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Last Updated on 23/12/2020

It’s hard to think of anywhere more distant and remote than Borneo – at least, from a western perspective. This enormous island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago is shared by three countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It’s most well-known for its wild rugged landscapes, rainforests and rich biodiversity, including orangutans and clouded leopards. 

Borneo has been at the top of my bucket list for a long time. It’s wilderness treks and nature tours beckon any traveller with a thirst for adventure. Much of the island appears seemingly untouched, allowing budding explorers to experience a real off-the-beaten-path destination. 

Despite its remoteness, the impact that this island has is actually a lot closer to home than you think. Borneo’s rainforests play a vital part in the continuation of the earth as we know it. Here’s why: 

A bit about Borneo’s rainforests

Monkey perched in the branches in Borneo

Photo credit: Robert Keane 

The rainforests of Borneo are some of the oldest in the world. In fact, they’re estimated to be approximately 130 million years old. To put that into perspective, they’re so ancient that they were around the same time dinosaurs walked the earth. 

Known as ‘the lungs of the world,’ these incredible rainforests soak up more carbon dioxide than trees in the Amazon rainforest, according to the Journal of Ecology. They’re effectively slowing down climate change by reducing the amount of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. 

The rainforests are also home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world with creatures including dung beetles, crocodiles, sun bears, elephants, cloud leopards and of course, orangutans. 

Sadly, this wonderful world is under threat. Palm oil plantations and deforestation have contributed to more than 30% rainforest loss since 1973 and if this continues it will cause irrevocable damage to the surrounding wildlife as well as the planet. 

Palm oil’s catch-22

Climbing a volcano in Borneo

Photo credit: Ling Tang 

Palm oil contributes to the loss of rainforest and the slow extinction of the orangutan. Palm oil plantations also absorb far less CO2 than rainforests so you could argue that they’re accelerating rather than inhibiting climate change. 

However, the answer isn’t as simple as cutting palm oil out altogether. It’s in quite literally in everything from toothpaste to shampoo and an endless amount of food products. 

As destructive to the environment as it is, palm oil may still be the best oil we have. No other crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted. Environmental NGOs actually warn against boycotting it as it would mean shifting the same problems onto another commodity. 

Let’s also not forget the important fact that the industry gives people jobs and boosts the economies of the countries that share Borneo (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei). 

It’s a catch-22. Either stop using palm oil and carry on the destruction somewhere else or keep using it and sacrifice the rainforests. Both paths lead to catastrophic devastation. 

All is not lost thanks to the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) 

Bulldozers clearing the land in Borneo.

Photo credit: Dominik Vanyi 

Founded by the Royal Society in 1985, SEARRP facilitates world-class scientific research that addresses the major environmental issues facing the tropics: habitat restoration, plantation development and climate change. 

The organisation’s task in Borneo, as it’s Director Dr Glen Reynolds says, involves “working to study and protect rainforests and demonstrate the critical role they play in regulating the earth’s climate, maintaining biodiversity and supporting human livelihoods and wellbeing”. 

SEARRP collaborate with leading universities and local partners to make palm oil production more sustainable without sacrificing the rainforests or the farmers’ livelihoods.

Their ultimate aim is to supply the knowledge necessary to provide changes in the palm oil industry that will halt deforestation, biodiversity loss and carbon emissions while improving the rights and livelihoods of people working in or affected by the industry. 

It’s a complex problem but they have no other option but to find a solution. 

Why you should put Borneo on your bucket list

Borneo Marine Park Malaysia

Photo credit: Lesly Derksen 

Here are a few extra facts about Borneo to inspire you to put it on your bucket list: 

About Borneo

Sabah, Malaysia in Borneo.

Photo credit: Ryan ‘O’ Niel 

Borneo is the world’s third-biggest island and the territory is divided between the countries of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. 

The two Eastern Malaysian states, Sarawak and Sabah are in the north surrounding Brunei while the Indonesian state of Kalimantan occupies most of the centre and southern part of the island. 

Best time to visit

Fishing boats in Borneo

Photo credit: Andrew Teoh 

Borneo is a hot and humid place. The dry season falls between May and October whereas the monsoon season tends to hit November and February each year.

If you find heat and humidity a struggle then the monsoon season is an ideal time as it will give you some respite. However, if you have an action-packed trip planned then heavy rainfall can hinder it considerably and may even cause flight and boat cancellations. 

Wildlife spotting

Taman Nasional Tanjung Puting

Photo credit: Jorge Franganillo

As I’ve mentioned before, Borneo is home to the most incredible wildlife from pygmy elephants to orangutans. It’s surrounding waters also have an abundance of marine life including turtles and clownfish. 

If you want to make the most of this incredible biodiversity, do an eco-tour of the rainforest or visit an ethical sanctuary dedicated to helping and rehabilitating the animals. 

Food and drink

Woman at a street food market

Photo credit: Zoe Chen 

Bornean food comprises a mix of world-class cuisines – Indonesian, Malaysian and Indian- with a few regional alterations. 

Their famous Hawkers markets have stalls around a central eating area. Order a variety of nibbles from different vendors before sitting at a table and scoffing the lot.  

Where to stay

Swimming pool at a lodge in Borneo

Photo credit: Deb Dowd

Borneo has an exciting range of accommodation that promises to make your trip extra memorable. From treetop lodges to guesthouses, hostels and resorts, they have everything for all budgets. 

Make sure you spend at least one night in an ecolodge in the rainforest because there’s a very real chance you might see up to nine different primates, crocodiles, butterflies and rare birds. You can read about one of my favourites here. 

Final Thoughts about Borneo

Home to incredible wildlife and formidable rainforests, Borneo promises an adventure beyond our wildest dreams. So, why not add this incredible island to your bucket list? 

If, like me, you can’t quite manage to squeeze in the time or money just yet, grab a cup of tea, get comfy and watch Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure. That’ll do… For now. 


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