Borneo is the third-largest island in the world, but even seasoned travelers may need a minute or two to find it on a map. Hint: It’s in Southeast Asia, just east of the Malaysian Peninsula. Geography experts or no, people from all over the world journey to this jungle destination in hopes of glimpsing rare, critically endangered, or threatened animals such as orangutans, pangolins, rhinoceros hornbills, and Borneo pygmy elephants.
But the island is so much more than rain forest creatures: It also encompasses parts of three different countries, hundreds of cultures, and one of the most biodiverse environments on the planet.
I recently returned from an 11-day trip to some of the island’s rivers and jungles with the luxury travel company GeoEx. And while I’d thoroughly prepared by reading the provided packing lists and travel information, I was still in for some surprises. Here are a few facts and travel tips that I (and a few of my fellow travelers) wish I’d known before arriving in Borneo.
These critters are hard to spot
And not just because they’re good at camouflage. Because natural diversity is one of Borneo’s biggest draws, I was initially frustrated when our wildlife-watching excursions lacked drama. Besides macaques and proboscis monkeys, which were everywhere, the jungle didn’t exactly seem to teem with life. But then I picked up a brochure at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and read a sentence that clued me in: “Borneo is species diverse, not species abundant.” That is, there are many kinds of animals—some 200 mammals, 420 birds, 100 amphibians, and 400 fish—but the populations of most are small. (Insects, on the other hand, are everywhere.)
A trip to Borneo, then, is about patience and the thrill of the chase: When you do spot a civet or pygmy elephant, the experience is all the more special because you earned it.
Don’t let a long flight drag you down
Most itineraries will bring you to Sarawak and Sabah, two Malaysian states in the northern part of the island that are filled with national parks and conservation areas. If you’re flying from Europe or the United States, your flight will take anywhere from 18 to 28 hours and will likely include a layover in Taipei, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur. If you’ve got a foolproof method for avoiding jet lag, now’s the time to use it. Otherwise, consider padding your journey with a day or two in your layover city to help your body adjust to the new time zone and climate.
There’s more to Borneo than animals
That long flight is a great opportunity to catch up on your pretrip reading. Once you’ve paged through the guidebooks to learn more about how Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Kingdom of Brunei share space on the island, you may want to dive in to more specific aspects of this complicated place.
The Three White Rajahs by Sylvia Brooke is an interesting introduction to Sarawak’s unusual colonial history, as written by the wife of one of the three Englishmen who ruled as rajahs with local support during the late 1800s. (Be sure to visit the Sarawak Museum when you land in Kuching for local perspectives on the area’s much longer history.) Or open Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy by Eric Hansen to dive into the obsessive world of botanists who comb the far reaches of Borneo’s jungles in search of rare plants.
You’ll see evidence of the island’s constantly evolving relationship with palm oil on drives into the jungle, so get some background with the New York Times’s eye-opening piece on the industry’s catastrophic impact on the environment and “Palm oil is unavoidable. Can it be sustainable?” from National Geographic, which explores its complex effects on the local communities and economies.
It rains in the rain forest . . . even during the dry season
Until a few years ago, the difference between the wet season and the dry one was much more marked—or so the locals told me. March through October are still the driest months, but it rained for part of almost every day of our trip in early June. And it was always hot (around 80 degrees) and humid. Skip the plastic poncho and bring a breathable rain jacket. You’ll be wearing it a lot.
In fact, all your activewear for jungle hiking should be breathable and quick drying—not only because you’ll be more comfortable but also because you’re going to get muddy. My clothes often appreciated a post-hike rinse in the bathroom sink. But know too that in that humidity, even quick-dry fabric didn’t dry very quickly, so you may want to pack more hiking togs than planned.
And if you’re a photographer, think about rain protection for your camera; don’t let a passing storm force you to stow it away.
For hiking, opt for lightweight, quick-drying socks. Heavy, wool socks are just plain uncomfortable in this climate and could even cause heat rash.
I liked having a pair of clean socks in the evenings. I’m a mosquito magnet, and as much as I love my Mohinders slides for traveling, I quickly discovered that the pests were able to get in between the bits of woven leather. (Luckily, the shoes look great with a fun pair of striped socks.)
In wetter regions, such as the Danum Valley, you’ll also need leech socks. If you haven’t heard of them (I hadn’t) leech socks are essentially large cloth foot bags that tie up at the knee, keeping the bloodsuckers out of your shoes and pant legs. They’re available on Amazon for about $40, but many places in Borneo sell pairs that are just as effective for about $5.
Map out your anti-mosquito strategy ahead of time
Both malaria and dengue are a concern in parts of Borneo. The only way to avoid dengue is to use bug repellant, but there are a variety of drugs to prevent malaria. Some tablets are taken weekly, some daily; some you start two to three days prior to your trip, others start a week or two before. People react differently to all the drugs, so discuss your options with your doctor.
I skipped the drugs and chose instead to be vigilant. I wore long sleeves, long pants, and socks most of the time and used repellent with high levels of DEET. I avoided both diseases, but all that clothing made for some sweaty evenings.
A note on chemicals: My GeoEx packing list recommended using repellent that was 25 percent DEET; the Ultrathon repellent I ended up using is 34 percent DEET. There are DEET-free alternatives too, such as Natrapel, which uses Picaridin. Whatever you choose, buy it before you leave. I found that the repellents in Bornean pharmacies were usually around only 12 percent DEET.
It takes a long time to get around
The Malaysian parts of Borneo—Sabah and Sarawak—take up about 77,000 square miles and together form about a quarter of the island. They’re also separated by the entire country of Brunei. So to get from one state to the other, or often from place to another, you’ll need to take a short flight. Once you land, you’ll travel deeper into the jungle by car or by boat. In other words, prepare for small planes, lots of travel time, and plenty of unpacking and repacking.
Plan on unplugging
Often, even remote outposts in the jungle claim to have Wi-Fi. However, I found that signal was neither strong nor consistent. With patience, I was usually able to load emails—but not always able to respond to them—and to maybe post to Instagram. But don’t expect to catch up on your Netflix queue; this is really more of an off-the-grid situation.
BYOB—Bring your own binoculars
The one item I regretted leaving home without was binoculars. Borneo’s star animals are hard to find, and when we did finally spot a retreating mouse deer or a diving stork-billed kingfisher, the sight was fleeting. You’ll want the ability to zoom in on these creatures before they’re gone, rather than waiting for a neighbor or guide to kindly lend you a pair of binoculars. I’m now looking at Bushnell’s Legend L-Series as an entry-level option.
Speaking of magnification: Photographers, this is your chance to break out the big zoom lenses. Because most jungle critters hang out high in the trees, are small, or stay a safe distance away from intruding humans, a point-and-shoot camera simply won’t cut it.
“Always say yes”
During an overnight at Bako National Park, a number of people in my group opted out of the evening walk. The hike we had done that day in 90 percent humidity was draining, and a torrential downpour during dinner further dampened excitement. But one fellow traveler told me: “Always say yes on a trip like this. You’re here, aren’t you?”
The jaunt was worth it—those who joined found a hard-to spot emerald pit viper as well as a host of giant, creepy forest bugs. Then, as we turned to head back to our rooms, our guide asked if we wanted to keep going. “Yes,” we chorused. He led us down to a boat dock where the trees lining the silvery water were filled with thousands of blinking orange lightning bugs that looked like fairy lights strung intentionally in the branches. Standing there in the warm evening air and taking it all in ended up being one of my favorite memories from the trip.
Of course, there are good reasons to opt out of activities on a trip like this. When you’re staying at enchanting places like Sukau Rainforest Lodge or the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, you’ll want to cool off in the pools, relax with a book on your private balcony, or chat with the local bartender while enjoying a fresh-fruit cocktail in the well-appointed bars. And because of the climate, it’s important to rest regularly. But before you decide to stay in, remember that Borneo is full of surprises, and you never quite know what you might encounter.