Borneo or Sumatra – Which Wildlife Destination is Right for You?

Orangutan, Sumatra

When it comes to wildlife destinations in Southeast Asia, there is no doubt that Sumatra and Borneo are two of the best places to visit. 

Home to rare endangered orangutans, among a wealth of other jungle wildlife, both islands are famous for their diverse rainforests and excellent trekking opportunities. 

So should you visit Borneo or Sumatra? Using my own travel experience around the region, plus the advice of local experts and the opinions of travellers, I’ve broken it down, helping you choose the right wildlife spotting destination for you. 

One thing is for sure, no matter which island you choose to visit, you’re sure to have a wild adventure! 

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A Quick Introduction to Borneo and Sumatra 🌏

Borneo 🇲🇾🇮🇩🇧🇳

The island of Borneo is the third largest in the world and is shared by three countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is famous for its beautiful rainforests which have long been home to some of the world’s most exotic wildlife, including orangutans, elephants and crocodiles. Sadly, however, in recent years, much of this rainforest has been lost to make way for palm oil plantations. It is important to note that this is not unique to Borneo though, deforestation is happening at an alarming rate worldwide. 

Kinabatangan Drone
Borneo is a popular destination among wildlife enthusiasts.

“Malaysian Borneo was an absolute bucket list destination for me for a long time. When I finally visited, I was blown away by the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the island. However, seeing so many palm plantations made me sad – the deforestation is every bit as bad as they say it is.”

Sheree, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker

When it comes to visiting Borneo, most travellers opt to visit the Malaysian side of the island. Not only are there better air connections but the infrastructure is better than the Indonesian side of Borneo. While Brunei is a small and underrated country, it is also expensive, therefore many travellers skip over it in favour of alternative destinations in Borneo. 

Sumatra 🇮🇩

The largest island in Indonesia, usually overlooked in favour of Bali or Java, Sumatra is one of Indonesia’s wildest places. Boasting a huge variety of flora and fauna, the island is famous for its rare wild inhabitants which include orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants. Unfortunately, much like in Borneo, deforestation is having a huge impact on these endangered animals and their ecosystem.  

Views of Lake Toba, Sumatra.
Views of Lake Toba in Sumatra.

“Travelling to Sumatra changed my life. I’ve never felt so blown away by the beauty of nature. Pretty soon after arriving there, I realised I didn’t want to leave! There was so much to learn from the local people and their relationship with nature, and I feel blessed to have been a part of such an incredible place”. 

Ellie, Sumatra Orangutan Discovery

Borneo vs. Sumatra – Which One Should You Pick? 🤔

Wildlife Spotting 🦧

For most visitors to Sumatra and Borneo, wildlife is the main draw. Both islands are home to a variety of endemic species, ranging from elephants to monkeys and a plethora of birdlife. Orangutans are the most famous jungle inhabitants and the two islands are the only places in the world where it is possible to see these majestic creatures in the wild. 

Most people hoping to see wild orangutans in Borneo, head to the Malaysian side of the island. The two most popular places to see these animals are the Kinabatangan River and the Danum Valley, both in the state of Sabah.  As well as orangutans, visitors also have the opportunity to spot crocodiles, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys (endemic to Borneo) and a variety of hornbill species. 

Recommended Tour!
Kinabatangan River Cruise
  • Take a three-day river cruise along the mighty Kinabatangan!
  • Stay overnight in a riverside lodge, in private or shared accommodation.
  • Have a chance of spotting rare wildlife such as orangutans, hornbills and elephants.
  • Enjoy two guided hikes through the jungle, with one at night!

“We’ve done both [Sumatra and Borneo] and saw one orangutan and lots of other monkeys and wildlife in Borneo. We saw lots of orangutans in Sumatra but not much other wildlife. Both [are] excellent!”

Shannon, Member of South East Asia Backpacker Community
Rhinoceros hornbills are one of Borneo’s Big Five!

In Sumatra, it is possible to see orangutans, elephants, gibbons and hornbills, to name a few! While there is still a small population of Sumatran tigers and rhinos on the island, they are few and very elusive, so it is highly unlikely you’ll see any during a visit. 

Bukit Lawang is the jumping-off point for most of Sumatra’s wild adventures and in particular, the nearby Gunung Leuser National Park is the best place to see orangutans in the wild. Wildlife spotting trips are traditionally done as multi-day treks, with the opportunity to overnight in the jungle. 

Recommended Tour!
Orangutan Jungle Trekking
  • Embark on a bucket list adventure to see rare Sumatran orangutans in the wild!
  • Trek alongside local guides who hold ecotourism at the heart of everything they do.
  • Half day to multi-day trips available.
  • Learn about the beautiful Gunung Leuser ecosystem and the wildlife which calls it home. 

“[Out of the two], we did Sumatra, Bukit Lawang – a 2 night, 3 day trek organised by local guides. We did see one adult orangutan with its baby as well as other wildlife. I would recommend :)” 

Gemma, Member of South East Asia Backpacker Community
Monkey, Sumatra
There will be no monkeying around here!

Ease of Travel 🚗

When it comes to comparing the ease of travel around Borneo and Sumatra, it is important to consider which part of Borneo you are talking about. Infrastructure on the Malaysian side of Borneo is generally the most established of anywhere on the island. However, getting to more remote areas will take a bit of planning and a sense of adventure! Overland public transport is pretty good and flights regularly service places you can’t reach by road. 

There are a range of wildlife hotspots around the country, including the Kinabatangan River, Danum Valley, Bako National Park, Turtle Island and Batang Ai. Guided tours to these places are available and some are even possible to visit independently. 

“Travelling around Malaysian Borneo using public transport was doable, although it was definitely easier to hire a car in some areas. Even on the well-worn tourist trail, I had plenty of wild experiences, from seeing baby turtles take their first steps into the sea to watching orangutans swing through the trees!”

Tim, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

Brunei has a super high level of car ownership which can make getting around using public transport logistically challenging. However, if you are happy to rent a car, you’ll find the country easy to explore. As for Indonesian Borneo, it is a lot more difficult to travel around, with unreliable transport connections. A lot of people call Indonesian Borneo “The Wild West” of the island! Prepare to be a lot more independent-travel-minded if you are visiting this area!

A lot of people rent a car to get around Borneo.

While not as developed as some other Indonesian islands (we’re looking at you Bali), Sumatra is still navigable for travellers. Overland transport is often unreliable and overcrowded, however, departures to the main cities and tourist destinations take place regularly. Bus routes may be uncomfortable and bumpy. Unlike in popular spots throughout Malaysian Borneo, it is often difficult to book advance transportation online and instead, you’ll need to rely on the help of locals working within the tourism industry to help you get from A to B. To sum up, Sumatra is generally less developed than Malaysian Borneo.

The main hotspot in Sumatra for wildlife spotting is the Gunung Leuser National Park. This is where most of the tourists hoping to spot orangutans go. Tours are available from numerous outfitters, however, as with all animal tourism, it is important to make sure you are supporting an ethical company that doesn’t damage the ecosystem and acts in an ethical way around wildlife. 

“Sumatra is amazing and wild but isn’t easy as a solo traveller, especially for women. If you want something with better infrastructure, transport, people speaking more English, and better set-up for wildlife tourism, then I’d choose the Malaysian side of Borneo. They both have amazing wildlife. Borneo also has amazing diving – I don’t know about Sumatra. I don’t know about the Indonesian side of Borneo, I’ve heard the infrastructure is poor and it’s difficult to move about, but there’s no real information about it – other than it’s wild!”

Helen, Member of South East Asia Backpacker Community

Adventurousness 🥾

While the word Borneo may conjure up images of sprawling, dense jungle, this has, unfortunately, not been a reality for many years. The island’s governments, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, have allowed huge deforestation which has directly impacted the island’s biodiversity. Much of the island’s native wildlife is facing the threat of extinction. Brunei is home to the most well-preserved swathes of jungle but access is limited and tours into the rainforest are few and far between. 

Monkey spotting Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Brunei is home to some of the best-preserved rainforest in the world!

Malaysian Borneo has developed a lot in recent years and is now the most tourist-friendly part of Borneo with decent infrastructure and comfortable lodgings. In both Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, English is widely spoken (at least to some degree). In Indonesian Borneo, travellers are advised to have at least some Bahasa Indonesian under their belts to make getting around easier. 

Indonesian Borneo is still lacking when it comes to established infrastructure and is a lot more difficult to travel around. However, this is where the adventure comes in! If you like being out of your comfort zone, experiencing different cultures and flying by the seat of your pants, Indonesian Borneo may be the adventure you’ve been looking for. Expect rustic!

When it comes to adventure, Sumatra sits somewhere between Malaysian Borneo and Indonesian Borneo. There are decent transport links between the main cities and tours are easy to arrange for popular destinations such as the Leuser ecosystem. 

Bukit Lawang village
The village of Bukit Lawang, Sumatra.

“Traveling Sumatra is a bit of an adventure! There are very few written guides on Sumatra (but this one is great 😉), buses do not run to a schedule and even seemingly small distances can take a long time! However,  there are a wide variety of transport options available to tourists including buses, trains, private cars, shared cars and becaks (tuk tuks). A visit to Sumatra does require you to be a more laid-back traveller who is open to being flexible when plans change. Make use of your guesthouse or travel agent to help you arrange transport, often they can book journeys for you.”

Ellie, Sumatra Orangutan Discovery

Costs 💰

When it comes to whether Sumatra or Borneo is more budget-friendly, the answer is clearly Sumatra. The cost of living in Sumatra is generally very low and transport is cheap. Tours offer much more value for money in this part of the world which means that even a small budget will get you exploring the jungle cheaper, for longer. 

The most expensive country in Borneo is Brunei, with Malaysian Borneo coming in second place and Indonesian following. Wildlife spotting tours in Borneo are pretty expensive no matter where they are and the increased tourism over recent years means that more premium accommodations have pushed package prices up. 

No matter whether you choose Borneo or Sumatra, you are sure to have an incredible time. Both offer bucket-list opportunities to see rare and exotic animals in the wild and take a peek into less explored areas. While infrastructure varies in quality depending on where you are, both islands guarantee an unforgettable, wild adventure! 

Contributors: 👥

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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