern parts of Borneo is home to the two huge Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, so let’s take a look.

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Sabah is known more for ecotourism (including its own orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok), whereas Sarawak is more of a region of colonial history, including its state capital the famous “Cat City” of Kuching.

Undoubtedly, Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah Province, is the most touristy destination in the whole of Borneo. A lot of people come to Sabah for the chance to climb Mount Kinabalu and enjoy a river safari on the ferocious Kinabatangan! Furthermore, and not to be outdone by Indonesia further down south, Sabah province has its own orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok. Other attractions in the city include the Mari Mari Cultural Village and the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

In Sarawak Province, which is situated in the north west aspect of Borneo, you will base yourself in Kuching, which once upon a time used to be part of Brunei. In Kuching, you will find a charming esplanade by the water’s edge, where you can watch the day go by and enjoy some Malaysian street food (and maybe street entertainment!). Under an hour’s drive from the city, you can also get to the Fairy Caves, which are a good way of exploring subterranean Borneo. The famous Gunung Mulu National Park, near the city of Miri, also makes for a great day out!

Wherever you go in Borneo, and whatever you choose to do, you will surely have an amazing time with so many natural attractions to pass the time. For temples and beaches, I think most people would go to peninsular Malaysia or the Indonesian island of Bali, rather than coming to Borneo, for Borneo is a true adventurer’s dream! Happy exploring!

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