Borneo - Eating and sleeping

Eating and drinking

Borneo’s mix of cultures creates a piquant culinary bouillabaisse. I hope this section will help you avoid the many tongue-tied moments I have experienced trying to order food, with no certainty of what I am about to eat!

Market, Malaysia, Borneo, Asia by SarawaktourismMarkets are a great way to try local cuisine © Sarawaktourism

Malaysians and Bruneians are nations of passionate eaters. While the two countries have distinct food, they also share many common Malay and (to a lesser extent in Brunei) Chinese dishes. Rice (nasi) and noodles (mee) are staples of Malay and Chinese cuisine – if you don’t like either, be prepared to starve! The Chinese and Malay populations rely heavily on noodles in laksa and other soups, as well as main-meal dishes. Freshly made mee comes in various forms: large white or yellow ribbon wheat noodles, spaghetti thin noodles and clear vermicelli noodles. In coffee shops you can often choose your noodles from the masses hanging at a counter at the entrance. Then you have to decide on the style you want them cooked – the big differences being ‘wet’ (with sauce) or ‘dry’ (without); fried (goreng) or not fried; spicy or mild. Dried noodles are increasingly being used, so when you get the chance to taste the real thing then do so. Sedap dimakan! (Bon appetit!)

Malay food

Malay cooking is spicy, salty and thick with flavour, in keeping with all the cultural influences that have infused it over the centuries. Sambal and satay are two staples of Malaysian and Bruneian cuisine. Satay comes in the form of marinated and barbecued skewers of chicken, beef or lamb, served on bamboo sticks. This typical Malay ‘fast food’ is eaten from street stalls and markets, while in restaurants it’s served with salad and peanut sauce. Sambal – chilli condiment – puts the spice in Malay food. Sweet (sambal manis), hot (sambal olek), or shrimp (sambal belacan), the ground chilli pastes are flavoured with the gamut of typical Malay spices. Not for the faint-hearted, even the sweet sambal is fiery!

Chinese food

With such a large and diverse Chinese population, many cities in Borneo have restaurants specialising in different kinds of Chinese food – Cantonese, spicy Szechuan, Teochew and Hakka. At traditional coffee shops and street stalls, meat dumplings, steamed sweet or savoury buns (pau) and rice porridge (moi) are served for breakfast, while dim sum are popular for lunch.

Indigenous foods

Every ethnic group has its traditional cuisine tied closely to its way of life, inland or by the sea. Coastal cuisine features many sago and coconut dishes and marinated seafood salads, while people inland eat lots of rice and freshwater fish. Wild fruits and vegetables are used as much as home-grown crops. You will get to taste traditional indigenous dishes when visiting smaller towns and tamu markets, or at homestays and longhouses.


Malaysian hospitality and service is renowned worldwide. While there has always been a discrepancy between standards in East and West Malaysia, the gap is closing as the offerings in Sabah and Sarawak become increasingly sophisticated across the board, though not always at the same rate.

The ‘Hotel Monitoring Team’ of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism (MOCAT) keep an eye on some 2,200 classified hotels nationwide. To receive any kind of rating, one to five stars, hotels must be MOCAT-registered. In 2017, a new hotel classification and rating system was introduced. Judged fairer and more accurate by hoteliers and tourism professionals, it has different categories for city hotels, highland hotels, island/beach/river resorts, innovative hotels and boutique hotels. Whereas the previous system’s star-rating criteria was seen as being slanted towards city hotels, location now weighs in much more on awarding star ratings based on facilities such as executive lounges, swimming pools or the number of restaurants.

The Malaysian Association of Hotels issues hotel star ratings. Some budget hotels have a no-star rating, but you can check to see if they are registered or have any other classification. In Brunei, the Brunei Association of Hotels issues star ratings to registered hotels. Its website has descriptions of and links to its members, from budget to luxury establishments.

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