The Ultimate Borneo Road Trip Pt 1: The Route

Jun 5, 2016 | Travel | 12 comments

I was in a Borneo supermarket, perusing over a road trip snack purchase – a critical decision of whether to go with chocolate or crisps (I went with both). I turned around, only to be met with an entire supermarket of people watching me. When I moved, they moved. When I walked to the next aisle. So did they. This continued the entire way around the supermarket. Leaving the store, the carpark was five times more full than when we first arrived. Had I not known better I’d have thought someone had alerted the entire town to our presence and everyone had hurried down just to see the three Western girls wandering around the shop.

This isn’t entirely implausible. Getting stared at was an everyday reality in Borneo. Its such a strange and exotic land in so many ways but that was perhaps the most surprising aspect to me (although I hadn’t been to Java at this point where a police car flashing sirens and rushing to a crime scene actually slowed down so the officers could gawk at me).

You see, three girls on a road trip just doesn’t seem to happen that much in Borneo, a fact I hadn’t really appreciated before experiencing it first hand. When my friend Sally suggested a Borneo road trip I jumped at the chance – road trips are my absolute favourite way to see a country. We had no idea at the time how out of our comfort zone we would be. We didn’t anticipate nearly running out of petrol on a long deserted stretch of road, being stranded late at night on the opposite side of a river to where our accommodation was and being sat in a boat underneath a low hanging tree with a poisonous snake coiled mere inches above our heads.

But it was those moments that made the trip so memorable, and I have no doubt whatsoever that the experience would have been wholly different had we just jumped on buses from one place to the next.

We wouldn’t have gotten so very lost on so many occasions and we wouldn’t have wasted hours driving around in circles; but we also wouldn’t have had drinks with the friendly owner of a homestay who took us in when we were stranded and called for a boat to take us to our accommodation. We wouldn’t have stopped in tiny towns where nobody spoke a word of English, drank tea in a plantation high in the mountains or eaten the strangest meal of our lives in a huge deserted ballroom. Whilst these may not seem like highlights, those are the moments that really made the trip.

The Route

With only 10 days to spare there was no way to cover the whole of Borneo, or even just a quarter of it (it is the World’s third largest island after all). So we chose to road trip around Sabah, a relatively small Malaysian state in the Northeast, which also happens to be packed full of amazing beaches, rainforests and wildlife.

Our starting point was Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah and the gateway to the region. Our ride: Proton (he may not look like much but he handled those roads like a pro).

The Ultimate 10 Day Borneo Road Trip: The Route

Our first destination after leaving the capital was Kinabalu National Park where we hiked through rainforest, went on treetop canopy walks and drank tea in a plantation high in the hills.

The Ultimate 10 Day Borneo Road Trip: The Route

Next we moved to Kota Kinabatangan  for dawn and dusk boat safaris, spotting wild Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys, Pygmy Elephants and Crocodiles (also the site of the ‘poisonous snake hanging inches above our heads’ incident) and climbing up to clifftop caves full of centuries old coffins.

The Ultimate 10 Day Borneo Road Trip: The Route

We visited Sepilok for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre and Malaysian Sunbear Sanctuary where my heart was moved by the sight of a young orangutan taking care of his very ill looking friend.

The Ultimate 10 Day Borneo Road Trip: The Route

And last but not least, we drove North to Kudat, where we relaxed on rugged deserted beaches and watched the sunset over the Northernmost tip of Borneo.

The Ultimate 10 Day Borneo Road Trip: The Route

All in all, it was one of the most rewarding, challenging and downright amazing road trips I have ever been on and I would strongly recommend anyone who is planning a trip to Borneo to grab a rental car and embark on your very own Borneo road trip.

One Very Important Thing To Remember Before Setting Off

Make sure you consider the petrol situation before setting off.

Yes…I know how obvious this seems. For seasoned travellers about to embark on a road trip around one of the more remote destinations in Southeast Asia you would have thought we would have given some thought to the availability of petrol along our route. And yet we did not. We set off woefully unprepared and expecting to encounter regular petrol stations.

How wrong we were. There was one particularly empty stretch of road between Sepilok and Kudat where we hadn’t seen another human being for a good couple of hours, had no working phones and were running dangerously low on petrol with no idea of when we would be hitting the next town.

It was only as we were starting to get really nervous (I’m serious – we’d been running on fumes for quite some time) that we emerged from the wilderness and managed to find a petrol station. Cue huge sighs of relief all round! Had it been just a few miles further, or had we set off with slightly less petrol in our tank, we would have found ourselves completely stranded.

I would love to say that this was a one off. Unfortunately it turned out to be a pretty regular occurrence throughout the entire road trip. And we never did learn.

The lesson? Take a spare can of petrol. I cannot stress this enough for this trip. It might just save you being stranded for hours on a remote highway.

Other than that – just enjoy the journey!

Stay tuned for a more in depth post about the first destination: Kinabalu National Park.

Thanks for reading! Come back soon!

Other posts in this series

Borneo Road Trip The Route
Days 1 – 3 Kinabalu National Park
Days 4 – 5 Kota Kinabatangan
Days 6 – 7 Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Days 8 – 10: Kudat

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The Ultimate 10 Day Borneo Road Trip: The Route


  1. karen johnson

    what a trip .

    • Stacy

      Yep 😀 More to come on it yet though mum

  2. Anita Bennett

    Another brilliant write up! It’s amazing to read back on things like this. Truly amazing memories 🙂 xx

    • Stacy

      Thanks Anita! 😀 I know – I loved that trip so much!

  3. Amirul Salim

    Thank you for visiting Malaysia. Sabah is truly the hidden gem of our country. The supermarket part is really funny lol

    • Stacy

      Haha thanks Amirul – it was funny. Sabah definitely is a gem! Such a beautiful place!

  4. sarah


    I am planning an a trip to Borneo. I was wondering how you went about renting the car, and the cost??

    I really appreciate your help!

    Great post 🙂

    • Stacy

      Hi Sarah

      I’m sorry its taken a while to reply. I’ve been in the middle of a redesign of my blog so I didn’t see your comment.

      Have you been on your trip yet?

      The hire company we used appears to have gone out of business since we did the trip. However, you could use to compare prices. It cost us around $250 for a week’s rental (but that was in August 2015). We stayed a couple of days in Kota Kinabalu so arranged for them to drop the car off but you could also pick it up from the airport.

      I cannot recommend a Borneo road trip highly enough! It was one of the best experiences I had.

  5. Bara

    You missed Semporna District. That’s one of the best gem of Sabah.

    • Stacy

      Hi Bara

      Aaaah I think it was just because we were under such time constraints with this trip. Hopefully I’ll make it back there to explore more at some point.

  6. Sally

    I know this was a while back but you have inspired me and my friends to do the same! I was just wondering if you had any extra time where you would have stayed longer at/added on?

    and secondly, what was the safety like? I am a well seasoned traveller and fine with all the normal risks, but I’ve heard from some of my Malaysian friends about kidnappings in the coastal areas and was wondering whether you’d heard much about that?

    thank you for the route!

    • Stacy

      Hi Sally

      I’m so glad to have inspired you. It was such an amazing trip and we got to see so much more by driving it ourselves.

      We stayed in Kudat at the end which was a bit more relaxed (the accommodation we stayed at was Borneo Biostation) but if I was going to add anything on I would probably have gone to Semporna because the islands and snorkelling there look amazing.

      With regards to safety, there were no moments where we felt unsafe, but the only coastal area we really went to was Kudat for two days and we spent most of our time in the resort because it had its own beaches / kayaking etc. I do recall someone telling us there had been a few tensions but we encountered nothing like that. Just a lot of staring from locals! But everyone was very friendly.

      Just having a quick look at the travel advice, it looks as though previous kidnappings were in coastal areas as you mentioned. To be honest, the inland trip was so amazing that I don’t think we missed out by not visiting the coastal areas. So if you’re nervous about the coasts you could avoid them.

      I never finished my post on Sepilok to Kudat but we had a very close call one day because we left Sepilok without much petrol and the route was quite remote so we were extremely close to running out of petrol and getting stranded. So if you’re driving in a similar direction I would recommend filling up before leaving Sepilok just in case! (Although it was 4 and a half years ago so may have changed now).

      Have a great trip. Let me know if you have any other questions.




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