Borneo. You probably know it for its rainforests, orangutans and world-class scuba diving. But there’s a lot more to this lush tropical island.
Did you know that its jungles provide a rich habitat for rare creatures? It’s also home to the world’s largest (and most pungent) flower, its richest monarch and the highest peak in the Southeast Asia region.
As the third-largest island on the planet, Borneo unsurprisingly offers a wealth of discovery for travelers. To help you navigate its varied wonders and inspire you to visit, here’s our expert’s list of fun and interesting facts about Borneo.
Fact 1. It’s got a sacred mountain
Borneo is home to Southeast Asia’s tallest peak, Mount Kinabalu, which soars 4,095 meters above the northwestern coastline of the island.
You can climb Kota Kinabalu over two days and one night, reaching the summit on the second day for spectacular views above the clouds.
It’s relatively accessible, with climbers of all ages able to take on its slopes, though obviously it helps to be fit. There are two summit trails to choose from, though to protect the mountain’s status as one of the world’s most important biospheres, climbing permits are limited to 135 per day.
The mountain is considered sacred in local custom, and though it may seem like common sense, you should not remove your clothing at its peak as this is considered disrespectful (not to mention illegal).
A group of young foreigners learned this lesson the hard way when they were imprisoned, fined and deported after posing nude at the top in 2015.
Fact 2. Borneo is shared by three countries
More than 70 percent of the island is Indonesian, with 26 percent Malaysian (Sabah and Sarawak states) and 1 percent belonging to the Kingdom of Brunei. Kalimantan is the Indonesian name for Borneo – divided into North, South, East, West and Central Kalimantan. Borneo is relatively sparse in population considering its size, with only 12 million Indonesian citizens and around 22 million all together.
Fact 3. Its rainforests are ancient
Borneo’s rainforests are estimated to be around 140 million years old, making them the oldest in the world.
Not-so-fun-fact: Unfortunately 50 percent of its forests were logged or burned to the ground for oil palm plantations in the 80s’ and 90s’, and the island is still the world’s largest producer of timber.
Due to habitat loss, the endemic Bornean orangutan is now on the critically endangered list.
But, slightly-more-fun-fact: Thanks largely to the plight of the orangutan, awareness is generally heightened on the topic of rainforest destruction, with efforts being made to preserve what remains.
Fact 4. It’s got big bloomers
There are roughly 15,000 different plant species in Borneo, though not all of its flowers you’d want in your garden at home.
The Rafflesia Arnoldii boasts the world’s largest flower, whose secondary claim to fame is smelling like decaying flesh, hence its cute nickname, ‘stinking corpse lily.’ Why does it smell the way it does? To attract flies and other meat-eating pollinators.
Was it named after Arnold Schwarzenegger? No, it was actually named after British botanist, Joseph Arnold and Lady Raffles, who finished Arnold’s sketch of the flower after he died (it’s a long story).
Fact 5. You can visit its orangutans
Orangutans are the only genus of great apes to originate in Asia, so it’s natural for you to want to meet the indigenous Bornean orangutan on your travels to the island.
There are around 54,000 thousand of these orangutans left living in the wilds of Borneo, and several rehabilitation centers are open to the public where you can see them in their natural habitat.
Extra fun fact: The male orangutan’s cheeks grow puffier with age. They’re called flanges and apparently the lady orangutans find them irresistible.
Fact 6. You can also take a river safari
Floating deep into a jungle’s heart over river is not just something that happens in 19th-century novels.
The Kinabatangan River in Sabah is one of Borneo’s most popular attractions, offering the chance for travelers to take a laidback cruise through dense rainforest and spy monkeys, crocodiles and pygmy elephants.
You can even book a dedicated wildlife expedition through the wetlands to introduce you to all its exotic inhabitants.
Fact 7. Speaking of exotic inhabitants…
The long-nosed horned frog is one interesting-looking local. With a body that is identical to a fallen leaf and eyes on pointy ear-like protrusions on top of its head, it’s one heavily camouflaged critter.
Though you may not see one, you might hear one – just keep your ears out for a honking sound when you’re on your jungle cruise adventure.
Fact 8. Borneo is ethnically diverse
More than 200 separate indigenous groups call the island home, more than 50 of which have distinct languages.
In Sarawak the Iban are the largest group, and you can see their traditional longhouses with a tour to a local village.
Once feared headhunters, the Iban upheld a formidable reputation, though the practice has since died out thanks to the colonization of the island and the introduction of Christianity.
Fact 9. There’s a city just for cat-lovers
The capital of Sarawak is Kuching – Cat City. The reasons how exactly it became cat city aren’t clear – what’s important is that there’s a kitschy cat museum and several larger-than-life cat monuments peppered throughout the city.
Kuching is not just famous for its preoccupation with cats, it’s a popular tourist destination for its picturesque riverfront, markets, museums and delicious foodie options.
Fact 10. Its beaches are blissful
The island of Borneo itself generally isn’t that beachy. It’s not ringed all around by crescents of white sand, it’s mainly fringed by peat swamp. But that’s not to say you won’t find your perfect slice of paradise there.
Sabah state has the best beaches, with white sands, snorkeling and islands such as Kapalai, Sipadan and Lankayan. Whale sharks, dugong, turtles and barracuda are just some of the marine life you’ll find cruising the depths around Borneo.
Fact 11. It’s got the richest monarch
The Sultan of Brunei is one wealthy gentleman. Hassanal Bolkiah was valued by Forbes at approximately USD 20 billion in 2008, making him the second-wealthiest royal and world’s wealthiest king.
Quite fittingly, he owns the world’s largest residential palace by floorspace – the Istana Nurul Iman at more than 200,000 square meters and with 1,788 rooms. It is open to the public for three days over the Hari Raya holiday.
Fact 12. Borneo is a haven for wildlife
There are around 222 different species of mammal, with a colorful variety of endemic animals, including aforementioned frogs and orangutans.
Aside from that, there are proboscis monkeys with their bulbously adorable noses, the Sumatran rhinoceros, the clouded leopard, Sumatran tigers, palm civets, hornbills and countless insects (scientists have found up to 1,000 different species on a single tree in some areas).
Fact 13. For peat’s sake
Peat might not sound like the most exciting thing, but Borneo’s peat marsh swamps contribute to its rich biodiversity, providing a home for freshwater fish, birds and monkeys.
They cover the coastlines of Borneo, with some up to 11,000 years old. Sadly, some of Borneo’s peat swamps are being destroyed to make room for oil palm and rubber tree plantations, releasing C02 into the atmosphere and generally very negatively impacting the environment.
Fact 14. Borneo’s a gas
It is, in fact, one of the region’s largest producers of oil and gas. It also produces rubber, cacao, and timber.
While the Indonesian territories of the island make most of their money through oil and mining, the Malaysian states are mainly concerned with timber and rubber, while Brunei is mostly dependent on oil and gas (see: the richest monarch and largest palace in the world.)
Fact 15. But ecotourism is a growing source of income
With such bountiful nature, it’s no surprise that Borneo attracts travelers with an interest in preserving its fragile ecology.
Rehabilitations centers get a good proportion of their funding from tourists, which helps go towards property purchases, securing and protecting land from logging.
Biking, kayaking, jungle trekking, sampan-sailing and snorkeling are all ways travelers can experience Borneo’s waterways and wilderness in an ‘eco’ manner.
Fact 16. Humans have loved Borneo for millennia
There are caves on the island where human habitation has been dated back to 40,000 years. Niah Caves in Sarawak are a particular hotspot, with archaeologists uncovering human remains and tools from the Pleistocene Era.
These caves are nestled in the limestone mountains of Niah National Park, and include Traders Cave, Great Cave and Painted Cave, where ‘death ships’ and wall paintings provide evidence of elaborate funeral rites.
It’s a picturesque and peaceful day trip just outside the town of Miri.
Fact 17. Speaking of Miri…
It is the gateway to several protected parks, including Gunung Mulu National Park, where you’ll find the stunning jagged limestone pinnacles of Mount Api.
It’s home to the second-largest natural cave chamber – the Sarawak Chamber – which is 600 meters long, 435 meters wide and in some places 115 meters high.
It’s also a habitat for Sumatran rhinoceros, sun bears and barking deer (amongst other animals) and it houses the sandstone and shale Mount Mulu, which you can climb on a 4-day, 3-night trip to the summit.
Fact 18. From the mountains to the seas
If staying at sea level or below is more your thing, you might be interested in a turtle trip.
There are several turtle-hatching beaches along Bornean coastline, including those of Selingan (Turtle) Island.
Take a day trip or stay overnight and watch the turtles land, and maybe even take part in releasing some hatchlings into the sea. July to October are prime turtle-landing months.
Fact 19. It’s a diver’s paradise
Some of the best islands for diving in Borneo are in the Celebes Sea.
Sipadan is the most famous and popular, with a 120-per-day diver limit helping protect its precious underwater assets. Nearby Mabul Island is also a top diving destination, with reefs and wrecks that are home to a wide array of sea life – pygmy seahorses and nudibranchs among the highlights.
Pom Pom Island is similarly rich in marine creatures, with 20 different sites off its shores. Kapali and Mataking Islands are also top destinations for the diver.
Fact 20. Powerful tattoos
Taking tribal tattoos to an elaborate extreme, the Iban ink themselves in traditional patterns that can cover their entire bodies.
Some are believed to evoke the spirits of animals or harness the power of medicinal flowers.
Some were awarded after a successful head-hunting trip, and others were performed during rituals to mark coming of age. They were traditionally done with charcoal on the tip of bamboo needles.
Fact 21. An island of hornbills
Gaya Pulau, off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, is home to 15 square kilometers of protected forest.
It’s also got a pristine bay and teeming coral reefs, plus well-marked rainforest trails that take you into prime hornbill territory.
If you take the longest trail across the island, you’ll also have the chance to meet some wild boars and proboscis monkeys.
Keep your eyes open for the latter taking a dip in the ocean – these monkeys are prolific swimmers.
Fact 22. Borneo makes beautiful music
Stay in a traditional longhouse with the Iban and you’ll likely get a chance to hear a traditional sapeh being played.
It’s a string instrument a little like a mandolin with a delicately melodic sound. You’d be surprised how good they sound and what they can play.
Fact 23. It was the location of the first Survivor
Pulau Tiga is where the first series of Survivor was shot.
This tiny tropical island has shallow mud ‘volcanoes’ you can bathe in, wide beaches to explore and forest tracks to wander.
It also has accommodation so you don’t need to construct your own hut from bamboo and palm fronds if you want to stay overnight.
Fact 24. Borneo has its own special nasi lemak
If you like coconut rice, Sabah lets you indulge in an elevated form of this popular street food.
Usually made with chicken, cuttlefish or beef, the dish has recently seen an upmarket interpretation with lobster as the main protein.
Head to the fancier restaurants in the bigger cities for a taste.
Fact 25. And plenty more to fill your tummy…
If you’re on the Malaysian side of the border, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching are the best cities to indulge your inner foodie.
Try Malaysian favorites such as laksa and roti, and of course fresh seafood. Or get adventurous and try some Dayak dishes, including chicken slow-cooked in bamboo, bitter beans and stir-fried jungle fern. Don’t forget a glass of local rice wine.
If you’ve been to Borneo, let us know your fun and interesting facts. Or email us if there’s you’re curious to explore this beautiful island on an expert insider tour.