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Mount Kinabalu

Activity vacations in Borneo

Mount Kinabalu

By Audley Borneo specialist Sophie

Protruding from the Malay Archipelago lies Asia’s largest island, home to ancient rainforests, lofty mountain peaks, and winding rivers that protect wildlife species you can’t find natively anywhere else on Earth. It’s this eclectic setting that makes Borneo an alluring destination for adventurers.

Activity holidays on the Malaysian side of the island boast a myriad of opportunities to explore and unwind surrounded by some of the planet’s most intriguing fauna, flora, and landscapes. During my travels, I’ve witnessed orangutans swinging in the thick canopies as I cruised below, whizzed through fragrant food markets on bike, and summited the triumphant peak of Mount Kinabalu.

I’ve explored much of what the island has to offer, but the following six activities make me want to get the next flight out and don my hiking boots as soon as I land.

Cycle around Kuching’s villages and food markets

Hopping on a bike with a local guide is one of the best ways to see Kuching and its surrounding kampongs (traditional villages). The area is a real melting pot of cultures, with Chinese, Indian, Malay, and tribal influence. And you can cover far more ground on two wheels, allowing you to journey through lively city streets and quiet rural landscapes in just a couple of hours.

Throughout, you’ll meander along the riverbanks and into stilted villages, fuel up at the local markets or hawker stalls, and learn about the history of the wooden sampans as they dart under the bridge. If you choose an evening cycle, you’ll also be treated to the perfect combination of sunset and Sarawak laksa, a hearty noodle soup. And I’d be remiss not to mention the region’s rainbow layer cake, kek lapis. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for your taste buds.

The cycle route is fairly flat as you pedal at a leisurely pace. It’s all about taking time to soak in the culture, scenery, and history with a guide who lives along the route.

For a more immersive experience, I recommend adding on a homestay with a local Iban tribe in a traditional longhouse. This is a grassroot-led activity that generates income for the local community. There, you’ll learn all about traditional customs and enjoy dinner with a resident family, your guide acting as your translator to Iban stories passed down through generations.

Traditional Melanau house outside Kuching
Traditional Melanau house outside Kuching

Kayak through the mist-covered highlands of Bengoh

For a serene day trip not far from Kuching, kayaking through the Bengoh highlands is a delight — and very family-friendly. The scenery is vibrant, the rapids are gentle, and the physical effort required is minimal. Yet it still feels like an adventure as you wind through the snaking stream.

Then, paddle your kayak towards the towering cliffs for a swim and barbecue lunch. While the jungle food is simple — like chicken in bamboo shoots — it really hits the spot after a few hours of exploring.

I have to admit that the kayaking route, though beautiful, isn’t teeming with wildlife. But there’s an orangutan sanctuary nearby where you can watch the great apes tucking into their afternoon feast.

The highlands of Bengoh
The highlands of Bengoh

Wander among the mangroves at Bako National Park

Sarawak’s mangrove-covered Bako National Park is only accessible by sea, further adding to the wildness of its sun-gilded beaches and lush forests. During the 20-minute boat ride from Kampung Bako, you’ll hug the rocky coastline before reaching the park’s entrance. It feels almost prehistoric, and depending on the tides, you may have to wade to shore — an apt start to your jungle adventure.

Upon arrival, you can stroll along the peaceful boardwalks and your guide will point out the wildlife hidden away in the forest. Here you can see Borneo’s smaller animals like proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, and over 150 species of birds.

Then you’ll head to the trail, scrambling over tangled tree roots as you soak in the jumble of jungle sounds: the trickle of streams and tumble of waterfalls, the high-pitched hum of insects and swoosh of monkeys in the trees. It’s not quiet by any means, but the rhythms are soothing and invigorating all at once.

Your guide can mould the visit to your interests so you receive a tailored experience. I particularly enjoyed learning about the medicinal properties of the plants that litter the jungle floor.

Mangroves in Bako National Park
Boardwalk through the mangroves in Bako National Park

Summit Mount Kinabalu at sunrise

The highest mountain in Borneo, Mount Kinabalu, is a popular climb for avid walkers and eager beginners who want to stretch themselves. It’s a long, sometimes challenging, two-day hike to the top, but the route itself is fairly straightforward and your guide is there every step of the way. Some of my clients have even taken their 10-year-old children on the trip.

The first day you’ll climb among the blanket of moss that covers the cloud forest floor, carnivorous pitcher plants dangling overhead. But the real treat comes after you wake up the next day at 2am. You begin walking in the brisk, shadowy cold, warming up as you break out into a stark, volcanic landscape reminiscent of the moon’s cratered surface. And then your groggy pre-dawn start pays off.

You’ll arrive at the summit in time for the orangey pink glow of sunrise. As the rays pierce through the clouds and the rising mist swirls around you, you can see jungle-covered hills stretching out below. On a clear day, you can also catch a glimpse of Gaya Island peeking out of the South China Sea beyond.

After you’ve taken in the views, there are two main ways to descend Mount Kinabalu: the standard route and the more daring via ferrata (‘iron road’ in Italian). You can’t choose on the spot, so I can pre-book your preferred option beforehand. The standard route involves retracing your steps back down, which is simple but still a physical test after hours of ascent. But for the more courageous, the via ferrata presents a series of metal hooks and cables, dangling rope ladders, and swinging bridges. It’s safe, but not for the faint-hearted.

Climbers summiting Mount Kinabalu at sunrise
Climbers summiting Mount Kinabalu at sunrise

Spot wildlife on a Kinabatangan River cruise

Borneo’s ancient rainforest provides sanctuary for a host of creatures: orangutans, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, macaques, monitor lizards, and much more. And it’s along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah that you’ll have the best chance of seeing them in the wild.

These cruises are for those who take a chilled-out approach to adventure. You’ll get all the thrills without the exertion. That makes it particularly rewarding for young families and people with lower levels of fitness. But for me, the Kinabatangan River is a must-do for everyone who visits Borneo.

During this boat safari, you’ll be guided through the tranquil jungle backwaters and river tributaries of this protected wildlife corridor. Surrounded by a maze of green overgrowth, you can hear the rustle of leaves as the animals within forage and leap and observe. You have a pretty good chance of seeing an array of species too, but they can be quite hard to spot. Not to worry, because your experienced guide will point out the camouflaged shapes of creatures hiding among the foliage.

The orangutan is on almost everyone’s wish list as they plan their trip to Borneo. And while you often see these strangely graceful apes during your cruises, it’s never guaranteed. So I always advise a visit to Sepilok’s Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre for an afternoon feeding, where the feeding platforms are graced with long limbs and those classic grumpy-looking faces. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is just next door, and well worth a visit too.

Pygmy elephant in the Kinabatangan River
Pygmy elephant in the Kinabatangan River

Brave the hike to the Pinnacles in Mulu National Park

If your definition of adventure involves heart-racing scrambles up steep rock faces, time-bound tests of endurance, and a rewarding view at 1,000+ metres of elevation to top it off, the two-day hike to the Pinnacles in Mulu National Park is for you.

The adventure starts out with a leisurely trip to the park’s intricate limestone caves. Here you’ll be able to observe thousands upon thousands of wrinkle-lipped bats flocking out of Deer Cave in swirling formations at dusk. It’s a moment of pause before your unrelenting climb up to the spire-like Pinnacles starts the next day.

The hike to your first checkpoint, a basic mountain hut called Camp 5, takes a few hours, but it’s a breeze compared to what’s to come. Flat, winding jungle allows you to warm up your muscles for the following day’s climb — a hot and humid scramble up steep rock faces, pulling at tree roots for leverage.

The final battle before your scenic prize consists of 15 aluminium ladders, one after the other, allowing you to scale the almost vertical incline to the summit. It’s only then that you’ll get to fully appreciate Borneo’s Pinnacles, the razor-blade rocks slicing their way out of the slopes beneath you.

This climb isn’t for those with a fear of heights, and it’s not suitable for children 16 and under. But if you’re fit, fearless, and hungry for adrenaline, the challenge is well worth your effort. I strongly suggest adding in a couple of days’ rest at Gaya Island Resort’s pristine beaches to let yourself recover before your onward travels.

Limestone pinnacle formations in Mulu National Park
Limestone pinnacle formations in Mulu National Park

Read more about trips to Borneo

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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