Road Tripping Borneo: How To

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Kids: 
10 years
12 years
14 years
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Date: 
2012-12-14 to 2013-01-12
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When you think of ultimate road trip destinations, chances are Borneo isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But if you want to take a road trip that is off the beaten path, full of adventure and education, and guaranteed to be one that none of your friends did over their last summer vacation, taking the long, slow road from Kuching to Sandakan is the adventure of a lifetime.

Lambir Falls Park, near MiriWhere

Where the heck is Borneo, anyway? Look at Asia on your map. Find the Malay peninsula, it’s the hangy-down bit from Thailand that Malaysia and Singapore share to the extreme south. Now look east, in the South China Sea. See that big island with a bite out of the top? That’s Borneo. It’s shared by three countries, Malaysia, Brunei & Indonesia and the equator runs right through it. 

It’s easiest to fly into Kuching, from either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Kuching is the biggest city on the island and will be a good place to get your feet on the ground and stage your trip.

Transportation

Obviously, you can’t drive your own vehicle to the island. It’s difficult to find rental car agencies that will allow you to pass in and out of countries with their vehicles, so breaking up the trip into a self drive portion and a bus portion is a good compromise.

You can rent a car one way, between Kuching and Miri Malaysia from a company called Golden Car Rental. They have a kiosk at the Kuching airport, and another at the Miri airport. They charge a $100 drop off fee for a one way rental. The roads in Sarawak are horrible. We blew a tire in the dark somewhere between Bintulu and Miri. Plan three times as much time for the mileage you are traveling and take food and water in case you end up blowing a tire after dark in the middle of nowhere; hypothetically speaking, of course. It’s an adventure, remember?

From Miri, Malaysia to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, you’ll take a bus. It’s easily arranged in Miri and about $10 per person for a 5 hour trip. There were two buses per day at the time of this writing. Try to make that trip on a weekday as on weekends the border queues are sometimes ridiculously long.

From Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu is the only one day, one way trip I know of in the whole world that will net you 8 passport stamps between only two countries: 

  • Out of Brunei, into Malaysia (2 stamps) 
  • Out of Malaysia into Brunei (2 stamps) 
  • Out Brunei into Malaysia (2 stamps) 
  • Between Sarawak and Sabah; both Malaysia, but two different governments (2 stamps) 

There is one bus per day from BSB to KK; it leaves at 8 a.m. so don’t miss it! The “bus station” in BSB is just down from the Chinese Temple downtown. There isn’t really a station, just a widening in the road. It sounds weird, but you can’t miss it. The bus ride sounds like a complete rodeo with all of those stamps in and out, but it’s actually quite streamlined. The whole trip takes about 8 hours.

Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan, you could rent your own car and drive the round trip, but the bus is inexpensive ($10 per person) and the mountain roads are spectacular. It’s a lot of fun to take pictures out the windows instead of white knuckle it behind the wheel. Buses run every hour, roughly for much of the day, so you won’t have trouble finding one. No need to buy an advance ticket. This is about a 6 hour trip, one way. 

The Route

Planning the route isn’t difficult. There is basically one road from end to end of Borneo. Stick with it and you won’t get lost! :) Break up the driving and see some things along the way:

  • Fly into Kuching, Malaysia
  • Kuching to Bintulu: Start early, it’s an all day drive
  • Bintulu to Miri
  • Miri to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
  • BSB to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
  • KK to Sandakan
  • Sandakan to KK
  • Fly out of KK

Plan at least three weeks for this trip, we spent a month at it. 

 

Things to see along the way:

In Kuching

Definitely stay with our friend Cyril at The Secret Sanctuary. This is his home, transformed into a quiet little community and a haven of rest. He’s a fantastic cook. He’ll hook you up with the most interesting people and excursions, and his place is a destination in and of itself. He runs a spa there. You can sit for hours in a hammock, or soak your feet in his fish-spa pond. There’s a fantastic little pool with a waterfall, and the whole place is tucked away in an off the beaten path corner of the city. Be sure you tell him we sent you!

Sarawak Cultural Village 

Rainforest Discovery Center, SandakanIf you’re driving yourself, a GPS would be helpful as the signage to this place is abysmal. However, buses run periodically from downtown Kuching and this little cultural park makes a great place to kick off your travels in Borneo. You’ll get to see the traditional long houses of each of the major cultures on Borneo, try the treats they’re cooking inside them, and try your lips at blow darts! The dance and music show that is performed twice a day was one of the highlights of our trip.

Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary 

This will be your first and best opportunity to see Orang Utans in Sarawak. If you’re there during the dry season, your odds are even better. During fruiting season, fewer Orang come down to feed. This is disappointing to the visitors, but actually a good thing, as the whole point of the center is to rehabilitate these endangered creatures into the wild. We got very lucky the day we were there, during fruiting season, to see two mother-baby pairs in the wild. 

Anah Rais Long House 

If you stay at The Secret Sanctuary, ask Cyril to hook you up with his friend Arthur who makes fantastic bamboo instruments and curates his people’s ability to continue to play them. If you can manage a visit when Arthur has time to show you the village he was born in and listen to him tell stories about how life has changed in that valley since his father and grandfather’s time, it will be one of the most worthwhile things you could do with an afternoon. 

Bintulu

Bintulu is an overnight stop and not a whole lot more. You’ll be driving through tons of palm oil plantations and through some spectacular scenery. Take the time to stop and eat at some of the roadside stands and to enjoy a bit of Borneo that most tourists never get to see!

Miri

We spent a week and a half over Christmas in Miri. There are lots of lovely day trips with an easy drive of the city and there are more than a few hidden gems within city limits as well.

Explore the city parks, there are some really fantastic ones.

The Shell Petroleum Museum is on the top of the hill, there are signs for it in English. Of course when we were there it was closed, which was a major disappointment, but we still got to see the very first oil well in Malaysia, drilled by Shell Oil.

Niah Caves

This national park is a bit over an hour from Miri. Once you arrive you’ll be hiking about 3.5 kilometers in to the caves, so take solid walking shoes. These caves are home to some of the oldest most important archeological finds on Borneo, as well as home to the birds that make the edible nests you see all over Asia. Take mosquito repellent and be very careful in the cave as the floor is covered with guano and quite slippery... a fall and a slide down a poo covered hill may result in having to shower in a waterfall in the jungle and throw away your white skirt from the nastiness of it all. You know, hypothetically.

Lambir Hills National Park

Only about 30 minutes outside Miri this park is definitely worth a day. Swim in the waterfalls, pack a picnic and get ready for some serious hiking. You’ll see creatures you haven’t seen before, superhighways of jungle ants and maybe you’ll even find some nutmeg pods laying on the forest floor. There are leeches, so be sure to check your feet and legs before you get back in the car. You definitely don’t want to find a fat, blood-filled vampire hanging off of your ankle in the grocery store and embarass yourself by hopping around like a grasshopper shouting, “Get it off! Get it off! GET IT OFF!!!” You know, hypothetically speaking.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Bandar Seri Begawan, BruneiThe Mosques

There are two major mosques in BSB. You can’t miss them. Visit them both, as they are very different and beautifully unique. They are closed to visitors on Fridays for weekly prayers and on holy days, so pay attention to the calendar. Women will be required to put on a black robe before entering. 

Night Market

This is the best place to eat! Make sure you take in at least one evening at this market and have dinner standing up. It’s a great place to stock up on fruits for snacking and to take some beautiful pictures. Remember that city buses stop running at 5 p.m. and cabs become difficult to find except through hotels after dark, so plan accordingly.

The Water Village

If you haven’t taken a boat ride through the largest water village in the world, you haven’t been to BSB. Go to any pier and flag down a passing boatman. You should expect to pay about $30 Brunei dollars for an hour’s ride, they’ll start much higher, bargain like you mean it. If you’re lucky you might also get a glimpse of the monkeys up river. We weren’t that lucky!

The Royal Regalia Museum

This is a great free attraction in BSB and is a beautiful piece of propaganda in favour of the Sultan. You’ll see many of the gifts he’s received from foreign dignitaries, his entourage and a window into his life and interests. No more than 2 hours is necessary for a thorough viewing.

Kota Kinabalu

Climb Mount Kinabalu

This is the place to climb one of the biggest mountains in Southeast Asia if you’re up for it! We didn’t do it, but it seemed like a grand adventure if you have three or four days and a good pair of boots! There are travel agencies sprinkled all over the city who will be very happy to hook you up.

Go SCUBA diving or snorkeling

The waters around KK are home to some of the best diving in the world. The coral reefs are live and filled with a healthy and diverse population of creatures. Even a short boat ride from shore and a tuck in behind one of the tourist laden islands closest to shore will yield satisfying results. Of course if the seal on your expensive underwater camera leaks and the salt water creeps in you won’t have any pictures to show for it... you know, hypothetically speaking!

Sandakan

Sandakan is right out at the end of Borneo where the Sulu and Celebes Seas meet. It’s a sleepy little town, but there is quite a lot to do here, for folks who are interested in wildlife and the island’s history.

Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center 

This is, perhaps, the most famous of the “attractions” around Sandakan. People fly in just to see it. The day we visited here were 9 Orang at the feeding platform, and we were told that it was a disappointing day. Evidently there are far more when it’s not fruiting season. The little museum attached to the center is highly informative and not to be missed.

Rainforest Discovery Center 

If you go out to see the Orang Utans at Sepilok, the RDC is quite near it. Everything about this place is great. Especially if you have kids who are interested in learning about the plant diversity and biology of a rainforest. The Plant Discovery Garden is a highlight. Don’t miss the pitcher plants, they’re carnivorous! The canopy walk brings you up close and personal with the top tier of the forest, and if you’re lucky, like we were, a couple of hornbills and a flying squirrel!

Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, SandakanLabuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary 

This is a bit pricey, especially for a family of six, but is completely worth the time and money. Don’t try to squeeze it in on the same day as Sepilok and the RDC, it needs it’s own day. You’ll see close to 100 Proboscis monkeys quite up close and personal, between the two feeding platforms. And, if you’re very lucky, you might just get a troupe of Silver Leaf monkeys that come down out of the forest for a snack of snake beans. Don’t miss this place; it’s a gem.

Agnes Keith House

Agnes Keith has long been one of my heroines. She first transported me to Borneo when I was a girl through her books, Land Below The Wind and Three Came Home, about her experiences here as a young wife, and then interred in a Japanese prison camp during the war. Her house still stands and is a museum. Take the Heritage Trail from downtown Sandakan up the foot path through the trees and off of the road for a walk that feels like you’re traveling back through time to her house. 

 

Of course there is more to see. There is always more to see. I think the hardest part of slow travel is that the longer you spend in a place, the more you realize what it is that you’ve missed. It’s impossible to “squeeze it all in,” and really, who would want to? Part of the joy is in the discovery, and serendipity that leads from one adventure to the next. And for discovery, serendipity and adventure, I can’t think of a better place than Borneo.

Gallery: 
Kuching- Annah Rais Longhouse
Breakdown on road to Bintulu
Traffic jam, Sandakan
Wilds of Borneo
Orchid at Agnes Keith House, Sandakan
Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sandakan
Rainforest Discovery Center, Sandakan
Bus to Brunei
Historic walk, Sandakan
Sarawak Culture Center, Kuching
Semenggoh Nature Reserve Orang Utans, Kuching
Silver Leaf Monkeys at Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sandakan
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Lambir Falls Park, near Miri
Places: 
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions

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