Travel Diary #7: We discover magical Borneo

Kinabatagnan jungle River kids Borneo

Borneo… Does it also have this mystical resonance on you? The name alone brings thoughts to our mind of impenetrable tropical jungle, ancient tribes where headhunting is just part of a tradition, amazing art and so much more. When we were planning our trip to Malaysia, we didn’t know Borneo was part of this country, to be honest. The island is the third-largest island in the world and belongs to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

Air Asia Malaysia Sabah Kuching Kota Kinabalu
Our flight from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu with some rain in the air…

You can easily fly to Borneo from mainland Malaysia. Because the island is so big, you better take a domestic flight between the different highlights. Air Asia offers very cheap flights. We first flew into Kuching, the capital of Sarawak and afterwards to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, the northern province. After our adventures on the islands of Malaysia, we were longing for some real jungle! Luckily, we didn’t find the headhunters anymore (although they still were there not so very long ago), but all of our other mystical expectations of Borneo are fulfilled for the major part. Our post turned out to be a little bit longer, for which we apologise ☺️…

Kuching (Sarawak)

Kuching is the capital of the province of Sarawak and with its 325000 inhabitants the biggest city in Malaysian Borneo. For only €30/$40 we flew out of Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, spaghetti included! We stay in Singgahsana Lodge which literally means “place to rest”. And that’s what we did! What a nice place to rest a bit. We work, read and homeschool in the very cosy shared spaces. And in the evening we can go drink a beer in the amazing rooftop bar with views on the Kuching River.

Kuching Drone Borneo Malaysia River
A drone image of Kuching after sunset

The old centre

Our hostel is located in the middle of the old centre, only 30m away from the riverside. We actually love Kuching, it is a very nice city. You can wander around for hours and just take in the authentic atmosphere of Borneo. Although we do notice more investments in tourism. On the riverbanks, they made a long promenade where you can shop and eat in the evening. Hanne is a big fan of the 335m long bridge that lights up at night in all the colours of the rainbow. It takes us to the other side of the river, where we have a fantastic view of the city and the surrounding mountains.

Kuching Bridge Colour Night Borneo
Hanne her favourite bridge, changing colours the whole time.

In the main bazaar, located at the waterfront, you can still buy some authentic souvenirs. Time for some shopping! But as we travel light, we will send them later one to Belgium. When buying souvenirs, you do have to be careful. Some nice articles are really made in Borneo, but others have a sign of Made in China’ on the back. If you’d have a big budget, be sure to pay Johns Gallery a visit! They have some amazing antique pieces, completely authentic and they even send them directly to your country. Just walking around there was a treat. If we ever come back, we are going to buy that beautiful table!

Kuching Main Bazaar Local Art Borneo
An example of one of those amazing shops in the main bazaar of Kuching

Food in Kuching

Just like the rest of Malaysia, they have a real food culture in Kuching. Again way too much delicious food! First, we taste Asam Laksa, an amazing spicy noodle soup typical for this city. The local restaurants even compete with each other for the best Asam Laksa in town. We don’t mind, it will only enhance our taste experience ;-).

Kuching Borneo Asam laksa Typical Dish
One of those delicious Asam Laksa we have tasted in Kuching

Another famous thing in Kuching is the layered cake or Kek Lapis. We didn’t know about this one before but just discovered it by accident while walking through the streets. Do I have to tell you it was an immediate hit with the kids (and dad :-))? How delicious! They have them in all kinds of flavours with all kinds of colours. Oreo, chocolate, vanilla, all kind of fruits, … The cake is baked layer by layer and it takes them over 4 hours for some cakes. You can tell the amount of work that has gone into it by the delicious taste!

Layered Cake Kek Lapis Kuching Borneo
An example of those delicious layered cakes in Kuching

After a lot of rice as breakfast, we find a nice little place in the Chinese neighbourhood that sells affordable western food as breakfast, such as cornflakes, bread with choco paste and of course that goes (again) with a Milo chocolate milk.

Bumbu’s cooking class

Leaving Malaysia without taking a cooking course would be a shame. Therefore we decided to go to Joseph. He has more than 10 years of experience and more importantly, he is a real local from one of the villages in the jungle. And when we go to a local market, you can tell. He knows everything about the local plants and ingredients that grow in the jungle. Yuna and Hanne don’t know where to look first! They each receive there own authentic woven basket to put in the ingredients for our dishes.

Bumbu Cooking Class Local Market Kuching
Looking for the ingredients for the meals we will prepare on the local market in Kuching.

Once we are back in the kitchen, we start to prepare our menu. A typical curry the way they are made by the local villages and a coconut dessert presented in our own woven boxes. After marinating the chicken, we start making the little baskets for our desserts. Out of a palm leave, we weave a box. Something the kids simply love to do! They get filled up with clotted coconut milk and put them in the fridge.

Bumbu Cooking Class Borneo Kuching Kids
The kids being busy with weaving their own dessert baskets out of a palm leave.

After chopping and cooking all the ingredients in the wok, we start to cook the chicken. Here they cook the meat still attached to the bones, and not separated as we do. Once the meat starts to loosen from the bone, they know it is ready. We get lots of other amazing tips to cook a delicious curry. Our experience with Bumbu’s cooking class was fantastic! The kids could help a lot and could enjoy our own cooked meal in the end.

Bumbu Cooking Class Kuching Borneo Local
Jurgen enjoying what he loves most…

Bako National park (Sarawak)

There wasn’t a lot of time to rest after the cooking class as we were leaving to Bako National Park the next day. Looking for the probosci’s monkey or nose monkey as we like to call him! We were very much looking forward to our visit to Bako National Park. We heard so many good things about the park and this was, of course, one of the reasons we came to Borneo, the jungle!! They promised us we would see the proboscis monkeys, but there are so much more amazing animals hiding in the trees and beneath the leaves of this amazing tropical rainforest. You can visit the park on a day trip, but staying over for one or more nights enhances the experience so much more. So we book ourselves a room within the national park and are still very glad we decided to do that. Only, if you are going, be aware there are probably bed bugs! You don’t notice them when you are sleeping, but the next day we have bites all over our legs, arms and neck. And they are so itchy!

Bako is easily reachable from Kuching. After one hour, we already reach the pier. There we can hire a boat and a guide and begin our adventure.

Our afternoon walk with our guide

Once we arrive at the headquarters of the park, we start our guided walk. It is extremely hot and humid, so we choose a rather modest walk with the kids. Our guide is super enthusiastic and tells a lot of stories about his people, their habits, the jungle and the animals that live there.

Jungle Walk Bako National Park Borneo
The girls during our jungle walk in Bako National Park

Because it is so hot, unfortunately, most of the animals are hiding, but we get a lot of explanation on the plants, insects, … Until suddenly we see a moose deer. This is a nocturnal animal and it is the first time the guide sees it during the day. Heleen tried to take a picture but unfortunately was just too late. Which caused a huge disappointment with our guide because he wanted to show the picture to the other guides because they wouldn’t believe him otherwise. It resulted in getting a whole explanation that we have to remain calm when taking pictures of animals. Just so we don’t forget to press the button next time ?.

At the end of our walk, we arrive at an amazing beach (no swimming, however, there could be crocs around). Bako is also known for its sand rock formations, which can only be seen from the sea. So we talk a boat and much to the appreciation of the kids the same boat drops us back at the headquarters. The walk was fantastic, but also very tiring and we must have lost litres of sweat. Something we could feel in the evening as we all had a headache, despite drinking a lot of water.

Beach bake National Park Borneo Jungle Walk
The amazing beach at the end of a warm and tiring walk through the jungle.

The night walk through the jungle

After a gorgeous sunset on the beach with wild pigs wandering alongside the waterline, we rest a little in our room. Because in the evening, we leave for a night walk. One of the more exciting things the kids have done here. Armed with torches we go discover the tropical rainforest by night. We see lots of insects, spiders but also a palm civet cat and a flying lemur (a bit like a giant flying squirrel). Especially the lemur is amazing to see. He glides from one tree to another above our heads, almost for 20 metres.

Night Walk Bako National Park Frog Guide
One of the animals we encountered during our night walk

We meet the monkeys

We are now a day in Bako, and still, haven’t seen the proboscis monkey. We only heard them from a distance, thee have a very recognizable roar. We have heard however they like to sit in the trees around the headquarters in the morning. So the next morning we get up early and we are lucky! A huge male probosci’s monkey is enjoying some fruits in the tree just above our heads. The kids are excited, as are we, and keep on talking about this moment with a lot of drawings as a result. Fun fact, in the local language they call the proboscis monkey the Dutch monkey. Because when the Dutch people arrived, the locals thought they looked very similar with their big bellies and large noses ?!

Bako National Park Proboscis Monkey Borneo
This beautiful male proboscis monkey came posing right in front of our camera

While we are full of wonder for the proboscis monkey, a large group of Langurs (Silver Leave Monkeys) passes by on the beach. Do I need to say what a wonderful sight that was? The adult monkeys have a grey/silver colour, the little monkeys are bright orange. How beautiful nature can be…

The monkeys we’d rather not see

There are however some monkeys we don’t like to meet, the macaques! They terrorise the eating area at the headquarters of Bako National Park. Inside you can eat safely and relaxed, but outside that is not possible. They steal everything! And as they can be aggressive as well, we rather have them not in our neighbourhood. The staff of the restaurant is used to chasing the monkeys with a broomstick, however, so they kind of protect you. It is even so bad you can’t walk around with a bottle of water in your hand, everything needs to be put away in a bag or backpack.

Kota Kinabalu (Sabah)

After our adventures in Kuching and Bako National Park, we take the plane to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the province Sabah. We look forward to the experiences we will have in the jungle but are keen to discover the city as well. We have to be honest however, Kuching feels a lot more authentic and enjoyable to walk through. But our days in Kota Kinabalu were also great and the city is the perfect base to explore the islands in front of the coast, the most amazing Mount Kinabalu and the intriguing surrounding jungle.

Happy birthday

Both Heleen and Hanne celebrate their birthday here. So we dug a little bit deeper int our pockets and booked a nice apartment with a rooftop pool overlooking the sea! Hanne was so happy! We think she will be a city girl later on. For her birthday she can choose what she wants and she wants to swim, go eat something delicious, shop a little, eat a cake and swim some more. There is a bon vivant developing there ?.

Kota Kinabalu Malaysia Borneo Birthday Imago
Hanne is so happy with her little birthday cake!

Because it is the first time Hanne will celebrate her birthday far from friends and family, we want to make some extra effort to make this day special. When she goes to bed in the evening and says ‘it was one of the nicest birthdays ever’, we were so relieved! The many videos and messages from our family and friends made it so much more special for her! Unfortunately, the cards didn’t reach us in time. The Belgian post obviously doesn’t work as well as the Dutch and English one, as those cards arrived in time.

The city

But anyway, we were talking about Kota Kinabalu. We had a good time over there. There is not much authenticity within the streets, except for the harbour. There you can find the central market, a gigantic market filled with fresh fish, meat, vegetables and some the ingredients we have never seen before. We don’t know where to look first! On our penultimate day in Malaysia, we eat some street food again, some world-class tastes whoopin’ in our mouths! We will miss the delicious food! Luckily we stopped Hanne just in time from buying a satay with chicken asses, as the local seller called them. It just looked like a stick with triangles pieces of chicken on it. We went for the normal chicken satays ?.

Chicken central market Kota Kinabalu Borneo
Delicious chicken on the central market in Kota Kinabalu, if you choose the right piece however…

We were in Kota Kinabalu twice. In between, we did a multiple day jungle tours (read more about our experiences there further on this post). But we end our Malaysian trip in Kota Kinabalu. On the last evening, we decide to go for a nice meal at the waterfront. Obviously focused on the tourists and not cheap, but the view is amazing! One of the most breathtaking sunsets we have ever seen and a fantastic end to our stay in Malaysia!

Sunset Kota Kinabalu Malaysia Waterfront
One of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen, a proper goodbye to Malaysia.

Sepilok (Sabah)

Most people fly from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. Because we were a bit late and the prices were rather high, we decided to go ‘the old way’ and take the bus. It is a trip of 5 hours, so we will be on the way for a while. One of the nice things about travelling for a long time is that the concept of time gets another dimension. The first part of the trip is quite interesting because we pass Mount Kinabalu, a mighty mountain that reaches above 4000 metres. Amazing to climb we have heard, but also very hard and not really suitable for the kids. The second part of our trip is more boring, with a lot of palm tree plantations. We try to kill some time with reading, teaching and watching a movie.

Our stay in the jungle

The bus goes to Sandakan, but we want to go to Sepilok to meet the orangutans and the Kinabatangan river for the real jungle experience. Two Belgian girls told us that it is much nicer to sleep near Sepilok because Sandakan is a rather bleak city. And the bus passes by Sepilok, so we get dropped off at the crossroad and they pick us up from our hotel.

We stay in the Paganakan Dii, a nice resort in the jungle with everything that a jungle brings of course :-). Our room is basic and nice with an open bathroom. Only when you put on the lights in the evening, hundreds of insects are attracted by the light. Which results in Hanne being terrified when she is sitting on the toilet and a huge bug comes flying towards her. And mommy who has to stay in the room for the rest of the evening because Hanne lost her confidence in the jungle just for a bit. Although the mosquito nets keep all the creepy insects and other animals out. Luckily in the morning, she regained her coolness and we could enjoy a beautiful morning view!

Sepilok Paganakan Dii Borneo Malaysia
The view from the window of our room in Sepilok.

The Sepilok orang-utan rehabilitation centre

The next morning we go to the Sepilok orang-utan rehabilitation centre, one of the places in Borneo to go and watch these amazing animals. In the centre the monkeys are sem-wild. They live completely free but receive the food from the centre every morning and afternoon. And they also look after the little ones in the nursery. We were looking very much forward to meeting these magnificent animals. You can spot the complete wild ones in the jungle as well, but you are never sure of course so the chances will be higher here.

In good spirits, we leave for the centre, but we forgot the weather for a moment. By the time we arrive one of those famous tropical showers begins. And after some travelling in the tropics, you would think we know better, but no, we left the resort without our raincoats. So we bought 4 ponchos to protect our camera and ourselves. Unfortunately, they only had kid sizes left, which caused huge hilarity with the kids! Because from the moment daddy released his breath, the poncho almost exploded and was torn in all directions!

The orang-utans

But anyway, the monkeys… The guards tell us that the lockers are just like humans and won’t show up in the rain as they will try to find some shelter. So we probably won’t be seeing them. First, we go over to the nursery where we see the little ones. They look so cute and remind us so much of the human behaviour. And then it starts to rain a little bit less, so we decide to give it a shot and go over to the feeding platform hoping there will be some adult orang-utans. And yes, a good thing we didn’t listen to the guards! There are 3 semi-wild orang-utans eating their breakfast right in front of us. One of them takes a branch with leaves and holds it above her head to create a little place to hide from the rain. Seems the guards were right in away. Sometime later we see them swing on the branches and they disappear in the forest. What a top experience with these amazing animals!!

Orang Utan Sepilok Borneo
Raining? No problem, put some leaves on your head to find some shelter…

Kinabatangan river and a jungle tour (Sabah)

After Sepilok, we go back to our hotel because they pick us up for our next adventure. We have booked a tour for 3 days and 2 nights to the Kinabatangan river (it took us a while before we could pronounce this ?). Our resort is the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort and turns out to be fantastic! The rooms are more beautiful than our last stay (which is especially for Hanne a relief, because no little wholes and cracks here where insects can get in).

They have a nice restaurant where we get delicious food as a buffet. The only disadvantage, again a large group of macaques that makes eating sometimes a challenge instead of an enjoyable moment. Luckily the people who work at the resort now how to handle them. The monkeys did succeed in stealing a piece of Jurgen’s dessert, which caused a lot of hilarity with the kids. They don’t show up every meal and they are less aggressive than the ones in Bako, so in the end, we could eat relatively relaxed.

We have a busy program here. An afternoon river cruise, night walk, early morning river cruise, jungle walk, afternoon river cruise, a night walk and a last early morning river cruise on our last day. Goal: seeing the Borneo big five: the orang-utan, hornbill, crocodile, proboscis monkey and elephant.

Kinabatagnan River Borneo Bilit Sukau
A drone image from the Kinabatangan river, the place in Borneo for spotting wildlife.

The river cruises

During our first river cruise, we immediately spot 4 out of 5. Everything besides the elephant. And that will stay the same for the rest of the 3-day tour, unfortunately, we will have to come back to admire the elephants!

Seeing the orang-utan in the wild does feel different and more special then when we saw them in Sepilok. Did you know orang-utan actually means man of the jungle in the local language? When they discovered the animal, walking up straight in the jungle, they thought he looked like a human man in the jungle. We are lucky to see an entire family! An amazing sight and we stay around for a while to observe and enjoy them.

Orang Utan Wild Borneo Kinabatagnan River
A highlight of our trip, a completely wild orang-utan mom with her baby.

In the meanwhile, we are in a boat that is just not so very high, which fears us a little as we know crocodiles can jump up fairly high! But the guides seem to be ok with it… They spot the crocodiles from far and stay close but just far enough. After being so glad to have spotted some proboscis monkeys in Bako National Park, we now see large groups in the trees on the riverbanks. How amazing to be able to observe them from so close. There are two different kinds of groups: the alpha male with all his wives and kids and the bachelors, the young males without wives. The bigger the nose, the more they impress the ladies! Luckily it doesn’t work like that with humans ?!

Crocodile Salt Water Borneo Kinabatagnan River
One of those feared saltwater crocodiles we spotted during our cruise on the Kinabatangan River.

Discovering the jungle by foot

The walks through the jungle during the day and at night are not as nice as the ones we had in Bako National Park. Mainly because our resort is situated on the edge of the rainforest, not far from the palm plantations. Many animals moved deeper into the jungle for that reason. We even don’t attend the second-night walk anymore because the kids are so tired after the night walk the day before and getting up at 5u30. And as we have an early morning river cruise the next morning as well, they deserve some well-earned sleep.

Recovery of the rainforest

A nice thing was that the kids could plant their own tree. They try to help the rainforest recover in this area. A work that will take them many many years… It will probably never completely recover again, but every small step helps. The locals buy back small pieces of land from the palm oil industry, remove the palms and replace them by local trees. They mainly try to plant trees with fruits or leaves the jungle animals love. So the girls get to plant their own fig tree. Who knows, maybe within twenty years they will return and see their own trees standing up tall in the tropical rainforest!

Borneo Jungle Plant Tree Bilit Kinabatagnan
The girls planting their own tree in the tropical rainforest of Borneo.

The absolute highlight of these 3 days were definitely the river cruises. A river is a magical place, especially when the sun is rising and setting. The fog above the water, the sky full of colour, nature in all its serenity and in the meanwhile you are spotting the most amazing animals! Monkeys, crocodiles, magnificent birds, … On certain moments all we could do was enjoy the moment in silence and try to take as much out of it as possible. Because we realised it couldn’t last forever…

Kinabatagnan river Sunrise Borneo Boat
Enjoying the sunrise and the fog on the Kinabatangan river.

What did we think about Borneo?

We absolutely loved Borneo! It was an amazing experience and there is even much more to discover. If we ever get the opportunity, we will definitely go back! Or maybe Indonesian Borneo… The jungle and the wildlife that we saw here, will almost certainly be one of the top experiences of our entire journey. Also, Kuching was absolutely worth the visit. A beautiful city with so much history. Kota Kinabalu is less attractive as a city but has so much to offer in the environment from beautiful islands to magnificent jungle tours.

The big downside to our trip in Borneo were the gigantic palm plantations we saw during our travels. So much amazing jungle that is lost forever in favour of the palm oil industry. Luckily in Sarawak, they are trying to put a hold to this but in Sabah, the plantations reach as far as you can look. Hopefully, the government will soon realise this has to stop!

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