Borneo was never on my bucket list. Then, when my younger daughter, who graduated with a degree in – and a passion for – environmental studies, got a job in Malaysia, I knew the rest of our family would travel the world to visit her.
After a 15-hour flight that took us right over the ice fields of the Arctic Circle, our family vacation started in Sandakan on the northeastern side of the island. We spotted flying squirrels and the elusive, long-armed black gibbon in the jungles surrounding our cabin.
At the nearby Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, it was exciting to see young and playful as well as older and more sedate orangutans, and some mischievous macaque monkeys, too. This unique facility is entirely open to the jungle, allowing the threatened primates to come for food on an as-needed basis without restricting their wild habitat.
We caught glimpses of the world's smallest bears - and the venomous keeled pit viper - at the neighboring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre revealed dozens more intriguing species native to the exotic isle, including red-leaf monkeys, black-and-yellow broadbills, colossal thousand-year-old dipterocarp trees, Bornean ironwood, spiky bamboo, and a variety of other flora, many with medicinal and nutritional value.
During a guided cruise among the mangroves and thick woods along the Sungai Kinabatangan, we were rewarded with sightings of proboscis monkeys, silver langur monkeys, hornbills, long-tailed parakeets, kingfishers, twinkling lightning bugs, as well as massive crocodiles in the murky river.
On the northwestern side of the island, we hiked trails at the base of the highest peak on Borneo, a designated World Heritage site - the majestic Mount Kota Kinabalu (where a leech stubbornly attached itself to my ankle). We sipped tea at the Sabah Tea Plantation and Garden, and saw a delightful Malaysian show of tribal music and dance at our coastal resort. But the biggest surprise for us was the discovery of a replica of the Philadelphia LOVE sculpture - right in the town center.
Our Bornean experience was more than rewarding - it was absolutely unforgettable. Although persistently hot and humid, the Southeast Asian atoll is a natural wonderland - with ecologically conscientious and conveniently all-inclusive resorts. We learned a few words in Malay - but English is commonly used at the tourist destinations. Also key to our memorable impression were the warm and welcoming Malaysians themselves, who endeavored to make every step of our journey nothing short of smooth sailing.