Off The Beaten Track: BORNEO

By Mariam Ottimofiore
March 13, 2018

Tired of going to Phuket or Bali and fighting for a quiet spot on the beach? This month, Suitcases & Souvenirs takes you off the beaten track instead, to a destination, which is a wonderfully kept secret – until now of course. From unique wildlife to untouched jungle, few places can match the natural drama of Malaysian Borneo. Visit the local tribes, spot orangutans in the wild, explore tropical islands, and enjoy the most gorgeous sunsets on this unforgettable adventure, only a two-hour flight away!

Half of me does not want to write this article. I want to keep Borneo as my little secret, and I resent the thought of anyone else knowing about my special Asian vacation hideaway. The other half of me can’t stop talking about Borneo at every party or get-together, and wants to regale everyone with tales of how fantastic this place actually is.

“If Borneo is so wonderful, how come nobody has told me about it yet?” I imagine you asking eagerly. Well, they are probably facing the same dilemma described above. Except the writer and travel enthusiast in me has won; so read on as I share where to go to get the best out of your Borneo experience.


Best for Orangutans:

It is feeding time at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, but it’s surprisingly quiet, with bunches of bananas, coconuts and jackfruit piled on the feeding platform. The quiet doesn’t last very long. Soon I hear the snapping of trees, and two chocolate eyes peek out straight at me. Pretty soon, more orangutans swing down, cartwheeling lazily through the trees to gather up the fruit. I look over at the rapture on my two-year-old daughter’s face, and share her unbridled fascination with these animals.

Of all of Borneo’s wild inhabitants, the Orangutan is clearly the king. Derived from the Malay words, orang (person) and hutan (forest), these “people of the forest” live wild only in Sumatra and Borneo.  It is a surreal experience watching these animals in their natural habitat. They seem to have their own personalities; some are forthcoming, others shy, some greedily grab the fruit and linger for photographs, while others nonchalantly stretch out for a siesta.

The Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is a great option for people with little time to spare in Sabah, since it is only 30 minutes away from the capital, Kota Kinabalu. The 280-acre wildlife center is home to several tigers, elephants, orangutans and other protected animals. Go early in the day to beat the heat, and have the best chance of spotting the orangutans in near solitude.

Further information:

Entrance fees: MYR 20 for a non-Malaysian adult and MYR 10 for a child. It is best to hire a car and driver at the hotel to drive to Lok Kawi.

Best for Tribal Culture:

Babbling streams of water, screeching birds and humming crickets make me realize that it’s never quiet in the jungle. As I step inside a traditional longhouse at the Mari Mari Cultural Village, I am surprised to hear the history behind these longhouses (a salient feature of the Rungus tribal culture in Borneo) that our guide, Adam, describes. Each longhouse includes private quarters for up to 50-60 families as well as a shared veranda for village meetings and storage.

The Mari Mari Cultural Village is located deep in the Borneo jungle, about a 25-minute taxi ride from the capital of Kota Kinabalu.  The undisturbed beauty of the forest is certain to capture your heart as soon as you step into the village. The village shares the knowledge, history, culture and tradition of the various tribes in Borneo.

A very interesting experience ensues as our guide takes us to view various tribes and explore the way their ancestors lived. We also have a chance to see their different activities such as rice wine making, honey tasting, bamboo cookery, rope- and vest-making from the bark of a tree, tribal tattoos, fire starting and jumping on a trampoline floor. This is followed by a cultural performance of various dances, including jumping across bamboo pipes (audience participation necessary!). Lastly, we are treated to a light Halal meal of fish, chicken rice, vegetables and salad (If you are a vegetarian, it is best to let your tour guide know in advance so vegetarian arrangements can be made). If you go for an evening session, as we did, remember to pack the mosquito repellent!

Further Information: Book a tour package at the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Admission is MYR 150 for adults and MYR 130 for children. Morning, afternoon and evening sessions are available and include lunch, tea or dinner.

Best for Islands:

As the early morning ferry pulls into the jetty at Pulau Manukan, my eyes are busy soaking in the different shades of blue – aquamarine, turquoise, azzuri, and electric blue – from the pristine waters all around. Clear enough to spot fish with the naked eye, we make our way down the pier; I am clearly in heaven. In most places, you have to travel for days to find a place as perfect as this, but in Borneo, you can be in paradise within 15 minutes of leaving the city.

Pulau Manukan or Manukan Island is located in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, one of Borneo’s best-known island getaways. Consisting of 5 tropical islands, the park is famous for its glassy waters, white coral sands and abundant marine life, and is hugely popular for snorkelling.

Island-hopping is a popular activity here but if you are short on time and can only visit one island, I recommend visiting Manukan Island. Facilities might be better at the bigger islands like Mamutik or Sapi, but if you’re after breathtaking beauty and crystal clear waters, the white coral beach of Manukan will certainly not disappoint.

We brought along our own blankets, packed some buckets and spades for our toddler and quickly realized the key to finding Borneo bliss: wade in the warm waters, watch the distant yachts bob up and down, and grab a delicious seafood lunch at any of the beach restaurants or cafés. Perfect is the only way to describe it!


Further Information: for a short boat ride away from Kota Kinabalu, check with your hotel to see where the nearest boat departs from. Park access fee of MYR 10 to be paid on your boat trip.

Best for Sunsets:

The shadows start to fall across the beach as the sun dips towards the horizon. The palm trees sway, almost in unison, before the sun burns a deep orange in the sky. As the multi-color hues appear magically – red, orange, fuchsia and purple – there is silence around me. The only sound that breaks the monotony is the sound of clicking cameras. Renowned for its gorgeous sunsets, word seems to get around easily and lots of visitors gather each day at this spot, eager to capture the enfolding drama of colors and magic in the sky.

The best place I found to enjoy a gorgeous sunset is, coincidentally, the 5-star, luxurious resort at which we were staying, the Shangri La Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa. With a jutted peninsula facing westward, this is the perfect place to enjoy an unobstructed view of the sunset. Come early to claim a prime spot and plan to linger around – and if you can take less than 25 photos of the most beautiful sunset ever, well, that would probably be a first.

Further information:, Kota Kinabalu.

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About Mariam Ottimofiore

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore was one of Fuchsia's founding members, its first content editor and a regular writer and contributer for the magazine. Mariam holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mount Holyoke College in the United States, and has 7+ years of experience in the finance and corporate world. She is also the Co-author of the book "Export Success and Industrial Linkages in South Asia" published in 2008. She is a travel enthusiast and a long-term expat, having lived in 7 countries in the past 12 years, but is still hopeless at packing suitcases and an expert at getting lost in every new city she calls home. She currently resides in Dubai with her husband and two children. To follow her expat adventures, you can read more on her blog "".