Borneo is home to some of the best diving in southeast Asia – if not the world.Read more...
Borneo - When and where to visit
Borneo’s climate is equatorial-tropical, distinguished by marked wet and dry seasons, yet with strong regional variations. Given the highly localised nature of the climate, and increasing unpredictability of seasonal discrepancies, it is advisable not to put too much emphasis on weather forecasts when planning your trip, unless, that is, you intend to take part in highly seasonal activities such as diving in specific areas. The wet season (or northeast monsoon) generally runs from October to February; the dry season (southwest monsoon) from March to September. There is no official start and end point between seasons. In the wet season, there are usually daily rains, and sometimes violent storms, monsoon winds, flooding, landslides and torrential rains.
The sun rises and sets at around the same time every day – between 06.00 and 18.00 © blung, Shutterstock
Half of the annual rainfall on Sarawak’s west coast falls between December and March, while the Kelabit Highlands area receives the state’s peak downpours with more than 5,000mm of rain a year. Kuching, along with areas such as Gunung Mulu National Park, will generally experience some rain on at least 21 days out of each month, with a marked dip to 12 to 15 days a month in June and July. In more equatorial Sarawak, there is little variation in day length throughout the year, with only a 7-minute difference between the shortest and longest days.
Wet or dry season, or in between? There is no clear-cut best time to visit Borneo if you’re looking for tonnes of sunshine and warm weather – this is the tropics, after all. Depending on the nature of your holiday, seasons may play a more important role in trip timing. That said, seasonal distinctions are increasingly blurry, with longer dry seasons and more intense wet ones reported in some areas. All this is accompanied by a greater degree of unpredictability, no matter how much you have planned ahead. The dry season (southwest monsoon) generally occurs from March to September, though huge downpours and floods can occur during this time, particularly in June and July. The wet season (northeast monsoon) reigns from October to February, and while monsoon rains may prove challenging, they are also atmospheric and can quickly clear to blue skies.
For active and adventure holidays, the wet season is most likely to hinder your travel plans. Heavy rains and general bad weather may see flights to remote regions cancelled and disrupt boat travel. Trekkers should be prepared for short bursts of wet weather at any time of the year. During the northeast monsoon, open seas can be extremely rough. On the other hand, low rainfall and river levels also profoundly affect boat travel. Upriver trips might end up being partly self-propelled, with travellers required to hop out of longboats, and even help push them upstream.
If crowds bother you, best avoid school holidays and major festive celebrations. Not only can it be hard to find accommodation, but hotels can be very noisy during these busy periods. The main school holidays are: Term 1 (a week at the end of March); Mid-Year (a fortnight which usually falls between the last week of May and first week of June); Term 2 (nine days from second week of August) and end of year (about five weeks from the last week of November through to the end of December).
Borneo has plenty of places where you can see orangutans in the wild © BlueOrange Studio, Shutterstock
Gunung Kinabalu National Park, Sabah
The steamy alpine world of Gunung Kinabalu can be enjoyed whether you climb to the peak or not. The complexity of vegetation in this 75,370ha World Heritage park reveals itself even on a shorter trek, through rainforest and lower montane areas around park headquarters, and other zones such as Poring Hot Springs. The butterfly- and bloom-filled park is designated a Centre of Plant Diversity for Southeast Asia by UNESCO, and is exceptionally rich in species.
Bako National Park, Sarawak
A wonderland mix of mangroves, peat swamp, heath and lowland rainforest, with epic coastal rock formations. On the fauna front, highlights include bright-green snakes, bearded pigs and the proboscis monkey. About 150 of the pendulous-nosed, pot-bellied creatures live in the national park. The trails are excellent, and the park is virtually on the back doorstep of Kuching, only 40km away – although it feels like a different world.
The boat journey along the Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah’s longest river, is awe-inspiring, with its searing sense of remoteness, natural richness and otherworldly beauty. For wildlife and birdwatching it is one of Borneo’s most intense experiences, and the lodges along the river (in their varying degrees of rustic, or as of late, rustic chic) bolster the feeling of going deep into the jungle for a night or two. Late-afternoon boat trips lead up tributaries of the river to see shy proboscis monkeys and macaques. The global eco-significance of the area has unfortunately not protected it from forestry and palm-oil invasion, though conservation and community development efforts are trying their best to turn the tide on the destruction. Staying with river-living (orang sungai) communities helps boost the local economy.
This is the closest you will come to the ‘Heart of Borneo’ without heading deep into the Maliau Basin. Wildlife sightings include gibbon, orangutan, long-tailed macaque and clouded leopard to name just a few, as well as a great diversity of birds. You will need to stay a couple of days to catch a glimpse of such a wide variety of animals, rather than just doing a 1-hour night safari on the back of a (rather noisy) truck.
The huge appeal of this charismatic primate attracts many people to Borneo, and seeing one is often at the top of their agenda. Orangutan rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries (Sepilok in Sabah, and Semenggoh in Sarawak) are an easy option for quick sightings. Places to see them in the wild, along with vast amounts of other wildlife, include the Tabin Wildlife Reserve on Sabah’s east coast, the floodplain of the Lower Kinabatangan River and the Danum Valley Conservation Area.