Rainforests, orang-utans, national parks... the often overlooked island of Borneo has much to offer those looking for something different
“Wow. Er, where is it?” was the general response when I told friends and family I was going to Borneo. Everyone had a vague idea of its whereabouts but either confused it with Burma and Bhutan, or guessed it to be 'somewhere in Africa'. I knew little about the country myself, apart from the fact that orang-utans lived there and headhunters once roamed the rainforests.
Borneo is, in fact, the world's third-largest island (after Greenland and New Guinea) and is sandwiched between the Philippines and Indonesia in the South China Sea. It's made up of Brunei, an independent state ruled by the oil-rich Sultan of Brunei, the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to the north, and Indonesian Kalimantan in the south.
Borneo and neighbouring Sumatra are the only two places on earth where you can see pygmy elephants and orang-utans. Which is how I find myself having my very own David Attenborough moment as a baby orang-utan swoops through the trees not five feet away from me. I wasn't deep inside a rainforest (which you can get to if you can cope with a four-day trek), but at a nature reserve and education centre belonging to the Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Hotel - a comfortable 20-minute drive from Sabah's capital city, Kota Kinabalu.
Set among 400 acres of tropical vegetation by a blindingly white beach, it has everything a paradise hideaway should have, including sumptuous buffet breakfasts and obliging staff in lovely emerald-green silk uniforms. The Shangri-La is a favourite with honeymooners and families, and news presenter Fiona Bruce, former royal reporter Jenny Bond and shouty thespian Brian Blessed have all paid at least one visit.
Back on the reserve, my orang-utan has been joined by five playmates, who dangle from ropes and scratch their armpits to the delight of the assembled crowd, who have come to watch the morning feed. All seven of the primates are waiting to be rehabilitated back into the wild after being orphaned by logging (over 50 per cent of Borneo's rainforest has disappeared), and becoming too accustomed to humans would make them incapable of fending for themselves.
The island's bio-diversity (over 200 kinds of mammals, 600 birds and some 15,000 plant species - with an astonishing 56 new ones discovered between 2005 and 2006 alone, according to the World Wildlife Fund) is more than matched by its people. Far from being the 'wild men' of popular Western imagination, Borneans are a rich mixture of Malay and Chinese and over 200 indigenous peoples, and the only headhunter you're likely to encounter is the one showing off for the tourists.
British colonisation from the 19th century up to World War II has left its mark and just about everyone speaks English. Even the road signs and billboards are in English (“fab finds” declares a banner advertising a flea market) and they drive on the left.
Islam is the state religion of both Brunei and Malaysia, but religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and you're as likely to see churches and temples as you are mosques. The present sultan's father was a great admirer of the UK in general, and Winston Churchill in particular, and used to drive around town in a London black cab, which is now ensconced in the royal palace. A statue of Churchill himself takes pride of place in the Brunei Historical Museum.
Kinabalu National Park is around an hour's drive from Kota Kinabalu and is home to some of Borneo's best-preserved forest and Malaysia's highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu at 4,059 metres (13,400ft). If you're fit, you can hike to the summit in two days (incredibly, the world record is two hours and 36 minutes) to watch the sun rise over North Borneo and the Philippines. If, like me, you're not, you can take a leisurely stroll around the forest and, afterwards, take a dip in the thermal waters at Poring Hot Springs.
Thanks to an amazing variety of flowers and plants, including 1,500 types of orchid and the rare but evil-smelling giant rafflesia flower (it smells like a rotting carcass), the park has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status and is an education to someone whose knowledge of such things runs to a few potted shrubs on the balcony.
From Kota Kinabalu, it's a 20-minute plane hop back to Bandar Seri Begawan (known as the 'gateway to Borneo') to catch a flight to Kuching in Sarawak, which takes an hour. Brunei is generally considered nothing more than a stop-off en route to Australia and New Zealand, but there is enough here to make it worth staying a few days. The tiny country was turned into an economic powerhouse overnight when oil was discovered in 1929 (petrol is an enviable 20 pence a litre) and as a result it has been able to spare most of its above-ground resources.
At 600 years old, the Kampung Ayer water village on the outskirts of the capital is one of the oldest in South-East Asia and is home to a population of 32,000, who commute to and from their stilt houses by water taxis, which crisscross the bay seemingly every few seconds.
A two-hour longboat trip takes you to Ulu Temburong National Park, which has a canopy walkway that looks out over the treetops. I'm puffing and panting by the time I get to the top, but with the sound of the rainforest screeching and humming all around me, I know for sure I'm in the tropics. Sarawak conjures up all sorts of romantic images, from white rajahs (Sarawak was ruled by the British Brook dynasty well into the 20th century) to longhouses in steamy jungle clearings and undiscovered tribes.
A proliferation of Chinese means Sarawak is dotted with intricately designed temples, such as the Hong Sang Temple, which was restored to its original glory in 2003. Most of the indigenous Dayak tribes, some of whom still live with three or more family generations in a traditional longhouse, were converted to Christianity by 19th-century missionaries and sport Anglicised names, including Raymond, my tour guide, and Doris, the receptionist at the Hilton.
I round off my trip with a visit to the Semengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, where 23 semi-wild orang-utans live permanently, as there isn't enough forest left in Sarawak to make reintroduction into the wild possible. It's difficult to tear myself away, especially from the new mother whose tiny baby is clinging on for dear life as she makes her way back to her nest, hanging like a huge wicker basket at the top of a tree.
But I'm sure I'll be back in Borneo some day. Especially now I know where it is.