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Old 09-30-09, 10:55 AM   #1
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Borneo (Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei) - A Summary

Hi fellow cyclists,

This is the second 'stage write up' during our tour from Indonesia to India. The first stage was about the Indonesian islands of Flores and Sulawesi (link), where we spent three months. The last two months, we spent in Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak) and Brunei and this is the write up for this section to share our cycling experience with you.

Sabah 879 km, 9132 meters climbed

Maps: We had two maps for Borneo/Kalimantan and Brunei: Nelles' 'Kalimantan, East Malaysia, Brunei - 1:1'500'000' and International Travel Maps' 'Borneo - 1:1'130'00'. The Nelles map is more abstract, especially when it comes to the topography and in general the ITM map is more detailed both with secondary roads and smaller towns. Having both often helped to plan a route. However, both have significant inaccuracies, specially when roads are less than 5 years old. This didn't matter too much in Sabah, as there really is only one road, but especially in Sarawak the inaccuracies were quite significant. We rode several roads that were either non-existent on either map or had a very different course than indicated on the maps.
Note: There is a 'new' road connecting Tenom to Sipitang, which is on neither of those maps, nor Google Maps. Contact us for details, if you want to know about them, or read the concerning CrazyGuyOnABike article (

The people: Alright, how are we going to put this? Generally the people were friendly enough, but much more reserved than say the Indonesians. We had fewer encounters with the local population and observed many occasions where we were looked upon as either freaks or a joke. We also had some problems with people trying to rip us off and/or getting people to do things that are their jobs (post office, 'tour' companies, hotel personnel, etc.) and had the impression it was all due to laziness. I would like to point out, that this is not a generalization but just our experience. Maybe we were just unlucky.

Road conditions: Road conditions in Sabah are excellent. Out of the cities (Tawau, Lahad Datu, etc.) you'll often find a couple of dozen kilometers with a shoulder. We didn't ride into Danum Valley, so we don't know how things are there, but we could get you into contact with somebody who has, in case you're interested. Otherwise, the roads are in very good condition. No MTB or fat tires needed.

Traffic: Maybe it was because we were coming from Flores/Sulawesi where there is very little traffic, but we had a hard time with the traffic in Sabah - one of the reasons, why we didn't enjoy it all too much. Besides the omnipresent and fast moving SUVs, there are a lot of palm oil trucks and they are not slowing down for you...even if there's traffic coming on. Erika! actually once felt the mud guard of such a truck on her elbow when she got passed by. Scary. Traffic in the cities can be plentiful, but coming from Indonesia, it was easy to deal with the well mannered drivers.

Topography: The south-eastern part of Sabah between Tawau and Telupid never rises above 300 meters in altitude. At least not on the main road. But don't make the mistake to assume it to be flat! The whole stretch is basically one big rollercoaster of 50-100 meters hills, which can't be 'rolled'. Combined with the heat and the humidity, this makes for some tough riding, as you creep up 1-2 long climbs just to have a very short downhill and start all over again. For hundreds of kilometers. For days. The only stretch that we found was pleasant riding was from Lahad Datu to Sukau, where we were supported by a nice tailwind.
From Telupid, the climb into the Crocker Range starts. The climbing is not unpleasant, also because the very boring palm oil plantations give way to some secondary forest. Although, hurry up, the palm oil plantations are creeping up higher and higher into the hills! In a few years, it will all be plantation.
We stayed south of the Crocker Range instead of going to Kota Kinabalu. The ride from Ranau to Tambunan contained over 900 meters of climbing. After that it gets a bit easier. The ride from Tenom to Sipitang is a killer. The climb up to 850 meters is short, but made up mostly of 10-19% grade climbs. It took us 4 hours to cycle (and push) 15 kilometers!!! From Sipitang to Lawas (last town in Sabah), is mostly flat.

Weather: In August, the weather was hot and humid. In the sun, our thermometer often registered temperatures over 40 degrees...up to 46. In the mountains, we regularly also got rain, which is a great cool down.

Food: Surprisingly, as vegetarians, we had a harder time in Borneo than we did in Indonesia. However, the food is probably a bit more varied than in Indonesia, as you can choose between Malay (mostly mie and nasi goreng and fish) and Chinese (all the favorites, including some nice bean curd dishes and good soups) food.
Distances between towns can be large. We often found a place to eat though, although sometimes it was a last minute issue with both of us running out of steam because of lack of food. Make sure you have at least snacks with you! As for water, many Sabah cities have 'water vending machines' where you can buy safe and cheap water. Between towns, you'll have to buy bottles from the restaurants. We have cooked lunch a few times on the road, because distances were too long and also camped for the same reason.

Highlights: Our highlight was staying with birds nest collectors at the Madai caves. We got stuck there and they invited us into their homes and it was a lovely experience. Sukau (on the Kinabatangan River) was a nice rainforest experience, but not mind blowing. From a riding point of view, the section between Ranau and Tenom (where there is the great Agricultural Park, where you can camp as well) was probably most pleasant, despite the climbing.

Conclusion: Sabah is not going to go down as our favorite section of this trip. The ride from Tawau to Telupid (461 kilometers!) was painful due to the 'annoying hills' and the endless palm oil plantations and none of the sites could really warrant the suffering.

Brunei 202 kilometers, 410 meters climbed

Maps: See Sabah

Road conditions: West of Bandar Seri Begawan, the roads are in great conditions, some of them even 4 lane highways with 2 meters wide shoulders. Between BSB and Muara on the eastern end of the country, the road is worse than in Malaysian Borneo, with quite a few 'fix patches'. However, no MTB or fat tires needed in Brunei.

Traffic: When we were in Brunei, it was Ramadan and I don't know if that has an influence on the amount of traffic - but during the four days in Brunei, we found traffic to be very light. Drafting was no problem, even on two lane roads.

Topography: More or less flat.

Weather: Hot and humid in August. Very humid, actually.

Food: Food is very similar to Malaysian Borneo, except that we found more Indian restaurants than in Sabah, which makes for a good change.
Distances between towns in Brunei aren't big, so food and water is no problem.

Highlights: Our best day was probably the one we spent camping on the beach near Tutong. We had dozens of kilometers of deserted beach just to ourselves. BSB is nice, but it's so small, you can easily see it in a day; max. two.

Conclusion: Brunei makes for a nice change when cycling from Sabah to Sarawak - or vice versa. Easy riding (note: the wind along the South China Sea blows from a westerly direction, so riding from west to east would be the preferred direction!), nice beaches and all the western amenities you want in BSB.

Sarawak 447 kilometers, 2915 meters climbed

Maps: See Sabah. There is a 'new' road from Miri to the Niah Caves and one from the Miri-Bintulu highway to the Bakun Dam. Contact us for details or read the concerning CrazyGuyOnABike articles (,

Road conditions: The 'new' highway going along the coast west of Miri is in great condition with a 50 cm wide shoulder. The old Miri to Bintulu Highway is in pretty bad shape, especially after in the Bintulu regency (better in the Miri regency). On these highways, no MTBs or flat tires are needed though.
The Bintulu to Bakun Dam road is in good condition for about 70% of the way. Some of the rest is completely broken up making the going difficult even on MTBs and with fat tires. I wouldn't suggest doing this on a road bike.

Traffic: The Miri to Niah Caves highway is great and while there is some traffic, the small shoulder makes riding easy. The Bintulu to Bakun Dam road has plenty of logging traffic. However, going to Bakun, the trucks carry their trailers 'piggy back' and don't have a problem overtaking you, even on hills. The other way might be a problem.

Topography: It's more or less flat (with some undulations) in the east-west direction. Going inland towards Bakun contains some climbing over the last 40 kilometers, but nothing too serious.

Weather: Hot and humid in August. Very humid, actually.

Food: See Sabah.
Distances between towns/restaurants in Sarawak can be long. The Bintulu to Bakun road especially doesn't offer many places to eat and buy water. Make sure you carry emergency water rations and food to cook (or at least plenty of snacks).

Highlights: Erika!'s highlight was nearly passing out from heatstroke on the way to Bakun. Frankly, it's difficult to name a 'highlight'. Niah was nice but not overwhelmingly so. Miri is a good city to indulge in any pleasure you'd like: pizza, beer, karaoke, internet, cheap laundry services, cheap hotels....

Conclusion: Both of us were looking forward to romantic Borneo - and were bitterly disappointed. By the time we were in Sarawak, we were frustrated and weren't having too good a time anymore. The whole Belaga Incident (see: was the last straw and we decided that we had enough and took motorized transport to Kuching (which is a pleasant city, by the way). Neither of us would recommend riding in Borneo (and I know of a few other riders who would agree), because the good bits are so far and few in between, that riding it is painful. As another cyclist has put it: it's a travel destination for middle-class tourist. We agree.

Now we're heading back to Indonesia and are looking forward to it. The plan is to ride to Pontianak, fly to Jakarta and then ride to and through Sumatra.

We have several blogs and vlogs going on here. To simplify things, we have created a Facebook Page, where we announce new publications:

Or you can go directly to the publication you want to read/watch:

YouTube Channel:
CrazyGuyOnABike (Erika's journal):
On my website, you'll find an irregular blog and a picture gallery:
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