Backpacking Borneo

Backpacking Borneo: Bako National Park

For an Amazon in South America, there’s a Borneo in South East Asia- a pole of unapologetic wilderness and its antipode. Borneo, one of the largest islands in the world, hosts one of the oldest rainforest on earth. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an account.

Borneo

The overnight showers had rendered a misty morning in Kuching, a southwestern town of Malaysian Borneo. An early morning bus ride along the length of Sarawak River brought us to the Bako Boat Terminal. At the riverfront, travelers paid for return rides, put on their orange-colored life-jackets, and often teamed up to share the cost of a relatively expensive park guide.

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The Crocodile Delta

About ten people in, the boat propelled further north and so did the adventure. Our guide narrated a story of the legendary Easy-Going Bachelor, a giant crocodile that had killed many and had to be blown up with grenades. It was so named because it did not find a mate for itself! Then another ‘monster’, few years ago, had turned up on the banks and killed a fisherman. Sometimes, when kids went missing, people hunted crocodiles, cut open their bellies, only to find disfigured bodies of their beloved.

Listening to the man vs. crocodile face-offs, many travelers took their dangling hands out of the warm water. We shifted to the center of the seat, away from the edges, as the longboat sputtered and went airborne with every ripple. The bumpy ride had us clutch on to whatever we could get our hands on to – seats, railings, and each other. The river widened at the delta, scaffoldings for fishing-nets emerged, mangroves gave way to taller green mountains, and low-altitude hovering clouds made our destination appear like a ghostly beach. Engine went off and the boat cruised to a halt. Everyone strapped their backpacks, took off footwear, and climbed down into the knee-deep South China Sea to wade through to the pristine shores of Bako National Park.

Wildlife

Limestone and sandstone cliffs had fenced the Teluk Assam beach into an amphitheater formation, defining a periphery of the jungle. The receding overnight tide had alerted sand blubber crabs to step out of their burrows in search of food. Their numerous inflated-pellet markings and shells decorated the ground. The walking scenario changed barely 200 meters east. Cliffs flattened out, and palm trees and smaller shrubs hugged a welcome sign posted by park authorities. Few wild boars roamed in the distance.

From the park’s headquarters, trails branched in various directions. Though we did venture inside the dense woods, the best sightings of wildlife were right in the mangroves of Teluk Assam beach. Gangs of reddish-brown proboscis monkeys with their characteristic pendulous nose and pot bellies, bearded wild boars, or large monitor lizards; all these are easier to spot early on in the hikes. You may even come across deadly vipers coiled up in the tree-branches as we did too. On the day, it seemed as if there’s a pecking order: the endemic proboscis monkeys controlled the tree tops, vipers swung somewhere in the middle, with water monitor on tree barks and on the ground. Had it not been for the experienced guide, we might have missed the camouflaged reptiles.

Jungle Trails

Hiking routes traverse dense forests and this is where Borneo overpowers you, and so effortlessly. Merging tree-tops form canopies to cut off the sunlight, while mangroves, grassland and swamp vegetations aggressively compete for space and nutrients. Tea-colored rivulets flow across, tanning the nearby soil. Armies of red ants, carrying stacks of food, march tirelessly – be careful not to offend them! In the midst of such muddle, the tall, solid muscular Ficus trees extend their buttressed roots deeper and laterally to hold the forest floor together. Its mighty trunks are known to produce musical sounds when hit. Our guide picked up a bamboo and demonstrated the utility – Ficus was once a popular mode of communication for the local tribes!

Of all marked trails (such as Ulu Assam, Teluk Limau, Lintang, etc.), Teluk Pandan Kecil remains one of the most popular. It takes anywhere between 90-minutes to 3 hours, depending on pace and detours, to get to this beach. From here, travelers usually rent a boat to get to the famous Sea Stack, a remarkable rock formation, often compared with a hooded cobra! You are likely to see pictures of this Sea Stack in most of the travel promotions for Bako. So, beware that the usual boat ride (paid for at the Bako Terminal) does not cover this. To be able to click pictures, you either have to rent another boat for a round trip from Teluk Assam, or trek one way to Teluk Pandan Kecil with a return boat ride.

For day hikers, the last boat service to Bako Terminal was at 03:00 pm. This time, there were no life-jackets! Perhaps an oversight. It is easy to overlook such absence after an utterly engaging venture. We only got reminded when the propeller malfunctioned and the boat came to a floating halt in the middle of that crocodile-infested delta. All is well that ends well. Luckily, it roared again and another bumpy ride got us back to the terminal.

Bako National Park, one of the smallest national parks in the region, is a microcosm of Borneo. Almost every vegetation and fauna found on the island can be seen here.

Orangutans

What about Orangutans in the Nat Park, you ask? Well, they are a protected species and a subject of conservation efforts now. To see them, plan another day in your itinerary to go to Semenggoh Nature Reserve. Visitors are allowed to observe them during feeding times at 10:00 am and 03:00 pm. You may want to combine this tour with a visit to Sarawak’s long-houses (with human skull exhibits on display) in Kampung Annah Rais, Padawan. The lush green mountains, slightly cooler climes on a lucky day, and a chance to taste and buy the indigenous home-brew!

Getting There

Kuching is the base to visit Bako National park. If you love cats or street art, you’ve got another reason to visit this unique city in the Malaysian province of Sarawak. Some say that a miscommunication led to the naming of this city after the Malay word of kucing for a cat. To keep up with the folly, the city administration has since added a few sculptures, murals, and even a museum depicting the felines. Interestingly, we did not come across any real cats!

Sleep

Kuching offers many hostels with twin privates between RM 60-80, and a dorm for about RM 20-30. The rent typically includes a basic breakfast, linen and towel, and a decent WiFi. We slept in Borneo Seahare Hostel with a nice lobby and a TV-viewing room. If you do not feel up to it to use a toaster or do your own dishes, you can step downstairs for local flavors. The hostel’s location, on Jalan Song Thian Cheok, is a short walk from the waterfront, cafès, and bars. For a night of wilderness inside the Nat Park, it is best to make prior arrangements. Do not forget to dab tons of tiger balm or other mosquito repellent before sleeping.

Weather

The equator passes through Borneo. A few travelers even crossover from the Malaysian side to Indonesian Kalimantan with the sole purpose of touching that geographical landmark. The tropical weather brings with it the rains and humidity. January was particularly overcast. If you happen to visit this place during the rainy season, simply buy a disposable raincoat (costs about RM 5) and step out to hike.

Food

If you are adventurous, try Durian, the king of fruits! Beware though, the incredibly popular, strong-smelling Durian is perhaps an acquired taste. As for regular meals, besides the mouth-watering Malaysian food (Laksa, Nasi Lemak, Nasi Kandar, etc.), Kuching seems to have developed an insatiable appetite for burgers. Come evening, and a string of burger stalls are setup – dark-colored charcoal-bun burgers are quite unique to look at. Delicious menu, delivered on the budget. For a sweet tooth, try Sarawak’s famous layered cakes! Food in Bako National Park’s only canteen, as is common with remote places, is relatively expensive. So, if you are watching your travel expense, bring a packed lunch along.


Have you been to Borneo? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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70 thoughts on “Backpacking Borneo: Bako National Park

  1. Nice post, looks like off-the-beaten, which I’d like to consider. Also thanks for sharing this on the Photo Challenge.

  2. I am not sure I would be thrilled at the prospect of crossing crocodile infested waters after hearing those stories, but the rest of the trip sounds very educational indeed. I do want to try durian because I just really want to know what it tastes like!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! We trusted our guides and found it pretty safe to take that boat and it was worth the spectacular view we got as soon as we reached Bako National Park! And yes, durian, for sure you must try. There is a lot of pride in introducing that fruit by the locals.

  3. After reading your detailed post, I’d love to visit Bako National Park! How beautiful to visit the rainforest and see so many incredible animals in their natural habitats. The part of your story about the locals going missing and crocodiles attacking them was so heart-wrenching!

    1. Yes, we felt the same when we saw the museum with all the details. Would surely recommend Bako National Park for the variety it offers from nature to wildlife! And unlike some of the raw forests that we have been to elsewhere, this one was pretty organised.

    1. Haha. No need to worry as the locals know their region best. We even saw families with young kids loving their experiences at the Bako National Park – especially the unique proboscis monkey.

    1. Thanks Serena. Ya, even we were super excited to see proboscis monkey… not one, but many. And there were other unique wildlife too. Go for it soon! Happy travels.

  4. Wow, it’s hard to find a place more exotic! I would love to take a day to observe the orangutans at Semenggoh, and even catch the other wildlife. The durian can wait!

    1. Watching Orangutans was nothing less than a show! And a must experiences for sure. They are so skillful. We were lucky to get good glimpse of them. Go for it. Happy travels.

  5. I’ll love to visit the Bako park sometime. But I’m not sure about crossing a crocodile infested water. That’s a risk I’m not willing to take. But everything else seems very interesting to me.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Sure Grace. Do make a plan to visit Bako National Park. We had an amazing time there and would surely recommend!

  6. Such an informative post with lovely pictures to go with. Gosh the crocodile delta sounds terrifying and adventurous at the same time. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you Kamapala. Its adventurous and that’s the fun of it. You come back with amazing stories to share with the world ! Cheers

  7. I have never visited to Bako Park but it does sound like an adventure! Very different to what I’m use to – the crocodile infested water sounds a bit scary though 🙂

    1. Hope you plan to visit Bako National Park soon! Its an experience of a lifetime and a chance to see unique proboscis monkey.

  8. Bako National Park looks like a nice place to immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature. I wish there was a way to be there right now!

    1. Thank you! Well, all you need to do is just get to Borneo soon! Plan a trip to Bako National Park soon! Happy travels.

  9. If I heard the story about the crocodiles, I won’t dare to go on a tour on that one, wahaha. But yeah I’ve heard of that the hunters will open the belly of the crocodile, just to see a bones or a body of a human. I’ve tried durian too, they don’t smell good, but the taste is ok 🙂

    1. Sometimes the stories behind the place make it even more fascinating. Bako National Park is awesome. Durian was a unique experience for sure.

  10. I went to Borneo last year and it was such a beautiful experience! I didn’t get to see the orangutans, but the proboscis monkeys were such a treat. 🙂

    1. Oh yes. Never saw monkey like proboscis. You have one more reason to go back to Borneo now – orangutans ! Happy travels

  11. … Your adventure is thrilling….. I mean with easy going bachelor….. It sounds like a death threat…… I’m from South East Asia….. Borneo is a neighbor but it sounds foreign to me…thanks for introducing me to a neighbor . The wilderness is a treat…… For an adventurer

    1. We hope you enjoy the adventures and wilderness of Borneo. Lucky you that you are next door Jeferson. We are alive to share the story though….If that helps… Haha…

  12. Natural beauty at it’s best but as enchanting as it may be the easy going bachelor crocodile story is slightly shocking. Grenades. Eek!!

  13. Beautiful pictures, I’ve always wanted to travel somewhere off the beaten path and Borneo looks like it might be the perfect place.

  14. You got me cracking up when you said, “Listening to the man vs. crocodile face-offs, many travelers took their dangling hands out of the warm water anf shifted to the center of the seat, away from the edges.” I can imagine.

  15. I’d love to visit Bako national park and explore the unique wildlife there. You have shot some beautiful pictures, specially of the Orangutans. Though your story of crocodile attacking and people going missing was very scary! I hope your trip was sound and safe!

    1. Yes of course Anshika and we totally recommend this trip to Bako National Park. Locals know their land best. We were in safe hands with our guides and forest authorities. Thanks for asking.

    1. Thank you. We hope you go backpacking soon. Look up for our post on Tips for First Time Backpackers. It will be a good guide to get ready.

  16. Wow! Excellent details and description. Made me feel like as if I was trekking the jungle of Borneo right along with you. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Worth the read! Borneo is on my list too, thanks for posting this. Happy and safe backpacking travels!

    1. Thanks Mane. Yes, Durian is quite popular in South East Asia right . We saw it in Thailand too. Hope you visit Borneo soon!

  18. Baka National Park has totally stolen my heart. I love that the wildlife and rainforest is protected. Whilst i have never been to an Amazon before, it is on my bucket list.

    1. Thanks Jenn. We were totally amazed to see so many Durian flavoured things such as coffee, ice cream, cakes and what not! Its very popular right.

  19. Your pictures are incredible! We really enjoy your posts! Do a post on what to carry when you bagoack or absolute essentials to remember

    1. Thank you so much. We love your suggestions. We have two posts if you would like to look up – Tips for First Time Backpackers and How to Deal with Surprises while Backpacking. Hope you enjoy reading them.

  20. This is interesting. I have never considered going to Borneo, though it’s very close to the Philippines. Seems nice and cheap to go there.

    By the way, I remember that there’s a homeless guy that we know who has an appedage that looks like that monkey! 🙁

    1. Really. Something new to learn everyday. You are lucky to be so close. Hope you visit Borneo soon. Happy travels.

    1. Please do add Bako National Park on your list in Borneo! Its will be an amazing experience! Of-course, minus the crocodiles 😉 Thank you for stopping by.

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