3 Reasons to NOT skip Malaysian Borneo on your next Southeast Asia Trip

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3 Reasons to NOT skip Malaysian Borneo on your next Southeast Asia Trip

When I first began researching spots for our Southeast Asia trip, Borneo wasn’t even on my radar. For years, destinations such as Hanoi, Siem Reap, and Chaing Mai had come up in conversations with fellow travelers or floated their way on to whatever travel guide I was skimming that week. It wasn’t until I began looking into hikes to commence our two month adventure that I stumbled upon Malaysian Borneo. Once I began researching the island I couldn’t stop – and, what began as a place not even on our itinerary quickly turned into one of the most, if not the most, memorable stop on our journey.

Where ever it is you’re going on your trip through Asia, don’t even think about passing up Malaysian Borneo. Here’s three ( I could go on) reasons why:

WORLD-CLASS DIVING

Whether you have the financial freedom to spend the big bucks diving the world-class Sipadan, or, like us, the will to dive but the budget of broke college students (yes, we’re 28 years old…some things never change, am I right?) Sabah, Malaysia can’t be missed. While we weren’t able to quite swing diving Sipadan this trip, we’ve vowed to one day find our way back to dive alongside the island’s large pelagic inhabitants: sharks, (even schools of hammerheads during the right season!) manta rays, turtles, and the occasional whale shark, if you’re lucky.  We shared drinks with many divers over the course of our two month trip through SEA and Sipadan nearly always made it to the top of their lists.  Word to the wise, if Sipadan sounds like somewhere you want to stop over, book early!

Pier walk

Don’t worry, though, if Sipadan doesn’t fit your budget (I feel you). Mabul Island just so happens to also be a world class dive spot, renowned for its macro diving. Yes, TWO world class diving locations in one spot! And, lucky for us, one happens to be much more affordable than the other. While Mabul doesn’t boast sightings of whale sharks or schools of hammerheads, it does warrant encounters with several species of shrimp, crab, pipefish, lobster, and squid – we even saw a pygmy squid! Moral takeaway? Don’t opt out of the night dive.

While I can’t necessarily say that Mabul was the most spectacular diving we’ve ever done, the whole package experience is hard to beat. Picture this: you step off a boat onto a long wooden pier, which leads you to a tiny island that, at times, feels as though you have all to yourself; You watch the sun set each night on the beach, steps away from your private, wooden bungalow, and wake with the sun each morning to set out for a full day of diving. You can already picture it, can’t you?

Our stay on Mabul was bliss – offering us a chance to unwind and disconnect from our devices, stresses, and timelines, allowing us the much-needed opportunity to reconnect with one another. Go ahead, add it to your itinerary. You won’t be let down.

As always, be mindful of your environmental effects when traveling, or any day for that matter. As beautiful as Mabul Island is there are still several parts of the beach littered with trash. Do your part, travel with reusable utensils (and straws!) and always model responsible behavior. Oh, and if you book with Scuba Junkie, as we did, when they organize a beach cleanup,  participate! 🙂

RIVER ADVENTURES 

I’ve never had an experience quite like the one we had on the river in Kinabatangan. We opted to explore the river via homestay, an experience colored not with the hippest of hostels or top-rated dining experiences, but an opportunity rich with cultural exchange and local knowledge. After all, isn’t that what traveling is – should be – all about?

Our experience was off to a rocky start considering we hopped off the bus to find that our ride was a no show, hitchhiked in the bed of a stranger’s truck, got dropped off on a random door step to find our reservation had been lost, and were transported via boat to a local’s home who had last minute agreed to take us in. At this point we had met, what felt like, nearly half the Bilit community and still didn’t have the slightest clue what was going on – it was hilariously disorienting.

Choosing to experience the river with, and through the eyes, of locals who live, and depend, on the river awarded us with such a deeper connection to the water, people, and animals we were keeping our eyes peeled for. While silently cruising in the misty mornings, coffee in hand, we spotted Proboscis Monkeys, Silver Hair Langurs, Long-tail Macaques, Monitor Lizards, Crocodiles, Civet Cats, Mouse Deer, Tree snakes, several species of Hornbill, and even ~accidentally~  followed in the tracks of a pygmy elephant, before our guide yelled something that I believe would have loosely translated to, “we best hightail out of here!” Unfortunately, the Orangutan eluded us but our trip was not the least bit affected by this – we got much more than we signed up for.

Each day, we cruised up the river, just the two of us and our guide, early in the mornings before the sun or anyone else was awake. We stalked through the jungle, after everyone else was asleep, in hopes of stumbling across rare creatures of the night. And, my favorite, we shared meals together, family style, sitting cross-legged on the floor, while being taught the proper way of eating with our hands and sharing bits about the places we come from.

Grow your global family; gain a deeper understanding for the land and people depending on the Kinabatangan River. Check out Bilit Homestay – just, maybe, double and triple check your reservation before arriving 😉

TWO WORDS: MOUNT KINABALU

Where do I even start? The part where I thought if I had to take one more step uphill I’d collapse into a ball and die? Or the part where it was dumping rain and we were so socked in by clouds we could no longer tell which way was up or down? Or maybe the part where I was so cold I seriously considered the possibility of hypothermia?!

I could, I suppose, begin with any of these anecdotes about our journey to summit Mt. Kinabalu, as they are all true. But, surprisingly enough, these are not the moments that initially come to mind, as amusing as they are, when I reflect upon my time on the mountain.

Instead, I reminisce on that moment when I thought I couldn’t take one more step, and then the clouds cleared. Or when I was huddled inside the lodge hiding from the outside when the sun, finally, peeked through. To the card games we played with fellow hikers who would soon become friends. To the lay-down-and-kiss-the-ground moment when I reached the summit. And, finally, to the exact moment when the sun rose and I, for the first time, realized I was quite literally standing atop the World – a place I had reached with the aid of nothing but my own two feet.

I could go on – so much so that I wrote a post solely about summiting Mt. Kinabalu, which you can find here. The mountain is magical, empowering, and single-handedly my favorite experience of our SEA trip. We could all use a few more experiences that make us feel more alive, couldn’t we?

Book early. Get in shape. And, whatever you do, do not forget your layers!

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Have any favorite stop overs in Malaysian Borneo? Any advice for things to see in Sabah or suggestions for Sarawak? I’d love to hear your favorite memories and experiences while traveling in Borneo. Comment below!

As always, keep adventuring x

Keep believing. Keep exploring. And, keep relentlessly telling the Universe all it is you plan to do. 

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