Malaysian Borneo

Monkey Business

I’ve always adored Malaysian Borneo, for its romantic colonial history, steamy rainforests teeming with rare species and warm, friendly people. I’ve been there almost a dozen times now and on this particular visit, I flew into Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur. I these are what I consider essentials if you plan to do some trekking and boat safaris out of a jungle lodge.

  • Loose, long-sleeved lightweight shirt or two (if like me, you’re mozzie bait)
  • Loose long pants with a tight weave (I learnt this the hard way)
  • Shorts
  • A hat
  • A buff
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito repellent
  • A small first aid kit with splinter removal kit (there are spiky, vicious trees out there)
  • Small backpack
  • Water bottle or bladder
  • Several pairs of moisture wicking socks
  • A pair of quality trekking boots
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Umbrella
  • Gumboots*

*These can be rented cheaply at most lodges but by all means BYO if you’ve got unusually big or small feet.

I wished I’d brought:

  • Bathers (if staying at the Four Points – see below)
  • A head torch (for the night walk and cave)
  • A zoom lens
  • A Birds of Borneo reference book*

*This was the one I picked up online before my trip, which was quite comprehensive. Click on the image below to purchase.

I flew into Sandakan on an Air Asia flight out of Kuala Lumpur. Arriving in the evening, I decided to stay the night in the city at the waterfront Four Points by Sheraton hotel. Expect luxury for a very reasonable price and exceptional water views from your room.

View from the pool

PRO TIP #1: Bring bathers. I didn’t and regretted it when I saw the hotel pool. It’s gorgeous and you’ll be glad you did after a hot afternoon doing the self-guided Sandakan Heritage Trail.

Sandakan is a small, seaside city which some say resembles Hong Kong in the 1950s (I wouldn’t know). You could probably walk the entire place in a day, which admittedly I haven’t quite done. I did visit the Australian War Memorial and peer at the Sam Sing Kung Temple through the locked gates (it was closed).

Sandakan: a sleepy town with a genuinely retro atmosphere.

What I did cover in detail was the market – which was full of interesting foodstuffs, including this strange fruit that resembled both a durian and jackfruit. I also had breakfast here on the cavernous top floor – tea with condensed milk (know as “teh”) and noodles.

Strange fruit
What is this?

That evening, I happened to have dinner with a local family – friends of my folks-  who heard that we planned to visit the Gomantong Caves. They recommended bringing an umbrella.

PRO TIP #2: Always have sunscreen and mozzie repellent with you – the suckers attack even in the city. Also, BUY THAT UMBRELLA. 

The trip to the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary didn’t take long by road – around an hour, passing thousands of oil palms. Full disclosure: we booked a private overnight tour with Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure and both the driver and guide were friendly and knowledgeable. The sanctuary’s orang utan viewing platform has been upgraded since my last visit, so observers aren’t squashed along the railing trying to get a close look at the poor primates. There’s also a nice little “nursery” inside the compound, where the babies learn useful skills from older rangas.

After that, we headed off by road to a village by the Kinabatangan – Borneo’s second-longest river – for our rainforest adventure.

PRO TIP #3: At this point, you’d better have your umbrella, souvenirs and snacks. You’ve left modern civilisation behind. 

Bilit Rainforest Lodge is accessible only by boat and its location is surprisingly wild given there’s a village just across the river with a mosque and another lodge whose compound you can see next door. The staff were friendly, and rooms basic but perfectly adequate meaning they had comfortable beds, hot water showers and air conditioning. The only problem: the goddamn mosquitoes!

I slathered on repellent and even put on a long sleeved shirt in preparation for the feeding frenzy at dusk. But foolishly, I had knee length tights on. Form fitting. Black. Guess who donated half a litre of blood that evening? The buggers could only get at my lower body given I was sitting down and this stretched my tights out around my hips and thighs, so by nightfall, I l looked like I had some exotic bum pox.

PRO TIP #4: Ditch anything dark in colour, too tight or revealing – this ain’t Fashion Week. Light-coloured loose tops and pants of tight weave* will help. Bear in mind, the mozzies aren’t deterred by natural repellent which I considerately brought so either go with environment-destroying DEET or cover up.

*Test for how tight a weave simply by holding the article up to a light source. Minimal light should come through!

Nevertheless, after dinner I decided to embark on a night jungle walk as I certainly didn’t come here to play cards.

Like I mentioned before, gumboots could be hired and these were essential. Don’t cheap out. This was January and the mud was knee deep.

The walk was actually really interesting and quite adventurous. Put it this way, if you lost your guide, you’d be spending the night in the jungle. Also, there was mud. Lots of it. And it was surprisingly noisy. Insects chirped and hummed really loudly and often there was a crashing sound as some larger animal moved across the pitch black tree canopy overhead.

We saw a curious civet cat that night, who clambered across a vine right above us to stare. But the most interesting sights were sleeping birds. I don’t know what I expected them to do after dark. Maybe tuck themselves up in a nest?? They actually just get a good grip on a branch and go to sleep. In fact, they sleep so deeply that you can go right up to them and take a photo with flash. Of course, I only did this twice as I felt a bit bad for them!

kingfisher sleeping
Sleeping kingfisher.

PRO TIP #5: In preparation for the night walk, wear a long sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into your boots and long socks (to deter leeches). Also some kind of head covering. I wore my buff around my neck and face like a terrorist, then put my cap on. Once in full battle gear, I doused myself in mosquito spray. Tell you what – not one bite!

This versatile piece of clothing – the buff – was invaluable. Click on the image to buy!

The following morning, we went on a sunrise boat safari along the mighty Kinabatangan. The scenery was very pretty. The day before we happened to chance upon a wild orang utan high up in a tree on a riverbank. What would today bring?

Dawn on the Kinabatangan.

Lots of birds, including several majestic types of hornbill. Also monkeys, monkeys and more monkeys. Eating, scratching, mating and doing the things they do. Apparently, Borneo has 7 species – we saw the long-tailed macaque (as plentiful and promiscuous as rabbits), pig-tailed macaque, orang utan and the proboscis. The latter I loved as their colouring made them look like pot-bellied men in undies. Also, the boys had very prominent ahem…male parts which the guides referred to as “lipsticks”.

See for yourself.

PRO TIP #6: Bring a zoom lens and binoculars. The trees are very tall, and often, the birds and animals are too high up to observe in great detail.  

Then, it was off to the Gomantong Caves which we had been warned about. Armed with our brollies, we entered its mouth and braced for the smell. However, it really wasn’t all that bad.

Gomantong Caves are inhabited by white and black swiftlets, whose nests (made of saliva) are considered a delicacy and collected by some brave workers indeed. These guys climb really rickety looking, long bamboo ladders to harvest.

Inside the cavern also lived bats, crabs, centipedes and about a million cockroaches. The smell comes from the huge mounds of guano created by the inhabitants of the cave’s dark, wet environment. And the umbrellas basically stop you getting poo-ed on.

Worth the walk.
Enter at your own peril!

PRO TIP #7: Your boots will come in handy here – the walkway is slick with god-knows-what. Also you won’t want to hold the handrail unless you can stomach touching cockroaches. Wear your buff around your nose and mouth if you’re sensitive to strong smells.

Cockroaches in the Gomantong Caves of Malaysian Borneo
If you are squeamish about cockroaches, maybe skip the cave.

The Gomantong Caves were our last stop before heading for the airport. While this was just a two-day jaunt, I felt like we’d experienced a lot.

PRO TIP #8: Combine your trip here with Lankayan, a gorgeous tropical island 2-3 hours off the coast by speedboat. I completed my PADI Open Water course here and felt like I’d been spoilt until I dived the Maldives!

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