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7 Adventurous Things To Do In Sarawak & Sabah (Borneo)

If you’re looking for some great adventurous things to do in Sarawak and Sabah when backpacking in Borneo then this is it. I spent several weeks travelling the area and this is what I recommend for the best things to do when there.

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.

Things to do in Sarawak & Sabah

backpacking in Borneo Sarawak Sabah

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 taking 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 heading south by boat to Miri via a night in Brunei.

1. The Kelabit Highlands

The scenery hiking in The Kelabit Highlands.

things to do in sarawak kelabit highlands trekking

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.

kelabit highlands trekking

There is some random things that you will come across such as ancient burial grounds.

Ancient monolithic burial stones in the jungle.

kelabit highlands monolithic stone

The food is to die for. If you eat meat the locally caught boar meat is delicious and freshly killed and smoked.

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 a woman with traditional earrings.

kelabit highlands Bario honestay

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!

things to do in Sarawak lulu national park caves

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.

mulu national park cave bats

See the people on the right of the photo to give you an idea of the scale of the Mulu Caves.

mulu national park caves

Stairs take you deep into the cave.

mulu caves

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.

mulu national park canopy walk

There is also excellent hiking in Mulu National Park, especially to the ‘Pinnacles’.

3. Climb Mount Kinabalu 

Entrance to Kinabalu National Park.

Kinabalu national park entrance

This is one adventure activity people think of when it comes to the best things to do in Sabah and when planning backpacking in Borneo.

Mount Kinabalu is seen from afar.

mount Kinabalu

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.

climbing 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 the other travellers we met.

Next time…

You can easily reach Kinabalu Park from Kota Kinabalu on public transport and back again on 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.

Pulau mabul island

Mabul Island is one of the best islands to visit in all of Borneo.

Diving the pristine waters.

diving Pulau mabul

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 gipsies 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.

Pulau mabul sea gypsy village

Sea gipsy boy runs through the village at sunset.

sea gypsy village Pulau mabul Sarawak

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.

sepliok orangutan

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the largest rehabilitation centre in the world for orangutans. When backpacking in Borneo this is a must-visit place if you love wildlife.

Orangutan swings from a tree.

sepilok orangutan sarawak

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 Orangutan 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

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 hour’s 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 spending a night or 2 there as apart from the caves there is some nice hiking to do in the park itself.

Light comes into the cave from a hole at the top to help guide your way.

niah national park cave

A more detailed post I did about caves in Borneo.

Jungle walkway to get to a cave.

niah national park hiking

7. Wildlife River Cruise

Crocodile in the river.

sarawak crocodile

There is a whole bunch of national parks in Sarawak where 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.

river cruise sarawak

The funny-nosed proboscis monkey of Borneo.

proboscis monkey sarawak

Adventure travel tip:

For any kind of travel, I advise taking 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 recommend using SafetyWing Travel Insurance for your trip, just in case, it’s best to be prepared.

Get a quote here for your trip:

Indonesian Borneo

Borneo is a massive island and there are a lot of things to do there the Indonesian side of Borneo called Kalimantan also has great adventures. 

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 & Go Backpacking in Borneo

Borneo 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!

This is the best guidebook for backpacking in Borneo: Bradt Travel Guides Borneo.

I have written travel articles for Bradt Travel Guides and like the company.

The main adventure in Kalimantan that I did was taking a boat upriver into the heart of Borneo to stay with the Dayak tribes.

Share these best things to do in Sarawak and Sabah:

best things to do in sarawak borneo Malaysia

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