Are you planning your first trip to Borneo and not sure where to visit? If so, this could be the ideal 12-day Borneo itinerary for you.
If you’re on a quest for adventure and love wildlife, Borneo is the perfect destination. Borneo has ancient rainforest, spectacular scenery, golden beaches and amazing diving. Plus, it has some of the most unique wildlife in the world. Borneo has been at the top of my bucket list forever, as I have always wanted to see orangutans in the wild. So, all my dreams came true this year when my family and I were lucky enough to go.
In this 12-day Borneo itinerary we share our travel guide on the best things to do and see in Sabah, accommodation, transport, and places to eat. We spent many hours planning our itinerary, to make sure we had the best 12 days in Borneo. Hopefully, this travel guide will help you plan the best itinerary for your own Borneo trip.
See below for the full details of our 12-day Borneo itinerary.
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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.
Getting to Borneo
To start our 12-day Borneo itinerary, we flew from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI) with Singapore Airlines. The flight takes 2 hours 35 minutes and brings you in to the west coast of Sabah. We’d flown to Singapore from the UK and spent 4 days there beforehand.
An alternative option is to fly in from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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 is 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 Borneo’s amazing wildlife.
Day 1: Sepilok & Bornean Sun Bear Centre
Getting to Sepilok
On the first day of our 12-day Borneo itinerary, we headed to Sandakan.
We took an early flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah. The internal flight took 40 minutes with Malaysian Airlines.
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.
Accommodation in Sepilok
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 similar nature lodges in Sepilok, all of which are walking distance to the Sepilok Orangutan Centre. Other good options for luxury accommodation are 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
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.
Day 2: The Rainforest Discovery Centre
Another opportunity to spot 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 2 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 12-day Borneo itinerary we headed to the jungle for our rainforest adventure.
We booked a 3-day 2-night safari adventure at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan in Kampung Bilit. Our package included transfers, accommodation, food and activities. Quite honestly, it was the most amazing experience ever.
Over the course of 3 days, we did 4 river cruises, 2 night walks and a guided jungle walk. 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.
Overall, we saw orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, an elephant, crocodiles and plenty of beautiful birds.
As transfers were included, a minibus collected us from the Sepilok Forest Resort and transferred us to the Nature Lodge.
Click here to book the Nature Lodge in Kinabatangan.
What to wear on the Kinabatangan River Cruise
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.
Day 5: Sandakan
Day 5 of our Borneo itinerary is all about Sandakan.
We had a return transfer to Sandakan, where we checked into The Four Points by Sheraton, Sandakan. Unfortunately, this hotel has now closed. An alternative would be the Elopura Hotel, which is close to the waterfront. You’ll also find lots of budget accommodation and hostels in Sandakan.
Sandakan is the 2nd 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
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.
Day 7: Sandakan, Heritage Trail & English Tea House
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.
Sandakan Heritage Trail leads you to all the key historical and cultural sights in Sandakan. Halfway along you’ll have to climb the 100 steps up 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 see the Chinese temple, Sam Sing Kung and the Malaysian Fountain.
Day 8: Kota Kinabalu
In Kota Kinabalu, you have a choice of staying 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, we wanted some down time after a busy itinerary in Sandakan. 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.
Alternatively, you’ll find plenty of cheaper accommodation in Kota Kinabalu, which makes activities and sightseeing more accessible.
Day 9: Snorkelling Trip at Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
On our first morning in Kota Kinabalu we spent the day 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 our trip 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
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.
Days 11-12: Nexus Beach Resort
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.
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