Still with an air of mystery surrounding it, Borneo's jungles are teeming with some of the most endangered and thrilling of wildlife. Its rainforests hang heavy with fruit and mountains tower high over the fields waiting to be climbed. Travel down the waterways by boat as the only way to get through the thick forest while monkeys swing from the canopy.
Spot turtles on Mantanani island, visit the orangutans at Sepilok and swim in cave systems in Mulu. Whether you take group tour with Tucan Travel, a tailor-made tour or enjoy an Add-on, Borneo will take your breath away.
All Tours of Borneo
Borneo Travel Articles, Inspiration & Information
Walking on the wild side
Borneo is just one of many places that are perfect for wildlife-lovers. This blog showcases the best places for seeing nature in all her glory. Read more
Travelling through Borneo
Discover a beautiful photo slide of Becka's adventure in Borneo. Home to huge amounts of wildlife, this digital photo album of Borneo will leave you inspired! Read more
Independently Verified Travel Reviews From Past Clients
Borneo Travel Guide
Malaysia Travel guide
Geography and weather
The temperatures throughout Malaysia are uniformly high throughout the year with high temperatures, high humidity and heavy rainfall. The weather is patterned around the monsoon seasons - the south west monsoon from late May to September, and the north east Monsoon from November to March. The weather can be cooler in the mountains which provides a relief from the hotter cities. Visit www.worldclimate.com to get an idea of what the weather will be like on your tour.
Most nationalities do not require a visa to enter Malaysia. Please note that visa regulations are subject to change. Please check with your local embassy about the latest visa requirements for your nationality before you leave your home country. You can also visit www.travcour.com for current visa information.
Banks and ATMs can be found almost everywhere in Malaysia. Credit cards are accepted in most shops, restaurants and hotels (with the exception of American Express cards which are not widely accepted). We recommend that you take either US dollars or British pounds and travellers cheques.
Although tipping may not be a custom to you at home, locals here depend on your tips as many of them have families and children to support. Tucan Travel aims to support the local community on every tour by staying in locally operated hotels and employing local guides for many excursions. However tips are one of the most important aspects of our contribution to local communities. We encourage you to tip after most optional excursions and your tour leader will be able to advise you on a reasonable amount. Please make sure to allow enough local currency to tip after meals and excursions.
Generally Malaysia is very safe and most people have no problems at all but you should exercise a reasonable degree of caution, just as you would in any destination. Be sensible (NOT paranoid). Don’t walk around lonely back streets, especially on your own or at night, don’t wear expensive looking jewellery or a classy watch and don’t carry a wallet in your back pocket. Don’t carry your camera openly - always have it in a small day pack which is firmly attached to your body - preferably in the front in crowded places. Take particular care not to become too relaxed if you have had a few drinks and are returning to your hotel at night – it is best to always take a taxi. Always wear a money belt or leave your valuables, including your passport, in the hotel security box.
Local food and drink
Meals and drinks are generally not included on our tours in Malaysia.
In Malaysia you will find an abundance of tasty dishes. The popular foods are Satay, Nasi Lemak (coconut-flavoured rice meal), grilled or barbequed fish. Thick rice noodles and very spicy foods to burn a hole in your taste buds. Malaysia is particularly famous for its ‘pepper crab’. You will be able to buy a wide range of seafood and meats in most medium and upmarket restaurants. You might even feel brave enough to try the local crunchy insects served on sticks! A cheaper option for the more adventurous are the street stalls where you can pick up cheap and tasty food. Remember, if the queue is large, then the food must be good!
It is not recommended that you drink the local tap water in Malaysia. However bottled water, soft drinks, and fruit juices are widely available.
The time difference in Malaysia is GMT/UTC + 8. For other time differences please visit www.timeanddate.com
220-240v, 50 cycles; three square -pin power sockets as in the UK.
Malaysia/Borneo Travel Guide
Blessed with a consistent climate, abundant coastline littered with beautiful beaches and islands and a vibrant and diverse culture, it is little wonder Malaysia makes it on to the list for many travellers. Malaysia is one of the world’s megadiverse countries due to the massive number of plant and animal species that call this part of the world home. Natural features such as some of the biggest cave systems in Southeast Asia, dense jungle and colourful coral reefs are another feature of this nation. In addition colonial cities with World Heritage status add a splash of culture and history in a nation that is bursting at the seams with wonders.
The currency of Malaysia is the Malaysian ringgit (symbol: RM), which is made up of 100 sen. Bank notes coming in 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 ringgit denominations and coins come in 5, 10, 20 and 50 sen denominations. If you are travelling outside cities, have plenty of small bills as anything larger than a 10 may not be accepted.
ATMs are plentiful and should accept major international cards such as Visa and Mastercard. The most common ATMs belong to Maybank or Public Bank. Exchanging cash in Malaysia is very easy and foreign exchange booths and commonplace. Most money changers do not charge a fee, but the rates vary so check the exchange rate before you change your money. Major brands of travellers cheques should be accepted in big cities and tourist sites, but not necessarily in more remote locations.
Malaysia is an inexpensive country to visit and can cater to all budgets. Food is inexpensive and varied and you can usually get a basic meal from a street vendor or local restaurant for US$3 or more. At the other end of the scale, international cuisine is available for much the same prices you would pay in any city in the world. A can of beer is usually around US$2-4 depending on location.
Major Cities and Towns in Malaysia
Malaysia’s largest urban area and also its national capital is Kuala Lumpur, located roughly halfway down Peninsular Malaysia near the west coast. North of Kuala Lumpur towards Thailand, Georgetown is a World Heritage listed colonial city and capital of Penang Island. Nestled near the border, the island of Langkawi has luxury resorts and beautiful beaches. On the eastern side of the peninsula near the Thai border, Pulau Perhentian are two white-sand tropical islands famous for their laid-back atmosphere. In the far south, Johor Bahru is the border town before Singapore.
On Malaysian Borneo, Kuching is the largest city and the state capital of Sarawak. Kota Kinabalu is the next largest city and the state capital of Sabah. Also in Sabah, Sandakan is a port city with an airport, close to the famed Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary as well as the mouth of the Kinabatangan River.
Electricity supply in Malaysia is 240 volts and the most common plug socket is for three square-prong plugs such as that used in the United Kingdom, they may also accept two round-prong plugs such as those used in Europe. If in doubt, take a universal adaptor to cover your bases.
Etiquette and Culture
Malaysia’s population is comprised of majority ethnic-Malay and sizable Chinese and Indian minorities. There are significant differences between the business-minded hustle of the cities and the countryside. In rural areas, Malay culture is more prevalent and Islamic faith more noticeable. In Malaysian Borneo there are communal tribes which still exist, living in jungle longhouses.
Malaysia’s national language is Bahasa Malaysia, or Malay. In addition there are Chinese dialects, Hokkein, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil and other India languages spoken in the country. English is also spoken, but may be the unfamiliar sounding Malaysian patois known as Manglish.
Most Malays are Muslim, Chinese usually follow a mix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism and Indian communities are generally Hindu. Malaysia is a country of religious freedom allowing people to worship as they please.
When eating at a Malay restaurant wash your hands first using water from the teapot on the table over the tray. As in many cultures, Malay people only eat with their right hand, their left is reserved for toilet business. Pork is forbidden for Muslims; do not offer or mention pork to Muslim people and do not offer them alcohol.
The country of Malaysia include the Malay peninsula (except Singapore) and the north and north-western part of the island of Borneo (except Brunei) making up a total land mass of 329,758 square kilometres. Peninsular Malaysia is mostly covered by dense jungle, is mountainous in the north and has a long fertile plain running along the west side. Its abundant coast is fringed with sandy beaches and littered with islands, especially along its eastern side.
The other half of its land area, comprising over 50% of the country’s total size, is on the island of Borneo. There are two Malaysian states on Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak. Both are blanketed in thick jungle fed by large river systems. Sabah is home of the famous Mt Kinabalu which at 4095 metres is Malaysia’s highest mountain.
One of the earliest kingdoms in the region was Langasuka, believed to be located in the modern state of Kedah in what is now the far north of the country, from around the 2nd century AD. They were eventually absorbed by first the Funan Empire in the north, then the Srivijaya Empire in the south. Between the 7th and 13th centuries, the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire rose to rule the Malacca Straits, Java and south Borneo.
In the late 14th century, Parameswara, a renegade Hindu prince from Sumatra, arrived at Melaka and saw it had great potential as a deep water port. Establishing the Melaka Empire, he sent envoys to the Chinese and under their protection Melaka became a major trading port owing to its convenient location halfway between China and India.
Islam came to the country via Indian Muslim traders and began to take root from the mid-15th century when the third ruler of Melaka converted and his son, Mudzaffar Shah, after him made Islam the state religion and took the title of sultan. The influence of the Melakan sultans expanded and they ruled over the greatest empire in Malaysia’s history.
The Portuguese, seeking to control the lucrative spice trade, sent a fleet of 18 ships in 1511 with which they defeated Melaka’s army. They built a fortress on the site and created a monopoly on trade, ruling for 130 years. Throughout this period there were many wars and skirmishes, such as with the Johor Empire, located in southern Peninsular Malaysia, who held out hope of recapturing Melaka.
When the Dutch arrived, they allied with Johor and based themselves in Batavia (Jakarta) in competition with the Portuguese. Together they attacked Melaka and captured the city in 1641. As reward for their cooperation, the Johor Empire was freed of trade tariffs and restrictions and rose to be one of the most powerful Asian powers in the region.
The British too, sought to gain a foothold in the region, establishing their first base in Penang in 1786. When Napoleon took the Netherlands in 1795, the British took control of Melaka and Dutch Java, fearing French influence in the region, before handing the area back to the Dutch when Napoleon was defeated. They then went on to establish Singapore as a major trading post, and in 1824 the Anglo-Dutch treaty was signed, dividing the region between the two powers, with the British controlling the Malay peninsula and Singapore and the Dutch holding Indonesia. This agreement did not include the island of Borneo where British adventurer James Brooke rose to power through negotiation and naval force, becoming the raja of Sarawak where he ruled until the Japanese arrived during World War II.
The Japanese arrived in Malaysia in 1941. Within months they had taken the peninsula, followed by the island of Borneo. During their brutal occupation, thousands were executed and many more imprisoned or pressed into harsh labour, before the Japanese surrendered to the British in Singapore in 1945.
After World War II the region fell into turmoil. The British attempted to amalgamate the regional sultans into one Malayan Union, centralising authority. North Borneo and Sarawak became British Borneo. The people did not accept this and the country’s first political party was formed. The Malay Union was revoked and the Federation of Malaya declared in 1948. With this the sultans retained their sovereignty and Malay citizens were given special privilege. This angered the Chinese population who turned to the Malay Communist Party in the hope of an equal society. Labelled the Emergency by the British, the rift led to full-blown civil war until the communists were forced out in the north towards the Thai border, with the Emergency declared over in 1960.
The British promised independence within two years in 1955, held an election and on August 31 1957 Merdeka (independence) was declared. In July 1963 Malaysia was born by the fusing of Malaya, Singapore and the states of Sabah and Sarawak in northern Borneo. This was done so that the balance of ethnic Chinese in the new nation did not outnumber the Malaysians. It caused major issues however; the Indonesians tried to claim the entire island of Borneo (unsuccessfully) and the sultanate of Brunei, although originally intending to be part of Malaysia, decided at the last minute to retain independence. Without Brunei, Chinese outnumbered Malaysians due to the high number of Singaporean Chinese and Singapore was ejected from the federation. Ethnic tensions continued in Malaysia with the government attempting to preserve Malay culture and language, while the Chinese population fought to retain their Mandarin-speaking schools. Chinese and foreign companies held much of the country’s industry, sparking riots and violence. A policy of positive discrimination began, to shift more of the corporate wealth into the hands of ethnic Malays.
Best time to travel in Malaysia
Malaysia is located in the equatorial region which means there is little weather variation throughout the year and is considered to have a tropical climate making it hot and humid year round. You can expect slightly higher rainfall between October and April but there is no marked difference as rain falls year round. When it does, it is usually characterised by brief heavy afternoon downpours, clearing in the early evening and travel can easily be planned around this daily event. The noteworthy exception is the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia which is affected by the Northeast monsoon and receives considerably higher rainfall from November to mid-February.
When to travel
Weather aside, there are several events throughout the year that you may wish to aim for or avoid depending on your preferences. The Chinese New Year, Christmas and Hari Raya (the end of Ramadan) are the busiest times of year for local tourists so expect public transport to be congested and booked up in advance.
Chinese New Year and Thaipusam both fall in the first couple of months of the year, the first is celebrated by a large spring clean to sweep clear any bad luck. Lanterns, lights and lion dances may also adorn the street as part of the 15 day celebrations. Thaipusam is a Hindu festival and somewhat more unusual, involving the piercing of cheeks, lips, noses and other body by some worshippers. Pilgrims climb the 272 steps up to the Batu Caves, carrying kavadi, which are physical burdens which may range from brass jugs of milk or small pots with offerings, right up to large, portable alters.
Ka’amatan is the harvest festival held in Sabah on May 30-31 and celebrations involve buffalo racing, dancing and arm wrestling. In neighbouring Sarawak, Gawai festival falls on June 1-2 giving thanks for a bountiful harvest and is marked by the brewing of tuak, a traditional rice wine.
Guide to Food in Malaysia
Owing to its history as an intersection for international trade, Malaysia’s cuisine is unsurprisingly diverse coming together from a mixture of cultures from around the globe. As it is a tropical country, it has an abundance of ingredients and sweet tropical fruit. Extensive coastline and rivers means that seafood is also a staple in the local diet.
Flavours you are likely to encounter in Malaysian cooking include chillies, mint, coriander, lemongrass, curry leaves, turmeric, garlic and shallots. Sour is an important flavour with sour soups, curries and sambal, as well as lime and calamansi which are used as a dressing for salads.
Dried shrimp paste called belacan is another popular ingredient. Coconut is another and is used in curries as well as sweets.
Nasi Lemak is considered the national dish of Malaysia and is a rice dish cooked with coconut milk and a leaf called pandan (sometimes nicknamed Southeast Asian vanilla), and served with dried anchovies, peanuts, boiled egg, cucumber and chilli paste.
Another famous dish of the area is char kway teow, made from flat rice noodles in a sauce of chillis, soy sauce and shrimp paste, stir-fried with prawns, cockles, eggs and bean sprouts.
Laksa is a spicy sour noodle soup and there are regional variations throughout the country. Penang Laska or Asam Laksa is a hot and sour fish gravy with round rice noodles, pineapple, cucumber, mint leaves and vegetables. Contrastingly Sarawak Laksa is a spicy coconut soup served with rice vermicelli, strips of cooked egg, chicken and prawns and it is commonly served for breakfast.
Sweets, cakes and pastries are popular and commonly sold by street vendors in all shapes and forms. Kuih are bite-sized desert foods including ketayap which are rice flour pancakes with a sweet coconut filling and pulut panggang, glutinous rice and coconut or shrimp floss wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. Cendol is one of the most popular deserts made green, starchy jelly noodles, shaved ice, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup.
Top Attractions and Highlights in Malaysia
With Portuguese and Dutch influences, this historic town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known for its multiculturalism, owing to many years as a major port which has in turn influenced the local cuisine, with a mouth-watering blend of Eurasian flavours.
2. Cameron Highlands
Head for the hills to escape the heat and enjoy the misty alpine expanse of the highlands. Rolling tea plantations, small towns, waterfalls and hazy blue peaks characterise the landscape. Trekking and tea-tasting are two popular activities for travellers.
3. Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre
Borneo’s most famous inhabitants, the orang-utan sanctuary covers 40 square kilometres and is home to 60-80 orang-utans living free in the sanctuary and 25 orphaned young in the nurseries. Twice daily feedings allow the best opportunities to see the majestic primates.
4. Kinabalu National Park
The location of Malaysia’s highest mountain, the imposing granite shard that is Mt Kinabalu, Kinabalu National Park offers many hiking opportunities including the multiday summit of the peak. The area is a designated Centre of Plant Diversity and a World Heritage Site owing to the incredible botanical diversity including many different varieties of orchid.
5. Pulau Langkawi
At the heart of a 99-island strong archipelago, Langkawi is an island that epitomises a tropical paradise with swaying palm trees, sandy white beaches, verdant forested hills and deep blue ocean. Relaxing and fun, it’s not difficult to get into the rhythm of island life, although you may have trouble leaving.
6. Gunung Mulu National Park
Located in Malaysian Borneo, this national park is a region of vast natural beauty, including some of the largest cave systems in the world. Vast limestone caverns provide habitat for millions of freetail bats and other flora and fauna. Above ground, The Pinnacles are a series of razor-sharp limestone spires and are one of the park’s most memorable sights.
7. Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur is one of Southeast Asia’s youngest capital cities, with British colonial and Islamic influences in its architecture and landmarks. The national museum offers insight into the country’s past and the glistening heights of the Petronas Towers perhaps a glimpse into its future. Thirteen kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves are an easy day trip from the city.
8. Taman Negara
Malaysia’s premier national park and described as the green lungs of the Malay peninsula, Taman Negara is a vast expanse of jungle and river systems just waiting to be explored. Beneath its canopy, Asian elephants, tigers and rhinoceros make their home as well as lizards, monkeys, snakes, small deer, tapir and many, many insects.
9. Sungai Kinabatangan
Perhaps one of the best chances of seeing orang-utans in the wild, a wildlife cruise up the Kinabatangan River is truly a unique experience. Along the water’s edge sightings of elephants, monkeys and birds are possible. Stay a couple of nights on the river’s edge as you travel upstream for several days of wildlife viewing.
10 Interesting Facts about Malaysia
1. In Malaysian culture, a child’s surname is their father’s first name. This is why, when addressing people, they will use the title Mr or Miss followed by the person’s given name as using a person’s surname would in fact be addressing their father.
2 Silat is a form of martial art indigenous to the Malay people and the area including Malaysia and Indonesia. The sport is included in the Southeast Asia Games and uses a combination of strikes, throws and blade weaponry.
3. Traditional wooden Malay houses are built to cope with the hot, humid conditions. Built on stilts with high, peaked roofs and floor to ceiling windows, they make the most of even the slightest breeze for ventilation.
4. Malaysia is considered an area of incredible natural diversity. Its jungle is believed to be 130 million years old and contains around 14,500 species of plants and trees. Malaysian Borneo alone has 23 national parks including marine reserves.
5. Off the world’s seven species of turtle, four are native to Malaysia.
6. The largest known cave chamber in the world by area is the Sarawak Chamber, located in the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Borneo. It is so big it could easily accommodate a Boeing 747.
7. Headhunting was an important part of indigenous Bornean culture for over 500 years. The most valuable heads were those of women and children as they were the most difficult to obtain being hidden and guarded. Once collected, heads would be smoked and strung up and they were worshipped and revered.
8. During World War II, the invading Japanese pursued the retreating British down the Malay peninsula using government issued bicycles. The bicycles were so efficient at making the most of Malaysia’s hard surfaced roads that the invading army arrived in Singapore in less than two months.
9. In the Malay language many words are pluralised simply by saying them twice. For example, buku is book, buku-buku is books.
10. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister leading government. Rather than having just one king or queen however, the role is taken in turn by nine hereditary sultans from the different regions, with each taking the ceremonial position for five years before transferring it to the next sultan in line.