For as long as I can remember, Borneo has been somewhere I have wanted to visit. My grandparents traveled there years ago and told me stories of holding hands with orangutans and searching for wild orchids within exotic rainforests. I’ve also been a birdwatcher my whole life (nerd alert) so the biodiversity and bird life in Borneo was a HUGE reason I wanted to go! I knew going into my trip that Borneo has experienced a ton of habitat loss due to deforestation in the last fifty years, so I wanted to visit the beautiful place before it got any worse. It took us almost two days of airline travel to get there and to get home, but it was totally worth it!
I travelled to Borneo for a little over two weeks with my boyfriend in February of this year. For those who don’t know, Borneo is the third largest island in the world (after Greenland and New Guinea) and it’s also the largest island in Asia. It’s divided into three countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Since it’s so big, we were only able to make it to the Malaysian side and Brunei. We’ll have to do Indonesia on another trip!
I know that there are many different ways you can travel (from backpacking to luxury travel and everything in between) and for this two-week trip I decided to really take advantage of all my options and experience a wide variety of accommodations. We were constantly on the move and stayed in 9 places in 14 days. This ranged from cheap hotels, to staying at a photographer friend’s fancy house, to crappy backpacker hostels, to beautiful off-grid eco-camps in the jungle without electricity, and even to 5-star luxury resorts on islands. We even had a primitive home stay in a village with locals and then in A-frame bungalows surrounded by chirping frogs in the wet rainforest. I think that the constant change of pace and location made the trip even more interesting and exciting than it already was, and it never let us get too comfortable in one spot!
I used to be super intimidated of planning vacations by myself, but I’ve realized that it’s not as hard as it seems, and planning things yourself gives you total control of your itinerary and destinations in a way that is very personal and real. I bought the Lonely Planet book on Borneo, read it cover to cover, cried a little because there was no way I could do all the things I wanted in two weeks, and then made a list of the places/things that were the most important to me. This list included:
The gorgeous and fun city of Kuching
The wild peninsula only accessible by boat, known as Bako National Park
The incredible historic cave system at Niah
Brunei (it’s such a small country you can see most of it in a day)
Gunung Mulu National Park in the mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and amazing rain forest with more caves
The rich wildlife corridor along the super long Kinabatangan River
A homestay with a local family
Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest mountain on the island, home to tons of unique high elevation rainforest species
An island (we ended up going to Pulau Gaya)
I then somehow managed to cram all those places, in that order, into a two-week wild adventure. It was freaking AWESOME.
Trying to pick a favorite place or a favorite memory feels nearly impossible. One of the best (and worst, to be honest) days was when we explored Niah with my Bornean photographer friend Ruby (Ruby Yeo Photography) and her husband. We hiked deep into the jungle, found a random stall on the side of the trail several kilometers in with some native women selling beer (umm, best surprise ever?!), walked into these MASSIVE stinky caves, and I got to do a photoshoot with Ruby and her husband inside of them! Getting to photograph a couple in love while inside a massive gorgeous green cavern in a place I have always wanted to visit was such an incredible experience. Of course, after this magical happy time, my boyfriend and my friend’s husband decided that they wanted to walk all the way through the caves to get to another cave that was super famous. This meant having to walk a kilometer through pitch-black underground tiny caverns filled with so much slippery bat poop that we were practically falling over every step we took, and there were terrifyingly huge cave crickets the size of rabbits crawling around on the ground around us. On top of this, we didn’t pack enough food, it was getting dark, I was SO hangry and the smell was awful. I quickly learned that I’m 100% claustrophobic and being underground in the dark is reallllllly not my favorite. Somehow we made it back out of the park by dusk just in time to catch the very last ferry over the river out. It was totally stressful and a little bit crazy, but looking back on it I have some great memories from that day.
Honestly, one of the best things about Borneo was the food. The US Dollar is super strong to the Malaysian Ringgit right now, so most our meals cost us about $2 or less. The island is this beautiful cultural mix between native tribal people, Chinese immigrants, and Malaysian/Indonesian culture. This translates to insanely delicious food. We frequently ate a dish called Laksa. It’s a delicious noodle soup made with a spicy shrimp paste called sambal. Every town makes it a little differently, so we ended up having it almost daily! The Chinese restaurants were also amazing – it’s a totally different style of Chinese food than you would find in China or in America, and it was honestly the best I’ve ever had. A lot of the tastiest places are where all the locals go, so it’s a great idea to branch out to try the weird little restaurants with open-air seating, bad fluorescent lighting, plastic chairs and zero English on their menus. You might not always know exactly what you are eating, but I guarantee it will be delicious.
As a photographer, I think that one of the most interesting experiences you can have is to get off the beaten path and really immerse yourself into a culture. If I were to recommend one spot in Borneo, it would be a trip to the Kinabatangan river through Kopel as part of the Mescot Initiative (http://www.mescot.org/). I read about it in my guidebook and the book described it as being a homestay program away from all the other homestays, farther up the river, with better chances of seeing wildlife and it’s also one of longest-running programs of its kind. I was like “oh heck yes.” I set up a stay by emailing them, and we ended up spending two nights at an eco-camp tucked away in the jungle, followed by one night in a village with a local family in their primitive home. The whole initiative works to create sustainable tourism coupled with rainforest conservation. We took river tours with local guides at sunrise and sunset, saw tons of hornbills and monkeys, spent evenings trekking through the jungle in search of insects, spiders and nocturnal mammals (we saw a mouse deer!) and days were spent helping to plant new trees in a destroyed section of rainforest and relaxing alongside a gorgeous freshwater oxbow lake that was home to two massive otters who played tirelessly along the shores. We slept outdoors on camp decks, went without electricity, had delicious meals brought in on a boat from the village, and felt utterly at peace. Afterward, the homestay was a truly unique experience that really shined light on the way that millions of people live their lives everyday. It wasn’t necessarily super comfortable by American standards (definitely not the Hilton), but it was memorable and I would do it again if I could!
Ultimately, Borneo is a jungle-filled dream with a dark side. The protected parks and jungles are some of the oldest and most beautiful forests on planet earth, but the rest of the countryside has been cut down and turned into palm plantations, hurting the native people and creating profits for massive corporations while destroying the environment once home to so many unique cultures and creatures. I totally recommend visiting if you can – it’s super affordable once you get there and the people are SO kind. It’s somewhere definitely worth seeing before it’s totally destroyed.
Katy Weaver photographs weddings, portraits, love and adventure. She is from Portland, Oregon and loves to travel, hike, birdwatch, and take photos outside until it’s almost too dark to see. Her signature style is dark and moody, with a focus on the intersection between what is beautiful and what is real.
To view more of Katy's work, visit her here.