Standing above the rain-forest canopy, I look down, through a lattice of branches and leaves, into the eyes of a wild Bornean gibbon. In this ancient place the encounter feels primal, raw. Then I phone my husband in Australia, who happens to be Skyping our daughter in the UK, and through some magic of satellites and electromagnetism, the distances collapse and the three of us chat together while the dawn mists drape themselves over the jungle. It’s a moment so modern, so privileged, it feels almost surreal. How extraordinary it is to find myself at this point where the parallel universes of the primal and the privileged miraculously, momentarily converge.
Such soul-stirring wilderness experiences framed by the ultra-refined comforts of civilisation strike the keynote of travel in Borneo, the world’s third-largest island. What’s on offer is the opportunity to combine luxury with adventure in a series of stunning marine, river, and rainforest settings. Home to dozens of different ethnic groups and with territory divided between three nations (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei), the island hosts a cultural diversity worthy of its famed biodiversity.
With Royal Brunei Airlines now flying daily from Melbourne to Heathrow via Brunei and Dubai, Borneo has become an attractive stopover option for Australians heading to London. The connecting flight from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian province of Sabah is a mere 20 minutes, making both destinations viable for either a stopover or a standalone holiday. You can pick one destination, or combine the two. While the natural environments are essentially the same, the cultural environments contrast. Wealthier and more conservative, Brunei is a tiny country unified by religion (Islam) and royalty (the Sultan, or “His Majesty” as everyone calls him, his family and lifestyle are referred to constantly).
Neighbouring Sabah is more liberal and secular, an ethnic and cultural melting pot where you’ll find Catholic churches next to Muslim graveyards, Buddhist and Confucian temples near the Sabah ANZAC school created by Australian and New Zealand soldiers who served here in World War II. Both Brunei and Sabah provide access to the richest ecosystems in Asia while between them offering a wide range of luxury travel experiences.
In Borneo, you can walk on the wild side, but you don’t have to stay there unless you want to. The island is synonymous with its most iconic animal, the orangutan, and there are many ways to see these amazing creatures. The Danum Valley Conservation Area in eastern Sabah provides wilderness immersion with canopy walks, jungle trails and almost guaranteed sightings of orangutans, pygmy elephants and tropical birds. Stay on-site at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, or do as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did in 2012 – take a 55-minute flight into the Danum Valley for a day of rainforest experiences, then return to Kota Kinabalu for a relaxing evening at the Tanjung Aru Resort.
Walk through the treetops
Similarly, in Brunei you can stay overnight in the jungle in moderate comfort in the Ulu Ulu resort at Temburong National Park, ready for the dawn canopy walk. Not prepared to compromise on luxury accommodation? Book a day tour to the rainforest and retreat afterwards to the opulence of a city hotel such as the Empire Hotel and Country Club in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. The easiest option is to take advantage of the twice-daily orangutan viewings at the Rasa Ria resort in Sabah. This luxury resort is just a 40-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu airport and its 25-hectare nature reserve is only a few minutes’ walk from the guestrooms.
Ethical tourism is high on the agenda in Borneo. Shangri-La’s Embrace programs ensure that its resorts give back (in the form of school sponsorships, village clean-ups, and educational opportunities for differently abled young people) to the local communities from which they draw most of their staff. Environmental responsibility is equally important. Just as Rasa Ria exists symbiotically with the orangutan sanctuary it supports, the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) on Gaya Island off Kota Kinabalu is closely linked with next door’s Gayana Eco Resort. “We recognise the importance of a knowledgeable society”, explains our guide as he outlines the ways in which resort visitors can get involved with their marine conservation programs. You can sign up to be a marine biologist for a day, help propagate endangered giant clams, replant coral fragments and, if you dive, visit your “adopted” coral after it is restored to the wild. Top-of-the-range Palm Villas also have glass panels in the floor that allow visitors to meditate on the beauty of the underwater environment from the comfort of their sitting room.
The best travel experiences allow you to feel at home while confirming, constantly, that you’re not. Phoning my family from the roof of the rainforest was one such experience. Listening to Malaysian musicians brilliantly fuse groove and rap as night fell over the South China Sea was another. I like to be reminded all the time that I’m somewhere new and different, and Borneo provides such reminders in abundance. The tropical environment teems with life, including birds as tiny as butterflies and butterflies as large as birds. You are always getting into boats to be transported across bays, out to islands, or up rivers, the arteries that connect the jungle to the sea. Traditionally, these were water-based societies, and both Sabah and Brunei have their “water villages” – substantial communities of picturesquely dilapidated, stilted houses, each with its boat mooring and porch where neighbours meet and gossip. In Brunei, you’ll also see gold-domed mosques and river traders in Muslim dress – everything tells you you’ve travelled, not just relocated. And then there’s that ravishing, hand-on-heart Malay greeting, which simply makes you feel better about the world whenever you encounter it.
During my time in Borneo I ate gourmet meals created by award-winning chefs and sampled home-cooked treats in a traditional water village house. I enjoyed massages in five-star resorts and had my feet nibbled at a natural fish spa in the middle of a rainforest. I soaked in a marble-framed tub in a flower-strewn bathroom and I plunged into a cool river after climbing a thousand steps to meet a gibbon at sunrise. In each case, which was the greater luxury? Luckily, in Borneo you don’t have to choose. You can have it all.