12-day Borneo itinerary: the ultimate travel guide

by Jan

Are you planning a trip to Borneo and not sure of the best places to visit?  If so, this 12-day Borneo itinerary will be perfect for you.  In this travel guide we share all the best places to visit in Borneo, including transport, accommodation, and top attractions.

If you’re on a quest for adventure and love wildlife, Borneo is a brilliant destination.  You’ll find ancient rainforest, stunning scenery, golden beaches, and a rich heritage.  Plus, it’s home to some of the most unique animals in the world. 

Borneo had been at the top of my bucket list for as long as I could remember.  I’d always wanted to go to the jungle and see orangutans in the wild.  So, all my dreams came true this year when my family and I were lucky enough to go.

We spent many hours planning our itinerary, to ensure we had the most amazing Borneo holiday possible.  Hopefully, you can use this information to help you plan your own unforgettable trip.

Read on for our 12-day Borneo itinerary.

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Facts about Borneo

Borneo Sun bear at the rehabilitation centre in Sepilok, Sabah

Before we start our itinerary, here are some important facts about Borneo.

  • Borneo is the largest island in Asia.
  • Borneo is divided into 2 states, Sabah and Sarawak
  • It is made up of 3 countries; Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei
  • The independent state of Brunei separates the two states of Borneo.
  • Borneo’s official currency is the Malaysian Ringgitt (RM).
  • Borneo is home to South-East Asia’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu.
  • Borneo has a tropical rain forest climate, so is hot and humid all year round, with lots of rainfall.

For our trip we went to the state of Sabah, in the northern part of the island of Borneo.

Getting to Borneo

The main airport in Sabah is the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI) on the west coast of the island.

You cannot fly directly from the UK to Kota Kinabalu.   The fastest route is via Singapore, so we flew there and spent four days in Singapore beforehand. We then flew directly to Kota Kinabalu with Singapore Airlines.  This flight took 2 hours 35 minutes.  You can also fly from other major Asian destinations, such as Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Hong Kong and Manila.

Overnight in Kota Kinabalu

We spent one night in Kota Kinabalu before starting our 12-day Borneo itinerary.  We returned here at the end of the trip for some beach time.  However, we were keen to get to see the orang-utans.  You obviously could do our itinerary in reverse.

On arrival in Kota Kinabalu, we stayed at the HotelSixty3, which we booked through Booking.com.  HotelSixty3 is a clean, safe hotel with family rooms. It is close to the Gaya Street Sunday Market and has a few restaurants within walking distance.  So, after dropping our luggage, we headed out for food.

This hotel is ideal for an overnight stop, as it’s fairly close to the airport and we were flying to Sandakan (SDK) early the next morning.  Sandakan is on the west coast of Sabah and the best area for seeing orangutangs and Borneo’s amazing wildlife.

Day 1: Sepilok & Bornean Sun Bear Centre

Getting to Sepilok

The next morning we took an early flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan.  You can get a cheap internal flight with AirAsia, which takes about 45 minutes. 

On arrival at Sandakan airport, we went directly by Grab (Malay equivalent of Uber) to Sepilok.  Sepilok is about 17km from the airport and takes about 20 minutes by road.

Alternatively, you could also take a bus, which takes 30 minutes.  The bus service is operated by Local Minibus Malaysia and runs from Sandakan station.

Top Tip:  You need to get a new sim card for Malaysia if you want to make use of Grab here.  It’s easy to buy them at the airport.

Accommodation in Sepilok

Forest Edge Lodge communal area

Sepilok is world-famous for its orangutan sanctuary, one of the must-visit attractions in Sabah.  There are several nature lodges within a short walk of the sanctuary.

We stayed at the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, which was absolutely spectacular.  This nature resort has luxury chalets set in their own natural environment, including an open-air shower.  For those on a budget, they have a mixed dormitory room too.  

Alternatively, you’ll find several other choices for luxury accommodation, including Sepilok Nature Reserve, Sepilok Jungle Resort, and Nature Lodge Sepilok.

For budget accommodation, you’ll find plenty of homestays, but none of them are in walking distance.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Sun Bear Centre

Mother and Baby Orangutan Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo

From the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort it is only 10 minutes’ walk to Sepilok’s main tourist attractions, The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre .

The two wildlife centres are opposite each other and provide a wonderful opportunity to see orphaned orangutans and sun bears.

Sepilok is a world-famous rehabilitation centre for orang-utans and you can guarantee that you will see some.  It is an unmissable visit for any animal lovers and was one of the highlights of our 12-day Borneo itinerary.

A visit to Sepilok Orangutan Centre is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Borneo.  Although it is a conservation centre you have an excellent chance of seeing orangutans in their natural environment.  Plus, you get to see the baby orangutans in their nursery.    We loved our visit so much we went twice!

Day 2: The Rainforest Discovery Centre

Another fantastic place to see wildlife near Sepilok is at the Rainforest Discovery Centre.

The Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is about 20km away from Sandakan and just a short distance from the Sepilok Centre.  It is set in 4,300 hectares and is managed by the Sabah Forestry Department.

The Rainforest Centre is primarily an environmental education centre, where you can learn about the jungle habitat and wildlife.  It offers a number of jungle trails, which are marked with signboards.  It also has a 347m canopy walk with two observation towers, where you can observe more wildlife and tropical flora.  The Rainforest Centre also offers night hikes.

Days 3-4: Jungle Safari, River Kinabatangan

On day 3 of our Sabah itinerary we headed to the rainforest for a jungle adventure.

We booked a 3-day 2-night safari adventure at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan in Kampung Bilit.  Our package included transport, accommodation, food and activities.  As transfers were included, a minibus collected us from the Sepilok Forest Resort and drove us to the Nature Lodge.

The Nature Lodge is set in lush forest on the banks of the River Kinabatangan, so is perfect for seeing the wildlife in its natural environment.  Over the course of 3 days, we did 4 river cruises, 2 night walks, and a guided jungle walk. 

Overall, we saw orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, an elephant, crocodiles and plenty of beautiful birds.  It’s an unforgettable wildlife experience and a brilliant thing to do with nature-loving kids in Borneo.

Click here to book the Nature Lodge in Kinabatangan.

Another similar accommodation in the jungle is the Kinabatangan Wildlife Lodge, which also offers wildlife tours.

Three monkeys in the rainforest in Borneo

A wildlife tour on the River Kinabatangan is one of the best ways to see orangutans in the wild in Borneo.

What to wear on the Kinabatangan River Cruise

River Safari, River Kinabatangan, Borneo

For the river cruises, we wore shorts and tops (and a life jacket).  There was a refreshing breeze on the boat.

In the evenings, it is essential that you wear long trousers and long sleeve tops.

If you go on a jungle walk, you must wear wellies, as it can get extremely muddy.  We hired our wellies from the Nature Lodge.  They have plenty to suit all feet sizes.

It is essential that you spray with a good quality insect repellent with deet, like this one from Jungle Formula.  I bought the children some mosquito repellent bracelets to wear and sprayed our clothes with an anti-mosquito spray before we left.  None of us got bitten, so something must have worked.

If, like me, you want to be extra precautious about malaria, several brands of clothing offer a range with anti-insect protection.  You can get these in most good outdoor shops.

For full details of our stay at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, read our post:-

A trip to the Borneo rainforest

Day 5: Sandakan

Family standing in front of I love Sandakan sign

Day 5 of our Borneo travel itinerary is all about Sandakan.

Our wildlife package in Kinabatangan included a return transfer to Sandakan.  Here, we checked into The Four Points by Sheraton.  We loved this 5* hotel, which had a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the sea.  Unfortunately, it has now closed. 

However, an alternative would be the Elopura Hotel, which is close to the waterfront.  If you’re looking for budget accommodation in Sandakan, try the Orang Utan Guest House or the Sandakan Backpackers Hostel, which both have good locations.

Sandakan is the secpnd largest town in Sabah, but is compact and easy to explore on foot.  We had some downtime at the pool and then went for a self-guided walking tour of Sandakan.

If you have time, try to to visit  Buli Buli Sim Sim Water Village, a community of fishermen’s houses on the water.

Day 6: A visit to Turtle Island

view of Turtle Island in Borneo from the sea

On day two of our stay in Sandakan, we made an overnight visit to the awesome Turtle Island Park. This is another amazing wildlife experience and a must-do tour when visiting Borneo.

It’s best to pre-book your visit to Turtle Island, as they limit numbers to 50 visitors each day.  You can book directly through Crystal Quest by email.

The package to Turtle Island includes transfers, accommodation, food and a chance to see the turtles laying eggs.

Firstly, a speed boat takes you out to the island, where you’ll spend the day at your leisure.  We spent our day at the beach and took our snorkel gear so that we could go snorkelling.  If you don’t have any, you can also hire snorkelling equipment on Turtle Island.

Then, after dinner, you wait until the ranger alerts that a mother has come ashore.  Now, you’ll have a unique opportunity to see mother turtles giving birth in their natural environment.  You will also see the hatchery and baby turtles being released to the sea.

I’d highly recommend a visit to Borneo’s Turtle Island.  Seeing the turtles birthing is an amazing wildlife experience and one of best things to do in Borneo.  Read more:  A visit to Turtle Island

Turtle laying eggs at Turtle Island, Borneo

Day 7: Sandakan, Heritage Trail & English Tea House

English Tea House Sandakan, Borneo

On day 7 of our Borneo itinerary, we returned from Turtle Island to further explore Sandakan.  Our morning started at Sandakan Market, a wet and dry market, selling fish, vegetables and all sorts of household goods. 

Afterwards, we followed the Sandakan Heritage Trail.  This is one of the best ways to explore Sandakan, as it leads to all the key heritage and cultural sights in Sandakan.  Halfway along it’s a steep climb up 100 steps to the English Tea House.  This is quite exhausting on a hot day, so makes an ideal stop for afternoon tea.

Next door is Agnes Keith House, former home to the American author.  On your return to Sandakan, you can other attractions like the Chinese temple, Sam Sing Kung and the Malaysian Fountain.

Day 8: Kota Kinabalu

Jesselton Point Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

After 3 days in Sandakan, we flew back to Kota Kinabalu and checked into the Nexus Beach Resort, in Karambunai.

In Kota Kinabalu, you can choose accommodation in the city centre or further out at one of the luxury beach resorts.  Although accommodation in the city centre is more convenient for days out and activities, you can enjoy better beaches in the resorts. 

The Nexus Beach Resort is 30 km north east of Kota Kinabalu, but offers luxury accommodation, pristine beaches and a more relaxed, exotic location.

Nexus Beach Resort is set in over 65 acres of natural surroundings.  It has a great pool complex and beautiful, pristine gardens.  As you wander around, you can enjoy Bornean wildlife, such as monitor lizards, birds and monkeys.  Another of most luxurious resorts in Borneo is the Shangri-La Ras Ria.

If you want luxury accommodation near the city centre, check out the Hyatt Centric or the Hilton.

Alternatively, if you want budget accommodation, you’ll find plenty of cheaper apartments and home suites.

Day 9: Snorkelling Trip at Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

snorkeling at the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

One of the best things to do in Kota Kinabalu is snorkelling at the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.

Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park consists of a group of 5 islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.  We booked a snorkelling trip for our first day with Diverse Borneo from the UK.  The diving tour package included a private boat with an instructor.  He took us to 3 different diving sites away from the crowds of the other boats.

Each session lasted 45 minutes in the water and we had lunch at an island. The boys had the most awesome time swimming around with the fish and even spotted a green turtle passing by.

Day 10: White Water Rafting on the Kiulu River

family of four on white water rafting adventure on Kiulu River, Borneo

On day 10 of our 12-day Borneo itinerary, we went white water rafting on the Kiulu River, which is 1 hour north-west of Kota Kinabalu.  We booked our white-water rafting with Riverbug and it was a fantastic day out for everyone, despite the rain.

White-water rafting took us about 15km down River Kiulu.  This boat trip took about 1 ½ hours, though some of this time we were playing in the water.

This trip is a stage 1-2, which means it is a ideal trip for families or beginners, as it never gets too rough.  However, it’s still a lot of fun.  There are a few zones, where it gets faster and your heart starts racing.

Additionally, there was a lot of competitive racing with the other boats and splashing, which the children loved.  As we made our way down the river, there were several stops to get out and swim.  The water was fairly shallow and warm.

There are more advanced white-water rafting packages available in Sabah for more experienced adults.  It’s a really fun trip and one of the best activities in Kota Kinabalu.

Days 11-12: Nexus Beach Resort

Nexus Resort Beach Sunset, Borneo

Nexus Beach Resort is set in lush, landscaped grounds and has loads of recreational activities.  After a very busy itinerary and lots of early mornings, we were all looking forward to relaxing.

Nexus Beach Resort has amazing facilities and the kids loved the 3 outdoor pools.  The resort offers a programme of activities laid on by the Recreation Club, including crafts, batik painting and tae kwondo.

For younger children, there is a kids’ club and adults can take advantage of the golf course or spa facilities.  Nexus Beach Resort has its own private beach; ideal for those who like playing in the sand or sea.

This was the last day of our Borneo itinerary, before heading back to Singapore and then onwards to the UK.

Click here to book the Nexus Resort & Spa Hotel

Other luxury resorts along this coastline are the Shangri-La Rasa Ria or the Borneo Beach Villas.

Are you planning your own trip to Borneo?  Find all the information you need in our

Borneo Travel Guide

Travel resources for Borneo

Here are some of the websites we use when planning our trips.

Discover accommodation to suit all budgets at Booking.com

Get some of the most affordable prices on flights with Expedia

Discover some of the best things to do with the Lonely Planet Travel Guide

We'd love to hear from you

Let us know if you like our 12-day Borneo itinerary or if you have any questions about it.  We’d be happy to help.  Or, maybe you have some suggestions to add?  Please share in the comments below.

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Avatar for Jan
Wendy White 17th June 2020 - 7:53 am

Borneo is on our list to do and this itinerary looks incredible. I’m definitely going to save this! Did you take malaria tablets?

Avatar for Jan
Jan 18th June 2020 - 12:09 am

We were advised that we didn’t need malaria tablets for the areas we were visiting. We did use a lot of insect repellent though!

Avatar for Jan
Lannie Travels 12th June 2020 - 8:13 am

Amazing itinerary! I would love to go to Borneo :). Thanks for sharing such a detailed post!

Avatar for Jan
Jan 12th June 2020 - 4:42 pm

There’s such a lot to do there. We just wanted to cram in as much as possible in the time we had.

Avatar for Jan
Visit50 6th June 2020 - 7:21 pm

Borneo was such a highlight for my SE Asia trip! Loved the wildlife and diving, oh wow!

Avatar for Jan
Jan 7th June 2020 - 6:37 pm

I agree – the wildlife was amazing.

Avatar for Jan
Clare (Suitcases and Sandcastles) 13th March 2020 - 7:53 pm

Oh this looks absolutely brilliant! No wonder it was the trip of a lifetime. We did something similar last summer when we went to Vietnam. Borneo is very much on our wishlist too – the snorkelling, the orangutans, the sun bears. This is a really helpful guide, thank you for linking it up to #farawayfiles. I had no idea that Borneo was such a big island.

Avatar for Jan
Jan 13th March 2020 - 8:04 pm

Yes, I am sure there is plenty more to explore too.

Avatar for Jan
Keri | Ladies What Travel 13th March 2020 - 6:30 pm

This makes me want to go to Borneo more than ever! We keep talking about it but still haven’t done it. Might go off and remind my other half how amazing this place looks… #FarawayFiles

Avatar for Jan
Jan 13th March 2020 - 7:25 pm

It really is a great trip. So much to see and do.

Avatar for Jan
Nancy | MapandFamily 13th March 2020 - 1:11 pm

This sounds like a hugely memorable trip! I’ve already clicked through to read about your visit to the Sun Bear Conservation Centre too. What a fabulous experience for all of you. #FarawayFiles

Avatar for Jan
Jan 13th March 2020 - 7:26 pm

Yes, it was fantastic. We all had a great time.


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