About Borneo

Borneo Location

Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea, and is divided among three separate countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and the Sultanate of Brunei. The Indonesian portion of Borneo is known as Kalimantan and the Malaysian part is divided into two states, Sabah and Sarawak. Our trips are based in Sabah and Sarawak, the two Malaysian states. 



Straddling the equator, Borneo gets between 4000mm - 5000mm per annum of rainfall. This generally falls during the two monsoon seasons between November to August, although rarely affects travel and activities. This rainfall, combined with average temperature of 30-32°C and high humidity levels have created a treasure trove of natural wealth. With over 15,000 species of flora and fauna, Borneo is one of the most bio-diverse destinations on the planet.

Borneo Culture & Peoples

The people of Malaysia Borneo are equally as diverse with nearly 200 local languages and dialects spoken from the coastal areas to the forested interiors. With only eighteen million inhabitants, the population density is low with many people still living in rural kampongs (villages). Once infamous for their headhunting tribes, the people of Borneo now live peacefully as a nation of mixed ethnic groups and religions. While predominately Muslim, Sabah has a large Christian population and Sarawak is majority Christian, both with small minorities of Buddhist and Hindu communities. A British colony for over a century, Malaysian Borneo has been a democratic constitutional monarchy since gaining independence in 1963.

The state capitals, Kuching in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, are the largest urban centres with international airports and the widest range of hotel and restaurants. Street crime and begging is rare, but like anywhere, normal levels of caution should be exercised in cities. Most of our Sabah trips start or finish in Kota Kinabalu; a small sea-front city, KK as it locally known, has fantastic sunsets over the South China Sea and an array of activities from island hopping and diving in the nearby marine park, to white water rafting. The Sarawak capital, Kuching, is the start city for our Sarawak trips; spared from the World War Two bombing that other Borneo cities suffered, Kuching has some wonderful architecture, museums and shopping opportunities with the best handicraft selection in Borneo.



Travel facts Borneo

When is the best time to visit Borneo?

Borneo is great to visit anytime of the year. Typically hot and humid it can be wet at anytime, although most rain falls between November and January and less so between June and August. Temperature fluctuates little throughout the year; the average is between 21 C and 32 C. With few activity exceptions Borneo is a year round destination that is outside the Pacific 'Ring of Fire' so does not suffer from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or even tropical cyclones.

Peak Tourist season is June-August so some areas may be busier during these months.

What language do they speak in Borneo?

Bahasa Malaysia is the official language spoken in the Sabah and Sarawak. Other widely spoken languages include Chinese (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan, Foochow), Tamil and English. All the indigenous tribes in Borneo also speak their own language.

Do I needs a visa in Malaysian Borneo? 

British Citizens do not need a visa to enter Malaysia, please see our visa information page for additional countries.

Do I need any vaccinations for Borneo?

You will need to check with your doctor or travel clinic as travel advice changes. You do not need a yellow fever certificate to enter Malaysian Borneo unless you are travelling from a country where yellow fever is prevalent. There is small risk of malaria in some areas but it is often recommended you take anti-malarial medication for extended jungle stays- please consult a travel clinic for up to date information.

What is the currency used in Malaysian Borneo?

The local currency is called Ringgit and you can buy these in the UK very easily at a bank or foreign exchange outlet. In all the major towns and cities there are many ATMs and credit cards are widely accepted.

What is the time difference and phone code for Malaysian Borneo? 

Malaysia is 8 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and the international dialling code is +60.

Do I need a plug adaptor? 

Electric supply is on a 240-volt 50-cycle system. The plug type is G which is the same as we have in the UK.

What are medical facilities like in Borneo? 

Malaysia has a top class medical support system, with excellent hospitals and emergency facilities. You must make sure you have travel insurance. In the event of an emergency you can go to any one of several private hospitals or clinics.

Is it safe to travel to Borneo?

Malaysian Borneo is one of the safest destinations in the world to visit, crime levels are low generally and particularly rare against visitors though of course you should exercise normal levels of vigilanace as you would at home.

What flights can I take to Malaysian Borneo?

Most international flights arrive into Kota Kinabalu or Kuching. However, it is also possible to arrive in Miri, Sandakan or Tawau via Kuala Lumpur too. There are many airlines to choose from but if you want to include the regional sector then have a look at Malaysian Airlines or Air Asia.


Visa Malaysia Borneo

Free ninety day visas are granted on arrival to citizens from fifty-eight countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, EU states, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, UK and the USA. Free thirty day visas are granted on arrival to citizens from Russia.

Every person entering Malaysia must possess a passport valid for more than six months from the date of entry into Malaysia and an onward flight within the visa allowance.

A yellow fever certificate is required upon landing in Malaysia for all travellers coming from, or having visited the in the last six months, countries as listed below:

Angola, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Djibouti, Equador, Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Rwanda, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, St. Kitts & Nevis, Suriname, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Venezuela, Zaire and Zambia.



Penan Tribe

Penan Tribe

Adventure Alternative runs several trips to the Penan tribe in northern Sarawak and promotes it as a responsible tourism destination, while helping to fund their reforestation program. Adventure Alternative supports the Moving Mountains Trust through the fundraising and volunteers it sends to Borneo. Although not all of our itineraries visit the region, it is possible to add on a trip to the Penan communities to any booking.

Borneo Penan Tribe Map

History of the Penan Tribe

The indigenous Penan people from the upper Ulu Baram River have experienced significant changes in their physical and cultural landscapes over the past thirty years. In less than one generation, this once remote area has undergone high levels of logging which has threatened sustainable levels of wildlife and has made it increasingly difficult for the Penan to gather food, materials and valuable medicinal products from their land. Climate change, deforestation and land conversion has also increased vulnerability to forest fires, placing these valuable forests under incredible risk, they remain among the poorest, under-served and under-represented people in Malaysia.

Over the past 15 years, the lack of job opportunities in these villages has led to the migration of men and young people to cities, leaving women, children and the elderly behind without viable incomes, resources, or the training needed to promote economic growth in the area. 

Moving Mountains and the Penan Tribe

In 2007, the Penan communities started a small eco-tourism initiative called Picnic with the Penan to bring international and local tourists to this remote area as a means of creating alternative sustainable incomes for the villages. An additional opportunity arose to establish two tree nurseries after a mass fruiting period that enabled thousands of valuable hardwood species to be easily collected from the surrounding forests. With support of the Moving Mountains Trust UK, this resulted in five villages gathering to establish the community cooperative KOPPES in 2011.

With the support of Adventure Alternative and Moving Mountains Trust, KOPPES has established tree nurseries in two villages; has employed over 40 families through guiding, porters and homestays; has collected thousands of seedlings and plants between ten to fifteen thousand sapling every year. These efforts have been supplemented by workshops led by volunteers in computer and accounting skills, capacity building in cross-cultural and gender issues, and exposure activities such as visits by project leaders to similar eco-tourism and restoration projects in Borneo.



Culture tips Borneo

Borneo is largely a conservative and traditional society. However, this does vary from location to location and generally Malaysian Borneo is more relaxed in most aspects than Peninsular Malaysia. Many of the following guidelines would come under a general banner of polite subtlety and respect.

Borneo Culture and Society

Malaysia Borneo society is split between several ethnic Groups - these are approximate figures to highlight the multi-cultural nature of Malaysia: Malay 50%, Chinese 24%, Indigenous groups 11%, Indian 7%, other 8%.

Malaysia Borneo's cultural mosaic is marked by many differences, some of which have had a lasting influence on the country. Chief among these is the ancient Malay culture, and the cultures of Malaysia's two most prominent trading partners throughout history--the Chinese, and the Indians. These three groups are joined by a dizzying array of indigenous tribes, many of which live in the forests and coastal areas of Borneo. The oldest inhabitants of Malaysia are its tribal people. They account for about 11% of the total population, and represent a majority in Sarawak and Sabah.

Though Malaysia's tribal people prefer to be categorized by their individual tribes, peninsular Malaysia blankets them under the term Orang Asli, or "Original People." In Sarawak, the dominant tribal groups are the Dayak, who typically live in longhouses and are either Iban (Sea Dayak) or Bidayuh (Land Dayak). In Sabah, most tribes fall under the term Kadazan. All of Malaysia's tribal people generally share a strong spiritual tie to the rainforest. When visiting the country it is clear that the ethnicities retain their religions, customs and way of life. The most important festivals of each group are public holidays of which there are many.

Despite attending the same schools and socialising as children, few marry outside their own ethnicity. Families tend to socialise within their own ethnic group – all part of retaining their individual traditions and lifestyles.

In all groups, the family is considered the centre of the social structure. As a result there is a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. The family is the place where the individual can be guaranteed both emotional and financial support. When one member of the family suffers a financial setback, the rest of the family will contribute what they can to help.

Malaysia Borneo Religions

Borneo is a great example of a place where tolerance of religious and political views can create a peaceful and respectful society. The population is approximately split between Islam 60%; Buddhist 19%; Christian 9%; Hindu 6%. Many of the indigenous groups, such as the Penan, are Christian.

Social Interactions in Borneo

Malays, Chinese and Indians all strive to maintain 'face' and avoid shame both in public and private. 'Face' is a concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in high esteem. Face is considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this face also extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself. The desire to maintain 'face' makes Malaysians avoid public confrontations and maintain peaceful relationships.

Greetings in Borneo

In general, most Malays are aware of Western ways so the handshake is normal. However, there are slight differences between the ethnic groups.

Malay women may not shake hands with men. Women can of course shake hands with women. Men may also not shake hands with women and may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart.

The Muslim communities consider the left hand to be unclean. You should always therefore shake hands, offer and receive with the right hand.

The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect.

Etiquette in Borneo

  • Remove shoes when entering homes and places of worship.
  • Dress neatly in suitable attire which covers arms and legs when visiting places of worship.
  • Handle food with your right hand.
  • Do not point your foot at someone.
  • When giving or receiving money gifts to/from a Malaysian, do so with your right hand.
  • Avoid public displays of affection 

Dress code in Borneo

Dress code in Borneo is generally modest, especially for female visitors. You should keep your shoulders and knee covered. Tops should not finish above the waistline of your trousers and expose your midriff and your neckline should not show cleavage. If you are visiting a temple or holy place it would be appropriate wear long sleeves for both men and women, and to cover your hair.

On beaches or trekking in the forest it is more relaxed but be mindful of when bathing in rivers, women should wash in their sarongs and not just underwear.

Food and Hospitality in Borneo

In some homestays, it is not uncommon to be expected to eat with your hands. Most restaurant will serve with a choice of fork and spoon, or chopsticks.

In non Muslim communities, eating wild pig is considered just about the best meal there is, whilst of course, this is not the case with the Muslim faith so be aware of where you are.

The concept of vegetarianism is little understood or known so be careful when ordering food as often shrimp paste and small fish (ikan bilis) will be in the food to add flavour. Rice is considered a valuable commodity so start with small amounts and go back for more rather than waste any.

Haggling in Borneo

Unlike most countries in the region there is nota strong culture of haggling in Malaysian Borneo. If you are making a large purchase you could ask for a discount, however, in most shops, if there is a price marked on an object then it is inappropriate to negotiate.

In markets, if the price is not marked then you may begin the fine art of haggling. You can roughly start haggling at 50-25% less than the asking price and expect to meet somewhere in the middle. While paying inflated prices can be unfair for tourists, please remember to be respectful and mindful that driving the price down by the equivalent of 25c will make virtually no difference to you, it may change the weekly income of a rural family.

Gift Giving Etiquette in Borneo

Gift giving to Malays:

  • Never give alcohol.
  • If invited to someone's home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.

  • Do not give toy dogs or pigs to children.

  • Do not give anything made of pigskin.                                                                                     

  • Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning.

  • Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the colour of royalty.

  • If you give food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims).

  • Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.

  • Gifts are generally not opened when received


Gift giving to Chinese:

  • If invited to someone's home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes, saying that it is for the children.
  • A gift is traditionally refused before it is accepted to demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy.
  • Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever the relationship.
  • Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and are used at funerals.
  • Do not wrap gifts in mourning colours - white, blue, or black.
  • Wrap the gifts in happy colours - red, pink, or yellow.
  • It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky.
  • Gifts are generally not opened when received.


Laws in Malaysia

The laws of any country will be based on the same values as at home but significant differences can be present subject to the prevailing cultural, religious and political environment in the country. These four basic factors can be your main guide to how to act in unfamiliar situations. If you are any doubt as to what to do in a given situation it is usually possible to identify the "safest" fallback option and go with it. For example, not buying something, not taking a photo of a government building etc.

The following advice is intended to provide a brief outline of any laws in the destination country that are directly applicable to travelling there. This is not intended to be exhaustive or complete and laws do change from time to time so we strongly advise visiting the UK Foreign Office website and checking for their current advice. This information should also be read in conjunction with our relevant pages dealing with Cultural Awareness and Visa Requirements.

Note: Borneo as an island is made up of three parts belonging to three different countries; Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Laws and customs are similar but there are differences that you may need to be aware of if you visit different areas.

Borneo Malaysia Laws 


There are severe penalties for all drug offences in Malaysia: trafficking (defined here as the possession of a certain quantity of drugs) incurs a mandatory death penalty; possession incurs a custodial sentence and possible whipping.  This includes the possession of or trafficking in Amphetamine-type stimulants. 
You could be asked to take a urine test on arrival in Malaysia if you are suspected of having used drugs before your visit.  Should the test prove positive, you could be referred for rehabilitation treatment or be deported.


Malaysia is a multicultural but predominantly Islamic country. You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend other cultural or religious beliefs, especially during the holy month of Ramadan or if you intend to visit religious areas. You should also dress modestly in conservative and rural areas, and when visiting places of worship. If you are a Muslim you should be aware that you may also be subject to local Shari'a law.

Homosexual acts are illegal.

The importation of unlicensed firearms and ammunition into Malaysia is prohibited.  Possession can carry the death penalty.


Nudity is not at all recommended, either on beaches or while trekking and anywhere near sacred monuments or on the tops of mountains. You should also dress modestly in conservative and rural areas, and when visiting places of worship

Indonesia Borneo Laws


Do not get involved with illegal drugs. Possession, trafficking and manufacture of such drugs are serious offences in Indonesia. Those caught face lengthy prison sentences or the death penalty, usually after a protracted and expensive legal process. Police often raid locations (particularly in Bali) known to be frequented by foreigners, and may require an individual to take a urine or blood test where they have reasonable suspicion that drugs have been taken. Drug use or the possession of even small amounts of drugs such as marijuana or ecstasy can lead to prison sentences longer than four years. Convicted traffickers or users of hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin face the death penalty in Indonesia.

You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend other cultures or religious beliefs, especially during the holy month of Ramadan or if you intend to visit religious areas.
You should be aware of offending Islamic sensitivities. Westerners have occasionally been harassed by fundamentalists in bars and nightclubs, particularly around major Islamic holidays such as Ramadan.


Do not get involved with illegal drugs. Possession, trafficking and manufacture of such drugs are serious offences in Indonesia. Those caught face lengthy prison sentences or the death penalty, usually after a protracted and expensive legal process. Police often raid locations (particularly in Bali) known to be frequented by foreigners, and may require an individual to take a urine or blood test where they have reasonable suspicion that drugs have been taken. Drug use or the possession of even small amounts of drugs such as marijuana or ecstasy can lead to prison sentences longer than four years. Convicted traffickers or users of hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin face the death penalty in Indonesia.


Gambling is illegal in Indonesia. There have been cases where tourists have fallen victim to organised gambling gangs, resulting in the loss of large amounts of money.


You must show evidence of your identity if it is requested by, for example, the Police. You should carry photocopies of the relevant pages of your passport and your arrival card to avoid losing the original, which should be kept in a safe place.

Borneo Information