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The three remote islands known as the Mantanani Islands are situated northwest of Kota Belud, a town roughly an hour and a half drive from Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah. Depending on the state of the sea, the speedboat voyage from the mainland to these islands takes about 60 minutes. The islands are a great place to go snorkelling, scuba diving, or island hopping because of their beautiful, white sand beaches surrounded by coconut palm trees, and their clear, blue waters that are home to a variety of marine life. The unique dugong, or sea cow, lives in the water there but sightings are not guaranteed as these mammals are very shy and will distance themselves, especially with the sight of crowds.

How to get to Mantanani Island?

The transfer to the island is included in the package for the day trip. If you decide to stay there longer than a day, your resort will organize a transfer for you as well.

The transfer includes the bus or minivan from your hotel in Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud Jetty and then a speedboat further to Mentanani Island.

Several operators organize tours to the islands. I chose the offer of Borneo Calling as the price was attractive: 260 RM. Amazing Borneo is a bit more expensive and the tour costs about 340 RM. I didn’t see any differences in the itinerary.

When to go?

Tours to Mantanani Island are available the whole year, but the best time to visit is between February and April, during the dry season. The weather during these months is generally more favourable with less rainfall, making it easier to enjoy outdoor activities.

How long should you stay?

One day is enough to relax on the beach and do some snorkelling. However, during the day it is incredibly hot so most probably you will want to spend the time in the shade. Staying overnight is a great idea, as you can enjoy the magnificent sunset and sunrise and the calmness of the island once day trippers leave.

Mantanani Island, Borneo
Mantanani Island

Where to stay?

I haven’t spent the night on the island itself, but based myself in Kota Kinabalu and did a day trip from there. I can recommend three places to stay there: ATAP Hotel, Hotel Tourist by HotSpot Essential and Akinabalu Youth Hostel. All of them were affordable and offered a nice and clean private room.

How to get around?

The island is small so you will need nothing else but your legs!

A day trip itinerary

I was met by a minibus driver punctually at 7:30 AM and then we made a loop around the town, picking up a few more tourists. The drive to the jetty in the Kota Belud district took approximately 1.5 hours with a short toilet break halfway. The further speedboat ride took about 60 minutes. The sea conditions were good so it wasn’t too bumpy.

Once we arrived at the island, we were taken to Lovely Mantanani Beach Club. We left our bags there, had a drink and went back to the speedboat to start our snorkelling adventure. The two spots were fine and we could see some colourful fish but definitely, it wasn’t as good as it was in Semporna.

The lunch was served at around 12:30 PM. The food was tasty and plentiful, even though I expected a buffet. After lunch, we were free to take a walk on the white sandy beach, enjoy the kayaks or simply relax in the shade. I used the opportunity to fly a drone, after previously asking the guide if it was allowed as I noticed a small police station nearby.

We departed back to Kota Belud Jetty at around 3 PM. There were dark clouds on the horizon and I was sure we would be caught by heavy rain. Miraculously, we weren’t. But as soon as we changed to the minivan and started driving back to Kota Kinabalu, the heavens got wild and it was pouring almost the whole way. I was back to my hotel at about 6 PM.

Overall, it was a well-organized tour of the beautiful island, but next time I would consider staying overnight to get the full experience. Waking up in such isolated places is always unique.

Included in the tour package are: transportation, lunch, water, and snorkeling equipment.

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Sandakan was once the capital of British North Borneo (now Sabah) before the capital was moved to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). It played a significant role during the British colonial period and World War II.

It is known for the Sandakan Death Marches, one of Asia’s most tragic World War II events. Many Australian and British prisoners of war were forced by the Japanese to march under brutal conditions, leading to the deaths of almost all involved.

Sandakan is a gateway to several natural attractions. It is close to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which attracts many visitors interested in wildlife conservation. Other notable sites include the Rainforest Discovery Centre, Turtle Islands Park, and the Gomantong Caves, famous for edible bird nests.

How to get to Sandakan?

By Air

Several airlines operate flights to Sandakan, including Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia, with direct flights available from Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) and Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia). The best way to get from Sandakan Airport to the city centre is to use the ride-hailing service, Grab.

By Land

There are bus services from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan passing through Kundasang and Sepilok. The journey takes about 6-8 hours.

For ticket booking, visit Easybook or 12Go.Asia

Berhala Island
Berhala Island

When to go?

The best time to visit Sandakan is during the dry season, which typically falls between March and October. The weather during these months is generally more favourable with less rainfall, making it easier to explore the rainforest (the trails are less muddy) and enjoy outdoor activities.

How long to stay?

Sandakan itself can be easily discovered in one day. If you are planning to visit natural attractions around Sepilok or Turtle Islands Park, you should plan 2-3 days more.

Where to stay?

I spent two nights in AeCOTEL and would recommend this hotel. The rooms were spacious, everything was very clean and the beds were comfy. They also have scooters for rent and can help you to book a river cruise at Kinabatangan.

How to get around?

You can comfortably get around using the ride-hailing app – Grab. If you want to be more independent, a good idea is to rent a scooter. I rented one at my accommodation: AeCOTEL.

What to do in Sandakan?

Agnes Keith House

A restored colonial mansion called Newlands, presents the story of American writer Agnes Keith and her British husband Harry, the Conservator of Forests in North Borneo. They spent three years in Japanese internment camps during World War II and resided in Sandakan from 1934 until 1952. Keith immortalized the house in her hilarious, engrossing, and award-winning depiction of colonial life in Land Below the Wind.

Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Agnes Keith House

Sandakan Old Chinese Cemetery

The Chinese Cemetery is spread over the hillside and is quite impressive, especially if you have not seen a similar place previously. It is still used as some of the graves are recent but some parts are overgrown. You can walk through most of it using the steps and pathways.

Berhala Island

An island with a truly local and authentic village. You won’t find any resorts there. The village is not big and it takes about half an hour to visit. Unfortunately, I felt completely overwhelmed with the amount of rubbish, especially plastic bottles that I saw all around.

You can also hike up towards Berhala Island Lighthouse but the trail isn’t easy to find so you will need to ask locals for directions or hire a guide.

To get there, look for a boat at the pier behind the fish market at Sandakan Central Market.

Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Berhala Island
Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Berhala Island
Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Berhala Island

Sandakan Central Market

All seafood, veggies and fruits are fresh and sold at an affordable price here. Very clean place for both dry and wet markets. The surroundings of the market are very lively. Right outside, you can see the waterfront, harbour mall and lots of shops and restaurants.

Sim Sim Water Village

A charming and unique village that is known for its traditional stilt houses and picturesque waterfront views. Known as one of the oldest and most historic water villages in Sabah, Sim Sim can be explored on foot. It’s a must-visit in Sandakan, for anyone interested in admiring the traditional architecture of the stilt houses and sampling delicious local cuisine from the waterfront eateries. I got rice with dried fish and sambal for as little as 1 RM!

Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Sim Sim Water Village

Trig Hill

A great place to admire the panorama of Sandakan. Unfortunately, the Rotary Tower was closed and I couldn’t climb it.

Puu Jih Syh Temple

One of the finest Chinese temples in Sabah. It’s about 4km west of the city centre centre and provides beautiful panoramic views from its terrace.

St. Michael’s and All Angels Church

This Anglican church, a relic of colonial times and a monument to Christian worship, is the first and oldest stone church in the State of Sabah, completed in 1925.

Sandakan Memorial Park

The location marked by a stunning rainforest garden was a Japanese prisoner of war camp and the beginning of the infamous WWII “death marches” to Ranau. By July 1945, only six Australian escapees remained alive out of the 1793 Australians and 641 British servicemen who had been imprisoned here in the beginning. The only tangible remnants are a concrete water tank and a few rusty machinery from the British agricultural station that was converted into a jail.

Check the offer of guided treks, following the route of death marches.

Astana Height Recreation Park 

A very pleasant and interesting loop trail. Breathtaking views from the top toward Berhala Island and Sim Sim Water Village. Be careful on the stairs as they might be a bit shaky.

Sandakan Rainforest Park

Beautiful scenery of nature and you can hear different types of birds singing. There are wide, concrete paths, often used by locals for jogging. If you want to be more adventurous, take a turn into a proper jungle trail. It was surprisingly wild and quite difficult loop with many ups and downs. No fees are required to enter the park.

What to outside of Sandakan?

Sepilok

The place is renowned primarily for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, and hiking opportunities at the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Read more in a separate post HERE.

Sepilok, Sabah, Borneo
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Turtle Islands Park

40 kilometres to the north of Sandakan is the Turtle Islands Park including three small islands: Selingan, Gulisan, and Bakungan Kechil. It encompasses the nearby reefs and oceans and spans 1,740 hectares. This park is unique since it is home to two different types of turtles: green and hawksbill. They come ashore at night to lay their eggs all year round. Every one of the three islands has hatcheries. The islands offer more attractions than only sea turtles. The crystal-clear, turquoise-coloured ocean and its surrounding coral reefs are perfect for diving, snorkelling, and swimming.

It takes you about 45 minutes by boat from Sandakan to the island. With no day trips allowed at Turtle Island, this overnight package is the shortest option to witness the magic of baby turtles hatching off the coast of Sandakan. Similar to other activities including nature in Sabah, it isn’t cheap and you should expect to pay about 1500 RM per person for the 2D1N package.

Gomantong Caves

It’s a stinky and dirty place but if you are not afraid of cockroaches then this cave is worth going to. You might get lucky and witness how locals collect edible nest swiftlet plus don’t forget to keep your head up as orangutans are hanging around high in the trees from time to time.

For most of the tourists coming here, Gomantong Caves is included in their Kinabatangan River Cruise package. If you are not on tour, you will need to rent a car to reach it.

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Tawau is situated on the southeast coast of Sabah, bordered by the Celebes Sea. It is close to the borders with Indonesia’s Kalimantan region and the Philippines.

The area was originally inhabited by indigenous groups and later became a part of the Sultanate of Sulu. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tawau came under British control as part of North Borneo. It developed as a trading port, exporting agricultural products like rubber and tobacco.

During World War II, Tawau was occupied by Japanese forces. Post-war, it continued to grow as a key town in Sabah and a major agricultural hub, known for its palm oil plantations, cocoa, and rubber.

Tawau is a gateway to several natural attractions, including Tawau Hills Park, known for its hot springs, waterfalls, and diverse flora and fauna. The park is a popular spot for hiking and nature exploration.

How to get to Tawau?

By Air

Several airlines operate flights to Tawau Airport (TAW), including Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia, with direct flights available from Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) and Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia).

By Land

Bus services are from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau but be prepared for a very long journey (most probably over 10 hours).

For ticket booking, visit Easybook or 12Go.Asia

By Ferry

Some ferries connect Tawau with Nunukan and Tarakan in Indonesian Borneo. The ferry services are less frequent, so checking the schedule in advance is important.

When to go?

The best time to visit the Tawau is during the dry season, which typically falls between March and October. The weather during these months is generally more favourable with less rainfall, making it easier to explore the rainforest (the trails are less muddy) and enjoy outdoor activities.

Where to stay?

I can recommend staying at Kingston Executive Hotel. It is well-located, close to plenty of restaurants and shops. The room was clean and really spacious!

How long to stay?

Tawau doesn’t have much to offer but you can easily spend a day visiting Tawau Hills Park. It’s also possible to arrange a multiday trekking there.

What to do in Tawau?

Tawau Hills Park

The third biggest city in Sabah doesn’t have much to offer and a walk at the waterfront at Traulsen Recreation Park is the best what you can do. Most people come here for Tawau Hills Park is a great and much cheaper alternative to Danum Valley or Maliau Basin. This 280 square kilometre natural reserve is made up of lowland rainforest, with hills covered with vegetation rising sharply from the plain below.

The park is great for day and night walks, and bird watching. Just a short walk from the reception, you will find a river with picnic tables and a scenic Table Waterfall a bit further. It isn’t accessible for swimming but you can get some nice shots from a viewing platform.

Bombalai Hill (530m) is just a short, thirty-minute trek through the jungle. Views of Tawau town, cocoa and palm oil farms, and the Sulawesi Sea stretching out in the distance may be seen from the top.

Follow clearly marked main trail which can bring you to several locations: Botanical Garden, The World’s Tallest Tropical Tree, Bukit Gelas Falls and Hot Springs.

The Botanical Garden is home to the variety of plant life found within the park, especially ferns, different species of orchids and begonia. The Elephant Ear Orchid is endemic only in Borneo and in Sabah it can be found only in Tawau Hills Park and Tenom.

Continue walking past the Botanical Garden and turn left on the crossroad. The path will take you to the World’s Tallest Tropical Tree. According to the description, it is 88 meters tall.

Come back the same way and turn left. A walk along the Sungai Tawau ends at Bukit Gelas Falls, which is lovely and worth a plunge. It is 2.4 km from the Park Reception. Enroute, you may also spot another trail, climbing steeply up but you should not proceed there without prior preparation.

It is the most challenging 14-kilometer trail in the park leading to Mount Magdalena, the highest peak in Tawau Hills Park (1280 meters). The stroll winds through lower montane and lowland forests. It is advised to take three days to complete the climb. There’s a hostel at km 10. Prior to your climb, you should get a climbing permit and a guide from the office of Sabah Parks. Mount Lucia (1240 meters) and Mount Maria (1020 meters) can be climbed during the same trip.

On the way back from Bukit Gelas Falls, you will certainly notice a bridge over the river. If you cross it and follow the trail, you will end up in a hot spring with sulfur.

Costs

The general entrance to the park costs 20 RM for international visitors and 6 RM for Malaysians.

If you decide to climb Mount Magdalena, Mount Lucia or Mount Maria, you will need to plan at least two days and get a permit and a guide. The permit costs 50 RM for one peak and 150 RM for multiple peaks per person for international hikers. Malaysians will pay 25 RM for one peak and 65 RM for multiple peaks.

Hiring a mountain guide costs 150 RM per day and you can share the cost among the group of 3 people. Additionally, you will need to pay 7 RM per person per day for insurance and something extra for the hostel.

Park opening hours are from 8 AM to 4 PM (Monday – Friday) and 7:30 AM to 3:30 PM (Saturday – Sunday and public holidays).

How to get there?

From the centre of Tawau, the easiest way is the get a ride using ride hailing app – Grab. Most likely drivers will ask for some extra payment in cash as the park is out of town. It also makes sense to note down the phone number of the driver, so you can text him to come over and pick you up in the afternoon. Tawau Hills Park is in the zone out of Grab coverage. Otherwise, you will need to try your luck hitchhiking as there is no public transport.

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The Kinabatangan River, located in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, is the second longest river in Malaysia, stretching approximately 560 kilometres from its headwaters in the mountains to its mouth at the Sulu Sea. This river is renowned for its incredible biodiversity and rich ecosystems, making it a prime destination for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.

The river and its surrounding floodplain are home to a wide array of wildlife, including some of Borneo’s most iconic species such as orangutans, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, and a diverse range of bird species. The region also supports various reptiles, amphibians, and plant species, contributing to its status as a biodiversity hotspot.

How to get to Kinabatangan River?

Getting to Kinabatangan typically involves travelling to Sandakan, a city in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. From there, most people decide to join an organized tour including accommodation, food and activities around the river. The recommended duration is 3 days and 2 nights.

By Air

Several airlines operate flights to Sandakan, including Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia, with direct flights available from Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) and Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia).

By Land

There are bus services from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan passing through Kundasang and Sepilok. The journey takes about 6-8 hours.

For ticket booking, visit Easybook or 12Go.Asia

When to go?

The best time to visit the Kinabatangan River is during the dry season, which typically falls between March and October. The weather during these months is generally more favourable with less rainfall, making it easier to explore the rainforest (the trails are less muddy) and enjoy outdoor activities. The animals are also more likely to come to the river to drink water. This increases the chances of seeing orangutans, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, and a variety of bird species.

How long to stay?

Most tour operators recommend the package of 3 days and 2 nights and I also think it’s an optimal option. One day shorter would feel like not enough and you will be missing out on some activities such as jungle walks but I also didn’t feel like I would like to extend it for another night.

The tour with Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures

There is a variety of operators offering similar packages and itineraries but what is different is the quality of accommodation and food. I selected the offer of Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures (3D 2N) and will describe my experiences and impressions with them. It isn’t a resort with nice bungalows and all that, but this is exactly why I made my choice to stay there.

Kinabatangan River, Borneo
On the way to the camp

Prices

The price for the standard 3D/2N trip is 572.40 RM per person. Extended stay is possible at the price of 172.80 RM per person per extra day.

The price for the 2D/1N trip is 399.60 RM per person.

Children who are 7 years old and below are given discounted prices:

The 3D/2N trip children’s price is 286.20 RM.

The 2D/1N trip children’s price is 199.80 RM.

Children who are 2 years old and below stay for free.

The above-mentioned prices are from May 2024. Please always double-check them with Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures directly.

Kinabatangan River, Borneo
A crocodile at the riverbank

Transport

The meeting point is at the Orangutan Centre in Sepilok and the price covers transportation by van to and from the Kinabatangan River, transportation by boat to and from the camp and all river Safaris.

You need to get on your own to Sepilok and pay extra in case you don’t come back there after the tour but continue your travel towards Semporna.

Accommodation

At Camp, lodging is provided in elevated huts. A lightweight mattress and mosquito net will be provided. Every hut is shared by a few people so don’t expect privacy.

Kinabatangan River, Borneo
Accommodation in wooden huts

Food

All meals are cooked on-site and included in the tour package. These are served as a buffet. Tea and coffee are available all day and bottled drinking water and fizzy drinks are sold by their staff co-operative.

Bathing and toilet

Water for bathing and washing is pumped from the river to the bathhouse. Swimming in the river is not possible due to the presence of crocodiles. There are two toilets provided in two different areas of the camp and you can get toilet paper from the reception. Don’t forget to bring it back afterwards as otherwise it will be stolen by monkeys.

Electricity and mobile signal

They use a small generator for lighting and charging of batteries from 7.00 PM till midnight. I had a Digi SIM card in my smartphone and the signal was very weak in the common hut and slightly better closer to the riverbank.

3 days 2 nights itinerary

Day One

I was met near the Orangutan Center by the representative of the tour operator at 1 PM. Soon, more participants arrived and we were briefed about the plan for the rest of the day.

We were taken in a minibus to the Bukit Garam jetty at the Kinabatangan River from where we continued the journey to the camp by boat. We could spot quite many crocodiles on the way. Upon arrival at about 5 PM, we were greeted with tea and coffee and then allocated the open-air huts, where we could find only mattresses and mosquito nets. Simple, but enough 🙂

The dinner was served in the form of a buffet at 8 PM but before that, we met the rest of the staff working at the camp. They explained to us the detailed plan for the remaining time at the camp.

On that day we had one more attraction left: a night river safari which started about 9 PM. We didn’t see much though, just some birds and owls.

The night was really hot and I was sweating even lying down in the open-air hut.

Day Two

The day started at 6:30 AM with an early morning safari. Tea and coffee were available in the common area. We boarded the boats and took the same route as the night before. Again we didn’t see that much. Mostly monkeys.

Then, we came back to have breakfast and shortly after we played some volleyball. It was really fun even though the humidity was insane!

After that, it was a time for jungle walk. It was a really short one but luckily we were able to see one orangutan sitting high on the tree. Another cool thing to see was the spider which blended perfectly well with the color of the tree that it was sitting on.

Kinabatangan River, Borneo
The only orangutan that we saw during the tour
Kinabatangan River, Borneo
What a camouflage!

Once the walk was finished, I flew a drone and discovered a very sad view. The area around the river is one huge palm oil plantation. I wasn’t surprised that we couldn’t see that much wildlife and that we always went on river safari to the same place. It was just the only relatively forested place left.

Kinabatangan River, Borneo
Flying over the Kinabatangan River

After lunch, we had a few hours of free time but we were also offered to join an extra activity: a fishing trip (paid extra: 60 RM per person). I decided to go for it as I don’t like sitting in one place doing nothing and I didn’t have much experience with fishing so wanted to learn something new. Unfortunately, we were caught by some rain but that is how it is in Borneo. You never know when you will get wet 🙂

I managed to catch 4 or 5 small catfish, but my fishing rod got stuck many times in shallow waters. Anyway, I was happy to join this activity and would recommend you to do the same. I will for sure repeat fishing one day!

In the afternoon we went to the third river safari and again it was to the same place. We mostly saw different kinds of monkeys and once it was already after sunset, then plenty of huge bats (flying foxes) could be spotted in the sky. Impressive and very memorable view!

Kinabatangan River, Borneo
Proboscis monkey
Kinabatangan River, Borneo
Proboscis monkey

After dinner, we went for a night walk and saw some spiders, frogs and bugs. The guide was trying hard which was appreciated but unfortunately, we couldn’t find slow loris or tarsier.

Day three

We had breakfast and then it was time to pack our bags and board the boat back to the jetty. There, we split into two vans – one going back to Sandakan and another one heading towards Lahad Datu. Those heading to Lahad Datu, including me, had to pay extra for the transport (50 RM per person).

2 days 1 night itinerary

You will do a night boat ride on the day you arrive at the camp and a morning boat ride the next day. After breakfast, you will leave the camp at about 10 AM.

General impressions

I’m glad I decided to join the tour with Uncle Tan and I cannot say a bad word about the organization as everything went according to plan and the staff working at the camp were very friendly. However, I wouldn’t repeat it.

The reason is very simple. I was quite shocked to see the destruction of the area and deforestation in favour of palm oil plantations. Don’t expect to see some wonderful wild areas full of animals. There is a thin line of trees along the river but you can see through it. And everything beyond is nothing more than palm oil plantations. Some years ago it must have been a wonderful place, now it’s just the skeleton left…

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Sepilok, located in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, is renowned primarily for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and hiking opportunities at the Rainforest Discovery Centre.

How to get to Sepilok?

Getting to Sepilok typically involves travelling to Sandakan, a city in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.

By Air

Several airlines operate flights to Sandakan, including Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia, with direct flights available from Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) and Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia). To get from Sandakan Airport to Sepilok the best way is to use the ride-hailing service, Grab.

By Land

There are bus services from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan passing through Kundasang and Sepilok. The journey takes about 6-8 hours. Ask the driver to drop you off at Sepilok.

Alternatively, you can also rent a scooter in Sandakan and just ride to Sepilok for a day trip which is exactly what I did.

For ticket booking, visit Easybook or 12Go.Asia

Walkway in Rainforest Discovery Centre

When to go?

The best time to visit Sepilok is during the dry season, which typically falls between March and October. The weather during these months is generally more favourable with less rainfall, making it easier to explore the rainforest (the trails are less muddy) and enjoy outdoor activities.

How long to stay?

It depends if you are planning to hike the Kabili Trail within the Rainforest Discovery Centre. If yes, it will take you a minimum of 5-6 hours and you won’t be able to fit much more into your daily schedule. Therefore, I would plan 2 days in the Sepilok area to comfortably visit the rest of the sights on the second day.

If you don’t plan to hike the Kabili Trail, then one full day is perfectly enough.

How to get around?

Three major sites are located very close to each other, within walking distance: Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and Rainforest Discovery Centre.

To get to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary you will need a taxi or a rented scooter. Inquire at your accommodation or check on the mobile app – Grab.

What to do in Sepilok?

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

The sun bear, the smallest bear species worldwide, gets its name from the golden band of fur that encircles their necks. Sun bears can be found in Borneo, eastern India, southern China, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, among other parts of Southeast Asia. With their large claws, they can easily climb tall trees in pursuit of beehives. Additionally, they manage the damaging termite population in the forest, which is an essential component of the bears’ diet.

They are the second most endangered bear species in the world and the centre takes good care of them. Before being released into the wild, a new newcomer will learn how to forage, make nests, climb, and interact with others. The gift shop plays a film that educates customers about the important work of the centre.

The entrance ticket costs 50 RMB for non-Malaysians and 10 RMB for Malaysian adults.

Sepilok, Sabah, Borneo
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was established in 1964 by Barbara Harrison, an Englishwoman, who worked in collaboration with the government of Sabah. The centre was founded to rehabilitate orphaned and injured orangutans so they could eventually return to the wild.

Initially, the centre focused on rescuing young orangutans who were displaced due to logging, deforestation, and illegal pet trade. The early years involved significant efforts in raising awareness and educating the public about the plight of orangutans. Over the years, the rehabilitation process at Sepilok has evolved. Young orangutans are taught essential survival skills, including climbing and foraging, in a safe and controlled environment before they are gradually released into the forest.

Feedings at the platforms are at 10 AM and 3 PM, and last 30 to 50 minutes. Tickets are valid for one day, so you can see two feedings with the same ticket. I visited in the morning and the place was extremely crowded with people which took away most of the charm of this place. I felt like I was in some kind of a zoo…

Sepilok, Sabah, Borneo
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary

Rainforest Discovery Centre

In addition to eight canopy towers connected by walkways that offer you a bird’s-eye view of the treetops, there are many gentle walking routes. Get a map at the ticket office. Join a night walk for increased chances of spotting tarsiers, slow loris, civets, flying squirrels, and other nocturnal creatures.

Regarding the trails, a Forest Reserve Entry Permit is needed for the 16-kilometre round-trip Kabili Trail. You can easily get it at the ticket office for 35 RMB. The main difficulty of the trail is weather humidity and high temperature, so take plenty of water on you and some clothes for change. In May there weren’t any leeches. Along the path, there are three shelters where you can take a rest. The trail is well marked and in my opinion, there is no need for a guide but they can be hired if needed.

The Sepilok Laut Reception Centre at the end of the trail is reached by walking for 1 km on a boardwalk through the mangrove. You can even spend a night there but need to plan it up front and bring enough water and food. Alternatively, it is possible to arrange a boat pick-up from the centre to Sandakan, but you have to do it a couple of days in advance. Otherwise, you just have to do the trail as an out-and-back day trip. 

Sepilok, Borneo
Entrance to the Kabili Trail

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

The Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is situated inside an oil palm field. The 400-acre property was set to be cleared for the development of oil palm in the mid-1990s when the owner learned that proboscis monkeys were residing in the mangrove forest. He chose to keep this little area of woodland intact as a monkey refuge.

Labuk Bay’s environment is fragmented, with small areas of mangrove forest encircled by plantations. The monkeys are fed extra food because there isn’t enough of it. Somehow I had the feeling that the story of this place fits very well with the general story of Borneo and the fact that wild animals are pushed out of their natural habitats and can only survive on those small, controlled sections… just as a tourist attraction to generate money. That’s why after visiting Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, I felt quite depressed and decided not to come here. I hoped to see proboscis monkeys truly wild, but maybe I was too naive.

This privately run sanctuary has two observation platforms. Feeding takes place at Platform A at 9.30 AM and 2.30 PM and at Platform B at 11.30 AM and 4.30 PM. At most feeding times groups of proboscis monkeys descend from the nearby forest and mangroves and head to the wooden platform for a free meal.

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Nestled on the lush northern coast of Borneo, Brunei Darussalam is an interesting place often overshadowed by its larger Southeast Asian neighbours. This small nation offers a unique blend of opulent history, rich cultural heritage, and pristine natural beauty. Governed by one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, Brunei stands out with its harmonious blend of traditional Malay customs and Islamic principles, seamlessly woven into the fabric of modern life. From the grandeur of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque to the serene waters of Kampong Ayer, and the untouched wilderness of Ulu Temburong National Park, Brunei promises an adventurous journey!

A brief history

The area now known as Bandar Seri Begawan was historically a centre of power for the Bruneian Empire, which reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a vital trading hub in Southeast Asia, engaging in commerce with China, the Malay Peninsula, and other regions. Brunei was well known for its rich sources of exotic jungle and sea products like camphor, spices, agarwood, lakawood, resins, sago, birds’ next, wax, honey, tortoise and turtle shell as well as its pearls.

Early settlements in the area were part of Kampong Ayer, a historic water village along the Brunei River. This area has been inhabited for over a thousand years.

The reign of Sultan Bolkiah (1485 – 1524) was known as the golden age of Brunei. During his reign, the sultanate not only covered the entire Borneo Island but even reached as far as Luzon in the Philippines. Its importance further grew when Malacca fell into the hands of the Portuguese in 1511.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at night

In the late 19th century, Brunei became a British protectorate. During this period, the capital, then known as Brunei Town, saw infrastructural developments, although it remained relatively small and traditional.

The town was occupied by Japanese forces from 1941 to 1945. During this time, much of the town was destroyed by Allied bombing, necessitating significant post-war reconstruction.

After World War II, Brunei Town underwent substantial rebuilding and modernization. In 1970, it was officially renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in honour of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, who abdicated in 1967 but was instrumental in the country’s modernization efforts.

The discovery of oil and natural gas significantly boosted Brunei’s economy in the mid-20th century, leading to rapid urban development. The city developed modern infrastructure, including roads, buildings, and public amenities. Despite modernization, Bandar Seri Begawan has maintained its cultural heritage, particularly in Kampong Ayer, where traditional stilt houses are preserved.

How to get to Brunei?

To get to Brunei, you can consider the following options:

By Air

The fastest and most convenient way to reach Brunei is by flying. Needless to say, it’s also the most expensive option, even if you take a short flight from Kota Kinabalu.

By Land

Travelling by land is possible if you’re coming from neighbouring Malaysia. There are bus services from Miri or Limbang in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. This journey from Kota Kinabalu can be even 10 hours long and involves crossing the border 4 times so get your passport ready for plenty of new stamps.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
One of a few city mosques

By Sea

Ferries operate between Labuan, a Malaysian island, and Muara, Brunei’s main port. The ferry ride takes about 1.5 to 2 hours. Check the schedule beforehand as the connections aren’t daily.

For ticket booking, visit Easybook or 12Go.Asia

When to go?

The best time to visit Brunei is during the dry season, typically from January to May. During these months, the weather is generally warm and less humid, with lower rain chances, making it ideal for outdoor activities and sightseeing. In other months you can expect higher humidity and more rain but still, you will have no problems with getting around.

Brunei Darussalam
Kampong Ayer

Where to stay?

I stayed 3 nights in a private single room at Co. Living Hostel Bandar. The bathroom was shared and clean but unfortunately only one for the whole hostel. The internet was really fast and there was a small desk in the room, making it perfect for online work. The location is within walking distance of the waterfront and Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

For the last 2 nights, I moved to EZ Lodgings. There were 2 shared bathrooms and the room was quite spacious. The location is near The Gadong Mall and the main tourist attractions are within 10 minutes taxi ride.

You will find much more options on Agoda than on Booking.com

How to get around?

To visit attractions located outside of Bandar Seri Begawan, you will need a rental car. I got my Toyota Vios from D.Feena for 55 BND per day + 100 BND refundable deposit. You can contact them at defeenamarketing@gmail.com or +673 877 8898 (also on Whatsapp).

What to see outside of Bandar Seri Begawan?

Ulu Temburong National Park

Established in 1991, the park spans approximately 50,000 hectares and is accessible primarily by boat, which adds to its remote and untouched allure. To get there, you need to sign up for an organized tour, something that I don’t like doing too often unless there is no other way.

Having checked different options, I selected the tour offered by Freme. They seem to have the most experience and from the price perspective, it’s the same for all operators. Unfortunately, it isn’t cheap as a day tour costs 155 BND.

I was picked up at 7:45 AM from the Gadong area and then we made a few more stops to pick up more tourists. Once everyone was on board, we left Bandar Seri Begawan and crossed Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Bridge to Temburong District.

After arrival at Freme Rainforest Lodge, we got morning tea and some snacks and soon safety briefing followed. We got life jackets and jumped on the longboat to be transported upstream to the start of the hike up to Canopy Tower.

The boat ride was nice indeed, but nothing too spectacular. Not if you have visited some other national parks in Southeast Asia before, for example, Taman Negara.

The Canopy Walkway was a bit different from other similar constructions that I have experienced in Malaysia. That one was very stable as it was all made from metal. We had to climb up on a ladder, then walk on a short bridge towards the highest point and then descend. Nice experience but again nothing super thrilling.

Brunei, Asia
Ulu Temburong National Park

From there we went to the boat again and stopped at the waterfall. Disappointing place with little water and a small pool including a so-called “fish spa”. Once you put your feet in the water, small fish come over to nibble away your dead skin. Can be tickly! It must be an attraction if you do it for the first time, but I have already experienced it in Thailand, Sri Lanka and many other places in the region.

Then we came back to the boat again and soon were dropped out at the riverbank for the last activity. Backpacks and our shoes stayed in the boat as we jumped inside the rubber tubes and went with the river flow back to the lodge. It was probably the best part of that trip but again somewhat disappointing as it felt too short.

Some people did zip lining but for those who did tubing, it was not included in the package. Such a pity. The lunch was fine, a regular Asian buffet.

After lunch, the bus took us back to Bandar Seri Begawan and we arrived about 4 PM. Quite early for the whole day trip! Overall, everything was well organized but I had the feeling that there is a potential for more or it should be just around 50% cheaper for what it was. Not something that I would like to repeat.

Brunei, Asia
Ulu Temburong National Park

Bukit Patoi Recreational Park

The best hiking route in the Temburong area. You can make it a loop, which is about 4 kilometres long. Going up can be challenging especially in high humidity, to take lots of water! The track can be slippery, especially after rain. Frequent panels show the distance remaining to the peak.

Brunei, Asia
Bukit Patoi Recreational Park

Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Bridge

This dual-carriageway bridge in Brunei links the country’s semi-exclave of Temburong with the mainland by spanning Brunei Bay. At thirty kilometres, it is the longest bridge in Southeast Asia.

The bridge’s construction began in 2014, and although it was initially scheduled to be finished and opened by the end of 2019, it opened in March 2020 instead.

The bridge was renamed the Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Bridge on July 14, 2020, the day of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah’s 74th birthday. The reason was to honour the late Sultan’s father, Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Saadul Khairi Waddien, who is largely recognized as the architect of modern Brunei.

Brunei, Asia
Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Bridge

Muara Beach and Meragang Beach

The popular weekend getaway at Muara Beach Recreational Park is well-liked by locals. It is a nice beach, but like many beaches in Borneo, it is covered in driftwood and other floating debris from the sea. Picnic tables are available.

Meragang Beach is located further to the west. There is a parking and some street vendors near where the Meragang River flows into the South China Sea. The sandflies can be a problem, so spray yourself with insect repellent before going to the beach.

Brunei, Asia
Muara Beach

Taman Warisan Tasek Merimbun

The largest lake in Brunei, which is home to a diverse range of birds. Nice place but seems to be quite run down. There is a short concrete walkway along its bank.

Brunei, Asia
Taman Warisan Tasek Merimbun

Lalak Lake National Park

The area around the lake is a relaxing place good for bird watching and walking on a boardwalk. It’s quiet in the morning but you can see local people fishing in the afternoon.

Wasai Wong Kadir Recreational Park

It takes around 20 minutes to get to the waterfalls. Nothing too impressive in terms of size but the pool is big enough for a swim. The place can get busy at weekends.

Teraja Longhouse

The long house is mainly visited by those heading to two nearby waterfalls: Wasai Teraja and Wasai Belulok. You will pay a few dollars for parking and a few more to look around the house. There are lots of historical photos and small locally-made crafts to purchase.

Wasai Teraja (waterfall)

The trail starts just behind the longhouse and it’s a nice short jungle trek. You will need to cross the river a few times before reaching the waterfall. The whole journey is about 45 minutes one way.

Wasai Belulok (waterfall)

Challenging trek and the path is sometimes hard to find. However, after reaching there, most probably you will have the waterfall all to yourself. The journey takes around 40 minutes one way. Be careful not to get lost!

Billionth Barrel Monument

The monument was built in 1991 and commemorates the billionth barrel of oil produced in the onshore oil field in Seria.

Brunei, Asia
Billionth Barrel Monument

Seria Energy Lab

An interactive exhibition about the oil & gas industry managed by Brunei Shell Petroleum. They have lots of activities for children. Unfortunately, as of May 2024, it is closed for renovation without any clear information on when it is going to reopen.

Masjid Kampong Pandan

The mosque was opened in 1996 and can hold up to 1,100 individuals in single assemblage.

Brunei, Asia
Masjid Kampong Pandan

Pantai Ku Ceria (KB Beach)

Another mediocre beach in Brunei, however, if you are looking for one, it’s still better than many others.

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Nestled on the northern coast of Borneo, this charming capital city of Brunei Darussalam is a fascinating blend of rich cultural heritage, stunning Islamic architecture, and modern urban development. Whether you’re wandering through the streets of the city centre, exploring the historical water village of Kampong Ayer, or marvelling at the grandeur of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Bandar Seri Begawan promises a unique and memorable travel experience.

A brief history

The area now known as Bandar Seri Begawan was historically a centre of power for the Bruneian Empire, which reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a vital trading hub in Southeast Asia, engaging in commerce with China, the Malay Peninsula, and other regions. Brunei was well known for its rich sources of the exotic jungle and sea products like camphor, spices, agarwood, lakawood, resins, sago, birds’ nests, wax, honey, tortoise and turtle shell as well as its pearls.

Early settlements in the area were part of Kampong Ayer, a historic water village along the Brunei River. This area has been inhabited for over a thousand years.

The reign of Sultan Bolkiah (1485 – 1524) was known as the golden age of Brunei. During his reign, the sultanate not only covered the entire Borneo Island but even reached as far as Luzon in the Philippines. Its importance further grew when Malacca fell into the hands of the Portuguese in 1511.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at night

In the late 19th century, Brunei became a British protectorate. During this period, the capital, then known as Brunei Town, saw infrastructural developments, although it remained relatively small and traditional.

The town was occupied by Japanese forces from 1941 to 1945. During this time, much of the town was destroyed by Allied bombing, necessitating significant post-war reconstruction.

After World War II, Brunei Town underwent substantial rebuilding and modernization. In 1970, it was officially renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in honour of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, who abdicated in 1967 but was instrumental in the country’s modernization efforts.

The discovery of oil and natural gas significantly boosted Brunei’s economy in the mid-20th century, leading to rapid urban development. The city developed modern infrastructure, including roads, buildings, and public amenities. Despite modernization, Bandar Seri Begawan has maintained its cultural heritage, particularly in Kampong Ayer, where traditional stilt houses are preserved.

How to get to Bandar Seri Begawan?

To get to Brunei, you can consider the following options:

By Air

The fastest and most convenient way to reach Brunei is by flying. Needless to say, it’s also the most expensive option, even if you take a short flight from Kota Kinabalu.

By Land

Travelling by land is possible if you’re coming from neighbouring Malaysia. There are bus services from Miri or Limbang in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. This journey from Kota Kinabalu can be even 10 hours long and involves crossing the border 4 times so get your passport ready for plenty of new stamps.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
One of a few city mosques

By Sea

Ferries operate between Labuan, a Malaysian island, and Muara, Brunei’s main port. The ferry ride takes about 1.5 to 2 hours. Check the schedule beforehand as the connections aren’t daily.

For ticket booking, visit Easybook or 12Go.Asia

When to go?

The best time to visit Brunei is during the dry season, typically from January to May. During these months, the weather is generally warm and less humid, with lower rain chances, making it ideal for outdoor activities and sightseeing. In other months you can expect higher humidity and more rain but still, you will have no problems with getting around.

Brunei Darussalam
Kampong Ayer

Where to stay?

I stayed 3 nights in a private single room at Co. Living Hostel Bandar. The bathroom was shared and clean but unfortunately only one for the whole hostel. The internet was really fast and there was a small desk in the room, making it perfect for online work. The location is within walking distance of the waterfront and Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

For the last 2 nights, I moved to EZ Lodgings. There were 2 shared bathrooms and the room was quite spacious. The location is near The Gadong Mall and the main tourist attractions are within 10 minutes taxi ride.

You will find much more options on Agoda than on Booking.com

How to get around the town?

Many places can be easily visited on foot but if it’s too hot then without a doubt, the best option is to book a taxi. Grab doesn’t work in Brunei but there is another app called Dart.

What to do in Bandar Seri Begawan?

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Finished in 1958 and named for the late father of the current sultan, the 28th Sultan of Brunei. The structure is encircled by an artificial lagoon that doubles as a reflecting pool. The interior design is quite opulent. The best Italian marble was used to create the floor and walls, the chandeliers were created in England, and the carpets were transported in from Saudi Arabia.

Visiting hours for non-muslim are as follows:

Saturday – Thursday: 8:30 AM – 12 NOON, 1:30 PM – 3:00 PM, 4:30 PM – 5:30 PM

Friday: Closed

Brunei Darussalam
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Brunei Waterfront

The busiest place in town in the evenings. Locals come for prayer at the nearby mosque and then stroll along the waterfront, around the illuminated fountain and trees. It’s also a popular place for joggers and there are surprisingly many of them in Bangar Seri Begawan.

The popular way to experience the waterfront, water village and nearby forest is to take a boat ride. It should cost about 25 – 30 BND for a 1-hour tour, including a stop at Kampong Ayer.

We went first to see proboscis monkeys and then came back to pass through the floating village. It was a perfect ride and one of the highlights of my trip to Brunei. The boat driver wasn’t rushing and he was trying hard to show me the monkeys from the best angle.

Brunei Darussalam
The view from Brunei Waterfront
Brunei Darussalam
On the boat
Brunei Darussalam
Proboscis monkey

Kampung Ayer (Water Village)

Kampong Ayer is a 30,000-person community made up of 42 connected stilt villages situated beside the Brunei River. It is considered to be the world’s largest stilt town. Half of Brunei’s Malay people lived here a century ago, and many still do now. The community has its fire department, police station, schools, and mosques. The Cultural and Tourism Gallery is free to visit and it presents the history, lifestyle and crafts of the Kampong Ayer people.

The best way to get to the village is by boat from the Brunei Waterfront. If you have a car, you can also cross the Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajah Saleha Bridge and access the settlement from the backside.

Brunei Darussalam
Kampung Ayer
Brunei Darussalam
Kampung Ayer

Istana Nurul Iman

The Palace is the house of Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and stands on the banks of the Brunei River. It is open for visitors only for three days a year, after the month of Ramadan.

Muslims have access to the palace for ten more days in Ramadan mainly for religious purposes. During the rest of the year, you can only admire the palace from the outside.

Royal Regalia Museum

The gifts presented by various heads of state to the sultan of Brunei are presented here. You will see the replica of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and a copy of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia crafted from precious metals and stones.

The sultan’s life is shown through family images and illustrative texts, from boyhood through military training at Sandhurst to his opulent wedding and active adult life.

Two chariots from the 1968 coronation and the 1992 Silver Jubilee parade of the sultan are also on exhibit. The chariot is escorted by a phalanx of traditionally dressed, headless mannequins that symbolize those in attendance that day.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Royal Regalia Museum
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Royal Regalia Museum

Brunei History Center

The museum documents the whole history of Brunei from the settlement, and colonialism to modern history. It includes a collection of letters, a constitution gallery, and a section about spices. The entrance is free.

Teng Yun Temple

The oldest Chinese temple in Bandar Seri Begawan was constructed in the 1960s and is accessible to both worshipers and outsiders.

Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Constructed in 1992 to commemorate the 25 years of the sultan’s rule, Brunei’s biggest mosque towers over its surroundings with its four minarets covered in terrazzo tiles.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Tasek Lama Recreational Park

There are designated trails that lead to picnic spots, waterfalls, and a tower atop a hill that provides views of the surrounding forest and the city. For a longer walk, head towards Bukit Laur and Bukit Markucing and then descend towards Jalan Subok and order a taxi via Dart to take you back to town. Such a trip should take between 2 – 3 hours. Wear appropriate footwear and take a lot of water.

Gadong Night Market

Some stalls sell relatively cheap meals, not necessarily very delicious but would offer a decent taste of the local food. It’s a nice place to hang out, especially given the city’s general lack of nightlife.

Maritime Museum

The main room houses an impressive ship skeleton lined with ceramic vessels. The ship was found in 1997 and is thought to have sailed in the late 15th or early 16th century from China, but when it got closer to Brunei, terrible weather struck.

The museum is located at Kota Batu, 5 km east of the city centre.

Malay Technology Museum

The museum is full of exhibits about the Malay way of life, living on stilts, different industries and lifestyles adapted to survive on the swamps. Interesting and worth visiting.

Mausoleum of Sultan Bolkiah

Quiet and peaceful place with a small but interesting interpretive centre to learn about the history of Kota Batu as the first capital of Brunei,

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Nha Trang is located in Khanh Hoa Province on the south-central coast of Vietnam. It’s a popular tourist destination, famous for its long stretch of sandy beach, turquoise waters, and a wide array of water activities like snorkelling, scuba diving, and boat trips to nearby islands.

A brief history

The area that is now Nha Trang was originally inhabited by the Champa Kingdom, an ancient civilization that controlled much of central and southern Vietnam from the 2nd century until the 15th century. The Po Nagar Cham Towers, which still stand today, are remnants of this period and were constructed between the 7th and 12th centuries.

In the 17th century, the Champa Kingdom declined, and the Vietnamese gradually took control of the region. Nha Trang became part of the Nguyen Dynasty’s territories.

During the late 19th century, Vietnam became part of French Indochina, and Nha Trang began to develop under French influence. The city’s development included urban planning and the introduction of new architectural styles. In the early 20th century, Nha Trang gained prominence as a coastal resort town. The French built several villas and vacation homes, enhancing its reputation as a seaside retreat.

During the Vietnam War (1955-1975), Nha Trang was an important strategic location due to its airbase and port. The city was a significant site for American military and logistical operations.

After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, Nha Trang continued to develop, though it remained relatively quiet until the economic reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s. These reforms led to an increase in tourism and investment.

How to get to Nha Trang?

To get to Nha Trang in Vietnam, you can either fly into Cam Ranh International Airport, which is the closest airport, or you can take a train or a bus from other cities in Vietnam like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. The train journey offers scenic views, while buses are usually more affordable.

Trains are slightly faster than buses but you should expect about 8-10 hours of travelling from Ho Chi Minh City and over 24 hours from Hanoi.

Check your connections at 12Go.Asia

Nha Trang, Vietnam
Aerial view of Po Nagar Cham Towers

When to go?

The best time to visit Nha Trang in Vietnam is typically from April to August, during the dry season. This period offers sunny weather with lower chances of rain, making it ideal for enjoying the beaches and outdoor activities. However, keep in mind that Nha Trang can get crowded with tourists during peak season, so consider visiting during the shoulder months of January to April for fewer crowds and still pleasant weather.

Where to stay?

I stayed at Le Soleil Hotel where a standard double room cost me about 13 USD per night. It’s a budget place but very convenient. The beach promenade is within walking distance and they have underground parking for motorbikes.

How to get around the town?

Many places can be easily visited on foot but if it’s too hot then without a doubt, the best option is to rent a scooter. Ask for one at your accommodation. They will either have one or get in touch with someone who can deliver it to you within minutes.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to ride yourself, you can always order a taxi from a widely used and cheap Grab App.

Nha Trang, Vietnam
Nha Trang

What to do in Nha Trang?

Po Nagar Cham Towers

These magnificent towers were constructed between the 7th and the 12th centuries, and Buddhists from China, Vietnam, and the Cham people still regularly gather here to worship. The temple honours Yang Ino Po Nagar, the goddess of the Dua clan, which ruled over the southern region of the Cham empire.

This location may have been utilised for worship as early as the second century AD. After being destroyed by the invading Javanese in AD 774, the original timber structure was rebuilt in 784 with stones and bricks.

There were formerly more towers in the complex, but now there are just four. The most impressive is the 28-meter-tall North Tower, which has a vestibule, vaulted interior brickwork, and a terraced pyramidal roof. Parts of the vestibule walls and the sandstone doorposts are covered in inscriptions. Beneath the antechamber’s pyramidal roof are a gong and a drum. The goddess Uma, leaning back against a monstrous beast is depicted in a black stone statue in the 28-meter-tall main room.

If your timing is right, you may also witness a short performance with Champa dance and music.

Nha Trang, Vietnam
Po Nagar Cham Towers
Po Nagar Cham Towers

Beach

Every vacation magazine features the city’s best feature, a 6-kilometre golden-sand beach. Certain areas are cordoned off and intended for safe swimming away from boats or jet skis. The promenade is a great spot for an afternoon run or stroll, and the turquoise sea is really tempting.

Nha Trang, Vietnam
Nha Trang Beach

Long Son Pagoda

You will need to climb many stairs to get to a giant statue of Buddha at the top. The best is to visit in the morning or the afternoon. It’s free to visit but watch out for aggressive selling techniques and scams in that area.

Nha Trang, Vietnam
Big Buddha in Long Son Pagoda

Hon Chong Promontory

A very unique rocky landscape with some pretty views. You will need to pay a 30,000 VND entrance fee. A lot of organized tours stop here so don’t expect peace.

Nha Trang Cathedral

The church was built in Gothic style by the French and it was opened in 1933. You can get nice panoramic views of the city from there, but even though it should be free, you may experience forced donation by the security guard.

Alexandre Yersin Museum

You can see exhibits honouring Dr Alexandre Yersin, a scientist who was born in Switzerland and founded the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang in 1895. They organize immunization and sanitation campaigns for the southern coastal region of the nation.

Yersin also made observations while travelling across the central highlands. He discovered the location of what is now Dalat during this time and suggested that a hill station be built there.

National Oceanographic Museum

A fine oceanographic museum by Vietnamese standards. There are lots of fish, a few small sharks, a few crocodiles and other aquatic animals. Apart from this, various ship models and methods of catching fish are presented.

Studio & Gallery Long Thanh Art

A wonderful collection of black and white photographs. Long Thanh landscapes are often moody, contrasting the natural beauty of Vietnam with the continuing struggle in people’s daily lives. There are also many portraits capturing the essence of the Vietnamese people, especially those who have witnessed more than their fair share of tragedy over the generations. If it’s closed, ring the bell. You may be lucky to get a tour by the artist himself.

VinWonders

There is a cable car from the mainland to Vinpearl Resort, where you can spend a few hours or even the whole day in an amusement park with rides for all ages. There is also a section with animals, gardens, and a huge ferry wheel.

Island hopping

There are plenty of offshore islands around Nha Trang which are known for the relatively clear water surrounding them and snorkeling opportunities. Trips to these islands can be arranged by every hotel and travel company in town. Just ask at the reception. Make sure that you choose the right tour though. You don’t want to end up on a booze cruise aimed solely at the backpacker market if you are looking for a calm and relaxing day.

Nha Trang, Vietnam
Island hopping near Nha Trang
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Island hopping near Nha Trang
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Island hopping near Nha Trang

Water sports

Besides island hopping and snorkelling, the Nha Trang area is a paradise for water enthusiasts and offers diving, surfing, wakeboarding, parasailing and white-water rafting adventures.

Diving sites are concentrated around Hon Mun Island and some of the best-known are Moray Beach, Coral Garden, Madonna Rock, Light House and Green Canyon.

What to avoid?

Tri Nguyen Aquarium

The building itself is unique – in the form of a pirate ship. Unfortunately, it is extremely poorly maintained and kitschy. I can honestly call it an animal prison and I strongly suggest not coming here.

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Laayoune, located in Western Sahara, has a complex history, deeply intertwined with the broader historical and political context of the region.

Before European colonization, the region of Western Sahara was inhabited by indigenous peoples, primarily nomadic tribes such as the Sahrawis. These tribes lived a traditional lifestyle based on herding and trade.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European powers, particularly Spain and France, began colonizing parts of North Africa. Spain established control over what is now Western Sahara, including the area where Laayoune is located. They called the territory Spanish Sahara or Rio de Oro and Laayoune became the administrative capital.

As decolonization movements swept across Africa in the mid-20th century, calls for independence grew in the Spanish Sahara. The indigenous Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front, sought self-determination and independence from Spanish colonial rule.

Laayoune, Western Sahara

As Spain prepared to decolonize the region in the 1970s, both Morocco and Mauritania asserted historical claims to Western Sahara. This led to a complex conflict, with the Polisario Front fighting against both Moroccan and Mauritanian forces.

After Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1976, both Morocco and Mauritania moved to annexe parts of the territory. Morocco claimed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara, including Laayoune, leading to armed conflict with the Polisario Front.

The status of Western Sahara remains unresolved to this day. Morocco controls most of the territory, including Laayoune, while the Polisario Front operates in the eastern part of the region, advocating for independence. The United Nations has been involved in efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, including a proposed referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people, however, I doubt it will take place in any foreseeable future.

Tourism infrastructure in Laayoune isn’t as developed as in other Moroccan cities, but for me it’s an advantage which makes the city worth visiting. Furthermore, you won’t find any other bigger settlements en route to Dakhla, so it’s a good base to refill your supplies and treat yourself in better restaurants.

Keep an eye on the political situation in Western Sahara and any travel advisories issued by your government. I visited Laayoune in November 2023 and it was perfectly safe, although I could notice a lot of military and United Nations vehicles all around the city.

How to get there?

To get to Laayoune in Western Sahara, you typically have a few options:

By Air: You can fly to Hassan I Airport (Laayoune Airport) with Royal Air Maroc from major cities, such as Casablanca, Marrakech, or Agadir.

By Road: The roads are generally well-maintained, but it’s a long journey, so be prepared for a drive of several hours or more depending on your starting point. If you are looking for a rental car in Agadir, I recommend using the service of Click’n’Go Car Rental. They are very friendly guys and easy to contact on WhatsApp. I ended up renting a Renault Clio for the whole month and got a nice price.

By Bus: Supratours and CTM are two popular bus companies operating in Morocco.

You may also check your connections at 12go.com.

Laayoune, Western Sahara

The best time to visit

The best time to visit Laayoune is during the spring (March to May) and fall (September to November) when the weather is mild and pleasant. Summer can be quite hot, while winter brings cooler but enjoyable temperatures. Choosing spring or fall ensures a comfortable climate for enjoying nearby beaches and exploring the city and its surroundings.

Where to stay?

I can honestly recommend the Sahariano Hotel. It is very well located in the city centre of Laayoune, close to shops and restaurants and has very good internet. The communication with hotel personnel was smooth and they gave me some advice for further travel.

How long to stay there?

Even though it’s the biggest city in Western Sahara, it’s still quite compact so you won’t need more than a day to walk around it and see major sights.

Laayoune, Western Sahara
Sand dunes near Laayoune

What to see in town?

I started the day by checking out the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assis. It was closed so I could just take a picture from the outside. I walked further down towards the bridge, passing by a hospital and plenty of military bases.

The views from the bridge were nice. City buildings on the left, dunes on the right and some flamingos in shallow water in the centre.

Then, I walked back towards the bus station. On the left, there are some abandoned old-style traditional Saharan houses. I passed between them and saw a football pitch full of kids, clearly very excited to see me there.

Laayoune, Western Sahara
Traditional houses

If you are into some adventure, you can hike down to the dry riverbed and then climb the top of the dune, visible from the distance.

I wasn’t so adventurous on that day and I turned back and walked towards the main square. It’s a large space with Palais des Congrès and plenty of Moroccan flags. Just in case you wondered what is the current status of Western Sahara…

Laayoune, Western Sahara
The main square full of Moroccan flags

I had lunch in the excellent Restaurant Gardenia, located just a 5-minute walk from the main square. You must try their avocado smoothie!

Then I walked back towards Sahariano Hotel and past the roundabout with McDonald’s. I reached Youssef Ibn Tashfin Mosque and then decided to call it a day and get ready for departure to Dakhla.

Laayoune is a nice stopover en route to Dakhla or Mauretania, although the presence of military personnel on every corner gave me some creepy feeling that I was in some danger zone.

Tarfaya is a coastal town, located in the Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra region of Morocco, near the border with Western Sahara. It is known for its historical significance as a former Spanish and then French settlement. It’s also famous for being the place where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of “The Little Prince,” worked as an aviator in the 1920s. Today, the fishing industry is the main deal in town and it’s a transit point for travellers heading south to Western Sahara and Mauritania.

How to get there?

You can fly into Al Massira Airport (AGA) in Agadir and take a bus or grand taxi from there. It’s about 545 km and 8 hours drive from Agadir. Check your connections at 12go.com.

For those who prefer to be independent, I recommend using the service of Click’n’Go Car Rental in Agadir. They are very friendly guys and easy to contact on WhatsApp. I ended up renting a Renault Clio for the whole month and got a nice price.

The best time to visit

The best time to visit Tarfaya is during the spring (March to May) and fall (September to November) when the weather is mild and pleasant. Summer can be quite hot, while winter brings cooler but enjoyable temperatures. Choosing spring or fall ensures a comfortable climate for enjoying nearby beaches and exploring the city and its surroundings.

Tarfaya, Morocco

Where to stay?

I recommend Hotel Residence Canalina. It’s a mini apartment which is very convenient and spacious. There was also a fast internet connection, making online work easy. The hotel was closed when I arrived but the owner arrived quickly after texting him on WhatsApp (+212641785521).

How long to stay there?

Tarfaya is a small town so you won’t need more than a few hours to walk around it. It’s a convenient stopover place between Akhfennir and Laayoune.

Tarfaya, Morocco

What to see in town?

Musée Saint-Exupéry

Tarfaya will always be connected to author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from France. He started operating an airmail route between France and Senegal in 1926, with a stop at Cap Juby. In the end, he spent a few years thereafter being named station manager for Cap Juby in 1927. His most well-known tale, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), about a pilot who gets lost in the desert, was inspired by this tale. All information is in French only.

Plage Tarfaya i Casa Mar

The initial colony was established in the late 19th century by Scottish trader Donald Mackenzie, who erected a modest trading post on a rock nearby and named it Port Victoria. Spanish colonizers seized control of the structure, which is now known as Casa Mar.

The nearby beach is a popular spot for locals to hang out. Unfortunately, there is lots of rubbish.

Tarfaya, Morocco
Tarfaya, Morocco

Wreck of the Armas Ferry Assalama

Tarfaya and Fuerteventura’s brief link came to an end in 2008 when the wrecked Armas ferry, Assalama, 2km south of town, went down. The ship struck a barrier in rough seas not long after leaving the harbour basin. However, it proved to be a mistake for the skipper to continue the journey, as the crippled ship soon found itself in an unmanageable heavy lateral position. The crew and passengers were evacuated.

Due to the exorbitant costs associated with salvaging, the insurance company was unable to decide on the ship’s intended transfer to the port of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria for repairs. The official salvage cost estimate at the time was between 15 and 20 million euros.

Tarfaya, Morocco