Like a bowl of its popular Sarawak laksa soup, Borneo is a complex concoction that is rich with flavor and rapidly addictive. The third-largest island in the world behind Greenland and New Guinea, Borneo spans some 287,000 square miles—more than Texas and twice the size of Germany. It boasts Southeast Asia’s tallest peak, 13,435-foot-high Mount Kinabalu; one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests; and perhaps the highest diversity of flora on the planet. Among its estimated 15,000 plant species are 1,700 species of orchid and the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia Arnoldii, better known as the “corpse flower” for it pungent odor reminiscent of rotting corpses.
One thing Borneo doesn’t have: A unified government.
Situated in the center of the region southeast of the Malay Peninsula and southwest of the Philippines, Borneo has never been a sovereign state. In fact, it never really had much contact with the outside world; ruled for a few hundred years by the Bruneian Empire, the island’s first formal visitors were 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese explorers. (There may have been a certain reluctance to set foot on the island, given that its constantly warring tribes were also practicing headhunters.)
It didn’t take long for the British and Dutch to arrive, and the two colonial powers would squabble over control of Borneo’s abundant natural resources from the early 1800s until 1984, when the island was divided among Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Today, it stands as the only island in the world to be split among three independent countries.
Nearly three-quarters of Borneo comprises the Indonesian region called Kalimantan; the rest includes the northern Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak (explored in-depth on our Borneo journey) as well as the sultanate of Brunei, now just a tiny remnant of its former glory.
Adding to the cultural dimensions, the island is home to more than 40 ethnic groups, although the populations are roughly divided between the inland Dayaks (descendants of those infamous headhunters) and coastal peoples including Malay, Madurese, European, and Chinese. One of the largest indigenous groups, the Ibans can be found in the jungle-covered Batang Ai National Park. Our guests have the rare chance to visit with a local tribe to learn about its communal lifestyle and tour the traditional longhouse, where they all live together.
For more information, visit Borneo.