Planning Your Trip To Borneo
This guide focuses on practical travel information and answering FAQs. It is designed to help travellers planning a trip to Borneo and focuses on the Malaysian States of Sarawak and Sabah.
If you are looking for information on attractions and places to visit see our destination map which has write-ups on the best places to go in Borneo.
Here you will find information on the following topics.
- Visas & Immigration
- Travellers’ Health
- Weather And The Best Time To Travel To Borneo
- What To Bring
- Currency, Credit Cards And Banking
- Crime, Safety And Security
- Communications – SIM Cards & Internet
- Electricity, Plugs And Adaptors
- Travelling With Children
- Tours for Single Travellers
- Longhouse Visits And Orangutans
- Time Difference
- Getting Around
- Tourism Tax
Visas & Immigration
Do I need to obtain a visa before arrival?
Tourists from most countries are not required to obtain a visa and receive an immigration stamp upon arrival at the airport or other entry point. In general, tourists from Western countries are allowed in without a visa for a stay of 1-3 months. Validity on passports must be 6 months or more. For a full list of the nationalities that have visa-free entry and the length of stay allowed, please refer to the Malaysia immigration website at www.imi.gov.my. The immigration website does not have a user-friendly navigational structure so it is not easy to find the visa information pages. The site also constantly changes so there is not point in us listing a specific URL as it changes. So, go to home Page, switch language to English, then go to the Visa page and click ‘Visa Requirement By Country’.
The Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website at www.kln.gov.my also has a link to the immigration site’s visa pages. Go to the home page, see the ‘Quick Info’ section on the middle of the page and click the Visa Information Tab. Alternatively Google ‘Visa Requirement By Country Malaysia Immigration’ and that should take you to the right page on the immigration web site.
Travellers’ Health Considerations
We do not give out specific recommendations on vaccine requirements & health-related issues. We recommend that you consult your doctor on these matters. Health risks and vaccine requirements can change at any time so it is important that you seek the latest medical advice.
The following should be considered as background information only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. For further information on travellers’ health issues, see the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s website http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel.
Do I need to take anti-malaria drugs?
The best advice we can give is to follow the advice of your doctor. Whilst cases of malaria do occur in Sarawak and Sabah they tend to be in remote areas, mostly places that tourists do not frequent. Malaria tends to be absent from towns and cities. However, there is a risk of malaria in rural areas and undeveloped areas of the interior. Some areas of Sabah and Sarawak that are near the Indonesian border also have a higher risk of malaria.
For a short stay (1-3 weeks) it should be no problem to take malaria pills. According to the Center for Disease Control, Chloroquine is not an effective anti-malarial drug in Malaysia. Atovaquone-proguanil (Malarone), doxycycline and mefloquine are options for use in Malaysia. Unless recommended otherwise it is best to avoid the stronger prescriptions such as Larium (mefloquine) which can cause unpleasant side effects.
Is Dengue Fever present in Sarawak & Sabah?
Yes, dengue fever occurs in urban and semi-urban areas of Malaysia, including Sarawak & Sabah. Dengue is a viral infection transmitted by Aedes mosquitos that bite during the day. There is no vaccine against dengue fever. You can reduce the risk of infection by protecting yourself from mosquito bites.
According to the CDC, “The risk of dengue infection for international travelers appears to be small. There is increased risk if an epidemic is in progress or visitors are in housing without air conditioning or screened windows and doors.”
What other precautions can I take against malaria & other mosquito-borne diseases?
The main thing to do is to reduce the chance of being bitten. Apply insect repellent on any exposed skin and use a mosquito net when necessary. For example, if you are camping in the jungle or staying in lodge or camp-style accommodation in or near the rainforest always sleep under a mosquito net. Where possible stay in hotels which have rooms with window screens or air conditioning.
After the sun has set cover up as much as you can by wearing long sleeves and trousers. Malaria transmission usually occurs between dusk and dawn. In contrast dengue fever transmission usually takes place in the daytime.
What type of mosquito / insect repellent should I bring or use?
If you will be spending time in national parks or upriver areas (e.g. Batang Ai & Nanga Sumpa), we recommend you use mosquito repellent that contains 30-50% DEET. Use this in the jungle and interior. Milder sprays can be used in the city or for normal use. Do not bother with the trendy herbal mosquito sprays. They do not work well in the rainforest and interior of Borneo and worse still some brands attract wasps.
Note: it is not easy to buy 50% DEET mosquito spray in Malaysia so bring it from home. It is commonly found in Europe, USA, Australia, etc. where it is often labelled as ‘expedition strength’ or ‘tropical strength’ repellent. Before departing for Malaysia test your chosen mosquito spray on your arms to make sure it does not result in a rash or reaction. If you are in Malaysia and looking for a DEET spray the Guardian Pharmacy chain sell a 15% DEET mosquito repellent called ‘Off’.
What should I apply first, mosquito repellent or sunscreen?
If you are using both put the sunscreen on first and then apply insect repellent.
What vaccinations do I need for Borneo?
In addition to being up-to-date on routine vaccinations (e.g. measles/mumps/rubella, tetanus, etc.), many doctors recommend jabs for Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Typhoid. We advise you seek the advice of your doctor to see what is best for you.
Do I need to get vaccinated against Japanese Encephalitis (JE)?
We advise that you speak to your doctor for specific advice. JE is transmitted by mosquitoes and is endemic in Sarawak. However, it is predominantly a disease of children living in rural areas of Sarawak. There are cases of JE in Sabah but it appears less common than in Sarawak. Travellers of any age can get JE but the risk is low unless you are spending extended periods in rural and farming areas where there are pigs, chickens, etc., or you are visiting an area with a known outbreak.
Do I need to get vaccinated against Rabies?
Malaysia lost its rabies free status in 2015 when an outbreak started in Perlis and spread to Kedah and Penang. The outbreak was isolated in the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia and then contained. Sarawak and Sabah remained rabies-free at that time.
In June 2017 the Sarawak government announced that rabies was present in Serian, a small town located 50 km from Kuching. It is believed that the rabies outbreak originated in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Four children and one adult were diagnosed and later died of rabies. The five victims were bitten by dogs near Serian in the early phase of the outbreak.
Following the June announcement the State Government immediately initiated preventative and control measures. These included active case detection and the vaccination of dogs, cats and other animals within a 10 km radius of the villages where the three children lived. The government’s initial strategy was to contain the outbreak in a small area of Serian. Initially the containment strategy appeared to be working but by mid-July 2017 rabies had spread to areas adjacent to Serian and then reached Kuching. It has now spread to nine administrative divisions, namely, Serian, Kuching, Samarahan, Sri Aman, Betong, Sibu, Kapit, Sarikei and Miri. By August 2018 the outbreak had claimed 12 lives.
The government continues to vaccinate animals in the infected areas. People living in and around the rabies-infected areas who have been bitten by dogs are given the rabies post exposure vaccine. The Sarawak General Hospital in Kuching and other Government Hospitals in the State have sufficient stock of the rabies vaccine for post exposure treatment. Some private hospitals in Kuching also maintain stock of the rabies vaccine. For the latest information on the rabies outbreak see the government’s Sarawak Disaster Information website.
If you are bitten by a dog you should immediately wash the wound with soap and running water for 10-15 minutes. If no soap is available flush the wound with running water. Then go to the nearest hospital to have the wound treated and get the post exposure vaccine.
Rabies is not considered a major risk factor for most travellers in Sarawak. The likelihood of a tourist being bitten by a dog is low. However, Sarawak is no longer classified as rabies free. It may take some time before the 2017 rabies outbreak in Sarawak is contained. At present Sabah remains rabies free. In view of the changed situation travellers may wish to review their vaccination requirements for Sarawak and seek medical advice as to whether or not they require the pre-exposure rabies vaccine.
How safe is the tap water?
All tap water in towns in Sarawak & Sabah is treated but for most stomachs it may still take some getting used to. If you have a sensitive stomach it is best to avoid tap water. Tap water is fine for cleaning teeth. Bottled mineral water costs around RM 1 for 500 ml and RM 2 for 1.5 litre in supermarkets in Sarawak and RM 1.50-2.00 (500 ml) and RM 2.50-3.00 (1.5 litre) in Sabah. Bottled drinking water (distilled or reverse osmosis) is a lot cheaper than mineral water.
How safe is the ice served in restaurants, stalls & coffee shops?
The cylindrical ice tubes served in drinks in Malaysia are mass-produced in ice factories and are generally safe to consume. Most restaurants and coffee shops use these ice tubes, as do many food stalls and hawker centres. If you want to be 100% sure ask for a drink without ice. Cold canned and bottled drinks are available almost everywhere, even in small towns and villages so you can avoid ice altogether if you wish and still enjoy a cold drink.
If I go jungle trekking do I need to worry about leeches?
Leeches are commonly found in the rainforest and you may encounter them on jungle treks in some places in Sabah and Sarawak. If a leech bites you, don’t worry too much. Leech bites may be irritating but they are generally not considered harmful. You can easily remove a leech by using your finger nail to detach it or by flicking it a few times. The wound may continue to bleed for a little while but this usually stops. When you get back to your room wash the wound with soap and water.
You can minimise your chances of getting leech bites by using insect repellent and by wearing leech socks. Leeches are very common at Tabin and Danum Valley in Sabah so leech socks are recommended. Likewise for the Red Ape Trail in Sarawak. Leeches are sometimes found along the jungle trails at Ulu Ai. Leeches are not usually encountered on treks at Bako National Park.
Can I buy leech socks in Sarawak and Sabah?
It is often not easy to find leech socks in Sarawak. However, they are readily available in Sabah. In Sarawak try Greek’s Outgear Discovery (Tel: 082-413217), located on the 2nd floor of the Sarawak Plaza shopping complex on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman in the centre of Kuching or Montanic Adventure Store located on Level 2 of Viva City Megamall, Jalan Wan Alwi (about 5 km from the town centre).
In Kota Kinabalu, leech socks are sold at Borneo Outdoor Gear in the Suria Sabah shopping mall at 1 Jalan Tun Faud Stephens and at Tech City Outdoor Shop (Tel: 088-222157) at No. 5 Jalan Gaya, next to Jesselton Point. Tabin Wildlife Resort & Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley also sell them.
What temperatures can we expect in Borneo?
The climate is typically tropical with temperatures ranging from a cool 22°C in the evenings to a sultry 34°C in the daytime. Relative humidity is consistently high and typically 70-90%.
When is the best time to visit Borneo?
The best time to visit Borneo is during the dry season from March to October. July-August is the peak tourist season. If you intend to travel in the peak season months it is essential to book in advance. Many key attractions (e.g. Danum Valley, Bako National Park, etc.) are full during these months so it can be difficult to get a room. The availability of tour guides can also be an issue in some places during July and August. A good time to visit is April-June when there is less rain and less crowds. Likewise September and October are also good months as they are usually dry and there are less visitors.
The rainy season (or landas) is normally between November and February each year. Bare in mind that some years it can arrive early or late or extend into March. Peak rainfall is usually in December and January. Sarawak receives an abundance of rainfall. The average annual rainfall is between 3,300 and 4,600 mm, depending on location. Sabah is less wet than Sarawak and receives 2,500-3,500 mm of rain per year, depending on locality.
It is still possible to travel around Sabah and Sarawak in December and January but expect lot of rain, especially in Sarawak. Some years are not too bad with heavy storms followed by a few blue sky days. If you do travel in December and January there will be less crowds and hotel prices are cheaper.
What to Bring
What clothes should I bring?
The tropical days are hot and humid and we recommend light, comfortable cotton shirts. Casual wear is acceptable for most occasions in the city; on trips to the interior, shorts and T-shirts may be more appropriate. For most trips, bring swimming costumes, as there are chances to slake off the tropical heat with a swim in a river or dip at a waterfall. Please remember, however, to respect local modesty. Light rain wear is a must as invariably there will be encounters with rain.
On trips to the longhouses don’t forget thin towels and sun hats (to protect against the tropical sun). In the evenings slip into a comfortable sarong. These items can be locally obtained easily and cheaply. Thin or lightweight long-sleeved shirts and long trousers will protect you from mosquitos in the evenings. If you are climbing Mount Kinabalu you will need some warm clothing (fleece, thick socks, beanie / woollen hat, etc.).
What footwear do you recommend?
For trips to the interior that require a great deal of hiking through primary rainforest or rugged terrain, comfortable hiking or walking shoes that can handle jungle streams or muddy trails are recommended. For shorter trips that do not require a great deal of walking, a good pair of sneakers will do. A pair of flip-flop, slippers or tevas should be included. Note: It is often difficult to find footwear in large sizes in Sarawak & Sabah.
If you are visiting Ulu Ai, Nanga Sumpa and Lubok Kasai bring both good walking / hiking shoes for use on the jungle trails and waterproof sandals to wear when you travelling by longboat. For example, when you visit the waterfall or stop for a riverside picnic you will be getting in and out of the boat and your footwear will get wet. If you wear waterproof sandals (with good grip) you do not need to change shoes or walk barefoot in the river or on the pebble beaches.
What equipment do you recommend?
If you plan to scale the pinnacles in Mulu or climb Mount Kinabalu, include a pair of light gardening gloves for good grip and protection against rough and sharp surfaces. A torch light or better still a head torch (don’t forget to bring extra bulbs and batteries) is always useful and a must if you are going caving or joining our frogging tour of Kubah. As with other trips, a small backpack and water bottle will come in handy. Bring along plastic bags to keep clothes and cameras dry in case of rain. Dry bags are also useful for keeping cameras dry, particularly if your tour includes a number of boat trips.
What medicines & toiletries should I bring?
In addition to personal toiletries bring insect repellent. A basic first aid kit should include band aids, mild antiseptic cream for insect bites or light scratches, cotton swabs, tissues, bandages and painkillers. You can buy most medicines in local pharmacies. Prices are often cheaper than in Western countries.
What to Bring on Field Trip (sample list)
– Light comfortable clothes (shorts, loose fitting long-sleeve shirts, light cotton T-shirts, long trousers and sarong (for evenings)
– Comfortable walking shoes that can handle jungle streams or muddy trails
– Bathing suit (respect local modesty)
– Thin towels (they dry quicker in the humid climate)
– Sun hat and sun block
– Personal toiletries (e.g. shampoo, soap, tooth paste, etc.)
– Insect repellent (30-50% DEET works well in Sarawak & Sabah)
– Plastic bag (or dry bag) to keep clothes and cameras dry in case of rain
– Water bottle.
– Torch light or head torch (with extra batteries)
– Flip flops / thongs / slippers / tevas
– Small backpack or daypack (for camping in the rainforest, day-use, etc.)
– Rain coat / poncho
Part of the journey on many tours will be in open boats where you will be exposed to either rain or sun. Sun block is a must, as is a good hat. Wrap all your clothes and belongings in a plastic bag when packing. Always ensure you have something dry to change into.
Currency, Credit Cards & Banking
What is the name of the local currency?
The Malaysian currency is called the Ringgit (RM or MYR). 1 Ringgit = 100 sen. Notes are available in denominations of RM 1 (blue), RM 5 (green), RM 10 (red), RM 20 (orange), RM 50 (green-blue) and RM 100 (purple). There are 5 sen, 10 sen, 20 sen and 50 sen coins.
Should I bring Malaysian Ringgit with me or change my foreign currency in Malaysia?
By all means bring a small amount of Ringgit with you but it is worth noting that you will usually get a much better rate when you change USD, Euros, British Pounds, AUD, etc., in Malaysia as opposed to changing in the US, Europe, etc. For example, if you change Pounds to Ringgit in the UK you can receive 15-20% less Ringgit than if you changed it in Malaysia.
Can I use local ATMs to withdraw cash?
Malaysian banks are linked to networks such as PLUS, Maestro and Cirrus so you can withdraw cash at local ATMs. ATMs are readily available in towns and cities.
Are credit and charge cards widely accepted in Sarawak & Sabah?
Yes, Visa and MasterCard credit cards are widely accepted. American Express is less widely accepted. Retail outlets often have a RM 50 minimum charge for paying with a credit card. Some outlets levy a 2-3% fee for using a credit card.
Crime, Safety & Security
How safe is it to go out at night?
Kuching is generally a safe city. Muggings and attacks on tourists are so rare that it makes the headlines if it happens. Kota Kinabalu requires some extra precautions in some areas but is also generally quite safe. In both cases it is best to apply the standard principle of leaving your valuables in the hotel safe and not carry more cash than you really need.
Is bag snatching a problem in Malaysia?
Incidents of bag snatching by thieves on motorbikes have increased all over Malaysia in recent years. As such when going out be aware of your surroundings and keep your bag close. If your bag has shoulder straps carry the bag towards the pavement rather than towards the road (where a motorbike thief can easily make a grab for it) or better still tuck your bag under your arm. Do not wrap bag straps around your arms or shoulders. Never try to hold on to your bag if a motorbike snatcher grabs it. Let it go. Victims have been seriously injured and pulled to the ground by bag straps. Don’t put your handphone or other valuables on the table if you are dining in a roadside stall or coffee shop.
What is the best (and cheapest) way of calling home?
IDD calls from hotels are expensive so buy a pre-paid sim card from a Malaysian mobile telecommunication company. Then you can use your handphone and be contacted. Calling within Malaysia is cheap and calling overseas from a local pre-paid card is relatively cheap. Having a local prepaid card is likely to save you money and helps avoid incurring high roaming charges from your home country provider. You can buy pre-paid cards from telecom shops and re-load cards can be bought in sundry shops, 7-11 stores, etc. Foreign citizens need to show retailers their passport to obtain a pre-paid phone card in Malaysia. Not all Malaysian telecom companies have good coverage in Sarawak & Sabah. Stick to major players such as Celcom, Digi and Maxis when buying a pre-paid card.
Note: If you intend to use a smart phone in Malaysia and your home-country sim card remember to adjust your phone settings so that you do not incur high data roaming charges upon returning home.
What is the Internet access like?
In a word – slow. All major towns in Sarawak and Sabah have internet access. Coverage and speeds in rural areas are patchy. Some small towns have an internet cafe. Restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets in cities usually offer free Wi-Fi. In contrast many hotels in Sabah & Sarawak have yet to realise that having internet access in the room is an essential service and still charge high fees for in-room internet access. However, internet access is often free in hotel lobbies and public areas. Internet speeds in Malaysia are some of the slowest in Southeast Asia and speeds in Sarawak and Sabah are slower than in Peninsular Malaysia. It is possible to use Skype for voice calls but using Skype with video can be frustrating owing to the slow internet speeds.
Electricity, Plugs & Adaptors
What is the voltage in Malaysia and what electrical sockets are used?
The electricity supply is 230/240 volts at 50 hertz. The 3-pin electrical sockets used in Malaysia are similar to those used in Britain. Travel adaptors are available from major hotels or department stores. We recommend you bring your own travel adaptor rather than wasting time going in search of one when you are here.
Travelling with Children
Are your tours suitable for children?
Yes the majority of our tours are suitable for children. However, some tours that involve serious trekking (e.g. Pinnacles, Red Ape Trail) or climbing (Kinabalu Summit Climb) are not suitable for young children.
Are your tours to Ulu Ai and Nanga Sumpa longhouse suitable for children?
We think so and many families with children have visited Nanga Sumpa and enjoyed the experience. Obviously the older your children the more they will get out of the trip. We have taken families with babies and young toddlers but this is rare as the trip to Nanga Sumpa involves a 1½ hour longboat ride. We have child life jackets but if you are bringing a baby or small toddler we recommend that you bring your own infant-sized life jacket to ensure that it fits properly.
Do you offer children’s discounts on your tours?
Yes. For most of our tours children travelling with paying adults receive discounts. Discounts vary depending on the tours. For example,
The following discounts apply to the vast majority of tours in Sarawak:
- Children aged 5 and below – Free
- Children aged 6-11 – 50% off adult rate
The following discounts apply to day trips in Sandakan:
- Children aged 2 and below – Free
- Children aged 2-4 – 50% off adult rate
- Children aged 5-11 – 20% off adult rate
Note: Children aged 12 and above pay full price. Above discounts apply to tours only and not hotel room rates, other accommodation or overnight tours (e.g to Kinabatangan River, Sukau and Abai).
Tours for Single Travellers
Borneo Adventure can tailor a private tour for single travellers. We also operate a number of fixed departure, small group tours in Sarawak that single travellers can join. The group size on these tours is typically 3-6 travellers and the maximum size is usually 8-10 travellers. An English-speaking guide accompanies these tours. For tours and treks at Batang Ai the main tour guide is assisted by local Iban guides.
Our fixed departure tours attract a range of people of different ages and nationalities. On most tours there will be a mix of solo travellers, couples and groups of friends. Single travellers can book the following fixed depature tours on our website: Bako day trip, Semenggoh Orangutan, Ulu Ai Experience (Nanga Sumpa) 3D2N, Nanga Sumpa & Lubok Kasai 3D2N, Lubok Kasai Jungle Camp 4D3N, In Search of Wild Orangutans 6D5N and Red Ape Trail 5D4N.
In Sabah we are usually able to accommodate single travellers on our Kinabatangan River tours so that you can join a small group. However, this is not bookable on the website. Please email us to see if this is possible and we will do all we can to assist. We also have single traveller rates for Danum Valley and Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
Should I take some gifts to give to the people of the longhouse?
No, we recommend that you do not give gifts to the people at the longhouse. Traditionally visitors do not give gifts to longhouse residents.
Where is the best place to see orangutans?
You can see semi-wild orangutans at two rehabilitation centres: Semenggoh near Kuching and Sepilok near Sandakan. There are a number of locations in Sabah and Sarawak where you can see an orangutan in the wild. See our guide on the best five places to see wild orangutans for more information.
What is the time difference between Malaysia and GMT?
Malaysia has a single time zone and is 8 hours ahead of London GMT and 7 hours ahead of time during the UK’s daylight saving time. Malaysia is 13 hours ahead of New York (Eastern Standard Time) and 12 hours during daylight saving time in the summer.
What is the best way to get around when in Kuching or Kota Kinabalu?
There are public bus services in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu but schedules and reliability can be an issue. The buses are often very old. You can get around Kuching and Kota Kinabalu by public bus but expect a lot of waiting around. One of the quickest and most convenient ways of getting around in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu is to use the ride hailing app Grab. It is a lot cheaper than using at taxi.
Can I rent a car and drive around?
Yes you can. You need to have a valid driving license (Malaysian, foreign or international driving license). Many car rental companies insist on seeing your foreign driving license – just showing an international driving license is not enough. Malaysia has similar road laws as the UK and cars drive on the left lane (with the driver’s seat on the right-hand side of the vehicle). Most roads in West Malaysia are in good condition, perfectly safe and car rental is a popular option. Road conditions in Sabah and Sarawak are not as good as in West Malaysia. In Sabah and Sarawak self-drive is less common but can be done. A number of car rental companies are available in both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. However due to the size of the market, rental prices in Sabah and Sarawak are very high, often prohibitively so. Often, there is no price advantage between hiring a car and taking a private transfer.
How much should I tip?
Tipping is not a strong culture yet in this part of the world. Most hotels & restaurants include a 10% service charge on the bill. If you want to leave a small addition that is fine but it is not always necessary. It is normal to leave a small amount for the housekeeping and bellboy of the hotel when checking out. Your guide will also appreciate a small gratuity if he has done a good job.
Foreign tourists staying at accommodation premises (hotels, guesthouses, etc.) have to pay RM 10 per room per night Tourism Tax. This is usually paid on check-in.
If you have any specific question regarding your trip to Sarawak or Sabah, please contact us and we will do our best to provide you with an answer.