Adventures in Borneo

I just returned from three weeks in Borneo, and yes, I’m still jet-lagged, which is why I’m writing this at 4:00 am. In case you’re wondering, Borneo is about a three hour flight across the southern sea from China, and not too far from Vietnam and the Philippines.

It’s the world’s third largest island, divided between Indonesia in the south, the tiny nation of Brunei in the west, and Malaysia in the north. I was in the Malaysian part, in the province of Sabah. (Before I had a son and daughter-in-law to visit there, I didn’t know anything about Borneo, either!)


If you think “Borneo”, you probably conjure up a picture of headhunters and impenetrable jungle. There are no more headhunters on the island, but there are still vast areas of rain forest. The old growth jungle with its rich and rare web of animal and plant life, and the indigenous people that have lived there for thousands of years, can fortunately still be found in Borneo, but they are threatened by logging and palm oil plantations.


I’m not able to visit those remote wilderness areas while I’m here, but hopefully I will have that privilege in the future.

During this trip to Borneo, I’m based in the northwest coastal city of Kota Kinabalu. There’s plenty for my painter’s eye, always so much more attracted to the gritty than the pretty, to explore here.

Every day I walk around the busy streets of Kota Kinabalu with my sketchbook and watercolors.


As I stroll around the city, I see vivid colors everywhere. Kota Kinabalu’s tropical climate is matched by the intense tropical hues—orange, red, pink, turquoise—of its buildings, shop interiors, and markets.

Even looking down at the sidewalk provides a new palette of shapes and colors.

Kota Kinabalu is a multi-cultural city with a rich mix of Hindu Indian, Muslim Malay, and Chinese mainland immigrants. These newer residents are added to the population of the original inhabitants of this province of Sabah, the mainly Catholic Kadazan, who have lived here for eons with their own deeply-rooted traditions.


All of this ethnic mingling makes for a lively cultural scene, and an ever-present selection of delicious food. The people of Sabah, whatever their religion or original nationality, love to eat.


Kota Kinabula also mingles the cultures of East and West. The traffic and high rise buildings, and tee shirts on the people hurrying by, feel completely familiar to this American. But then a whiff of pungent durian fruit, or the red glow of a paper lantern, remind me that I really am in Asia, halfway around the world from home.


We decide to take a break from the heat and noise of the city, and head to a beach on the South China Sea.


I get my first glimpse of rain forest vegetation here. It’s a tamed landscape, true—but I’m still excited to see bromeliads and giant ferns.


And there are some exciting wildlife sightings in the lily ponds here.


We leave the coast, and take a trip to the mountains near Ranau, driving inland for hours on a two lane road that’s an adventure in itself, twisting and turning up and down ever-steeper hills. I’m glad I’m in the back street drawing, and not behind the wheel trying to pass the under-powered trucks and scooters….


In the mountains the air is cool and smells of pine and mist, and the views are spectacular.


We stay near Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Borneo, and a sacred site to the original people here. In the morning the fog that usually hides the valley has cleared, and I have my first look at the village below us, and the peak that looms above.


This mountainous area is known for the acres of gardens terraced up and down steep slopes. We visit markets brimming with local fruits and vegetables, and eat our way through as many of the area’s specialties—fiddle head ferns, foraged mushrooms, wild ginger—as we can find.


When I’m back in the city, I walk and eat and draw for another week, and then it’s time to go home. Being here in Sabah and Kota Kinabalu has been a fair trade for the next thirty hours of waiting in airports and sitting on planes.


Now that I’m back in Vermont, the scene out my window is a winter landscape of white and grey and empty space. But my head is still full of all the shapes and colors and smells and sounds of Borneo.


I’ll be sharing all my sketches from my trip to Borneo on my new youtube channel soon! Meanwhile you can check out my other travel posts about a Bahamas Palette and Paris Palette.

Your comments are welcome below.