My plan was to start exploring the archipelagic islands of South East Asia (outside the Philippines).
There was a particular image of Borneo that, to this day, stuck vividly in my mind while watching nature shows when I was a kid. It was an aerial view of a scenic chocolate-colored river snaking through a seemingly endless layer of mist-covered rainforest isolated by sloping hills and mountain ranges.
I couldn’t recall where, specifically, in Borneo that scene was shot but I was craving to capture that moment by joining a camping tour in Borneo’s jungles. Maybe venture off a bit further even see (the much hyped) Orangutans or Proboscis monkey.
Indonesia was actually the place I was most excited to explore. Because of (cheap) flights available that time, I also got the chance to make a stopover halfway in Kota Kinabalu found at the northwestern corner of Borneo. I regretted later that the flights I booked (from Clark to Kota Kinabalu and then KK to Jakarta) only afforded me five days in Borneo. It was only enough time to backpack to one remote jungle and not see much of anything else.
I decided to travel mostly to more accessible areas and experience as much of Borneo that my time and budget could allow. I ended up staying two nights in Kota Kinabalu, one night in Labuan Island on my way to Brunei, and another night in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital.
Kota Kinabalu and Brunei 5-day itinerary route map
Clark to Kota Kinabau
My second air transit via Clark International Airport. I skipped the expensive direct Manila-Clark Airport buses and learned how to commute by local bus via Dau-Mabalacat Bus Terminal. This time, I finally experienced breezing through Philippine immigration, which has always been an unnecessarily stressful hurdle during my past travels.
The plane flew over the islands of Palawan on our way to Kota Kinabalu. Visible on the photo are the Linapacan group of islands located between El Nido and Culion/Coron island group. It was so cool to recognize places I previously visited like the Long Beach of San Vicente, where I got “lost” for an entire afternoon.
Kota Kinabalu Airport LCCT to KK City Center
Arrival at Kota Kinabalu International Airport Terminal 2 (LCCT). Met fellow Filipino travelers who were great travel buddies during the first two days of my trip.
Kota Kinabalu Island Hopping
Island hopping at Tuanku Abdul Rahman National Park located 30-minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. Me and newly found friends visited 3 small islands that had beautiful white sand beaches and not-too-shabby snorkeling sites.
Me at Mamutik Island. I was a bit surprised that I went island hopping instead of seeing the jungle interiors of Sabah. I was happy in the end because I enjoyed spending time with travel buddies for the first few days of my trip. I definitely have to plan longer trips in Borneo when and if ever I come back.
Resident monitor lizard roaming around the forested area of Sapi island.
Kota Kinabalu City Center
View outside the balcony of Borneo Backpackers Hostel where I stayed for two nights in Kota Kinabalu.
Hearty bowl of (lamb) Bah Kut Teh before a long walk around Kota Kinabalu City Center. During my stay in KK, I went to the Atkinson’s Tower, KK Esplanade, Jalan Gaya, the Signal Hill Observatory, and Jesselton Port.
Nightshot of downtown Kota Kinabalu from Signal Hill observatory.
Kota Kinabalu to Brunei via Labuan/Menumbok
Back to traveling solo again from KK to Brunei via Labuan, a duty free island and popular stopover for tourists going to Brunei. Direct ferries to Labuan were out of service that afternoon … there goes my chance to see the view of Mt. Kinabalu from the KK-Labuan ferry. The information desk at the Jesselton port ferry terminal in KK advised me to take another route: travel south to Menumbok, mainland Sabah by bus then take a slow ferry to Labuan.
I was anxious going into Labuan because I had little idea about cheap accommodations there plus it rained heavily the night I arrived. I was lucky one of the locals tipped off an nice newly opened hostel called Uncle Jack’s Bad and Breakfast.
Brunei capital, Bandar Seri Begawan overnight
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque shown in the picture is probably the most photographed icon of Brunei. My one day in Brunei was spent walking around the city street of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of this small but rich sovereign state.
In the past, I imagined Brunei to be filled to the brim with ultra-modern structures and edifices glorifying its oil-funded wealth. I discovered this wasn’t the case in all of Brunei. Just across the river from the central business district was a huge village of wooden stilt houses, a scene that could be found in many (less developed) areas in Asia. Venturing 30 minutes away from the city center and you’d already get surrounded by seemingly untouched forest teeming with wildlife.
View of Bandar Seri Begawan’s central business district from one of the wooden river piers.
Boat tour of Brunei River (past the huge water village). I went on this very touristy boat tour in an attempt to spot the proboscis monkey in the wild.
Stayed at Pusat Belia Youth Hostel when I was in Bandar Seri Begawan. It’s the only cheap place to stay in town at B$10 (PHP336) per night.
Ferry via Lawas: Brunei to Kota Kinabalu, mainland Sabah
This photo of the Lawas River with the highlands of Sarawak was taken on my mad dash back to Kota Kinabalu (from Brunei) to catch a late afternoon flight to Jakarta. I missed all the ferries going to Labuan because I arrived at the Serasa ferrry terminal too late. I was so lucky there was still one (last) boat leaving Brunei that morning. The ferry-bus connection passed by Lawas in Sarawak state of Malaysia. The views along the Lawas River was similar to that iconic scene I imagined going into Borneo. I was happy I got to see something like it before I left.
Kota Kinabalu to Jakarta flight
Aerial view of bokeh-fied night lights during my flight to Jakarta. I was so scared to visit Jakarta solo. It was a feeling similar to the first time I went to Manila on my own. My anxiety stemmed mostly from traveling alone in this megalopolis and figuring out how to explore Jakarta’s massive network of roads without getting lost. Exploring Jakarta was the preface of my visits to Yogyakarta, Borobodur Temple Complex, Prambanan Temple Complex, Mount Bromo, Baluran National Park, and Surabaya.
Kota Kinabalu and Brunei 5-day itinerary route map