Where is Borneo?
Here’s a question for you:
Do you know where Borneo is?
Is it some far-flung South Pacific island? Is it set deep in the heart of African jungles? Part of exotic Asia? Perhaps hidden in rugged South America?
Further, do you know if Borneo is its own independent nation or part of a larger country?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the answers… Borneo is a bit of a mystery to most westerners, I do believe. I remember when I didn’t know much about it myself. Most of the confusion and mystery about Borneo, I suspect, is due to its quite unusual and, frankly, confusing status. Let’s clear that up, shall we?
To start with, Borneo is the third largest island in the world, a tropical jungle-clad island set in the South China Sea in SE Asia. For scale, Borneo is roughly the size of France or Texas. The island doesn’t entirely belonging to any one nation, but is divided between three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. And that, I believe, is the main cause for confusion among westerners. It’s just hard to categorize a place that doesn’t belong to a single nation.
Borneo straddles the equator, nestled between Philippines to the north, Indonesia to the east and south, and Malaysia and Singapore to the west. Borneo’s southern two thirds is occupied by the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, a wild, densely-jungled and undeveloped region. Borneo’s northern third is inhabited by the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The tiny Islamic Nation of Brunei is wedged between Sabah and Sarawak, hugging Borneo’s north coast.
Here’s a bit more about each nation and territory occupying Borneo:
Brunei is nowhere close to being the smallest nation in the world, with a whopping 76 countries even smaller (mostly island nations) but it’s still pretty tiny, close in size to Puerto Rico. On the other hand, Brunei is big on wealth, ranked as the fifth wealthiest nation in the world by Forbes.
Just imagine that, the fifth wealthiest country in the world, and most people don’t know anything about it! Brunei’s great source of wealth, not surprisingly, is its vast petroleum and gas fields. Brunei is classified as a developed country. Truth be told, though, most of the country consists of undeveloped rain forest, still accessed only by boat up dense jungle-clad rivers. Brunei’s only developed region is based around the capital, Brunei City (Bandar Seri Begawan).
Being so tiny, Brunei doesn’t have all that much for visitors to see or do. Various jungle tours are available to explore the country’s unspoiled interior. Scuba diving is also available, mostly at oil rigs. Besides that, visitors can spend a few days checking out Brunei City’s major attractions, including a Royal Museum, the stately Mosque and a ‘water village’ built over the river. That’s what I did when I visited.
Brunei is very easy to visit from the two neighboring Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. You can get there by boat, bus or airplane. Check out my trip to Brunei to learn more about visiting: Cruising Into Brunei Country.
The large Indonesian state of Kalimantan occupies the southern two thirds of Borneo island. Kalimantan consists mostly of dense undeveloped, rugged jungle. Most towns are located along the coast, leaving the vast interior largely untouched, though many riverside villages thrive along remote rivers.
Kalimantan’s main industry is logging.
Some tourists do visit Kalimantan when traveling through Indonesia. It’s generally accessed from other Indonesian islands like Java and Bali. Various jungle tours are available for such adventurous travelers.
Truth be told, Kalimantan is one region I’ve never visited. I don’t know anything about it first-hand. While I have traveled fairly extensively through Sabah & Sarawak and made a quick trip to Brunei, Kalimantan has so far eluded me.
Rather than spout off about a place I don’t know personally, I’ll just leave it at this for now.
Malaysian Borneo: Sabah and Sarawak
These two Malaysian states are referred to collectively as Eastern Malaysia (while Malaysia’s main region is called Penninsular Malaysia). Both Sabak and Sarawak are great destinations for outdoor adventure enthusiasts and nature lovers. Between the two states, there are over 30 gorgeous national parks, several orangutan sanctuaries, many remote rivers through dense jungle, world-class scuba diving sites, beaches and islands.
Adventurous travelers can climb Mt Kinabalu, Borneo’s highest peak; visit huge caves; join animal safaris; hike in jungles; relax in natural hot springs; get face to face with the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia; observe some of the world’s rarest animals like orangutans and proboscis monkeys; scuba dive with turtles or hammerhead sharks; and visit remote jungle tribes.
Sarawak also has amazing traditional arts created by various native jungle tribes. Carved wooden shields, intricate paintings, natural fiber clothes, bamboo tattoos, totem poles, woven fabrics, beaded headbands, unique musical instruments and traditional dances are all made at Sarawak’s remote upriver tribal villages.
On a sour note, Sabah and Sarawak have both come under heavy international scrutiny for rampant rain forest destruction, unsustainable logging and the endangerment of rare animals like orangutans and elephants due to deforestation. Sabah has been particularly ruthless in its rain forest destruction. Driving across Sabah nowadays, one can literally drive for 2-3 days through vast palm plantations where jungles and their inhabitants used to dwell.
Despite these serious problems in Malaysian Borneo, visitors can still participate in a huge array of adventurous activities around both states. And perhaps tourist dollars pouring into the national parks, Orangutan Sanctuaries and other projects will help slow down the destruction and help preserve what is still left of this magnificent habitat.
Sabah and Sarawak are the principle places to visit for travelers considering holidays in Borneo. A quick visit through tiny Brunei is also fun and easy to include when visiting either Malaysian state.
I traveled for one month through each of Sabah and Sarawak a few years ago. Here’s the impressive list of what I was able to see and do with one month in each state: (Full stories of my adventures around Borneo coming soon)
* Visited the capital city Kota Kinabalu (KK)
* Camped and snorkeled at Tunku Abdul Raman National Marine Park islands, just off the coast at KK
* Saw Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, at Borneo Rafflesia Center
* Camped along a river in central Sabah’s Crocker Ranges
* Camped at Sabah Botanical Gardens, known as the Agricultural Park
* Rode Sabah’s historic old railroad from near the Agricultural Park to KK
* Rode buses across Sabah to Sandakan and Semporna
* Visited Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary where I watched orangutans in the wild during solo jungle hikes
* Climbed Mt Kinabalu
* Camped at Poring Hot Springs and soaked in the natural hot baths
* Hiked the jungle trails from Poring Hot Springs, where I was infested by leeches. ugh.
* Stayed at Dragon Inn Floating Resort, set on top of the sea at Semporna
* Went scuba diving 2 days at famous Sipadan and Mabul Islands, yearly voted among the Top 10 dives sites in the world.
* Walked through a ‘water village’ of immigrant Philippino sea gypsies at Semporna
* Took a river boat upriver to a remote town from Miri
* Camped at Niah National Park
* Visited huge Niah Cave, archeological site of one of the oldest human remains ever found in the world
* Hiked several jungle trails at Niah NP
* Camped at Similajau National Park
* Went up Rajang River from Sibu to another remote village
* Browsed galleries full of traditional tribal arts in Kuching
* Visited the Cat Museum in Kuching
* Wandered through local villages across the river from Kuching
* Camped at Bako National Park, where I had to fight off aggressive monkeys every day
* Saw wild boars and rare proboscis monkeys
* Hiked trails for 3 days through Bako National Park’s unusual topography and terrain
* Saw dozens of varieties of carnivorous pitcher plants
My favorite adventures in Sabah and Sarawak included:
* Seeing proboscis monkeys and orangutans in the wild
* Seeing pitcher plants and Rafllesia
* Diving at Mabul and Sipadan Islands
*Staying at Dragon Inn Floating Resort in Semporna
* Wandering through the sea gypsy village at Semporna
* Camping at Sabah botanical gardens (it was closed that day, so I had the whole entire park to myself!)
* Discovering Sarawak’s traditional arts
* Visiting Kuching’s Cat Museum
Have you ever been to Borneo?
If so, what did you like best?
If not, would you like to visit? What would you most like to do there?
(* Flickr CC photo credit: netaholic13 )
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