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12th March 2020

Malaysia – Borneo, beyond your wildest dreams!

Visiting a country with the highest biodiversity was a dream of mine for a long time. There are only a few places in the world which offer to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat and Malaysia is one of them! Walking through some of the oldest rainforests while indulging yourself in subtropical diving paradise sounds like a perfect holiday to me.

Since Malaysia is such a big country, it was very difficult to cram all destinations into a two weeks trip. We had to include domestic flights to travel between the regions and we had to choose them wisely! If you are a diver and a nature lover like me, you have two types of bucket lists. Choosing the best destination that offered both worlds was a no-brainer for me and it ticked both off my bucket lists. We decided to explore the most adventurous and wildest part of Malaysia-Borneo.

Borneo boasts some of the world’s most species-rich rainforests and a world-class scuba diving destination in the world. We began our trip preparation and decided on saving the best for the last – scuba diving.

We started our trip from the cultural side of the north-west Borneo, Sarawak. We stayed two nights in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. You can enjoy this beautiful city by taking leisurely walks to explore many historical landmarks, cruising on the sunset boat trip to explore the city views or simply delight your taste buds with delicious local food. The last one had to be our highlight of Kuching! The food was amazing and if we had to choose our favourites, it would have to be the famous Laksa enjoyed with a three-layered cup of tea!

Kuching is also a natural tropical playground right on its doorstep. You can take day trips from here to explore more traditional aspects of life as well as taking trips to national parks. We have decided to take a day trip to Annah Rais. Anna Rais Longhouse is a Bidayuh settlement about 100km south of Kuching, at the foothill of Borneo Highlands. The place provides an authentic experience and a great introduction to the traditional housing of the local people. It is a longhouse made up of 30-50 rooms with family staying in each room. This overnight stay was a glimpse at isolated life out in the jungle that gave us a great insight into the tribal traditions in Borneo.

After a great introduction to all different ethnic groups in Sarawak, it was time to explore the wildlife! Our first trip from Kuching was Bako National Park. We decided to stay a couple of nights to fully enjoy the experience in the oldest national park in Sarawak. The park is home to more than 250 species. The proboscis monkeys which can only be found in Borneo as well as the Bornean bearded pig which we were very lucky to encounter right at the beginning of our trek.

There are 18 routes in total ranging from short to long treks where the animals like long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, flying lemurs are a common sight. We have seen them all!

Kinabatangan river boat safari.

We enjoyed our stay in Sarawak but we were hungry for more. We took a domestic flight from Kuching to Sandakan. It was time to explore Sabah, northeast side of Borneo. The wildest part of Malaysia – the rumour has it. We were looking forward to our wildlife spotting on Kinabatangan River, the second-longest river in Malaysia. Well known for one of the best places to see wildlife in Asia with Borneo Pygmy elephants, orang-utans, gibbons and proboscis monkeys as a common sight. The list is endless! We had our camera with telephoto lens and binoculars packed and we were ready! Two cruises per day with the sunrise cruise being the highlight of our trip were absolutely amazing. We were lucky enough to see most of the animals apart from Pygmy elephants. We were overwhelmed by the whole experience and we decided to come back to see the Pygmy elephants.

The next day we made our way to the world-famous Sipadan Islands. The scenic drive to the place was spectacular, mostly surrounded by tropical forests dotted with some local shops and houses. The only upsetting scene was to see the existing forest being cleared out to make way for palm oil plantation.

We arrived at Sephora port to be then taken by boat to our accommodation in Mabul Island where we decided to stay for four nights. I couldn’t wait to take a plunge and dive into the holy grail of the marine ecosystem. While staying on the Mabul Island we decided to start with some offshore diving to the nearby Islands – Mabul and Kapalai. The first couple of dives were amazing and worth exploring. The experience was a great way to get our feet in the water.

If you are a fan of muck and macro diving, the surrounding islands are the best place to be. Macro diving is a term that divers use to describe tiny creatures. The word Macro is because the photographers use macro lenses to take close up pictures. Muck diving is frequently used to describe anything that you can find from the sediment that lies at the bottom of the dive site. It is like playing hide-and-seek underwater.

It was the time to visit the scuba diving mecca – Sipadan. Sipadan is a massive extinct volcano cone which has grown from the volcanic rock mountain. The cone is almost totally submerged in the Celebes Sea. Sipadan is home to one of the greatest populations of hawksbill and green sea turtles on earth, you’re likely to bump into one of them on your trip. And if you are a fan of big fish you can certainly expect tons of jackfish, schools of barracudas, groupers, and school of bump head parrotfish. During these chaotic scenes, you may find yourself in the centre on the giant barracuda tornado with sharks swimming right beneath your fins.

We were mesmerised by the whole experience and didn’t want to leave the ocean. I can easily say that diving in Sipadan counts as one of the best dives in my life! I swam with reef sharks and eagle rays. We have laid next to nurse sharks and giant turtles as they slept in small reef caves. We spotted stingrays, octopus and so many other fish that it would be impossible to list all of them. The marine life at Sipadan was so rich in biodiversity that at some point it seemed as if all of the fish from the nearby reefs came to meet us at this one spectacular coral atoll. We were very sad to say goodbye to them. There is always a next time and we will definitely come back.

By Karen Simmonds
12th March 2020