Going Up the River: A Borneo River Cruise

Spirit of Kalimantan on the river Rungan in Borneo.
Spirit of Kalimantan on the river Rungan in Borneo.

Cruising the Semarik River Across Borneo

By Mariel Kennison

Dining on the deck of the Orient Pandaw.
Dining on the deck of the Orient Pandaw.

If you’re looking for an exotic island getaway that is certainly unique, try a cruise to Borneo.

Cruising the Semarik and other rivers are the best way to see what the world’s third-largest island has to offer, including the right to boast the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia in Kota Kinabalu, and the rain forests so old they outdated those of the Amazon by 70 million years.

There is so much to do in Borneo that your days aboard the Orient Pandaw will be a flurry of new adventures. The first four nights are spent in a hotel and a jungle resort prior to going aboard, but you won’t just be sitting around.

There is an overabundance of fascinating things to do here, like guided hikes through the jungle, caves to explore in Mulu National Park and seeing the world’s longest underground river, rare flowers to discover.

On day five, the river cruise begins with a cocktail get-together. You’ll meet people from all around the world about to join you on your journey. You will make friends as you take in Borneo’s unparalleled beauty and alluring environment. The passengers may be international, but don’t worry, the crew speaks English and prepares delicious meals made from fresh, local produce purchased at local markets.

The ship itself, chartered by Lernidee of Berlin, Germany, cruises for nine days once you are aboard at the end of March and once again in October. Though it’s the hot and humid season in Borneo, the cabins have air conditioning and are very comfortable. That also means it’s not the rainy season!

Orient Pandaw on the river.
The Orient Pandaw on the Semarik River.

No Seasickness

If you’re prone to seasickness there is a remedy. Since the Pandaw only cruises the rivers during the day and anchors drop for the night, the ride is smooth and enjoyable. Says BJ Mikkelsen for Lernidee, “There are very few comfortable ways to get around Borneo. The Pandaw is the way to do it.”

“You get to see the whole northern part of Borneo. Mulu, the national park is an unbelievable 204 square miles! Very unique. At narrow parts of the cruise, you can almost reach out and touch the trees along the river.”

Excursions take you off the ship every day to interact with the locals and experience the beautiful landscape that makes Borneo so special. Once you cruise up the Kanowit River, you’ll have the chance to take a walk into the jungle before returning to the ship for a sunset in Kapit.

Kapit, a colonial-era garrison town, is a bustling marketplace where your guide will show you around in the morning. That afternoon, cruise passengers take vans into the countryside to witness a ceremonial miring, or welcome ceremony and enjoy a local dinner.

Up the Baleh River

The voyage travels up the Baleh River and into the “heart of Borneo” to discover incredible roaring rapids and reefs full of fish in Pelagius. Afterward, they head to Mujong village and meet local school children, teachers, and visit a local clinic. A jungle walk follows lunch.

views of the countryside aboard the Orient Pandaw.
Views of the countryside aboard the Orient Pandaw

Before you know it, you’ll be trekking through the cool jungle air and be in for a surprise…a special trail will lead you through parts of both primary and secondary forest! Sail downriver after lunch and get ready for a traditional dance show taking place at night.

Early in the morning is the best time to see the rich array of birds Borneo offers, so get up before breakfast to see them! After breakfast aboard, small boats will transfer you downriver to Nanga Kebian where you can taste their special palm wine as you hear a lecture on the Austronesian people.

There will also be the chance to visit the Belawai, a Melanau fishing village along the sea, and experience a totally different culture than those of the inland river towns. Sail to Sarikei and spend the afternoon wandering around in the delightful sea air.

After Sarikei, the ship will sail into the Rajang delta, a fertile area comprised of pepper plantations, the region’s most famous product. Later, watch local craftsmen do traditional songket weaving and then enjoy your last dinner aboard the ship.

Flights and river travel across Borneo.
Flights and river travel across Borneo.

The last day will consist of a farewell breakfast and then a flight from Sibu to Kuching where you can tour the city and admire the arts of Borneo. Enjoy a Malaysian dinner and stay in a first class city hotel there until your flight home the next day.

It may sound cliché, but this is a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! There’s no place like Borneo, and no better way to see it than on a river journey through the waters and rainforests that make up Borneo’s heart and soul.

Find out more at Pandaw Cruises.


Mariel Kennison.


Mariel Kennison is a writer who lives in San Francisco.

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