Thinking about backpacking Borneo? Then you’re in the right place! Bursting at the seams with incredible wildlife, natural wonders and diverse jungles to explore, Malaysian Borneo has got to be on every adventurous backpacker’s must-visit list! From orangutan encounters to jungle cave exploration, Borneo is the place to go if you want to take a walk on the wild side! It’s the third largest island in the world and is split between three countries – Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak are the two regions that make up Malaysia’s Borneo and a visit to both is an absolute must! Not only are there countless natural wonders to enjoy, but each region also has their own unique culture to experience.
With so much to see and do however, it can be a real nightmare to plan your trip – but that’s where we come in! This 3 week Borneo itinerary is all you need to backpack your way through Eastern Malaysia, so read on to find out more!
Getting Around Malaysian Borneo
Being less developed and less populated than the western peninsular, Malaysian Borneo requires a bit more planning – especially when it comes to getting around! Many of the top places to see are relatively remote and aren’t as easy to get to as those in other, busier south east asian countries, but this makes it even more worth it when you get there! Whilst travelling around Sabah and Sarawak, expect to take internal flights, longer bus journeys and you may even find yourself hiring a car to get off the beaten track! Luckily transport is cheap (especially flights) and however you choose to get around, it will be an adventure!
If you choose to hire a car, you can easily do this from the larger airports, such as Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan or Kuching, but bear in mind that the roads throughout Borneo are not the best! We’ve included a few ways to get from A to B throughout this itinerary, so that you can decide which is best for your trip. Begin your journey from either Kota Kinabalu (Sabah) or Kuching (Sarawak), as flights to these cities from Malaysia’s biggest airport in Kuala Lumpur are regular, cheap and means that you can travel from one end of Borneo to the other! For the purpose of this itinerary, we’ll be starting in Kota Kinabalu, but it can easily be reversed!
Day 1-2: Kota Kinabalu
On day 1, arrive in Kota Kinabalu and let the journey around Borneo begin! This bustling city is a great place to explore, and if you’re lucky enough to be there on a Sunday, head to the Gaya Street Sunday Market for an interesting look into local life. To find accommodation in Kota Kinabalu, see here. Spend the first few days wandering around the city, visiting places like the beautiful Masjid Bandaraya City Mosque and taking in the views from the Signal Hill Observatory. Don’t forget to escape the city and take a boat over to the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park – the beaches there are stunning!
If you’ve got 2 or 3 extra days, why not take on a challenge and climb Mt Kinabalu! This is one of the most popular things to do in Sabah and for a good reason – for more information, click here! You can either book your trip up the mountain to start from the city, or while you’re on your way through the mountainous villages of Ranau or Kundasang (see below). For more on Kota Kinabalu, check out our location guide!
Day 3-4: Kudat and The Tip of Borneo
On day 3, finish exploring Kota Kinabalu, hop on your chosen method of transport and head north east towards Kudat. We would recommend hiring a car from Kota Kinabalu airport for this part of the journey, but you can also fly or catch a bus. If you decide to take the bus, check out this helpful page for more information. Tip: Kudat is the main town up here and there are many options for accommodation, however the best things to do and see in this part of Borneo are north of the city. Consider staying outside of town for a more off the beaten track experience! Click here to search for Accommodation in Kudat Province. Spend your days exploring the coastline, visiting the Tip of Borneo and some of the best (and quietest) beaches in Malaysian Borneo! This place is not yet on the tourist radar, so visit while you can!
Day 5-6: Ranau and Kundasang
After some time spent feeling the sand between your toes, make your way back towards Kota Kinabalu, then onwards and upwards to Ranau and Kundasang. The roads on this journey are winding but the views are incredible, especially of Mt Kinabalu, and you won’t regret a stop in these high altitude villages!
They are also perfectly situated for exploring Kinabalu National Park, so on day 6, spend your time doing just that! Trek along the many jungle nature trails, take a dip in the Poring Hot Springs or visit waterfalls such as Kipungit and Langanan. As mentioned, this is also a great place to start a climb up Mt Kinabalu, especially because the altitude of the villages will allow you to acclimatise better!
Day 7-8: Sepilok
On day 7 it’s time to head back down the mountain roads towards the animal encounters of Sepilok! Sepilok is an area just outside of the east coast city of Sandakan – somewhere you’ll be visiting later on in the trip. It’s here that you can get up close to Bornean orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre – a highlight of any trip to Borneo!
While you’re in Sepilok, take a trip to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (just across the road from the Orangutans) and the Rainforest Discovery Centre, where you can wander around the canopy and find the Sepilok Giant! Take a look at our Sepilok destination guide and book accommodation in Sepilok here!
Day 9-11: Kinabatangan
From Sepilok, journey south to the The Kinabatangan River – a incredible natural hotspot! Whilst in Kinabatangan make sure you book at least one river cruise – they’re the best way to see this amazing region! Explore the meandering waterways and get the chance to see all kinds of wildlife including some that can only be found in Borneo! From Proboscis Monkeys and Hornbills to Crocodiles and Pygmy Elephants, you can spot them all from the river…and you may even be lucky enough to see wild orangutans!
Kinabatangan is also a great place to take on jungle treks and visit the stunning Gomantong Caves. Tip: You can explore this area two ways! It’s easy to visit independently by staying in a guesthouse and booking transport, river cruises and jungle walks flexibly through them. Another way to explore Kinabatangan is to book a package from Sandakan which will include accommodation, transport and river cruises.
Day 12: Sandakan
If you can bear to leave the tranquility of the riverside, head back up to Sandakan on day 12 ready to fly on to Sarawak the next day. Whilst there, check out the history of the city at the Sandakan Memorial Park. More time on your hands? Take a trip to Pulau Selingan, otherwise known as Turtle Island! It may be a little pricey, but here you can get the chance to watch baby turtles hatch and take their first steps into to sea, and it’s even possible to stay overnight on the island.For more information on how to book a trip, click here.
Day 13: Sandakan – Miri
Stay overnight in Sandakan before catching a flight from here to Sarawak and the town of Miri. When you arrive, spend the afternoon and evening wandering around this modern town and watching the sunset along the waterfront.
Tip: If you’ve got more time in Miri, explore the nearby Niah Caves and Lambir Hills National Park!For more ideas, check out our Miri destination guide.Search for accommodation in Miri here!
Day 14-17: Gunung Mulu National Park
Miri is the gateway to the next stop on the trip – Gunung Mulu National Park! A visit here does require a bit of planning and bookings are essential in the peak season so check out our destination guide and the national park website for more information.
Gunung Mulu’s rainforest is 60 million years old and is home to awe inspiring caves and iconic limestone pinnacles. Although the park pass is for visits up to 5 days, 2 or 3 days is a great amount of time to trek through the jungle and explore the ‘show caves’ of the national park – you can even take on some more extreme adventure caving!
Day 18: Miri – Kuching
After enjoying a few days in the Bornean wilderness, fly back to Miri ready to travel east towards Kuching! Search for accommodation in Kuching here. Tip: if you’ve got more time, pay a visit to The Kelabit Highlands or take the 15 hour bus between Miri and Kuching, with a stop off in Sibu – the gateway to the Upper Rajang River – along the way to break up the journey.
Day 19-21: Kuching
Kuching is the final stop in Borneo and it’s a great place to end your trip! This riverside town has so much to offer – everything from culture and amazing food to even more natural highlights in the city’s surrounding areas.
Kuching has it’s own unique personality, so spend your time here exploring as much as you can before leaving! Visit the Cat Museum, stroll along the waterfront and check out the many Chinese temples within the city. Day trips to the surrounding national parks are also a must! The best things to do outside of Kuching are Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary which offers a completely different experience to Sepilok and Bako National Park for trekking trails, wildlife and some stunning rock formations and views!
From Kuching it’s easy to catch a flight to your next destination!
More Time in Malaysian Borneo?
Borneo has a lot to offer, and there’s so much more to explore if you’ve got more than 3 weeks! Some of these have been briefly mentioned already, but here they all are once again…
Dive in Sipadan
Sipidan is one of the world’s top 10 dive spots. This is the place to go if you wanted to dive and have some island time in Borneo! There are daily limits to the number of people who can visit Sipadan – find out all you need to know about Sipidan dive permits here.
Turtle Island, Sandakan
Turtle Island is otherwise known as Pulau Selingan. Take a trip here from Sandakan for the chance to watch baby turtles hatching!
Climb Mount Kinabalu
Hiking up Southeast Asia’s seventh highest peak is certainly a challenge but one of the top things to do in Sabah!
Sibu is a good stop off between Miri and Kuching where you can embark on multi-day river boat trips.
The Kelabit Highlands
A breathtakingly beautiful and remote wilderness, The Kelabit Highlands is worth a visit if you want to get off the beaten track in Sarawak! Read more about the Kelabit highlands here.
Tanjung Datu National Park
Welcome to the other tip of Borneo! Take a boat to the park from Sematan (about 2.5 hours from Kuching) or join and organised tour. For more information, visit the Sarawak Tourism’s website.
Don’t want to leave Borneo yet? Why not head south to the Indonesian side! If you thought Malaysian Borneo was wild, wait until you check out Kalimantan…
An easy hop from both Sabah and Sarawak, visit the tiny muslim country of Brunei for mosques, museums and water boats.
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