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With all the crazy weather we’ve been having, I have found myself daydreaming of trips gone by (not to mention, those of the future). When asked today about my favorite trip ever, my first thought is Borneo. Here’s how we did it (the first time).

Overview of the area

Overview of the area

After flying into Singapore, an economical and timely option is the bus from there to Johor Bahru (~1hr, quick border cross and you go through immigration by hopping on and off from the bus). When we went (pre-points and miles) the budget airline AirAsia allowed us to use good old fashioned money to fly from Johor Bahru to Tawau.  I just checked this route on the Air Asia Website and it seems that this route in no longer offered, but you can get to Tawau from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, or other major cities (Johor Bahru to KK costs about $40, KK to Tawau costs $28). Word of advice- when planning your trip, make sure to check travel schedules, as some flights/buses run infrequently- especially in the south of Sabah.

Water Village

The Dragon Inn- a good way to get your “feet wet”

Semporna is another hour bus ride  away, and an easy hub for diving in the surrounding areas. The Dragon Inn– a floating lodge modeled after traditional Bajau water villages actually sits on stilts over the water. The standard rooms with a Queen bed cost about $30 and are minimal, but you can hear the water lapping beneath your floorboards, and you can’t beat the view!

Any vacancies?

Any vacancies?

Sipidan offers world class diving opportunities, and because of the popularity of these dives, you must reserve in advance and acquire a permit.  The visibility here can be up to 40 meters, and various turtle species, tornadoes of barracuda, and sharks will all be in your welcoming committee. More into Macro-dives? Mabul island is another 25 minutes north from Sipidan, and offers the chance to see cuttlefish, frog fish, or mimic octopi in some of the best muck diving in the world. We dove with Scuba Junkie, who not only offers airport pickups and cheap accommodation, but they are dedicated to sustainable practices and environmental conservation projects.

Lovely way to spend a surface interval.

Lovely way to spend a surface interval

Alas, this trip was pre-dive camera, so my dive log will have to serve as my trigger to remember some of my favorite dives of my life.

Morning on the Kinabatangan

Morning on the Kinabatangan River

On to Sendikan, accessible by either express bus, minivan, or a 1 hr flight from Tawau with MasAir.  Keep in mind that backtracking to Tawau takes an additional hour, so travelling directly by land might be your best option depending on your end destination. We were headed to Uncle Tans Wildlife Adventures for a three- day rainforest stay- you can also stop at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehab along the way, but we chose to head straight to see the animals in their natural habitat.

Our humble abode

Our humble abode

A retreat at Uncle Tans is truly memorable. Accommodations are literal cages, for once keeping the animals out and the humans in. We slept on foam pads in shared “cabins”, listening to the proboscis monkeys chattering and the “ping-ping” of the seeds they threw at our tin roof through the night. We were advised to hide all valuables, as anything shiny or seemingly interesting could quickly become their property- and you don’t want to piss off those monkeys.

Water Monitor

Water Monitor

Tree and Water Monitor Lizards skittered into the river as we made our way to the bathroom each morning. Night hikes revealed a plethora of frogs, tiny bats roosting in leaves, and lots of creepy crawlies of gargantuan proportions. The guides had surreal awareness of the jungle around them- most having grown up on the Kinabantangan, they knew what you could eat, what you could touch, and what would definitely kill you.

I'm not even a Scorpio!

I’m not even a Scorpio!

Meals are included in the package, prepared with ingredients sourced from the river and forest surrounds. Everything was absolutely delicious.

Catch of the day

Catch of the day

And yes, we saw Orangutans relatively easily from our boat– moms with their babies and big daddies slowly foraging in the trees above. Sadly, the reason they are so visible is that their habitat is steadily being destroyed in the quest for palm oil. Deforestation is driving these beautiful primates to extinction, and seeing them in this setting made me think that humans truly are the ones that belong in cages.



Amazing experience over all. If you don’t enjoy getting dirty, this is not the choice for you. But if you want a glimpse of rare wildlife and extremely skilled guides, $130 for 3D/2N package is a complete steal.They also devote a portion of their proceeds to protecting the surrounding habitat- a difficult but unfortunately necessary effort.

The crew

The crew

From Sendakan, we returned to Singapore for a few days of relatively luxury, and thus completed our first trip to Borneo.  I loved Borneo so much, however, I returned by myself a year later to visit Kota Kinabalu and Brunei. My photos have sadly been lost somewhere along the way, but what follows are unadulterated excerpts from emails I sent to Matt during my journey.

“….(Singapore)  Hungover and tired- think I’ve slept maybe 6 hours in the past 2 days…

Went out all day yesterday and again had many comical things occur-we got the typhoon here BAD, and I lost a shoe while walking through what I thought was a field and turned out to be muck. Good things- I went to a jazz concert at the esplanade, had brunch on the quay, went to that new Asia bar and met the crew of a BA flight who then took me out drinking to the cave bar in CHIMES. Went to Sri Mariamman Temple for the firewalking festival but didn’t actually see anybody walking- at 3am they were still preparing, when it started pouring down with rain. Went to get some congee with the BA pilot instead. Got home at 5ish with a funny belly.  Facing Malaysian immigration in a little while, so not gonna eat or drink anymore nondescript foods or beverages today.”

“...(Kota Kinabalu) Big day today, went to Kinabalu Park, hiked up the mountain for a bit then went to the canopy walk which was craaazy. The Poring hot springs turned out to be dilapidated versions of onsen (editor’s note: I was living in Japan at the time, so my hot spring standards were quite high!), so I instead went to see the “worlds largest” Raffelsia flower. Super rare to see it in bloom, so when the alert announced one a 1/2 hour away in some woman’s backyard, I jumped. Totally worthwhile, it stunk so bad. Rotting corpses is an understatement. Just got back to KK after a 2 1/2 hour trip in a van, whose driver clearly was on something (namely his phone, texting). Booked white water rafting on the Padas river for tomorrow, and excited that I have to take the steam train to get there. “

“….Had such a good time today rafting… the train was a bit much after it being an hour late and then veeery slow. Still it was cool to see. The water was so high due to all the downpours lately, and the waves were about 7ft!! I bought the cheesy pics so ill show you when i get back. Going out now with my raftmaster- supposed to be a party for the crew but if I don’t write by tomorrow, his name is moz as in mosquito….please send the search team.  Leaving in the morn for Brunei, will write again from there if i dont miss the 7am ferry. 

I did make it to Brunei, but struggled a bit there. Of course the mosques were beautiful, but I felt very out of sorts as a female traveler on her own. I stayed for 2 days then returned by ferry, after a mandatory stop in Labuan. You must arrive early for the ferry from KK as once it is full, you will wait several hours for the next one. My total journey took about 8 hours each way. With no bars or alcohol allowed, dreary hotel rooms and a general vibe of misogyny, I would recommend that ladies skip this if you’re on your own.

Overall, a completely fascinating, shockingly beautiful part of the world, and one that I long to return to again and again- this time,with a better camera.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Jonathan February 9, 2014, 9:22 pm

    Now that’s the kind of trip report I could get used to reading. No airline food menus, no lounge pics. Thanks – I enjoyed it. You’ve definitely given me some ideas!

    • Allison from Saverocity February 10, 2014, 12:07 pm

      Thanks, Jonathan. Yes, it says a lot that this was one of my most memorable trips, and there wasn’t a lounge or menu in sight. See some yummy looking plants or catch a nice fish? Cook them up! I hope your ideas turn into wonderful memories like ours did.

  • Elaine February 9, 2014, 10:38 pm

    It is probably not an itinerary I’d follow – my idea of roughing it is a Motel 6 with no wifi and nothing but an old copy of Field & Stream for company – but I very much enjoyed reading your trip report. It actually brought back some memories of places we visited and wildlife we saw in Costa Rica. Monkeys do like shiny things!

    My son is currently in the Dominican Republic for a week of R&R from his (too) demanding job. I know little about DR except that it shares an island with Haiti. Hopefully he’ll share some photos soon.

    We remain snowed in – actually at this point we are “iced in” after freezing rain followed a few days of snow – and the schools will be closed yet again tomorrow! The conditions here even made the national news although by the standards of many other places, there really is no news to tell. But between the hilly geography and the fact that the municipalities do not own lots of snow removal equipment, snowy/icy weather really can paralyze this place. I do hope it warms up enough to allow us to get back to normal by late tomorrow.

    Stay safe and warm where you are!

    • Allison February 10, 2014, 12:13 pm

      I am very jealous of your son’s R&R in DR- my car is getting more and more entrenched in ice and snow by the day. I’d definitely prefer deflecting curious animals in Borneo to dealing with this winter!

      Be safe!

  • Tara February 10, 2014, 5:09 am

    Wow, Uncle Tan is STILL there? I was there in ’97, did a similar trip to you – orangutan sanctuary, Dragon Inn, Sipadan stayed at Sipadan Lodge in Jan 97 (dive log book has details). Did you go to Sarawak and stay in the longhouse with Iban people? Borneo is awesome, I should go back for birding!

    • Allison from Saverocity February 10, 2014, 12:09 pm

      It is still there, though I hear they had to move sites due to complications with the government. Their website is currently down, but here’s hoping that they stick around for many moons to come!

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