Borneo has much to offer the intrepid traveler – ancient rainforests, Mount Kinabalu summit climbs, animal sanctuaries, historic cities and miles of rugged, coral-fringed coastline. It’s the beaches and islands of Borneo where many travelers head after they’ve explored its rivers and jungles, and here’s our round-up of the best East Malaysian tropical getaways.
Perhaps Borneo’s most well-known island, Gaya is a large island off the coastline of Kinabalu, Sabah. It’s mountainous and covered in dense, protected rainforest, richly biodiverse and home to world-class dive spots. Police Beach is the most famous here, a 400-meter crescent of white sand sloping into calm, crystal blue waters. There are two five-star resorts on the island and a Marine Ecology Research Center, plus a virgin rainforest-covered interior, which makes Gaya great for nature hikes.
Located at the tip of Borneo, this remote beach destination delivers an authentic ‘castaway’ vibe. Around 200 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu, its unspoilt coastlines are more than worth the journey north. The town of Kudat also offers something for the cultural traveller, as well. Home to the ethnic Rungus people and to Hakka Chinese, you’ll see a charming mix of architecture and enjoy a range of different cuisines. A laidback port town, Kudat is largely free of tourist infrastructure, and perfect for travelers wanting to get off the beaten track.
This cluster of three islands lies 80 kilometers to the north of Kota Kinabalu. Ringed by coral and tranquil, turquoise lagoons, Mantanani is a great destination for snorkeling and diving. For the more experienced diver there are even WWII wrecks offshore to explore. Onshore, these islands are a boon for bird-watchers, with endemic species not often seen on the mainland. With hills to climb and thick forest to hike through, these islands are a nature-lover’s dream.
Layang Layang Island
This remote atoll is one for the divers. Around 300 kilometers north of Sabah, it’s part of the Spratly Island archipelago, and also referred to as Swallow Reef. A circle of land enclosing a bright blue lagoon, Layang Layang has at least a dozen dive sites within a 15-minute boat ride. Dive expeditions should be arranged before you arrive, and accommodation on the island is a single dive resort, making it one of the most exclusive islands of Borneo.
Tiga Island is famous for hosting the first season of the American Survivor series. It’s only 10 kilometers from the coast of Sabah, and perfect for travelers who want to minimize their transit times. Tiga is protected and there are only two resorts here, preserving the wild, natural beauty of the island. A special feature are its active mud volcanoes and warm mud baths located in the jungle – many visitors make the hour-long walk to take a dip in the mud, then walk back to the ocean to wash it all off. Another great island for nature-lovers, your typical walk through Tiga forest will reveal macaques, monitor lizards, butterflies and maybe even a snake.