Getting Away: Eco-tourism in Malaysian Borneo

By in Travel

Wildlife, lush rainforest, and tranquility; those are the things that come to my mind when I think about Malaysian Borneo. It's the perfect destination if you're into eco-tourism. I first flew from Kunming to Kota Kinabalu and from there traveled overland to Sepilok and the Kinabatangan river on the northeast side of the island. While Covid-19 has the world in its grip, let me take you through my trip to give you some future travel inspiration.

Kota Kinabalu

This vibrant and lively city is nestled on the northwest coast of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu — KK in short — is small enough to walk through in about an hour. It is decorated with impressive street art, which aims to raise awareness for Borneo's endangered animal species.

The city has a lot to offer. First of all, you can take a self-guided tour to explore the center. Make sure to stop at one of the food markets at the waterfront to enjoy local food. Locals suggested me to try the local flatbread roti canai and nasi lemak — fragrant rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, served with sambal, anchovies, peanuts, and a boiled egg. For local drinks, you can try a teh tarik — strong black tea with condensed milk — or white coffee, where the coffee beans are roasted with margarine and the coffee is mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Besides sampling the local delicacies at the food markets, you can escape the heat in one of the modern shopping malls.

I can fully recommend a visit to the Eco Genesis zero waste lifestyle store in the Suria Sabah Shopping Mall.

The Eco-Genesis zero-waste store in Kota Kinabalu
The Eco-Genesis zero-waste store in Kota Kinabalu

KK is also great for the ones who are craving a refreshing dip in the sea. Spend a day at the Tanjung Aru beach or go snorkeling around the islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

If you are more inclined toward a good hike, you can visit Mount Kinabalu, at about two hours from KK. You can either book a two day, one night tour to hike to the summit, or just enjoy the trails in the surrounding park. When you get back to KK at the end of the day, you can watch a beautiful sunset from the Signal Hill Observatory.

Sepilok

After Kota Kinabalu, I made my way to Sepilok. I stayed there for two nights; one night before I went to the river and one night after. My main motivation to visit this area was to go to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. This amazing organization rehabilitates orphaned orangutans and releases them back into the wild once they are strong enough. It's truly amazing to see the orangutans in their natural habitat where they are free to roam wherever they want. If you're lucky, you might even encounter them on the boardwalk.

Sepilok Nature Lodge breakfast
Sepilok Nature Lodge breakfast

Two other places worth visiting are the Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre. The three places are in the same area and you can easily visit them in one day.

Kinabatangan river and KOPEL TREC camp

The highlight of this trip was the Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp (TREC) at the bank of the Kinabatangan river. KOPEL, the organization behind TREC, funds conservation and reforestation work through eco-tourism. The organization also creates opportunities for the local communities.

I stayed in their eco-camp for three days and two nights. The camp has a zero waste, zero chemicals, zero energy policy and focuses on maximum water conservation. I stayed in a very comfortable hut with a mattress on the floor, a bucket shower, and an eco-toilet underneath the hut.

For the next couple of days, I got a knowledgeable local guide assigned to me, who could tell me everything about the flora and fauna we encountered during the many activities. The activities included bird watching, wildlife river cruises, night walks, daytime jungle treks, and helping with reforestation by planting trees. The stay in the camp includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Staying in this camp is something you won't easily forget. It is the perfect way to spot wildlife and completely disconnect while you relax to the sounds of the rainforest. Moreover, you will know that your money is well spent, as it goes straight into KOPEL's reforestation and conservation projects.

Practical info

Here are some pointers that will help you organize your trip to Malaysian Borneo.

Getting around

It is possible to fly between the locations mentioned in this article. However, in the spirit of environmentally conscious travel, getting around by bus is a good option, and offers beautiful views of inland Borneo.

There are very comfortable long-distance buses from KK's Inanam Bus Terminal to other major cities on the island. The bus journey from KK to Sepilok takes about seven hours, including a rest stop halfway.

Most online information about the long-distance bus routes is outdated, although I found the information on the Mysabah website to be quite accurate. As I only traveled from the Inanam bus terminal, I cannot confirm that the information for the other terminals is still correct. There are booths for different bus operators in the terminal where you can go and compare schedules and prices. Hotels and hostels can also provide more information about long-distance bus routes.

My last tip to you is to download the Grab app — similar to DiDi — to get around the city. Grab taxis are very comfortable and convenient and much cheaper than normal taxis.

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Thanks Eline! I visited Borneo a few months back. Convenient direct flights from Kunming to KK via AirAsia. Surprised you didn't mention one of the biggest tourist draw of Borneo, the long-nose proboscis monkeys. Endemic to Sabah's Borneo, they coexist with orangutans and various species of monkeys sharing the same forested habitat along the mangrove river. Proboscis monkeys endow unique digestive bacteria which detoxify the young mangrove leaves they feed on. The high toxicity level of these mangrove leaves would be poisonous to other species. Traces of that toxicity are dispersed into the river. Visible as reddish brown hues the mangrove river forestscape suspend over. These long-nose monkeys are now protected, but once upon a time the ingenious locals hunted proboscis to near extinction. Their brains were once considered local delicacies.

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