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One week in Borneo

Borneo is home to one of the most diverse and spectacular ecosystems in the world. Along with the Amazon, Borneo’s rainforest is considered our planet’s lungs. Sadly, in the last years, humans have been destroying the rainforest to extend the industry of palm oil. Each day more than the last, trees are cut down which leaves hundreds of species without a home and brings them closer to extinction.

Going to Borneo has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl. It is the ultimate jungle experience and the chance to spot amazing endangered species such as Orangutans, Pygmy Elephants, Crocodiles, Leopards and River Dolphins in the wilderness. When I first started planning my trip to Asia, Borneo wasn’t on my list as it was a little outside of the backpacker beaten track which I assumed meant expensive accommodation and difficult transportation. I was so curious to see something different and honestly, a little concern that this paradise might disappear sooner than later. For those reasons, I decided to go for it anyways even if that meant a little splurge. Surprisingly, Malaysian Borneo turned out to be one of the most affordable destinations I’ve been to in Asia.


Kuching, Sarawak

 

When I first landed in Kuching in the state of Sarawak, I was horrified to see the impact of the palm industry. As far as I could see, there was palm plantation. Endless fields of palms which also meant endless fields of rainforest that had been destroyed. I was shocked that the world wasn't more aware of this issue and more importantly, that we weren't acting on it!

The effect of the palm industry on the rainforest really affected me especially on our first day when we visited Semenggoh nature reserve. This nature reserve is a primate rehabilitation center and shelter for Orangutans and endangered birds. The monkeys are free to roam around and there is no certainty that you will see them. In other words, it’s totally up to them! The best time to see them is outside the fruiting season ( February to November), during the morning and afternoon feeding sessions, when rangers put fruits on the feeding platforms. During the fruiting season, a lot of the monkeys will find enough food on their own in the forest and will stay hidden.



Luckily, we got to see 4 full grown Orangutans, a little baby, and the alpha male, Ritchie. The way they moved, the way they handled their food, the way they socialized together, it all made them look so human. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable in their presence, having contributed to their habitat destruction. I knew the feeling of guilt wouldn’t go away.


Around 50% of the products we use every day ( including food, cosmetics, personal care items, biofuel and even medicinal drugs) contain palm oil. You can easily support palm oil free brands by looking at the label for signs of palm oil or any palm- constituent and by choosing products that indicate clearly which oil is used (100% sunflower oil, coconut oil, corn oil, olive oil or canola oil. You should also know that palm oil is often disguised as “vegetal oil”, so another trick to make sure your product is palm oil free is to look at the saturated fat number: if it makes up more than 40% of the total fat content, the products probably contains palm oil. By choosing not to consume products that contain palm oil, we make the demand go down, we slow down the deforestation process and we do make a difference. Never underestimate the difference and the influence you can have on the people around you by taking small actions.


Visiting Semenggoh wildlife center is definitely something you should do while in Kuching!


Cost: 10 rm (3,20$CAD) for the entrance fee and 3 rm (1$CAD) each way for the bus which makes a total of 13 rm (4,20$CAD).


Transportation: Take bus 6 from Kuching center and get down in front of the entrance of the park. The bus ride takes 30 minutes and you’ll have to walk 20 minutes up the road to get to the viewing platform. Alternatively, you can also rent a car or arrange a taxi.



Another pretty awesome place we visited while we were in Kuching was Bako national park. It's another budget-friendly activity that you can do as a day trip from the city center using the bus as transportation. Bako national park is known to be one of the best places in Malaysia to see many endangered species of monkeys. The Prosboscis monkey, a funny looking monkey with a big nose, is the star of the park. They are extremely shy, tent to stay hidden and don’t make much noise so the best way to spot one is to stay quiet and keep an eye out while your trekking in the national park. It would take you days to explore every trail in the park. If you only spend one day over there like I did, you’ll have to make some tough choices. You’re best bet to see monkeys and enjoy the most beautiful views of the park is to choose one of the short trek recommended for monkey spotting close to the visitor center and then go on a longer hike on the other side of the park to get some nice viewpoints of the cliffs and of secluded beaches. When you get back, you might be tempted to get into the water to freshen up after a long and sweaty hike, but I wouldn’t do that if I were you as waters around Bako National Park are prime crocodile habitat.


Cost: 20 rm (6,50$CAD) for the entrance fee, 4 rm (1,25$CAD) each way for the bus and 40 rm (6,50$CAD) for your round-trip boat ticket which makes a total of 68 rm (22$CAD).


Transportation: Take the city bus from Kuching center that goes to Bako National Park ticket office. The bus ride will take you about an hour and then a 15 minutes boat ride will get you to the national park.


The DIY version of this tour is very budget friendly! Alternatively, you can go with a tour agency in Kuching which will probably sell you a day tour for 60$-80$.


After two days of exploring, you might want to take a day to relax in the city. But not to worry, Kuching has a lot to offer. You can go on a boat tour on the river or visit Kuching’s free museum around town. The waterfront is also a great place to buy souvenirs or drink some cheap and delicious bubble tea. During our time in Kuching, we stayed at Quikk cat, a charming little guest house very close to the waterfront that I can’t recommend enough. The host was very friendly, the breakfast was free and a private room cost us only 10$/night.


After 5 days exploring Kuching and enjoying the best things Sarawak had to offer, it was time to flight up north and explore Sabah.


KOTA KINABALU, SABAH

 

With only 2 days left in Malaysian Borneo, I decided that the best way to see most of Sabah in a short amount of time was to base myself in Kota Kinabalu, Saba’s capital.


On my first day in Kota Kinabalu, I had an early start and headed directly to the waterfront to start my island hopping day. Tunku Abdul Rahman national park is only an 8 km boat ride from the city which makes it the perfect getaway to escape the craziness of the city and enjoy the beach. Once I arrived at the waterfront, I soon realized there was a lot of competition between tour sellers. I pretty much ignored all of them to get inside the tourist center and started analyzing the different island combinaisons and tour prices. I decided to go with a 3 island tour (Manukan, Gaya and Sapi). The first island, Gaya, was the biggest and most touristic, but it was also the best for snorkelling. Sapi and Manukan were smaller and quieter so we got to relax and chill more on those ones. In other words, it was the perfect combination that made this island hopping day a great success.



On our last day in Malaysia, we decided to visit the Klias, a river network of salt and fresh water where you can spot monkeys, crocodiles, and many species of birds. There are several boat companies that offer all-inclusive tours from Kota Kinabalu so you don’t have to worry about getting there as they will pick and drop you off at your hotel/hostel. You can get out there on your own and then book a tour for slightly cheaper, but it’s not worth the hassle in my opinion.


During our cruise, we saw many monkeys, but the best part was seeing the fireflies when we returned on the water after dinner. It was pitch black and I could barely see in front of me until the dimmed light coming from our phones woke up the fireflies. Thousands of fireflies started illuminating the trees. This unreal experience in the middle of the jungle was the perfect ending to my trip in Malaysia.



Looking back on my trip to Borneo, I’m so glad I decided to go and experience something so different and unique. There are not that many places left in the world where you can surround yourself and bond with nature. I think visiting a place like Borneo is an eye-opening experience on our beautiful world and sustainability issues. It's both astonishing and heartbreaking, but it’s infinitely worth it!


 

Malaysia

 

Best Dive: Sipadan Island

Best Hike: Gunung Kinabalu

Sustainable activity: Visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching.

Sustainable stay: Lime Tree Hotel

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