General Information

We outlined some basic country information about Malaysian Borneo below. For more detailed information please check out our other pages on Borneo as well as the pages pertaining to your specific trip. If you can't find your answer here, do not hesitate to contact us with any questions you may have.

Where is Borneo?

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. 

borneo-malaysia-map.jpg

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.

Borneo Currency ?

Since our tours all take place on the Malaysian part of Borneo, the only currency you will need is the Malaysian Ringgit. You can see current exchange rates here. Typically, no other form of currency is accepted. Also, for more information regarding ATMs and credit cards please see our Practicalities Section.

Time Difference in Borneo?

Borneo time is GMT/UTC plus 8 hours. Check out the local time in Borneo here. The country code for Malaysian Borneo is +60. For information regarding internet connectivity and cellular service please see our Practicalities Section.

How Do I Charge My Electronics While in Borneo?

Borneo uses British BS-1363 socket type. The voltage is 220-240. Electricity is widely available throughout the majority of Borneo. Sabah and Sarawak are modern cities with modern amenities. In more rural areas, a reliable source of power may be harder to come by. Some villages are powered by generators or solar power for a few hours each day. It is recommended that you ensure your electronics are charged prior to traveling to rural areas. If you are concerned, back a battery pack with you.

What Language is Spoken in Borneo?

There are over 200 different tribal languages spoken on the island of Borneo. However, Malay is the official language of both Sabah and Sarawak. Malay is widely spoken throughout Borneo. English is also common, although not spoken by everyone, most people do understand some English, especially in areas frequented by travellers.  

It is always a good idea to learn a few words of the local language before you arrive at your destination. Even if you can only say hello, it goes a long way in the minds of the local people. Check out this list of helpful Malay phrases.

What is the weather in Borneo?

Borneo has an equatorial climate. It is generally very warm and humid as you would expect from a jungle ecosystem. Temperatures rarely rise about 32 Celsius and rarely drop below 20 Celsius at night. At higher altitudes in the interior of the island temperatures can be a bit cooler, so please be prepared when travelling to those areas. The humidity usually rests between 70%-85%.

Rainfall is common throughout the year, usually happening in large bursts. Borneo gets between 60 to 180 inches of rainfall a year. The wettest months occur during the monsoon season from October through February. March until September is considered the dry season. However, this is a jungle habitat, so expect rain throughout the year. Even during the monsoon, you can have sunny days, but when it rains, it rains quite intensely. Be sure to have rain gear with you during your travels to Borneo. Mount Kinabalu has its own weather patterns

For more information on preparing for your jungle safari read our Borneo Jungle Tips.

Borneo Books and Maps

For more information about travel in Borneo, you can check out these additional resources.

Region Guides

Borneo: Regional Guide, Lonely Planet, ISBN-10: 1741792150, ISBN-13: 978-1741792157
Borneo, Footprint Handbooks, ISBN-10: 190609814X, ISBN-13: 978-1906098148
The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia On A Budget, Rough Guides, ISBN-10: 1848365225, ISBN-13: 978-1848365223
The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, Rough Guides, ISBN-10: 1843530945, ISBN-13: 978-1843530947

Maps

Sabah & Kota Kinabalu Travel Map, 1:100,000/1:25,000, Periplus Editions, ISBN-10: 0794606229, ISBN-13: 978-0794606220
Sabah and Sarawak, 1:100,000, New Holland Publishers Ltd, ISBN-10: 1845379381, ISBN-13: 978-1845379384
Borneo, 1:1,200,000, Reise Know-How Verlag, ISBN-10: 3831772347, ISBN-13: 978-3831772346 
Borneo - Kalimantan, 1:1,130,000, ITMB - International Travel Maps, ISBN-10: 1553410653, ISBN-13: 978-1553410652

Climbing, Exploration and Rainforest

Descent into Chaos: Doomed Expedition to Low's Gully, Connaughton, Brassey's, ISBN-10: 1857531477, ISBN-13: 978-1857531473
Into the Heart of Borneo, O'Hanlon, Penguin, ISBN-10: 0140073973, ISBN-13: 978-0140073973

FAQs

Travel facts Borneo

Got a question regarding travel to Borneo? We've got answers. Feel free to contact us with any additional questions you may have.

Where is Borneo?

Borneo is an island located off of the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It is the third largest island in the world and part of three countries: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

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 Borneo currency is called Ringgit (the same as Malaysia) 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.

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.  

Malay-Penan Dialect Language

Here are some words and phrases translated from English into the Malay language to help you on your trip to visit the Penan in Sarawak. These words and phrases were put together with one of the Penan guides we work with from Long Kerong and a dictionary he had, see here for more information about the dictionary. There are two main groups of Penan; Eastern Penan and Western Penan. Our trips visit the Eastern Penan in the Upper Baram region of Sarawak. There are some variations in the language between the Eastern and Western Penan; these phrases are taken from the Eastern Penan group.

A particularly fascinating aspect of the Penan language is how the language has developed with changes in the Penan culture. This is difficult to get across with words and phrases written down, but something that you can learn while you are out in Borneo!

English Penan
Greetings          
Hello Hello. You can say “Ineu rengah” which literally translates as “how are you”, but everyone knows what hello means and often say this to each other
Goodbye Ngelajam or bye
Good morning Jian ngivum
Good evening Jian maram
My name is… Ngaran ke’…
I am … years old Umun ke’ … taun
I am from …. Akeu jin…
   
Daily Communication                 
Yes Oo’
No Bek
Thank you Jian kenin. This translates literally as “good heart”. Jian = good; kenin = heart
You’re welcome, as a response to thank you Kua kua
Please To long
Sorry Menyat jian
I do not understand Akeu bek jam ha' ko'
I don’t know Be akeu jam (jam pronounced “jarm”)
To sleep Juk pegen
Help me Nolong
Personal Pronouns  
I Akeu (pronounced akow)
You (singular) Ka au
We – if the person you are talking to is in your group Uleu
We – if the person you are talking to is not in your group Amee
You (plural) Ka ah
They Irah
   
My Akee
Your Akor
   
Food & Drink Ka'an & Mesep

Eat

Kuman

I am hungry

Akeu La’au
I am thirsty Akeu juk mesep
Breakfast Kuman dau ngivum - this translates literally as “eat day morning”
Lunch Kuman dau pejek
Dinner Kuman dau tahup
Water Ba
Boiled water Ba matai - This translates literally as “water dead”
I do not eat… Akeu bek kuman…
I do not eat meat Akeu bek kuman sin kan
Rice (cooked) Lubi
Rice (uncooked) Parai
Meat Sin
Food that you eat with rice Ba an
Can I have…? Omok akeu...? (omok = can)
Plate Bigan
Knife Nahat
Spoon/fork Tarok
I am full Beso
   
Questions  
How? Kineu?
Where? Kemah?
What? Ineu?
Who? Se’?
Why? Kineu?
When? Hun?
What is this? Ineu itu
How far? Koh keju?
Which way? Mah Jalan?
What is the time? Pukun kuraa itu? (Time = Pukun)
What animal sound is that? Ka’an ineu iteu?
What is that sound? Ha ineu iteu?
Where can I wash? Semah jalan mero?
   
Other  
Hot  Pana
Cold Genin
Beautiful Jian na’an
There

Inah

This Iteu
That Itai
Left Sa kabeng
Right Sa’a na’au
Walk Lakau
Short break/stop Posot
Blister Lekup

Go

Lakau
I go to Long Kerong Akeu Lakau Long Kerong
Leave Perleka
Return Tuai kepeh
Have Pu un
Buy Melih (pronounced mer lee)
Come Tuay (pronounced too i)
Like/want/prefer Kelo (pronounced ke lor)
Happy Murung
Smile/laugh Mala
Enjoy Ngida
Stop Mao
Much Pina
   
House Lamin
Longhouse Batang Lamin
Family Panak
Bath/bathe Mero
Toilet Jaban
Live Mokor
   
Village Lebor
Headman Tua’kapung
Religion Ugama
   
Jungle  
River Ba’ (all the villages called Ba…. are located on a river; e.g. Ba Lai)
River mouth Long (all the villages called Long… are located on a river, near a river mouth; e.g. Long Kerong, Long Sepigen)
Boat Alut
Animal Ka’an (this is the same word as for "food")
Fishing Ngelesa
Blow pipe Kaliput
Dart Dahad
Poison tree Tajem - this is the name of the poison tree
Flower Bunga
Snake Torok
Logging Kereja batang/kereja kayeu
Tree Kayeu
Rattan Uai
Rain Ta
Hammock Sevitut
Fire Luten
Wood Kayeu
Fish Seluang
Bird Juhid
   
Days Day = Dau
Monday Dau jah
Tuesday Dau duah
Wednesday Dau teleu
Thursday Dau pat
Friday Dau lemah
Saturday Dau nem
Sunday Dau migu
   
Day Dau
Night Marem
Morning Ngivun
Midday Dau ja’au (this also means holiday)
Afternoon Dau kuba
Evening Dau tahup
Now Hun itu
Yesterday Malem
Today Dau itu
Tomorrow Sagam
   
Numbers  
1 Jah
2 Dua
3 Teleu
4 Pat
5 Lema
6 Nem
7 Tuju
8 Ayah
9 Pien
10 Polo
11 Jah polo jah
12 Jah polo dua
13 Jah polo teleu
14 Jah polo pat
15 Jah polo lema
16 Jah polo nem
17 Jah polo tuju
18 Jah polo ayah
19 Jah polo pien
20 Dua polo       

Practical Information

Practical Information: Malaysian Borneo

Here are a few helpful tips for practical issues in Malaysian Borneo. If you can't find what you're looking for, check out our Borneo Trip Preparation page.

Do I need a visa to visit 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.

Please be sure to check with the travel department from your home country to see the most up to date visa information regarding travel to Borneo.

Where Do I Arrive When Visiting Borneo?

Most travellers will arrive via air to the island of Borneo. The cities of Kuching (KCH) in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu (BKI) in Sabah both have international flights. Both of these airports are smaller as far as international airports go, but they have all of the normal amenities you would expect to find in an international airport.

Will I Be Able to Contact Home While I Am Away?

Borneo time is GMT/UTC plus 8 hours. Malaysia’s country code is +60. For making calls back home, international rates can be quite expensive, be sure to check with your local carrier prior to visiting Borneo. Consider downloading WhatsApp, a free internet-based texting and calling service to keep in touch with loved ones. Most larger cities and major towns have wi-fi available. Most restaurants, cafes, and fast food outlets provide wi-fi for free. However, keep in mind the internet in these areas is often slower than what would be expected back home.

Cellular service is available in major cities and it is easy to get a local, pre-paid SIM card. You can purchase your SIM card in the international airports, malls, and kiosks in town. Often times, small shops and convenience stores will have cards you can buy to top up on minutes and data. If you choose to buy a pre-paid sim card, stick to the larger carriers such as Digi, Celcom and Maxis. Once you are out in the jungle wi-fi and cellular service is limited.

What Vaccinations Do I Need?

We heavily advise that you schedule an appointment with your doctor, or a travel-specific doctor prior to coming to Borneo to discuss your health needs. Everything competes for attention in the jungle, this includes viruses and bacteria. For specific advice on how to prepare for the jungle please see our Health and Comfort section.

Malaria is often a concern for people travelling to the jungle. Although we cannot replace a visit with your doctor, we do have some valuable information on Malaria. Please do visit with your doctor to decide what prevention method would be best for you.

Do plan on bringing any prescriptions you may require during your stay. Medication is available in larger cities and towns in Borneo, however, we suggest you bring some basics from home.

What Are the Quality of Medical Facilities in Borneo?

Malaysia has modern medical facilities in major cities and towns with western trained doctors. However, medical help is limited in rural jungle areas. We are trained to handle emergencies and can coordinate rescue for you should something go wrong.

Although we do not anticipate any problems during your trek, accidents do happen in the jungle. We require that you carry traveller’s insurance. Please be sure that you are covered for the activity you will be doing. For more information see our travel insurance page.

Will I have Access to an ATM in Borneo?

Cash withdrawal from ATMs is available in most major towns and all major cities in Borneo. You can withdraw Ringgit, Euros and sometimes British Pounds and the US Dollar. However, most places only accept the Malaysian Ringgit. It is a good idea to carry cash on hand for smaller purchases in major cities, as retail outlets often require a minimum purchase of 50 Ringgit to use a card. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted. However, when visiting villages, we advise that you use cash.

Maximum withdrawals from ATMs do not exist in Malaysia, however, your home bank may have a limit.

What Can I Expect from Toilet Facilities?

Toilet facilities vary widely in Borneo. In major cities and towns, expect to find standard western toilets in most hotels and lodges. Public toilet facilities will vary in quality depending on location. These toilets often have both western and eastern squat style options. Most all toilet facilities in Borneo that are piped will have a washing hose. This can often mean that stalls and facilities are quite wet, including the seats themselves. Always carry toilet paper with you, as many places do not have paper.

In rural jungle areas, expect facilities to be much more rudimentary. Often in villages, there will be outhouses that are pit style drop toilets with a slat to squat over. It is encouraged to bring your own toilet paper for such houses and to use hand sanitizer after using a less-than-clean facility.

What Is the Water Quality in Borneo?

The tap water in Borneo is safe to drink, however, some people do have stomach problems when adjusting. Here at Adventure Alternative, we do not promote the use of disposable plastic water bottles. A great option for treating water while in Borneo is with a SteriPen.

SteriPens use a UV light to treat water. Ice in drinks also tends to be a problem while travelling in hot regions. Although the ice used in drink found in restaurants, cafes, and street stalls typically comes from a factory, if you are nervous, ask for a drink without ice. Cold beverages are prevalent throughout Borneo, even in smaller villages. It is possible to have a cool beverage while in the jungle.

Are There Any Local Laws I Should Be Aware of?

Every country has individual laws and customs that should be observed. For the most up to date information concerning the laws of Nepal please visit the UK Foreign Travel Advice pages on travel to Borneo.

How Do I Protect Myself from Leeches and Mosquitoes in Borneo?

Bugs and creepy crawlies are a part of everyday life in the jungle. Most of the time, the creepy crawlies are more afraid of you than you are of them and they will go out of their way to avoid you. The exception to this rule is leeches and mosquitoes.

The best protection from mosquitoes and leeches is to cover up exposed areas of skin. We recommend always wearing pants when travelling through the jungle. Using a mosquito repellent that contains at least 35% DEET will also help keep the bugs at bay. Some people use leech socks to protect themselves from leeches, but this is not required. Be sure to check yourself for leeches after trekking through the jungle. They are easily removed and more of a nuisance than dangerous.

 

 

Culture

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 same goes with cows. Hindus do not eat cow, as it is considered sacred.

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 not a 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). Most food in stores is labeled with an official seal stating it is Halal.

  • 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.

Environmental and Social Issues

Borneo contains one of the most diverse and oldest jungles on earth. However, logging and clear-cutting are a real concern for the welfare of the jungle. It is a complicated issue as many people would like to better the quality of life, despite destroying the landscape. Although things are starting to turn around and Borneo is developing a culture for sustainable tourism and protecting their wild spaces, it is still a problem. You are encouraged to do your part as a visitor to this wonderful place. Be sure to pack out any trash you accumulate on the trail or in wildlife areas. Do not use plastic disposable water bottles, instead opt to filter water from taps and streams.

Another way to be a responsible tourist is to travel with a reusable grocery bag. When you do your shopping while in Borneo, do not use a plastic bag, instead bring your own reusable bag. Bringing your own bag greatly reduces the impact of plastics on the environment.

Borneo Festivals and Holidays

With so many different tribes and cultures, it is hard to encapsulate all of the holidays of Borneo. It should be noted, however, that Malaysia officially celebrates Muslim holidays. Since the Muslim calendar differs from that of the west, holidays are celebrated at a different time during the year, be sure to check a Muslim calendar for big events such as Ramadan. Unlike much of the Muslim world, Malaysia still operates during the day throughout Ramadan. It is possible to eat, but understandably the mood is quiet until fast is broken in the evening. Since Malaysia has such a diverse culture, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian holidays are also observed. Other holidays to note include:

  • Labor Day: May 1st
  • Wesak Day: Buddha’s birthday. May
  • Harvest Festival (Sabah) and Gawai Dayak (Sarawak): These festivals occur near one another and celebrate the harvest for the year. Many businesses are closed and people return to their home villages to celebrate. Festivities include cock fights, blow gun contests, and a feast. Happens in the beginning of June
  • Independence Day: 31 August
  • Sarawak Head of State’s Birthday: Only celebrated in Sarawak on September 8
  • Malaysia Day: September 16
  • Sabah Head of State’s Birthday: Only celebrated in Sabah. 1st Saturday in October.
  • Malaysia Day: 23rd of October

Borneo Food and Drink

With all of the diversity in Borneo the food is no exception. Delicious flavors of the jungle and the sea combine to make mouthwatering dishes. Most of the food is spiced to add extra flavor, although there is not too much heat in the food as compared to some places.

One famous dish that one must try is Laksa. Usually eaten in the morning, Laksa consists of prawn sambal, coconut milk, thin noodles, eggs, chicken, prawns and fish. Add a bit of lime juice and enjoy. Another dish worth trying is Kolo Mee. This fried pork and noodle concoction certainly doesn’t rank high on the healthy scale, but it is certainly delicious!

Iban-style food provides another culinary option. This style of cooking refers to anything that can be cooked in a bamboo shoot over an open flame. The bamboo add an additional layer of flavor that is hard to replicate any other way.

Although Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is still legal to consume alcohol. Alcohol is more prevalent on the island of Borneo than it is on the mainland, however do be conservative with how much you drink.

There are a few local drinks worth noting. One is Tuak. Tuak is arguably the most prevalent native drink. It is a gentle rice wine made with rice, milk and water. However, it certainly doesn’t taste like wine. Langkau, Tuak’s more potent cousin, is another form of Sarawak moonshine. Although it is a type of rice wine, it is certainly more strong and pungent than wine from the west. It is more like a strong liquor.

Take care when drinking either Tuak or Langkau, as both of these drinks are usually sold in unmarked green bottles. Oftentimes, the alcohol content is unknown. It is best to sip slowly or avoid it all together.

Tipping

It is not customary to tip for services in Malaysia with the exception of tour guides and porters. Tipping in restaurants is considered rude, and if you do so there is a good chance that someone will chase after you with your change. If you tip someone at a restaurant, spa, or taxi it says that you don’t believe they are getting paid enough. It insults both the workers and the establishment.

However, tipping a guide is customary. How much to tip is entirely up to you. For more information regarding Adventure Alternative and our tipping recommendations see our Tipping Page.

Laws

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 


Drugs

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.

Religion

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.

Relationships
Homosexual acts are illegal.

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

Nudity

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

Drugs

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.


Religion
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.

Drugs

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

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.

Identification

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 Books and Maps (1)

Borneo Books and Maps

For more information about travel in Borneo, you can check out these additional resources.

Region Guides

Borneo: Regional Guide, Lonely Planet, ISBN-10: 1741792150, ISBN-13: 978-1741792157
Borneo, Footprint Handbooks, ISBN-10: 190609814X, ISBN-13: 978-1906098148
The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia On A Budget, Rough Guides, ISBN-10: 1848365225, ISBN-13: 978-1848365223
The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, Rough Guides, ISBN-10: 1843530945, ISBN-13: 978-1843530947

Maps

Sabah & Kota Kinabalu Travel Map, 1:100,000/1:25,000, Periplus Editions, ISBN-10: 0794606229, ISBN-13: 978-0794606220
Sabah and Sarawak, 1:100,000, New Holland Publishers Ltd, ISBN-10: 1845379381, ISBN-13: 978-1845379384
Borneo, 1:1,200,000, Reise Know-How Verlag, ISBN-10: 3831772347, ISBN-13: 978-3831772346 
Borneo - Kalimantan, 1:1,130,000, ITMB - International Travel Maps, ISBN-10: 1553410653, ISBN-13: 978-1553410652

Climbing, Exploration and Rainforest

Descent into Chaos: Doomed Expedition to Low's Gully, Connaughton, Brassey's, ISBN-10: 1857531477, ISBN-13: 978-1857531473
Into the Heart of Borneo, O'Hanlon, Penguin, ISBN-10: 0140073973, ISBN-13: 978-0140073973

penan tribe Long Kerong (3).jpg

A Penan Village nestled in the heart of the oldest rainforest in the world.