East Malaysia Travel Guide
East Malaysia consists of the provinces Sabah and Sarawak. Together with the small country of Brunei they make up the northern strip of the island of Borneo. The southern part belongs to Indonesian Kalimantan.
The two states feel they are so different from the mainland, Peninsular Malaysia, they got their own immigration. For most nationalities, a 30 days visa will be stamped in your passport without a fuss though. The main attractions are jungle, wildlife, HUGE caves, tribes and mountains. Of course, if you go tracking through the interior you will encounter all this. Furthermore there are beaches with their accompanying retreat resorts and some diving.
This destination guide will give you a quick introduction to and an overview of this part of Malaysia which is easy to reach from Singapore. This is a work in progress and we will keep adding highlights, operators and accommodations as we find them or as they are recommended to us. Feel free to drop your own suggestions via .
The only way basically is to fly. You can fly directly from Changi Airport in Singapore to the capitals of Sarawak (Kuching) and Sabah (Kota Kinabalu) and to Brunei. The cheapest way though is to fly from Johor Bahru, just across the border in Malaysia, with Malaysia's budget airliner Air Asia. From there you can fly to Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu. For other options, have a look at Zuji or the MisaTravel websites.
Although you can choose any route you like the common way is to travel from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu or the other way around. Tour groups usually complete this in less then two weeks. But if you really want to experience the jungle I would recommend at least a month. From Kuching you can travel overland, but even better inland, via Sibu towards Miri. From there, after some side trips, you can either travel overland through Brunei into Sabah, or fly directly to Kota Kinabalu. You can also fly directly from Gunung National Park, near Miri, to KK. It's relatively easy to travel around by bus and because of the fact that Sarawak is investing heavily in tourism at the moment, new airports and better roads are build on a high pace. Since Sabah is a couple of years ahead in tourist development, getting around there is no problem. In the next paragraphs the major attractions will be highlighted following the Kuching to Kota Kinabalu trail.
Kuching is a very pleasant and laid back town where you don't want to miss the very extensive Sarawak museum. It will give you a taste of the jungle tribes you will encounter later. Of the several rather interesting national parks around the capital, like Kubah (waterfalls) and Gunung Gading (rafflesia, the worlds largest flower) I personally prefer Bako for its nice jungle tracks and, most importantly, cheeky monkeys. The fact that they try to break into your hut and steal your food makes it only more interesting. If you would like to see orang-utans, Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre is the place. During feeding time (8.30-9 am and 3-3.15 pm) you see them at a couple of meters distance.
From Kuching most people go to Sibu to travel upstream on the Rejang river towards Kapit to visit the local tribes. Those indigenous people live usually with around 100 people together under one roof in a very long house, called a Long House. Of course you can't just show up on the doorstep demanding food and accommodation, although they are usually very hospitable. The only way is to get invited by a local. Because of the fact this can take a long time a lot op tourists buy a Long House tour. This usually involves a well organised 'original' dancing performance in an easy to reach, maybe even air-conditioned, Long House. Because of this and the problem that, due to logging, the river up to Kapit isn't as attractive as it used to be, I decided to skip the whole tribal experience.
But I was lucky and stumbled upon a Iban in a bar in Kuching who invited me into his home and thus ended up near the Kalimantan border south of Sibu, heavily packed with Milo and biscuits as gifts for the tribe. If you manage to do that you can easily spend several weeks exploring the jungle while living as the locals. An unforgettable experience! (Of course, he asked me to 'pay for the transport', a practise more often used by locals to make a little bit of money. I thus wasn't the first white guy who visited his tribe or something. But it was still a far more personal, unique, and cheaper experience than joining a organized tour. His small profit was well deserved.)
On the way from Sibu via Bintulu to Miri you can visit the immensely impressive Niah Caves and watch the 500.000 bats fly out at dusk. After Swimming in some sweet waterfalls in Lambir Hills National Park you can recover from your jungle adventures in easy going Miri. From there you can explore some recently discovered dive spots or fly to Gunung Mulu National Park. This park offers jungle tracking, challenging mountain climbing, but most of all caving! If you don't particularly like caves I would look for another destination. Here you can just visit some easy accessible, but incomprehensibly big caves, or indulge yourself in some extensive adventure caving. I had a great time there. One advise though is to try to arrange a group of people to share the costs with, because all activities come with a fixed price. If you stay in the park headquarters you don't need to hire guides to just visit the caves. For any other activity you can't do without. Climbing the Pinnacles is for instance impossible without a well equipped guide.
After Miri you can travel on to Sabah through Brunei or fly directly to Kota Kinabalu. Just a few of the main attractions are mentioned above, but there is far more to see in Sarawak. Check out The Forest Department Sarawak for information on all the National Parks.
Sabah and Sarawak offer much the same experiences. The mean difference is that the tourism industry as well as logging is far more progressed in Sabah. Climbing Mount Kinabalu, one of the main tourist attractions, is like standing in line in a fast food restaurant, waiting for the well known, but overrated burger. It still is a challenging climb though and many people feel they had a great experience.
If you travelled through Brunei you'll leave Sarawak in Lawas and probably end up in Beaufort, where you can go white-water rafting. After that it's strait up to Kota Kinabalu, a rather pleasant town where you can prepare the last activities of your trip, like climbing Mt Kinabalu. If you want to spend some money you can enjoy the brilliant beaches of the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a couple of kilometres of the coast of KK. If you don't mind getting flooded by Japanese tour groups and you missed the orang-utans in Sarawak you can head for Sepilok orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and enjoy the sound of digital camera's. The better option though is to head directly for Uncle Tan' Jungle Camp, a not to be missed wildlife-spot attraction. Lastly, the diving around Pulau Sipadan is considered one of the best dive spots in the world. Be prepared for the high priced resorts.
This travel guide is based on my month travel in Borneo and the many stories I've heard from other travellers I met there. It is therefore of course subjective, but I do feel that I have depicted the general feeling. If you've encountered inaccurate information, please send us your corrections. I hope you found the information you were looking for.
Enjoy the jungle!
Tjerk Jan Schuitmaker
Dutch traveller temporarily based in Singapore.