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Borneo - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson
This is a serious and potentially fatal disease transmitted by mosquitoes, for which there is no vaccine. There are hugely differing estimates of the prevalence of malaria in Borneo, ranging from ‘successfully eliminated’ to ‘widespread’. Most sources agree that the risk is greater in more remote areas and fairly low in urban and coastal regions. Current recommendations for prophylaxis are Malarone, doxycycline or Lariam for those travelling to rural areas of Borneo; unless none of these tablets are suitable for you, then you would be advised to take them. Seek medical advice as to which is the most appropriate for you and follow the regime recommended carefully. That said, no malaria tablets are 100% effective and so you should always take precautions against mosquito bites. This includes wearing trousers and long-sleeved shirts particularly between dusk and dawn. Apply insect repellents containing around 50–55% DEET to exposed skin at the recommended intervals, and when necessary sleep under a permethrin-impregnated bed net. These may not be provided, so it is wise to take your own, especially if you are visiting remote areas.
Early diagnosis of malaria is essential for effective treatment, so if you suspect you or a companion has contracted the disease then seek medical help as soon as possible. Symptoms are flu-like and may include fevers, chills, muscle and joint aches, headache, tiredness, nausea, vomiting, and occasionally diarrhoea. The only consistent feature is a high temperature of 38°C or more and that alone should also make you suspect malaria. It can develop from as early as six to seven days after exposure, to up to as much as one year, so continue to be vigilant upon your return and seek medical advice if you develop flu-like symptoms.
For further advice and malaria information, see fitfortravel.nhs.uk/destinations/asia-east/malaysia and traveldoctor.co.uk.
There are periodic outbreaks of dengue fever (for which there is no vaccination), with peak transmission from June to November. This viral infection is spread by day-biting mosquitoes. It causes a feverish illness with headache and muscle pains like a bad, prolonged attack of influenza. There may be a rash. Recurrent infections can be more serious so it is important to try and avoid the disease in the first place by using DEET-containing insect repellents during the day as well as in the evening.
Japanese encephalitis is another viral disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The mosquito likes to breed in standing water such as paddy fields but has been found on the outskirts of towns. The reservoir for the virus is pigs and wading birds. Around 50,000 cases are reported globally each year, with a 30% mortality rate. In Borneo, the disease is endemic, with small numbers of cases occurring year-round in Sabah and Sarawak, but in addition epidemics occur following the start of the rainy season in Peninsular Malaysia (March to September) when mosquitoes are most active.
Zika virus is also being reported in Borneo. This virus is also transmitted by day-biting mosquitoes and there is currently no vaccine available. Pregnant women are advised to avoid travel wherever possible; those wishing to become pregnant should avoid doing so for two months after travelling to an area of risk or for three months if their male partner is travelling with them. If you wish to read more about Zika look at the latest Zika fact sheet.
Borneo is generally an exceedingly safe place to visit, especially in terms of overall personal security on the streets and terrorist threats. There has been no Islamic State activity in Borneo, and the same can largely be said for Malaysia as a whole. Nonetheless, threats are still lurking, with several arrests made in Kuala Lumpur in 2019 over apparently foiled plans for a series of attacks. Despite this, peace reigns in Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei, and crime rates are low, or, in the latter case, almost non-existent. The major troubles are linked to geo-political strife.
British, US and Australian authorities periodically issue warnings against travelling around the coast of East Malaysia, particularly the Celebes/Sulawesi Sea islands off the southeast coast of Sabah, which have been subject to regular security threats since the kidnappings in 2000 forced all Sipadan island resorts to close. Ever since, there has been bolstered Malaysian military surveillance in the area, but that has not prevented more kidnappings and the murder of one tourist. The chronic regional political volatility and territorial disputes between Indonesia and Malaysia erupted in 2013 with the ‘invasion’ of Lahad Datu in Sabah by a group of armed Sulu rebels. In May 2017, the Filipino authorities reported that they had received unsubstantiated but credible information that the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf may be about to conduct kidnappings in the Sulu Sea, including around the islands of the Sulu Archipelago (Philippines) and the seas/islands off the east coast of Sabah (Malaysia). Any vessels sailing in this area could be targeted, the authorities warned, and they advised people to consider alternative travel plans.
In 2019, the US State Department listed eastern Sabah on its Travel Advisories as one of 35 areas globally with the possible risk of kidnapping. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) also rang the alarm bells, advising against ‘all but essential travel to all islands off the coast of eastern Sabah from Kudat through to Tawau, including Lankayan, Mabul, Pom Pom, Kapalai, Litigan, Sipadan and Mataking.’ It is definitely worth checking the situation before booking your trip.
After many years as a solo female globetrotter, Malaysia probably still stands out as the safest country in which I have travelled, despite a perceptible increase in urban crime, particularly in the capital city, but also on a minor scale in the Malaysian Borneo capitals.
That said, the sense of general personal security is greater in Borneo because of the island’s enduring friendliness and relatively small cities. In my frequent and lengthy travels in Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak, I have never once felt threatened by men – irritated occasionally by slightly juvenile attitudes to women in Malaysia, yes, but not spooked. In the main cities – KK, Kuching and Miri – I always feel safe walking around in key public areas, although it is still worth avoiding poorly lit backstreets and seedy or remote urban zones at night. Take taxis or much cheaper ‘e-hailing’ services (Grab) when in doubt.
The fact that Malaysia is such a street-living society, with a high density of people in public zones, boosts the overall feeling of safety. In Brunei, the huge esteem shown for women makes it one of the safest countries in the world for female travellers.
The incidence of crime is virtually zero – partly due to the penalties faced – and assaults against women are unheard of (though possibly go unreported).
The respect shown to me, and my own feeling of personal comfort, is no doubt heightened by my deference for Muslim customs and donning of appropriate dress: wearing longer skirts and blouses rather than miniskirts or bare shoulders, and donning a headscarf and if necessary a sarong when visiting mosques.
Muslim women in Brunei and Malaysia wear a tudung on their head. While there is no expectation for foreigners to do the same, it is advisable to carry a light scarf in your bag to cover up at appropriate moments, such as visiting religious sites. While skimpier garments have become the norm among the clubbing classes of Kuala Lumpur, and are quickly catching on in East Malaysia, Brunei is – if you hadn’t noticed – far more conservative.
Travelling with a disability
Borneo continues to fall off the radar of concerns for leading UK and US disabled-travel associations, perhaps because things are so underdeveloped when it comes to accessible travel in Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei. Most four- and five-star branded hotels and many indies claim to have facilities for those with disabilities, including wheelchair access and ‘adapted’ rooms. Yet public transport, public buildings and major tourist attractions – with notable exceptions such as Sepilok – are very poorly equipped and not at all wheelchair friendly. Even negotiating pavements will pose a problem as they are often not even fit for pedestrians.
The lack of dedicated disability-friendly tours doesn’t mean you won’t find a tour company ready to create an itinerary, or connect with local companies who have the right staff and vehicles. But be warned: your itinerary may be severely limited due to the dearth of places able to greet you.
A bombshell fell on the state of LGBTQ travel in Borneo in early 2019 with Brunei’s calamitous decision to adhere to a strict interpretation of Sharia law and a new penal code that allowed for death by stoning as a punishment for sodomy, adultery and rape. After months of international backlash, however, the tiny nation seemed to retract from enforcing the law – homosexuality would no longer be punishable by death, said the Sultan when announcing a moratorium on capital punishment for gay sex convictions. Nevertheless, homosexuality remains illegal and LGBTQ people will still face whipping and imprisonment under Brunei’s Sharia law. The situation in Malaysia is not a whole lot better. This is, after all, the country that invoked anti-sodomy laws in 1998 to try and convict former deputy prime minister and president of the People’s Justice Party, Anwar Ibrahim, to serve two five-year prison sentences.
As far as it is from the ideal, LGBTQ tourists should respect Malaysian law and customs while guests in the country, as is the general rule of thumb for all travel. Gay or lesbian sexual activity is punishable according to Islamic law through flogging, and male transvestism with imprisonment, though this is rarely the case.
Though in principle the law does not apply to non-Muslims, homosexual citizens of any creed still face official discrimination. Police can arrest any person, Muslim or not, for having sex in a public place, such as cruise spots.
Utopia Asia (whose Utopia Guide to Malaysia has listings for the gay and lesbian scene in 17 cities, including KK and Kuching) warns that in 2018, Malaysia began to block AIDS/HIV content and LGBTQ travel information on the internet. It also advises against using a mobile SIM from Net (Telekom Malaysia); opt for the many prepaid cards from non-censored providers instead.
Kota Kinabalu is definitely Borneo’s capital of camp. While there are no flagrantly gay hotels, some are discreetly so, while others are gay-friendly. There are also some well-known gay and lesbian bars and nightclubs in town. Kuching is more conservative, while Brunei obviously takes the issue to a whole new level. Overt tolerance of homosexuality is non-existent, and the gay community exists mostly ‘undercover’. The result is a weekend exodus of Brunei’s closet gays to the nearest place where they can show public displays of affection without the fear of being arrested – generally Miri in Sarawak, which has inadvertently developed a great future in gay tourism.
Overall, Malaysian Borneo is safe, sunny and friendly and makes an inexpensive, educational, adventurous and exotic family holiday.
Far from just a sun-seeker’s destination, it offers enriching opportunities such as volunteer family holidays, living and helping out in one of the villages, or working with wildlife.
Many city hostels – especially the ‘lodge’ kind – have family rooms from RM115 with breakfast included. With lounges, sun decks and other travellers for company, these often provide a more fun and instructive atmosphere than the cramped, sequestered environment of shoestring hotels, which offer family rooms from RM100 to RM150. If you have more to spend, and want more privacy and comfort, most mid-range to luxury hotels have family rooms or self-contained suites with separate living spaces and multi-bedrooms and bathrooms. Another good option is serviced apartments. Beyond the cities, beach resorts have larger rooms, or self-contained accommodation; or pay for several rooms to accommodate your brood. Mountain resorts often have self-contained chalet accommodation with equipped kitchens. Other options in rural areas are longhouse rentals and family-friendly homestays.
Many of the pros and cons of travelling solo in Borneo are common to all destinations. Particularly in luxury hotels, employees frequently grill me as to whether it is ‘just one for breakfast?’ ‘I’m not hiding anyone’ is my usual reply. A book or newspaper is a great refuge from indiscreet stares.
Financially, single travellers are heavily penalised in hotels due to a global lack of single-room rates: the difference in price between a single and double is either non-existent or negligible. Choose instead to stay in places where being single does pay – homestays, bed and breakfasts, hostels, budget or mid-range beach resorts, and the occasional hotel suite or apartment that offer rates suitably priced for the ‘flash packer’. Even if you can afford a more expensive hotel room, independent or smaller-size accommodation can be more convivial, if it’s company you are after.
Many also offer the possibility of upgrading to a bigger, more comfortable room for just a few dollars more. If you prefer a hotel environment, try the premium rooms or suites of budget to mid-range hotels, or a serviced apartment.