The first time I heard the word “Borneo” it conjured up a mystical and magical place. The word somehow conveys more than just a place. Borneo captures the imagination. It sounds exotic, lush and extremely remote. This is only partly true. We found Borneo to be simple to get to, and every bit as exotic as we imagined. So what exactly is Borneo? First off, Borneo is not a country. It is an Island made up of three countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the sultan-ship of Brunei.
What and where is Borneo?
This may be a first. If you have the time, please don’t follow our example. There is so much to see in Borneo, We took a side trip during our visit to Bali. As stated above, the island is no longer this remote and difficult place to reach. It is now a simple puddle jump from places like Bali, Australia, KL, Singapore, or even Hong Kong. Low cost carriers like Air Asia and Jetstar offer deeply discounted flights in and out of the two major states Sarawak (South) and Sabah (North). Sabah is well developed for tourists and can be a bit crowded and overdone. The southern or Sarawak region is served by an airport in Kuching. If you are able, make Borneo your destination not just a side trip.
The City of Cats
Kuching is the regional hub for the southern portion of the Island which is controlled by Malaysia. Kuching translated from Malay means cats. And there are plenty of them. Statues to the feline adorn every roundabout and building. There are a number of nice hotels to be had in town. From there you can use this as a base to explore Borneo Jungles and caves. We elected to stay at the Hilton, as we were going to the Batang Ai Resort which is run by Hilton in the interior of the island.
The Long Journey to the Long House
Getting to the Batang Ai Resort is an adventure by itself. A driver in a van picks you up at daybreak and you wind you way out of Kuching into the Borneo countryside. Our driver was extremely knowledgeable about the area, having grown up in a traditional Borneo Longhouse. He commented on the changing farming practices and economics of the region all the while deftly piloting our van past wagons, animals, cars and other primates. The journey to the lake takes about 3 hours. We stopped for a short break about two hours into the trip. Finally we arrived at the lake. It is huge! The banks are a deep red color. The water a deep blue. Pictures truly don’t do the colors justice. Our van driver dropped us off at the jetty and we walked our gear down the dock. . The lake is in the center of the island and thus deep in the rain forest. While we were waiting for the boat, you could hear the jungle teeming with bugs, birds and wildlife. From there we loaded onto a power boat to cross the lake to the resort.
Few hotels have the kind of arrival as the Batang Ai Resort. It is truly spectacular. The entire resort is perched on a gentle slope rising from the water. We landed our vessel and unloaded our gear. They do have golf carts to transport your cases to the lodge. You then begin the “hike” to the main lodge. The stairs do have landings so you can catch your wind in the humid and hot assent. The lodge has a huge covered portico entry. In the evening, we had drinks overlooking the lake in front of the lodge. You can watch bats and birds swoop in and out from under the awning to gobble up insects.
The check-in is standard fare. At that point you can select from a number of different activities to engage in during your stay. They have nature hikes, night walks, visits to local aboriginal Longhouses, waterfall picnics as well as blowgun training. If you are Diamond status with Hilton they are going to give you an air-conditioned two-story bungalow. The beds are a bit Spartan, but the rooms are tastefully decorated.
The Longhouse debacle
We spent two nights and three days at the resort. Our first full day, we embarked on a Longhouse lunch tour. We were assigned a guide, who happened to be a member of a local longhouse. She loaded us onto her dugout canoe and off we went across the lake. No one could have prepared us for the cultural experience that we were about to have. Borneo longhouses are communal living quarters, housing dozens of families. Each family has an apartment/room within the house. Down the center of the house is a large communal hall. Kids gather there to play soccer, old ladies visit, and men grab a smoke. Many longhouses around the lake invite tourists to stop in for lunch and a tour as a way to raise revenue.
When things started to go wrong
Enter the tourists…us. Our guide landed her boat, and showed us up the hill to the longhouse. We entered in, removed our shoes as is the custom, and our guide said she was going to work on lunch and left us with little instruction. Needless to say, it was a little uncomfortable. We didn’t know what to do exactly. We walked down the hall way, smiled at the kids, and checked out the little trinkets they had for sale hanging outside the doors of the apartments. We walked end to end a dozen or so times. Minutes, then an hour when by. No sign of our guide. Other tourist groups and their guides came in, engaged with the residents and left. After nearly two hours our guide reappeared and we followed her into on the apartments for lunch. Mike is a very picky eater, and the lunch fare was “rustic”. A little boiled chicken, greens, and some watery rice. We did our best to be polite.
A little song and dance and vodka
Once we had lunched, we rejoined a group of tourists in the main communal hall to watch some native dance. In turn a man and girl did a traditional dance in native costume. The entire thing felt a little forced and lacked much depth. The general feeling was, lets get this over so the tourists can leave. Then the alcohol came out and folks got a little more energized. The bottle of strong libation was passed around, and spectators were invited to join in the native dance.
Then things got really weird
At the conclusion of the dance, the children, and the men that were not working came and sat in a half circle by us tourists. We were then told that we were to offer gifts to the residents. The guides from the other groups had prepared gifts of trinkets and a couple cookies that they handed out. Our guide had not prepared us for this. We really didn’t have anything to give. Needless to say, it was very awkward.
Then it got good, really good.
Once our visit to the longhouse was complete, we boarded our boat and headed back out across the lake. Luci and I whispered back and forth about how strange and uncomfortable the entire experience had been. We then worked our way back into a quiet cove in the lake. We disembarked and hiked back into the jungle. We heard water falling in the distance. We then found a beautiful swimming hole with a cascading water fall. It was paradise. There were lower and upper pools with cool water. It felt like heaven with the heavy heat of the jungle. The perfect ending to a difficult day for sure.
We must tell you, if you do your research like we do on TripAdvisior, you will see some shady reviews on Batang Ai Resort. We are telling you this is completely unwarranted. First off, the resort was built by the state when they elected to create Batang Ai Lake. It is a man-made reservoir. It was massively overbuilt. The main lodge is huge, and there are a dozen or so “longhouse” styled lodges on the mountain side. Only a couple are used by the resort. As you walk past them, you can see where their AC units have been raided for spare parts. The staff is very young for the most part, many are from the local tribes that surround the lake. Their exposure to high-end customer service training is very limited. If you get a chance to single them out and ask for assistance, they will do any for you. This truly is a special location and resort. Please set you expectations appropriately.
Our short visit came to an end the next morning. We motored back across the lake. The resort has become one of the places we will always think fondly back on. It is very remote. This is for sure. But the beauty of the lake, the dense jungle, our little longhouse adventure all made it an adventure we will not soon forget. We beg you, if you are able, make Borneo your destination.
Due to the remote nature of the destination, as always we strongly recommend good travel insurance.
Have you been to Borneo? What was your impression?