Many travelers may have heard of Borneo, a tropical island off the coast of Southeast Asia that is famous for its rainforests, majestic wildlife and fascinating indigenous communities. But Borneo is so much more than a lush, tropic isle in the Pacific Ocean! This beautiful biological sanctuary has so many surprises to discover.
1. Borneo is the world’s 3rd largest island.
With a landmass of over 283,000 square miles, Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest of all Asia’s islands, but you might be surprised to learn that despite this, Borneo isn’t its own country. Rather, its territory is divided among the nearby nations of Malaysia and Indonesia and the sovereign state of Brunei, home of the wealthiest king in the world. This mutually beneficial arrangement is especially suited to protecting Borneo’s ancient treasure, from its endemic animals and indigenous people to its breathtaking landscapes.
2. Borneo’s Mt. Kinabalu is the highest peak in Southeast Asia.
Mount Kinabalu, located in Kinabalu Park in the far north of the island, breaks all sorts of records. Not only does it squeak by as the 20th highest peak in all the world, but at over 13,000 feet, it’s the highest peak in all of Southeast Asia. Home to nearly 7,000 individually recognized species of plants, birds and mammals, many of which are found only within the region, Mount Kinabalu is considered one of the most important biological sites in the world. In 2000, UNESCO granted the peak and the park where it’s found World Heritage Site status, making it the first World Heritage Site in Malaysia.
3. You can walk the longest skywalk in the world.
Gunung Mulu National Park is home to the world’s longest treetop walkway, measuring an inspiring 480 meters in length and anchored securely between the trunks of towering trees hundreds of years old. And what better way to experience the life within a rainforest! When less than 2% of sunlight filtered through the dense treetops is able to reach the ground, the most beautiful inhabitants in a lush rainforest might spend their entire lives several meters off the ground. From wide flower blooms bursting in color to a prismatic spray of colorful birds found only in Borneo, the walk among the treetops is something everyone should experience. You might even catch sight of one of Borneo’s beloved orangutans!
4. Borneo has incredible wildlife.
Long, long ago the land we know as Borneo was part of a peninsula extending from mainland Asia, but when sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, the lowlands were flooded by the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. The newly created island was cut off from the rest of the continent, and the lush, fertile rainforest was able to grow and thrive without threat of the large predators that roamed the mainland. This created a prime environment for a unique and beautiful ecosystem to develop, and today, Borneo’s biodiversity is virtually unmatched, with over 15,000 different species of plants and animals calling Borneo home and over a third of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world!
5. The island is home to over 200 indigenous groups.
While most of the native people of Borneo can be referred to as Dayaks, Borneo is actually home to over 200 separate and distinct indigenous groups. Over 150 languages are spoken on the island, many of which are endemic to Borneo and only spoken today by a few hundred people. With so many cultures sharing the island, some aspects of village life have spread from one to many others, such as the longhouse. As the name suggests, a longhouse is a dwelling that houses multiple families under one long roof. The entire village lives together, cooks together, works together and sleeps together, each family with their own room and one enormous communal area. Should another family join the group, an additional room is simply built onto the longhouse, resulting in some very long houses indeed. Some are as much as 500 meters long and home to two or three dozen families! The people who call the longhouses home are eager to share their culture with visitors, hosting them for mealtime and offering them a cultural display of music and dance. Visiting an indigenous longhouse is a truly unique experience, and it gives you a real understanding of the cooperation and hospitality that makes it possible to call the wilds of the jungle home.
6. You could spot more than 3 million bats.
Deer Cave, part of the World Heritage Site of Gunung Mulu National Park, is possibly the largest cave passage in the entire world at around 2.5 miles long. It’s named for the sambar deer that would come and seek shelter in the enormous cave system and lick the salt-bearing rocks found there. Today, the deer take a backseat to a few other stars of the experience–more than 3 million bats! During the day you can walk through the cave as millions of bats spanning 30 species roost overhead, spelunking the passages to discover rich mineral deposits and viewing the beautiful “Garden of Eden” sinkhole where a natural skylight in the cave roof allows the rain forest to briefly claim a portion of the darkened cave for its own. In the evening you can make your way to the observational platform for the unforgettable sight of 3 million bats streaming out of the cave entrance in hypnotic, undulating patterns for a night of hunting.
7. The rainforests are really, really old.
Dating back 140 million years, Borneo’s rainforest is one of the oldest in the world. All that time has given Borneo the opportunity to develop some truly beautiful displays of life, and it has made Borneo a key player in the science behind evolution. More than 10,000 plant species grow in the Bornean rainforest–more than can be found on the entire continent of Africa!–and hundreds of birds, mammals and fish species are found there as well. The rainforest is home to some of the world’s most iconic animals, from the rhinoceros hornbill to the Asian elephant to the clouded leopard and bearded pig. The critically endangered Bornean orangutan and Sumatran rhinoceros also call the rainforest home.
8. Orangutans are native to Borneo.
In the heart of the Semenggoh Nature Reserve lies the Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Here, orangutans who have been removed from their wild tribes, whether through deforestation, being orphaned by hunters, or getting rescued from the illegal exotic animal trade, are raised in safety and ultimately returned to the wild. The closest primate relative to humans with over 97% of our DNA shared, orangutans are on the verge of extinction, with only an estimate of 20,000 left in the wild, but the Semenggoh Rehab is working hard to reverse their decline. Open twice daily to the public, visitors can come and hope to get a look at our primate cousins up close during feeding times when the orangutans can be lured out of the jungle with the promise of a handout of fruit. As the orangutans are semi-wild and live without cages, a view isn’t guaranteed, but the chance to see a family unit or perhaps even elderly Sodoku, the oldest female living at the center, stroll right by you is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed!
9. There are plenty of big cities to explore too.
Don’t be fooled by the majestic and expansive rainforests and all the wonders the national parks offer, for Borneo is home to several large cities that are constantly growing as well. Nestled in among the rainforests like jewels, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching are there to satisfy your yearning to explore a bustling cityscape. Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of the Sabah region of Borneo, is home to the Sabah State Museum, the Sabah Art Gallery and the Ethno Botanical Gardens, and Sundays bring a bustling street market where vendors hawk local wares from traditional handicrafts to souvenirs to food and flowers. If steeping yourself in local history is your thing, the city of Kuching offers the Sarawak State Museum, one of the finest museums in all of Asia, as well as the Islamic Heritage Museum, the Chinese History Museum and even the Kuching Cat Museum where you’ll find over 4,000 artifacts relating to cats.
10. Borneo is surrounded by stunning beaches.
If thinking of rainforest islands doesn’t bring to mind images of glorious tropical beaches, then you’re in for a treat. Penang Island is a jewel in the Indian Ocean, covered in pristine white beaches and surrounded by bright cerulean waters, with myriad luxury hotels and spas where you can pamper yourself after a day of exploring the historic capital city of George Town. Spend the day relaxing poolside in a tropical garden, or take a stroll along the public beaches to experience a sunset over the Malacca Strait that you’ll never forget. With shopping nearby and scenic drives through local villages, you’ll feel right at home while you get away from it all!
If this list has you ready for adventure, join us on one of our expertly-crafted small group tours to this incredible island. From its beautiful beaches and verdant rainforests to its parks of reverently preserved natural beauty and urban jewels, Borneo is waiting.