Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Malaysian Borneo.
Travelers to Malaysia hoping to glimpse the region's astonishing wildlife "must only decide which world to visit first — the jungle or the ocean," said Will Ford at The Washington Post. My girlfriend is a birder; I'm not, which is why we chose to take up scuba diving at the outset of a recent holiday in the Malaysian half of Borneo. As novices, we had to enroll in a three-day certification course, but diving for the first time in the waters near the fishing town of Semporna was "rather like trying chocolate for the first time in Belgium." The east coast of Borneo lies in the Coral Triangle, one of the most biodiverse marine regions on Earth. Each dive "felt like floating through a living jewelry shop."
We next flew across Sabah province to the city of Kota Kinabalu, surprised that the land below was "overwhelmed by palm-oil plantations," not blanketed by rainforest. A two-hour drive brought us to Kinabalu Park, home to one of Malaysia's tallest peaks: 13,500-foot Mount Kinabalu. Thirty-seven of Borneo's 52 endemic bird species live in the mountainous region, and Jessie wanted to log them all. While I explored the park's wide range of trails, she moved slowly, her binoculars trained on the jungle canopy. Later, at a lodge in the Danum Valley, we met up with a few like-minded birders. When one of the group spotted a helmeted hornbill, they rushed in its direction "with the enthusiasm of kindergartners who had glimpsed an ice cream truck."
On a cruise down the Kinabatangan River, "we got lucky": Five Bornean pygmy elephants — of just 200 left in the area — emerged from forest to bathe and roughhouse in the water. Proboscis monkeys lounged in the trees as we glided past, and on one nighttime walk, we startled a tarsier — a fist-size, bug-eyed primate that fled from our headlamps into the trees. A different animal sighting made me particularly happy. Though the palm-oil plantations have decimated Borneo's population of orangutans, we finally saw one near dusk, as it clambered up a tree. After noisily constructing a nest for the night, it "lay down, carefree," and scratched its arms. "We watched until the light grew dim."