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Find Your Perfect Borneo: Will it be in Malaysia or Indonesia?

Written by Milly Whitehead on 14 / 03 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

Find Your Perfect Borneo: Will it be a Gap Year in Malaysia or Indonesia?

The land of orangutans, Mt Kinabalu, long houses, and unspoilt jungle

It seems there's much dispute between backpackers and seasoned travellers about which part of Borneo is best to visit on your gap year: is it the Malaysian or Indonesian side that cuts the travelling mustard? With such a vast difference in culture between these nations, you’ll want to make sure you’re travelling to the side of Borneo that flicks your switch.

So, here’s our guide to where is where and what is what... just to clear up any confusion and get you heading in the right direction on your gap year travels.

In a nutshell:

The Indonesian territory takes up a whopping 73% of Borneo, leaving Malaysia with a mere 27% in the North. However, what Malaysian Borneo lacks in size it definitely makes up for in quality as Sabah and Sarawak are two of the most popular tourist destinations across the globe.

However, Indonesian Borneo may not be geared up for tourism in the same way, but for the intrepid traveller it will provide a wild jungle experience and the chance to see orangutans in their natural environment...

Malaysian Borneo: Sabah

Sabah, Borneo’s most northern province, is also known as the ‘tropical paradise’. Of course, this is understandable with jungle forests stretching down to vibrant corals that exist in the shadow of high-peaked mountains. So it’s easy to see that Sabah is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet.

Sabah is also home to the laid back town of Kota Kinabalu - the capital of the the Malaysian state. Sitting on the coastline with busy markets in town and a surrounding rainforest, it’s the ideal base for a backpacker on their gap year in Malaysia who’s up for some adventure both in and out of the Kinabalu National Park.

What to do:

Hike up to the island’s highest peak of Mount Kinabalu before breakfast; trek through the Danum Valley amongst the thick branches of the rainforest for a picnic lunch, looking out for leopards, elephants and the Sumatran Rhino as you go; visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in the afternoon; and then see off the day by taking a dive in the famed dive site of Sipadan Island. Heaven.

NOTE: If you are looking for turtles, head over to the Sipadan Island between April - September

Watch out for:

Expensive tourist rips offs: They are very keen on the preservation of their environment, insisting you'll need guides and permits to hike, trek and dive. Do your research and find the best deal.

Malaysian Borneo: Sarawak

Sarawak is perfect for those looking to find a more 'native Borneo' for your gap year in Malaysia, but don’t want to delve into the jungle depths of the Indonesian state of Kalimantan. It's a halfway house for the challenge. Sarawak offers jungles, national parks and beautiful beaches, but as it's less touristy than Sabah, it is more reasonably priced.

What to do:

Visit Kuching for an eyeful of what is argued as the most attractive city in South East Asia. Whilst you’re there, explore the Bako National Park with mangroves lining the shore and spot the exclusive proboscis monkey, known as the ‘bekantan’ with very large noses, as well as the bearded pigs as you wander along the trails.

Also, explore the world’s largest cave (Deer Cave) and South East Asia’s longest cave (Clearwater Cave) in Mulu National Park; and venture upriver on the Batang Rejang to visit remote longhouse communities.

Watch out for:

The proboscis monkeys are pretty fearless and you may want to mind out for the saltwater crocs lurking in the mangrove swamps.

Indonesia: Kalimantan

If it’s an off-the-radar experience you’re after, then Kalimantan - the Indonesian state has your name on it. Here, the roads are switched for jungle rivers venturing into the thick exotic landscape, housing some of the world’s most ancient wildlife species and indigenous communities. The Dayaks, one such community, historically known for being the ruthless headhunters - are now a peaceful community and well known for their hospitality so worth seeking out.

The rainforest is unspoilt by tourism and for those releasing their inner Bear Grylls you'll be able to spend days on end exploring untouched jungle canopies, coming face-to-face with wild orangutans whilst hopping from one remote Dayak longhouse to another.

What to do:

Sail on a ‘klotok’ (a two-story houseboat) along the Sekonyer River in the Visit Tanjung Puting National Park up to Camp Leakey, adventuring through the jungle where you’re in with a good chance of spotting the wildest of the wild orangutans.

The understated cities are also worth a visit, with attractive nightlife and some of Asia’s world-renowned floating markets.

Watch out for:

The treks and tours upriver are expensive as you must have to get guides and permits. In these protected national parks, it is illegal and dangerous to set foot on your own. The solo backpacker will also need patience, time and effort in order to navigate these lands successfully. But these minor details are all worth it to immerse yourself into the traditional Borneo culture.

So, where's it to be in Borneo? Will you spend your gap year in Malaysia or Indonesia?

There is certainly a slice of Borneo suited to everyone, but it's important to work out what level of challenge you are up for as Kalimantan will be tougher in every way. Want to travel to Borneo but not sure how? We're here to help. Through our independent travel advice hub we can help you sort your off-grid adventure. Our travel guru, Milly, has been to Borneo herself and can offer advice about the best ways to see this amazing country. Just get in touch and ask away!

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