Looking for some Sarawak and Sabah adventures when backpacking in Borneo?
I spent several weeks travelling the area and this is what I recommend for the best things to do in Sarawak and Sabah.
This is a selective list based on my own experiences and that of my travelling partners during that time so will not cover everything, just the main things most travellers seemed to visit and what we did as well.
Backpacking in Borneo
The main gateway city to Sabah is Kota Kinabalu and if you’re flying into Sabah the most likely place you will be arriving.
There isn’t much to the city itself so just spend 1-2 nights and arrange to get out to the fun places on this list!
There are a few islands nearby Kota Kinabalu you could day trip to for snorkelling if you wish but if you are shorter on time I would save the islands option for what I suggest later on in the article.
When in Kota Kinabalu though head to the seafront evening market where you can find great seafood and other stuff for dinner.
For a hotel in Kota Kinabalu check out these options for places to stay in Kota Kinabalu (opens in new tab).
On the flip side if you’re starting out in the far south in Sarawak then you would be flying into Kuching (find places to stay there).
However I would highly recommend to take an internal flight up to Miri if this is the case as that’s where a lot of these adventures will start from, or try to fly into Kota Kinabalu instead.
The route I did was flying into Kota Kinabalu and then head south by boat to Miri via a night in Brunei.
1. The Kelabit Highlands
The scenery hiking in The Kelabit Highlands.
The Kelabit Highlands were the highlight of the whole trip and definitely my best place to recommend for things to do in Sarawak.
They are mostly only reached by a small propellor plane (part of the fun) from Miri.
The highlands are so remote that you will see few other tourists and once you hit the jungle trails to go trekking and stay at homestays in small villages scattered around the mountains you will most likely be all by yourself (or with friends).
The jungle hiking can be tough so be prepared for that and there are a lot of leeches in some parts (hate them)!
Walking across a river in the jungle of The Kelabit Highlands.
There is some random things that you will come across such as ancient burial grounds.
Ancient monolithic burial stones in the jungle.
The food is to die for. If you eat meat the locally caught boar meat is delicious and freshly killed and smoked.
The Bario rice is famous around the world as some of the best you can get anywhere.
Staying at home-stays your hosts will cook all the food you will need.
Staying at a homestay and trying traditional local food from woman with traditional earrings.
Bario is the main town of the Kelabit Highlands and where the flights come into.
From Bario you can arrange jungle treks and stay at home-stays or hotels (find places to stay here).
2. Gunung Mulu National Park
Inside a cave in Gunung Mulu National Park. It’s massive!
Gunung Mulu National Park has the largest caves in the world by surface. You can fit 40 large Boeing jets inside to give you an idea of the size!
2-3 million bats live in these caves (!) and they all fly out at sunset to go feeding. You can watch this happen after spending the day exploring the caves.
It’s a sight you won’t forget.
Bats leave the Deer Cave at sunset to feed on insects at night.
See the people on the right of the photo to give you an idea of the scale of the Mulu Caves.
Stairs take you deep into the cave.
As well as the caves there are plenty of other things to do in Mulu National Park.
Going up high on a canopy walkway above the jungle is one that you shouldn’t miss.
On the canopy walkway.
There is also excellent hiking in Mulu National Park, especially to the ‘Pinnacles’.
3. Climb Mount Kinabalu
Entrance to Kinabalu National Park.
This is one adventure activity people think of when it comes to the best things to do in Sabah, if not all of Borneo.
Mount Kinabalu seen from far.
The mountain is the highest in Borneo and is popular to climb. It’s based in Kinabalu Park which also has numerous hiking trails to get into nature.
Jungle hiking to Mount Kinabalu.
The hike to the top of the mountain itself is mostly done with a stay at a camp on the mountain itself for the night on the way back down so you don’t have to rush.
Having said that my friend I was travelling climbed to the top and down in one day!
Personally I didn’t climb it as I wasn’t feeling so good and it is a very hard climb in one day. But my friend said it is definitely worth it as did all other travellers we met.
You can easily reach Kinabalu Park from Kota Kinabalu on public transport and back again in the same day. I would say for most people it’s best to stay up on the mountain for the night (my friend is fit and he was shattered)!
4. Diving From Mabul Island
Paradise islands near Mabul Island.
Mabul Island is one of the best islands to visit in all of Borneo.
Diving the pristine waters.
Sipadan Island is the island in the area most popular to go diving to see massive schools of fish.
The other great thing about Mabul Island is that it’s based around a community of local sea gypsies who build their houses over the sea on stilts.
Go and explore their village and see their way of life.
Sea Gypsy village at Mabul Island.
Sea gypsy boy runs through the village at sunset.
Mabul Island can be reached from the city of Semporna (find places to stay here)
5. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Orangutan munching at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the largest rehabilitation centre in the world fro orangutans.
Orangutan swings from a tree.
You can stay near the centre itself at Sepilok or base yourself in the nearby city of Sandakan (find places to stay here) which is only a half hour drive away.
If you have your own transport it’s easy to drive to or take a public bus that will drop you by the road to the entrance.
Alternatively take a tour from Sandakan to the Organgutan Rehabilitation Centre that also would include a river cruise (see further down the article) on a river to see wildlife.
6. Niah Caves at Niah National Park
Inside a cave at Niah National Park.
Niah caves are good to visit as although not as big as the caves at Mulu National Park, they are still massive and it’s only a few hours drive from Miri, where (if you follow this advice) is where you take flights to the Kelabit Highlands or Mulu.
In that regard it’s worth popping down on a long day trip from Miri or spend a night or 2 there as apart from the caves there is some nice hiking to do in the park itself.
Light coming into the cave from a hole at the top to help guide your way.
A more detailed post I did about caves in Borneo.
Jungle walkway to get to a cave.
7. Wildlife River Cruise
Crocodile in river.
There is a whole bunch of national parks in Sarawak that you can get on a river to go and see wildlife so just choose whichever one you feel like (ask the locals).
I chose to do it on the Kinabatangan river near the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre as it was nearby.
The river is the best way to get up close to the wild animals in Borneo and see them in their natural habitat.
Sunrise is the perfect time to see wildlife and also the most beautiful.
The funny nosed proboscis monkey of Borneo.
A video to sum up things to do in Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysian Borneo:
Adventure travel tip:
For any kind of travel I advise to take travel insurance just in case. I’ve had a medical emergency on my travels before and having insurance saved me thousands of dollars in medical costs.
I use World Nomads and highly recommend them, especially for adventurous travellers.
Get a quote here for your trip:
Borneo is a massive island and there are a lot of things to do there and the Indonesian side of Borneo called Kalimantan also has its adventures.
The main adventure in Kalimantan that I did was taking a boat upriver into the heart of Borneo to stay with Dayak tribes.
Kalimantan is massive but in my research on Borneo I found that the Malaysian side had more to offer so spent most of the time there.
Visit Sarawak & Sabah
Borneo and specifically the north of Sarawak and Sabah are an adventure paradise and easily one of the best places you can go to if looking for adventure.
With cheap and regular flights to Kota Kinabalu or Kuching, there is no reason not to go!
I have written travel articles for both Lonely Planet and Bradt Travel Guides and like both companies, although in this case, I would choose the Bradt Guide overall for Borneo.
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