Have you ever heard the high-pitched, ear-piercing squeal of a stadium full of 11 year-old girls at a One Direction concert? That’s the approximate noise I make every time I see photos or videos of orangutans swinging on vines in their native habitat. To see them in the wild in Borneo – along with the other unique endemic species that live beside them – has been a lifelong dream of mine. Unfortunately all the online tour prices are insanely expensive. But now that we live in Malaysia, I was able to figure out how to make this dream a reality for only $450USD per person (about 1800 Malaysian ringgit) – a fraction of the cost of organized tours. And you know what? It was so much better than I ever expected – I nearly spontaneously combusted with joy. (And so did my husband, a self-proclaimed “cheap bastard.”) Now I’m going to tell you how to build an inexpensive Borneo adventure-of-a-lifetime for yourself that might just make you squeal like a prepubescent girl at a One-D concert, too.
Borneo is a great choice for a safari because it’s one of only two places on earth where orangutans live wild and free. And there are also lots of other amazing animals to see in the forest: endangered proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants, sun bears, gibbons, adorable wide-eyed slow lorises, and hornbill birds, just to name a few. Plus, there are incredible rehabilitation centers where you can have close encounters with some of these special animals. And who doesn’t want to say to their friends: “So there I was, deep in the steamy jungles of Borneo…”
So let’s jump right in and explore it together! Here we go:
First Stop: Sandakan
The island of Borneo is split into two major chunks: the Malaysian side in the north, and Indonesia to the south. We chose to go to the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah, which has the highest concentration of wildlife reserves on the island. We flew into Sandakan, which is a quick, cheap flight from Kuala Lumpur, and the closest airport to some of the most pristine preserves. Flying from Penang on Malaysian Air, it cost us about $120USD round trip per person (488 ringgit). And bonus: the plane didn’t crash or go missing!
* Pro-tip: Get the heck out of Sandakan the minute you land. See the asterisk at the end of this post for the scary explanation behind this recommendation.
Next Stop: Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve
Just a 2.5 hour drive from the Sandakan airport is one of earth’s richest ecosystems: the Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve. It’s one of only two places on the planet where a whopping 10 primate species live, which makes it an even more remarkable place. The preserve is composed of lush, dense jungle, steamy rivers and mangrove swamps that are absolutely teeming with life. You’re guaranteed to see an incredible array of animals and rare birds on your safari, which is why we chose to go here. All tours are boat-based, which add to the magic. If you stay at one of the few resorts near the Reserve, the tour costs are usually included in the package. Ours was $287USD per person for a two night stay and three tours (more on that below in the “Where to Stay” section).
So there I was, deep in the steamy jungles of Borneo…
We set out at 7am for our first of three tours. Gliding through mysterious columns of mist rising from the river, we stopped beneath the outstretched branches of a tall tree beside the water. “What are we looking at?” asked my husband, John, squinting up into the canopy. And then all of a sudden, we saw them. No, not orangutans, but a huge troupe of about 40 proboscis monkeys, right in front of our faces. First there were ooohs and aaahs from all of us in the boat, which quickly turned to laughter as we watched their floppy noses comically flapping up and down when they chewed leaves. Don’t they look a little bit like old men with flat-tops?
Given that the population of proboscis monkeys has declined by 60% over the past four decades due to habitat loss, we felt duly awed being in the presence of such a large troupe of endangered animals. And amazingly, we’d see several more trees full of them on all our boat trips.
Continuing our tour, we cruised up narrow streams through dense tunnels of greenery studded with wild orchids. We passed a 12 foot-long crocodile sleeping on the muddy bank, a spider the size of my face, and a poisonous tree snake coiled in the branches just above our heads.
Emerging into a quiet lake, rhinoceros hornbills flapped overhead and rested on branches, staring down their curved banana-yellow beaks to check us out. What looked like a flying roll of Lifesavers drew our attention away from the sky. Just beside us, two rainbow-colored kingfishers took turns diving into the water to catch tiny baitfish.
Cruising ahead through minor tributaries, we spotted silver leaf monkeys flying from tree to tree. Macaques playfully bounced in riverside glens, their heads popping up just above the tops of tall, bright green grasses. And we searched the canopy for gibbons or orangutans, which had thus far remained hidden.
After three hours, as we were motoring back to our lodge, an odd rusty color in a tree on the other side of the river caught my eye. And then it moved.
“EEEEEEEEEE! ORANGUTAN!” I squealed and nearly fell into the crocodile-infested waters while ever-so-gracefully freaking out. No one else saw anything in the tree, but our patient guide swung the boat around and followed my pointing finger. As we approached, everyone gasped at once as the light of the rising sun suddenly created a perfect silhouette of an orangutan, her fur glowing in a coppery halo around her.
And then her adolescent child swung from a branch to join her. Time stood still as we listened to them grunting softly to each other, and watched them dangle from branches, reach out for each other, effortlessly swing from vines, and eventually melt into the jungle.
We let out the collective breath we were holding during this magical sighting. And then just about everyone else on the boat proclaimed in very high-pitched, excited voices: “OHMYGOD, we just saw orangutans!” 🙂
Over the next two days, we’d see some sights and animals that utterly blew our minds. The beauty of this preserve is so expansive, peaceful and mesmerizing that it’s impossible to capture – it’s something that must be experienced in person.
Where to Stay
We chose to stay at the Myne Resort because the location is incredible: right on the river, directly beside the Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve. And they are known for their top-notch tours. A three-day, two-night stay in a chalet, including meals, transfer to/from the airport and three guided safaris, cost us $287USD per person (1160 ringgit). Impressively affordable, right?
Note that Myne Resort is great for those who want to stay in the jungle and can handle a very rustic experience, but not so much for those of you who would lose it if a bat or two got tangled in your hair. Once night falls, there’s an absolute blitzkrieg of flying beetles, hand-sized moths and UFIs (Unidentified Flying Insects that are so big that they can easily be mistaken for UFOs). Every night, they dive-bombed us as we sprinted from the dining room to our chalets. But we were laughing as our arms flailed wildly around our heads while yelping “Akk! Get off me!” to beetles whose life-goal was to cling to our faces. And there were lizards the size of puppies in our room, which alarmed me at first, but once I saw them gleefully eating all the bugs we inadvertently let into our room, I stared naming them. “Good girl, Godzilla! No go eat Mothra.”
My husband and I and two of our friends could deal with it. But it was a bit too rough for another friend who was with us – after a bat flew into her head, she decided not to leave her room again.
If you really can’t handle such a rustic experience, you can always stay in a fancier place in Sepilok (like the Sepilok Nature Resort), and arrange day-trip tours to Kinabatangan Reserve. But since it’s about 2 hours away, you’re going to do a lot of driving.
Meet the Orangutans
If you want close-encounters with orangutans (eeeeeee!), try to allot one full day to visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which is just 30 minutes outside of Sandakan. (Admission: 30 ringgit, which is a little under $8USD. Plus 10 ringgit fee if you’d like to take photos). Yes, this is the same place that has its own show on Animal Planet called Meet the Orangutans, which I highly recommend you watch before going so you can get to know the Center’s furry stars before seeing them in person.
To animal lovers like me, this place is heaven on earth. The wonderful people here rehabilitate orphaned, injured and displaced orangutans and return them to the wild. During their twice-per-day platform feedings (at 10am and 3pm), you have the chance to get up close and personal with some of the graduates of the Center, and also wild orangutans visiting from the adjacent forest reserve. We were lucky enough to have several come right up and check us out – they are as entertained by us as we are by them. They’re also very gentle – even notoriously naughty Ceria was very polite when he tried to borrow my friend’s camera. You’ll also get to watch the rescued babies in the nursery being taught how to be orangutans, which will most definitely make you squeal with delight, too.
See the Sun Bears
The Orangutan Rehab Center shuts down in the middle of the day, which is the perfect time to head next door to the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre. (Admission: 31.80 ringgit, which is about $8USD). This wonderful organization rescues and rehabilitates these rare, endangered SE Asian bears, which you’ll pretty much have no chance of seeing in the wild since they’re very reclusive. And you’re in luck if it’s raining – they go absolutely bananas in downpours. When we were there and the rain started falling, they all woke up from their naps and sprinted up the trees, opened their mouths to catch raindrops like little kids and then happily splashed in the puddles. They’re so adorable that you just want to kiss them all…that is, until you see their gigantic claws. Like the orangutan and proboscis monkey, sun bears are on the verge of extinction due to habitat destruction and deforestation (damn palm oil plantations!), so it’s wonderful to support the work of this one-of-a-kind sanctuary, which is doing so much good work to help the species.
Walk Atop the Rainforest
Just down the road from the Orangutan Rehab Center and Borneo Sun Bear Sanctuary is the Rainforest Discovery Center, where you can hike on their elevated platforms to see how the forest looks from up high. (Admission: 15 ringgit, which is about $4USD). It’s pretty beautiful! But to be honest, when our friends were pointing out birds, I was like, “M’eh, unless you’re showing me an orangutan, what’s the point?” But occasionally, you can catch a glimpse of rusty-colored fur from up high, and you know what that means: Eeeeee!
I hope you have an amazing Borneo adventure, my friends!
* Okay, so about Sandakan… First of all, there’s not much to see – the city is about as charming as a dirty ashtray. But more important, there are serious safety risks around the waterfront and in the bordering sea. Terrorists from the nearby southern Philippine islands have kidnapped people for ransom and have beheaded them – two people were taken from Sandakan just a couple weeks before we got there. That would put a bit of a damper on a holiday, don’t ya think? The risk appears to be localized just to Sandakan’s waterfront and surrounding seas since the criminals rely on speedboats to make their getaways. Walking the streets, we saw lots of Malaysian military personnel, which was comforting, so hopefully the security risks will abate soon.