It’s been said that the wildest, most untouched corners of the world are home to the most welcoming people. Surely that must be said of Malaysian Borneo. There is magic here—high in the treetops, infused in the walls of tribal longhouses deep in the jungle, in the inviting kampong, or coastal villages, surrounding Sarawak and Sabah, and in the dark and dewy eyes of the Bornean orangutan. And you can experience it all during our new Borneo, Nature, Diversity & Grace tour.
First, a Bit of Geography
Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. Many imagine that it is a nation unto itself. Instead, the island is shared between three nations. Indonesia controls the southern three-fourths or so. The tiny nation of Brunei (about 1% of the landmass) hugs the north central coast. The rest—a strip of forest-draped land that seems to want to shove Brunei into the South China Sea—belongs to Malaysia. Our adventure focuses on Malaysian Borneo.
A Brief History
The Dayak people are some of Borneo’s original inhabitants. As Asia’s more advanced people took to the seas, they descended on the island for camphor, ivory, beeswax, rattan, edible bird’s nests and other exotic goods for trade back home. During its early years, Indians and Javanese also found their way here. Later, India and China operated trading posts on Borneo for some 800 years.
The colonial era witnessed the coming and going of Portuguese, British, Spanish, Dutch, American and even German interest. But it was the British and Dutch whose presence had the most lasting impact, with today’s border between Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively, closely resembling the one formed in the 19th century by those colonies. Indeed, British Borneo (today’s Malaysia) fell under the Crown until the Japanese waged a cruel campaign and occupation during World War II.
At war’s end, it was the Australians who helped locals take back Borneo from its occupiers. The island was liberated in 1945. During the second half of the 20th century, the road to becoming part of the Malaysian confederation was long and fraught with intrigue, strained alliances, and populous uprisings. In 1963, the Malaysia Agreement was signed, wrapping the former British territory into the Federation of Malaysia.
Rich Cultures, Unspoiled Beauty
Today, the states of Sarawak in the south and Sabah in the north comprise Malaysian Borneo.
Sophisticated Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, retains many of its British and Chinese accents, from the Tua Pek Kong Temple to the St. Thomas Cathedral. But it is most renowned as the gateway to some of the island’s most breathtaking natural beauty. The magnificent tropical forests of Batang Ai National Park surround a 9.3-square-mile lake, a tranquil habitat for orangutans, gibbons and hornbills. Farther north, the spectacular Gunung Mulu National Park, a true equatorial rainforest and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famed for its countless caves carved over millennia into dramatic karst formations. Our small group ventures into the Deer & Lang Caves, home to many bat species, the Wind Caves with its dramatic stalactites and stalagmites, and the Clearwater Cave, the largest cave system in the world.
In the north, the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah state. This important Malaysian city was named for Mount Kinabalu. Its jagged peaks tower over Kinabalu Park, one of the world’s most biologically diverse spots. More than 5,000 plant species and 90 mammals thrive here and it is recognized as a Center for Plant Diversity for Southeast Asia. A visit to the Mountain Garden showcases some of rarest species in the world, including the Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid.
A Glimpse of Traditional Living
One of the most remarkable experiences in Malaysian Borneo is visiting a longhouse, a traditional tribal dwelling that could be many yards in length. These structures, able to accommodate an entire village under one roof, appear simple on the surface but were actually quite genius in their design for jungle living. Because they are raised off the ground on stilts, livestock can be sheltered underneath and, with fencing, be protected from predators. During flooding, the living quarters stay dry and canoes can easily be launched. Circulation is provided by open areas underneath the home and by breezes coming into the elevated spaces.
Inside, a long wall extends the entire length of the building, creating a corridor on one side and individual living quarters, or bilik, each accessed by its own door, on the other. The kitchen, or dapor, is often in a small separate building, accessed from each apartment by a bridge, to prevent fires from spreading. Residents can sleep along the outer wall of the public corridor. Off the corridor, an open-air terrace might overlook the outdoors. You can witness one of these fascinating structures firsthand when you visit the Mengkak Longhouse of the Iban people.
There is much to explore in Borneo, from a gripping past to some of the most staggering natural beauty you’ll ever see. We hope you’ll join us uncover it all during our new Borneo, Nature, Diversity & Grace tour.