Squeeze the highlights of Borneo into an adventurous 2-week itinerary. Explore the last stronghold of Bornean primary rainforest – the real jungle – in Danum Valley, make a record in orangutan spotting on tranquil river cruises along Kinabatangan, unwind on a secluded paradise island snorkeling with turtles, visit orangutan sanctuaries, and indulge in Bornean cuisine and cultural treats in the charming cities.

Along the way, you can choose between world-class hiking, snorkeling, and wildlife spotting – or just opt to sit back and enjoy the sceneries. This two-week route maximizes the chances to find funny-looking proboscis monkeys, orangutans and rare Borneo pygmy elephants in the wild – astonishingly, we saw the latter three times!

The pace is leisure, so following this 2-week itinerary will set you to relaxed vacation mode. But at the same time, you’ll pack in a lot in terms of truly experiencing all the different flavors of Borneo. Let’s take off!

Sepilok: Introduction to Borneo with Orangutans, Sun Bears, and Giant Flying Squirrels (2 nights)

Sepilok is a perfect spot to start your journey, as it allows you to avoid starting and ending your trip in Kota Kinabalu. When time is short, every night counts! Internal flight from Kota Kinabalu (where your international flight lands) to a nearby coastal city of Sandakan takes just 45 minutes, and from there it’s just less than 30 minutes’ taxi drive to Sepilok.

But why Sepilok? Choose a resort that is tucked away from it all and a room facing the rainforest and sleep away your jetlag. Wake up to the sounds of exotic birds and enjoy breakfast outdoors while spotting monkeys in the trees. Then head to the world-famous orangutan sanctuary to witness semi-wild red-furred cousins swinging to the feeding platforms for their lunch. Still not completely charged up? What about visiting orangutan nursery and watching babies wrestling and chasing each other?

Still, the highlight for us was visiting Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where you can watch the pint-sized bears climbing up the trees and minding their own businesses. We also loved the nature walks in the rainforest, on the elevated platforms just behind our hotel, MY Nature Resort. The additional perks included watching giant red flying squirrels glide upon us during the evenings. In Sepilok, you’ll get a perfect foretaste of Borneo – the orangutans, sun bears, and rainforest – in just one day!

Getting to Sepilok
There are multiple daily flights between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. One-way prices start at 13$ (AirAsia), so there’s absolutely no reason to take the road. That’s also a total bargain for the one most scenic aerial views: you’ll be flying past Mt. Kinabatangan and weather-permitting the peak is fully visible. Be sure to book left side seat from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan!

Taxi drive from Sepilok to Sandakan takes less than 30 minutes. It’s worthwhile to check if your hotel offers return transfers – ours did. I wouldn’t bother thinking about the bus. Local buses leave hourly from ´Batu 14´, by the highway (Sepilok doesn’t have a center, so you’d need a taxi to Batu 14).

Sandakan: Soak in the Small City Charm (1 night)

Spend a day in the authentic Bornean small town vibes mingling with locals. Zigzag between the hawker and fruit stalls of Sandakan Central Market and stock on everything you’d possibly need from the nearby Harbour Mall, which alone would be a justifiable reason to spend a night in Sandakan before heading off the grid. We enjoyed a great lunch at a quaint café, lovely rooftop drinks, and authentic Malay dinner at the waterfront with locals. Sandakan offered us a welcome city break before spending a week in the remote corners of Borneo!

Getting to Sandakan
Use either a taxi or bus – or ask the transfer from your hotel, as specified above (check out “Getting to Sepilok”).

A Bornean Sun Bear climbing to a tree in the rain in BSBCC, Sabah, Malaysia.
Orangutan at the feeding platform of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysian Borneo

All photographs by Piritta

Lankayan Island: Ultimate Paradise Island with World-Class Diving and Snorkeling (2 nights)

Welcome to the paradise! Lankayan Island is straight out of the tropical daydream: a tiny jewel-shaped, coral-ringed island far off the coast and crowds, in the turquoise Sulu Sea. Imagine chalk-white sand beaches and a magical underwater world, which bewitches divers and snorkelers alike. Then add an exquisite luxury resort, with just 26 seafront chalets, all facing the endless, turquoise ocean. This uninhabited island offers ultimate seclusion – a perfect spot for romantic getaways. Just look at the pictures, the words are not enough.

The best thing is that you don’t need to be a diver to see rare creatures, like jawfish, explore colorful coral reefs, and swim with turtles or sharks. You can do it all in the shallow waters of the Lankayan jetty, even if you’ve never snorkeled before. We searched long and hard for the best place to snorkel in Borneo – and found it from Lankayan. A separate article about the magical underwater world of Lankayan is coming out soon!

Getting to Lankayan
Private boat transfer (included in the rates of Lankayan Island Dive Resort) leaves Sandakan at 10 AM and leaves Lankayan at 7 AM, so plan your itinerary accordingly. If you’re flying in Sandakan, note that your flight has to land before 9 AM.

Tiny Lankayan Island is an unspoilt paradise far off the coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
The main building of Lankayan Island Dive Resort in its evening gown

Sungai Kinabatangan River: Orangutans and Proboscis Monkeys in the Wild (2 nights)

Kinabatangan River is the best bet to see wild orangutans in Borneo – the sightings could be almost guaranteed if you stay two nights at the river (our guides said that the likelihood is 70%). Proboscis monkeys are omnipresent and nearly impossible to miss, still watching their plump bellies and funny noses will guarantee smiles at every encounter.

What we couldn’t believe was spotting a herd of endangered Borneo pygmy elephants. There are only 1500 of these baby-faced forest elephants left in the world, as their population has dropped by 50% during the last three generations. It’s incredibly hard to pick the highlight of our Kinabatangan adventure: every moment spent watching wild orangutans and proboscis monkeys felt sacred, and we were up in the clouds while trying to spot the massive gray ears and trunks of those pygmy elephants through reeds. Still, all river cruises felt serene, though during one morning we didn’t spot any orangutans, and I enjoyed jungle breakfast with cheeky macaques and wild pigs.

Kinabatangan River attracts loads of tourists, so pick your lodge wisely. I’d recommend spending at least one night upriver, far from the cluster of lodges in Sukau village, where riverboat traffic disrupts the jungle fantasies. We loved the privacy of the Abai area combined with one night in Sukau, where wildlife spotting was excellent. Get more inspiration for your trip from our separate article on Kinabatangan River!

One word of warning for Kinabatangan River: there is a devastating reason for the massive numbers of orangutans and other wildlife. The palm oil industry has left only a narrow corridor of the jungle for animals to move around. As splendid as it feels to visit Kinabatangan, it isn’t a real, untouched wilderness – and that’s the perfect reason to venture deeper and add our next destination into your itinerary!

Getting to Kinabatangan River
Either book a tour beforehand or negotiate with the tour operators in Sandakan. Some of the lodges also allow straight bookings (though many are owned by tour companies), but you’ll need river transports anyway. Sukau village is also reachable by car, but we’d recommend venturing further for more authentic Kinabatangan experience. We recommend a tour as then all transports and activities are included – and even the transits become exciting chances to spot wild orangutans and proboscis monkeys!

Proboscis Monkeys by Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo

Danum Valley: The Real Bornean Rainforest and Wildlife with Luxury (3 nights)

If I’d have to pick only one destination in Malaysian Borneo, it would be Danum Valley. It’s the last stronghold of primary rainforest in Borneo, where you can hike along marked trails gazing to the immense, untouched jungle where no man has set foot. Danum Valley is a naturalist’s paradise: before these 438 square kilometers of lowland dipterocarp forest was declared a conservation area, there were no human settlements, meaning no hunting or other interference with wildlife. More than 340 species of birds and 124 species of mammals call this their home – count in orangutans and Borneo pygmy elephants, both of which we were lucky to see more than once.

There’s only one lodge inside the Danum Valley Conservation Area, boasting ultimate seclusion and luxury. The award-winning Borneo Rainforest Lodge offers a gateway to the real jungle of Borneo on its private hiking trails inside the conservation area, along with the iconic, 300 meters long tree top canopy walkway, open exclusively to the guests. All-inclusive rates cover exciting activities – choose between nature walks with a naturalist guide, fun river tubing, longer hikes, birding, and night drives.

Getting to Danum Valley from Kinabangan River (or Lahad Datu)
All-inclusive rates of Borneo Rainforest Lodge include 2-hour transfer from the town of Lahad Datu. MasWings has several daily flights from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu. If you’re coming from Kinabatangan, ground transport is the quickest option (appr. 1-1,5 hours from Sukau to Lahad Datu). Either your lodge in Kinabatangan or Borneo Nature Lodge can organize the transfer.

Danum Valley's Canopy Walkway is a dream come true for nature photographers

Kuching: Bustling Colonial City with Exciting Day Trips (3 nights)

After exploring the Sabah area for more than a week now, venture into another side of Malaysian Borneo: Sarawak. Kuching offers a convenient – and exciting – shortcut to the vast Sarawak. The city itself needs to be felt: roam the riverfront and the colorful streets of Old China Town with locals, pop in the acclaimed fusion restaurants and local eateries and eat your way through the highland and tribal cuisines.

The day trips are the draw of Kuching: you can visit even the far-flung corners of Sarawak on a day trip from Kuching. The hardest part is to choose between the several options and still leave enough time to feel the beat of Kuching. We visited Bako National Park and Semenggoh Nature Reserve – both spellbinding in their own way. For us, the encounters with semi-wild orangutans in Semenggoh Wildlife Center felt more personal and special than in Sepilok, as the orangutan sanctuary is both smaller and less visited.

Bako National Park offers unbelievable versatile trails for short and long day hikes. The sceneries are otherworldly: think of untamed jungle beaches where bearded pigs grub sand and thick forest where proboscis monkeys play upon you. The vegetation is and incredibly versatile with seven different eco-systems – from mangrove to majestic cliffs and weird rock formations, swamp to mixed dipterocarp forest and keranga (a heath forest with acidic, sandy soil).

Getting to Kuching from Danum Valley (or Kota Kinabalu)
Cheap internal flights carry you conveniently almost from the furthest fringe of Sabah to the capital of Sarawak. Driving would be insane (more than 1500 kilometers), as flights take just a couple of hours. We flew with Mas Wings from Lahad Datu to Kota Kinabalu:  they have four daily flights with promo prices around 25$. To Kota Kinabalu–Kuching leg AirAsia proved to be a cheaper option.

Kota Kinabalu: Farewell in Bornean Style (1 night)

Kota Kinabalu entertained us only for one evening, but feel free to expand your stay. We enjoyed our sunset walk along the waterfront with locals, popping in the bustling – and endless – street food market. Somehow one night still felt enough for us: after the jewels of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu felt rather chaotic and dirty. Some find it a pleasant base for daytripping the nearby islands, but after Lankayan – or Semporna islands – you won’t find paradise here. The others end or start their holiday at the nearby beach resorts, but our research drove us to ponder between Semporna Islands and Sandakan Islands (Lankayan). The Kudat area on the tip of Sabah (accessible via Kota Kinabalu by road) sounds perfect for a budget beach stay.

An Orangutan Thinking in Semenggoh Orangutan Center, Malaysian Borneo
Kuching Waterfront lines the south bank of Sarawak river, offering scenic views towards Fort Margherita and the Astana

Our Tweaks for 1-Week, 10-Day and 3-Week Itinerary in Malaysian Borneo: Mt Kinabalu, Maliau Basin and More of Sarawak

If you long for a more tranquil beat and have more time to spend, I’d suggest adding more days on Lankayan Island (especially if you’re a diver or avid snorkeler) and Danum Valley (especially if you’re into hiking). If you have only 7 to 10 days to spend, I’d drop visiting Kuching (Sarawak) and narrow down the nights in Sepilok/Sandakan area.

We were exceptionally pleased with this 2-week itinerary, so personally I wouldn’t remove or add anything – other than more time to explore more destinations. I’d happily add extra loops for climbing Mt Kinabalu (we will return for that!), visiting Maliau Basin National Park in Sabah and doing more day-trips from Kuching to the rest of Sarawak (Gunung Mulu caves, river cruises, Kelabit Highlands, and the longhouses of the headhunter tribe). And of course, we will return for the vast Indonesian side of Borneo called Kalimantan – there’s a lot the explore!

Would you follow our steps tracking the beat of Borneo on this 2-week itinerary? If you’ve visited Malaysian Borneo, what were the highlights for you and would you change something in our itinerary?

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The best of Borneo squeezed into a 2-week itinerary: orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, and turtles; Danum Valley, Kinabatangan, Lankayan Island and more!

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