Borneo is for sure not a primary cycle trip destination, and honestly it can be a little boring, most of the time you'll be surrounded by palm oil plantation, even when taking the dirty roads.
That said, cycling in Malaysian Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak) is easy, people are wonderful and very welcoming, and it left us with great memories of wonderful times. Kalimantan, the Indonesian part, is much more wild and underdeveloped, mostly muddy roads. We have cycled just few hundred km there so we'll include what little we know in this guide, but that won't be exhaustive.
This guide is based on our experience of 45-day trip from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching and than 15 more days from Kuching to Pontianak in Indonesian Borneo (West Kalimantan).
Below you will find a map with altitude profile recorded by our GPS.
A name that evokes myths of wilderness, the iconic rain forests, biodiversity, animals and plants that can be only be found here. Proboscis monkeys, orangutan, the weird bearcat (a mix between a bear a cat indeed) and thousands of other animals.
Unfortunately everything is disappearing to make way for oil palm plantations and nature resists only in small national parks, created recently by the Malaysian government. Even if it is already quite late, there is still something to see. Those small fragments that can give a pale idea of what Borneo used to be, just a few decades ago.
Sleeping - where to stay
Anyway Borneo is far less densely populated than the rest of South East Asia, so wild camping is possible, just hard to find a great spot. More important, Malaysian Borneo is a pretty safe place and there's not much to be worried about being stressed or worst by the locals. Kalimantan felt a little less safe but still ok.
Also, in all Malaysian national parks it is possible to camp for 5 ringgit, 1 euro. They often have no sheltered spots for tents, so not advisable in the rainy season.
hotels and guesthouses
Hotels in West Kalimantan are around the same price but we found them more nice and clean. almost luxurious sometimes.
Warmshower and Couchsurfing and are widespread in the cities and larger towns. The community of Warmshower has few members but very active, we recommend you contact them, you will understand what is the Malaysian hospitality.
Warmshower has no active members at the moment in West Kalimantan, but a good Couchsurfing community willing to host. Give it a try!
Homestay in a Longhouse
Staying in one of those houses is a great way to experience the real Borneo lifestyle. There are plenty of those, almost everywhere in the countryside, but rarely on the main highway. There are many tour operator that offer homestay in those kind of houses, but according to our experience, the smart traveler doesn't need those. When you see one longhouse you like just go and ask the locals if you can stay there, most likely someone will be willing to make an extra few bucks, if not they will probably point you somewhere else.
One great area to do this are the shores of the Rajang river: the public boat does many stops at several longhouse villages where no road leads. Those people's only way to go around is by boat. Just go off at one of these stops and ask around.
We stayed in a Long House in Sungay Asap, the area where many Dayaks were relocated for the construction of Bakun Dam, we wrote about this issue here with the help of locals (yet in Italian only) another report about Sungay Asap is to be found here.
A dish in a cheap restaurant costs about 5 ringgit, 1 euro. The water, if you want a glass with ice, is free or almost. In Sarawak it is called "Sky Juice", fun name, don't try that in peninsular Malaysia as the will think you're crazy.
Eating out is often cheaper than cooking at home and, in fact, restaurants are always full.
In Kalimantan things are not that different, though no Indians around. Stick with the red lantern to have great meals. Indonesian cheap food is not the best in the world.
In the Malaysian part there are water refill machines, small boxes where you can refill your bottles for a ridiculous fee per liter. These are pretty widespread, quite easy to find in urban area and common also in the countryside, mostly along the main roads, needless to say when you are longing for one you won't find it until you decide to buy a bottle, here it will appear after one km, Murphy's law never miss a shot.
As to take a shower, here, well not that hard!
Because crocodiles, bathing in rivers is not recommended and there are no public restrooms on every corner like in Japan. But in restaurants' bathrooms there is a small shower (supposedly used to wash your private parts) or a tub full of water and a sort of ladle with which to pour water on your person. Even in hotels often the "shower" is this style, a hot shower is a very rare thing. Borneo is very hot all year round, so I guarantee you a nice bucket of cold water on the head is not bad at all.
communicate and connect
Sabah and Sarawak
Almost everyone speaks English so it is very easy to make friends, but you learn a few words of Malay, it is getting better and is simple.
Sabah and Sarawak
Most of Sarawak is flat, in Sabah there are more mountains, we did the Crocker range and it was one of the heaviest climbs of our life. Along the coast though, there is not a single hill worth mentioning.
weather and climate and proper clothes
For detailed information visitthis link or google it.
We found "crocs" style shoes to be the best for this kind of weather, find some with holes on the side so that the water can flow out, their cheap plastic is perfect to get dry soon, while any kind of goretex or waterproof shoe won't stand a tropical downpour. Not the most comfortable to cycle with or walk but doable.
About raincoats, it's really to hot all year round for any kind of jacket so the best option is a cheap light plastic poncho or, even better, simply get wet in your clothes and put on dry ones when it's over. Clothes will dry very quickly at this temperatures.
There are also several airlines that fly very cheap to the interior.
public boat in Borneo
We took the public river boat from Belaga to Sibu through Kapit on Rajang river and it was one of the highlight of the trip, highly recommended and very cheap, around 15USD per person.
Have thoughts about it? Comment!
here's the directory of our bicycle adventures in Borneo:
pt1: from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom, crossing the Crocker range
pt2: Jungle Train, from Tenom to Beaufort
pt3: crossing Brunei by bicycle
pt4: around Miri, Lambir Hills and Logan Bunut national parks and Tusan Beach
pt5: the caves of Niah National Park
pt6: from Belaga to Kuching by boat
pt7: Kuching and Bako National Park
pt8: Rafflesia in Gunung Gading National Park
pt9: Overland crossing from Sarawak to Kalimantan, the secret border of Aruk
pt10: Sambas, a wooden Venice in Borneo
Check also our reportages:
Chap Go Mei in Singkawang
pierce your face with swords for the sake of Borneo Gods
Hydroelectric devastation in Borneo
part 1: Interview with SaveRivers
part2: a visit to Sungay Asap