How I Spent 3.5 Weeks in Malaysian Borneo

Borneo.

I haven’t really given much thought about Malaysian Borneo. It wasn’t even on my list until I met travelers who shared good experiences about it. So I was intrigued.

Back home, when we think about Malaysia, only Kuala Lumpur, Legoland, and Kota Kinabalu come to mind and that’s it.

Malaysian Borneo is not a popular tourist destination for people back home. Thankfully, I was introduced to the idea so when I was planning my 2nd big trip, Malaysian Borneo was the first on my list.

And after spending 3.5 weeks, I was impressed. I didn’t realize how big Malaysia is until now.

In this post, I will show you how I spent those 3.5 weeks, things I did, people I encountered, and wonderful experiences I gained.

Disclaimer: this is not a travel guide as there are still a lot of things you can do in Malaysian Borneo that are not on this list. This post is merely for your reference.

Let’s begin.

Feb. 7, 2018 — I arrived in Kota Kinabalu from Manila with no return ticket. I stayed at The Bunk hostel and explored the city for 5 days.

The Bunk is strategically located. Almost everything is walking distance.

Things I did within those 5 days:

  • Went island hopping (Mamutik, Manukan, and Sapi islands). The cost was around MYR 70 in total and it took us 6 hours.
  • Visited the Floating Mosque and Sabah State Mosque
  • Went to the local market during the day and had dinner at the seafood market
  • Watched a movie (The Greatest Showman) twice because I really loved the movie and the cinema didn’t cost much (less than $4).
  • Watched the sunset at Grandis hotel (a tip from an Uber driver).
  • Went to Tanjung Aru, a local beach popular for its sunset and local restaurants that served good food
  • Went to the Observatory and Clock tower
  • Enjoyed the Sunday market which was setup right in front of The Bunk hostel
  • Enjoyed the local food especially Teh Tarik and spicy noodles. I ate so much when I was in KK.
  • Spent time a lot of time in Old Town Coffee shop to work and do some business stuff. They have good coffee and food at reasonable prices.

My means of transportation were mostly Uber and the public bus if the destination was a bit far.

For the island hopping, you don’t have to book from a tour agency. Simply go to the Jesselton point and book your tour there. I paid MYR 50 for the RT boat trip and MYR 20 for the environmental for all 3 islands. You only have to pay once and show the ticket to the other islands.

Goggles and life vest are easily available at extra fee of course.

NOTE: If you want to do the 4 islands (including Gaya island), make sure to be at the Jesselton point before 7:30am. Also, bring lots of water and food, sunblock, and towel with you.

After spending 5 days in KK, it was time for my volunteering gig. I was scheduled to volunteer for 2 weeks at a retreat centre/homestay, which was located 2 hours away from KK.

Breinda, my host, picked me up at the hostel and drove for 2 hours. Breinda was such a lovely host. We talked about a lot of things during that 2-hour ride to Haleluyah Retreat Centre.

For 2 weeks, I was doing volunteer work (i.e. housekeeping, reception duties, laundry, etc.), which were all easy tasks, with 3 other volunteers — a Canadian girl and 2 Brit guys. Thankfully, we got along quite well.

Also, in those 2 weeks, I got to go to these places (with entrance fees included):
  • Kinabalu park and Botanical garden (MYR 15 + 5 for the Botanical garden guided tour)
  • Desa dairy farm (MYR 5)
  • Kundasang – town proper; people go here to buy stuff and to checkout the Friday market
  • Poring hot springs (MYR 15)

Breinda was kind enough to bring us to these places. She even gave us a tip that if we want to climb Mt. Kinabalu and save money, we can go directly to the office and ask if there’s a slot available.

Note: if you book a tour with an agency, it would cost somewhere between MYR 1,500-2000. But when you go directly to the office, you will only pay MYR 700 max. Then again, there’s no guarantee that there’ll be a slot open.

After 2 weeks, it was time to move again. It was hard for me to leave the retreat centre because Breinda has been so nice, cooked really good food, and even brought us to a local wedding. It was a privilege and a pleasure meeting Breinda, her husband Ben, her staff, and the other volunteers.

If you want to stay somewhere near Mt. Kinabalu, I highly recommend staying at Haleluyah Retreat Centre.

From the retreat centre, I went to Sepilok, which was 4 hours away by bus. I waited for 2 hours for the bus in front of Kinabalu park and paid MYR 35. I got off at the junction and still had 1.1km walk before I get to Sepilok Nature Lodge, where I will be staying.

Just as I started walking, a good soul offered to give me a ride. I am amazed that good people are just about everywhere. ALWAYS.

In Sepilok, you’ll get to visit the following:

You can do all these in one day, and everything is a walking distance from Sepilok Nature Lodge.

Sepilok Nature Lodge was a great place to stay with good facilities at affordable prices. Food is also good and reasonably priced. I was quite impressed with this lodge as it exceeded my expectations.

If you want more food options, you can choose to stay at Sandakan, which is still 40 minutes away from Sepilok by mini bus and cost MYR 6 one way.

After spending 2 nights in Sepilok, I took the 6-hour bus back to KK. I booked my ticket in advance with the help of the staff at the lodge and it cost MYR 43.

I spent another night in KK before making my way to Brunei.

Related post: Crossing borders – Malaysia (Sabah)-Brunei-Miri (Sarawak)-Indonesia

Since Brunei is conveniently situated in the middle of Malaysian Borneo, I decided to make a stop before heading to Miri.

Brunei is an expensive city. Food, accommodation and transportation can cost a lot. They do have stunning Mosques and a 7-star hotel, which were also worth visiting. I stayed at Villa Dadap and paid US$16 for one night.

I needed just one night in Brunei (yes, I didn’t want to stay longer), then after, I made my way to Miri.

Recommended hostel: Next Room Homestay

Miri is a small town located in Sarawak region of Malaysia. There’s not much you can do but visit the National Parks nearby.

How to get to these National Parks via public transport:

Go to Pujit bus terminal and take the bus that is headed to Kuching. Upon boarding, tell the driver to drop you off at Lambir Hills National Park entrance, which is right at the main road. Travel time is approx. 30 minutes and cost MYR 10. In this national park, you can see a lot of waterfalls. I went on a weekday and I get to enjoy the waterfalls all to myself.

Niah Caves National Park is much farther. You have to take the same bus and inform the driver that you’ll be going to the national park. You will be dropped off at the junction and from there, there’s no other way but to get a taxi or a private vehicle to get to the national park, which is still 15km away from the junction. The bus cost MYR 15 and the taxi cost MYR 30 one way. It would be best to go there with someone so you’d be able to share taxi costs. Travel time is approx. 2.5 hours one way.

Note: you have to start early if you want to do a lot of treks because you have to be out of the park by 4pm.

After 2 nights in Miri, it was time to go to Kuching – my last stop.

From Miri to Kuching, you can either take the 16-hour bus or the 1.5 hour flight at the same cost. I took the latter of course.

In Kuching, I stayed at Check In Lodge, which I highly recommend. Facilities were good, beds comfy, always clean, and the staff was very accommodating.

Here, I met up with the Canadian volunteer and together, we went to Bako National park and stayed there for a night. If you want to stay overnight at the National Park, you have to book in advance because it’s almost always fully booked.

For your reference, here’s the official website of Bako National Park.

From the hostel, we took the bus to the ferry terminal. Travel time was approx. 30-45 minutes. We arrived at the terminal sometime before 9am, hoping to catch the 9am ferry to the National Park. Unfortunately, when we got there, we were told that the next boat leaves at 12noon due to low tide. So that meant, we had a 3-hour wait.

By 12pm, we boarded the boat. It should have been just a 20-minute ride but it took us an hour because we got stuck somewhere in the middle of the river as it was still low tide. Another adventure yet again!

Here’s a breakdown of expenses if you’re interested in going to Bako National Park:
  • Bus ride to ferry terminal – MYR 3.50
  • RT Ferry ride – MYR 40
  • Accommodation – MYR 15
  • Entrance fee – MYR 20
  • Night walk – MYR 10 (starts at 8pm)
  • Food – MYR 8-12 per meal

We did the 3.5-hour trek that looped around, the 1.5-hour night walk, and another 1.5-hour trek the next day. There were a lot of treks you can do but we only chose a few and we were satisfied with that. We saw a lot of monkeys, snakes, flying Lemur, spiders, frogs, etc. It was, indeed, worth visiting and I’m glad we stayed the night.

From the national park, we headed back to Kuching city center. I spent one more night in Kuching and then I was off to Indonesia.

I didn’t realize until now how much I’ve done in these 3.5 weeks. Definitely time well spent! And another ‘best’ thing I experienced was the food!

Here’s a list of my favorite food in Malaysian Borneo:
  • Sarawak Laksa — a MUST try! Look for Mom’s Laksa in Kuching, they have one of the best laksa in Sarawak.
  • Pinasakan
  • Teh Tarik
  • Mie Goreng

Do you want more? Watch out for my next post — How I spent 3.5 weeks in Yogyakarta and Bali!

Thank you for stopping by! Sending you love from Canggu, Bali!