Disclaimer: all expenses on this trip came out of my own pocket. Reviews are only a reflection of my honest experience and my opinion.
South-East Asia is one of the most popular travel destinations for Western twenty-somethings on a budget. It’s easy to see why – travelling in this area can be extremely cheap and the cultural offering is perfectly balanced with adventure activities. It isn’t new at all, either. Europeans have flocked to countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia since commercial travel was made affordable – probably, this is my gut feeling and totally unbacked by real statistics.
So given that this area of the world is famous for almost-adults escaping reality and offending the locals, I was delighted when my friends and I found an itinerary that avoided all the major tourist destinations. Kind of.
Where did we go? Borneo and Sulawesi.
One week in Borneo
Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. It’s divided between 3 countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – and used to be covered by rainforest. Nowadays, Borneo experiences one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world but still draws in visitors interested in seeing primary forests and taking part in wild-life safaris. Borneo is also the home of Mt. Kinabalu which, standing firmly above 4,000m, is the highest peak in the area (excluding the Himalayas, of course).
Our trip definitely does not cover everything the island has to offer (did I mention it’s the third-largest island in the world?), but it’ll give you a taste of islander Malay life, flora and fauna.
Where to go
Mount Kinabalu is legendary for backpackers. It’s one of the most “accomplishable” peaks in South East Asia – perfect for beginners – as well as neighbouring a metropolitan city. The climb is absolutely gorgeous, although strenuous and crowded.
Local folklore tells many a legend about the mountain, but the most famous one is about a Chinese prince who fell in love and subsequently married a local girl. After many years of happiness, he was called back to his home only to discover that his parents had arranged for him to be remarried to a neighbouring princess. The Bornean girl waited for him and climbed the mountain every day in the hope of seeing his ship return. Eventually, she tragically passed away at the summit. The spirit of the mountain took pity on her ordeal and turned her to stone, ensuring she would always have sight of the sea.
When my friends and I climbed Kinabalu, I got altitude sickness. I always knew this was an option but never in my wildest dreams did I foresee I would not complete the climb. Hindsight is a blessing, and I wish I had trained more before. If you’re planning on attempting the climb, read about my experience first so you know what to expect.
Wildlife and ecotourism are heavily marketed as Borneo’s most attractive features, and in part, I agree. Our priority in Borneo was to climb Mt Kinabalu and everything after that felt like a bonus. We were sure of a few things: we wanted to visit the jungle, see some Orangutans and avoid extremely touristy areas.
Whenever you have three of anything, know that you can only pick two. We only had around four days and a half to spare and much to see, so we had to join the tourist crowds. And that was OK. Sometimes you just have to.
After much research, we settled for an eco-lodge in Kinabatangan River. It was an all-inclusive tour, in a shared female dorm, featuring three days of river cruises, jungle treks and all meals. Although a popular destination (you won’t get any unique experiences here), the safari-cum-retreat was worth the trek.
Kinabatangan River is a wildlife corridor surviving in between endless palm oil plantations and it’s populated with a multitude of resorts and eco-lodges in an attempt to preserve the little jungle left. It was a wonderful opportunity to see Proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, Kingfishers and other wild animals. On top of that, the morning river tours almost guarantee you to see spectacular sunrises.
Our tour included a couple of jungle treks, yet these were less enjoyable. I would have gladly replaced these with talks on local conservation efforts.
Nature sanctuaries in Sepilok
Zoos are an absolute no-no for me but I felt at peace with the idea of sanctuaries. After all, if chosen carefully, visiting a Sanctuary gives you the certainty that your money will be supporting an important cause.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Bornean Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre and Sepilok’s Rainforest Discovery Centre are all in walking proximity from each other. Visiting will set you back around £5 to £6 each. Be aware that both the Orangutan and Sun Bear centres get extremely busy during feeding times, so it’s worth arriving early and taking your own time. At the same time, know that the purpose of both is to protect and rehabilitate wild animals. There’s no guarantee you’ll see any, it’s a game of chance! When we visited, we were not too lucky seeing orangutans, but we did see a ton of sun bears.
Also, please beware of the macaques. Now those are scary.
Sim Sim Village
I couldn’t write a guide to Borneo without mentioning Sim Sim village. We learnt about it during our last night in Sepilok while we were looking for things to do the next day since our flight back to Kota Kinabalu was in the evening.
Sim Sim is a tiny fishing village on stilts. It sits just outside of Sandakan, and it’s the perfect place to visit for lunch. There’s only one restaurant – Sim Sim Seafood Restaurant – but that’s the only thing you need. Choose which fish and seafood they want to eat, get yourself a coconut and then devour the results. It goes without saying – if you have any seafood or fish allergies, or are a vegan, stay clear.
Accept this right now. If you’re visiting Borneo for less than 2 weeks, you’re gonna have to fly. Luckily for you, internal flights are relatively short and inexpensive. We flew from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan and back for around £14 each way per person with Air Asia, roughly the same price as the coach and for a fraction of the time. Air Asia is one of the budget choices in the area and the most efficient airline I’ve ever flown. For some reason they always managed to leave late and arrive early, and that puts them solidly in my good books.
Once you’re there, booking taxis through ride-sharing apps or hiring a personal driver is relatively inexpensive. Download Grab for cheap taxis and food delivery and speak to your host to find local drivers for day trips.
How expensive is it?
I spent all my time in Sabah, the most touristic part of Borneo, so the prices might be inflated compared to the rest of Malaysia. Nonetheless, surviving there was relatively cheap (meals, transport and accommodation).
If you’re on a budget, a stay in a comfortable hostel will set you back anywhere between £3 and £10 per bed, per night. Moving around with rideshare apps such as Grab is also inexpensive, costing pennies to go anywhere you want (within reason).
However, most of the adventure activities will take a chunk of your budget. To climb Mt Kinabalu, go jungle trekking or visit animal sanctuaries you need to be prepared to spend more. Our two days on the mountain cost nearly £400 each, and a very basic jungle stay was around £100 per person for around 3 days.
What to Eat
I’m not a foodie. You’ve been warned.
I really disliked the food. Most of the meals in Borneo consisted of white rice or fried noodles with chicken or fish. I suspect this is because we spent most of the time in all-inclusive tours, so all in all not much to report here. The only exception was the fish in Sim Sim village. I’ll probably be dreaming of that crab until I die.
This is the first issue of a 2-part itinerary. Tune in for the guide to Sulawesi soon!