Due to the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), we think that it is more important than ever to experience the world–our similarities, our differences, our dependence on each other. We hope that you enjoy this taste of another part of the world–a Borneo Orangutan Tour. We are not recommending that you travel to Borneo and that you follow the guidance from your local health departments.
A Borneo Orangutan Tour was one of our dream destinations. We wanted to see orangutans in the wild. Endangered due to deforestation and human activity, they are only found in the rainforest of Borneo and Sumatra. Picture hot, humid, and wet. Snakes and leeches.
Trekking for hours and possibly seeing them … or not.
Reggie is deathly afraid of snakes and neither one of us was too excited about the leeches.
Some people just go to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center. That was not going to cut it for us.
What to do? Give up? Buy leech socks and trek into the jungle anyway?
Finally, Reggie found a solution. A river cruise on the Kinabatangan River. We would see the orangutans from the water. And, pygmy elephants (also endangered), proboscis monkeys, hornbills, and crocodiles. The Borneo Big Five. Was this too good to be true?
Will We Get To See Orangutans?
As with any wildlife trip, seeing orangutans in the wild is never guaranteed. On our first day, we didn’t see any. The second day, we kept hoping. Nothing. Morning of the third day. None. We started to worry.
Then in the afternoon, one of the people in our group saw one right outside of her cabin. We wandered around, looking up at the tops of the trees.
At least we didn’t trip and fall since we were always looking skyward. Maybe we would have to settle for just seeing them at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre.
Perhaps we would be like Sue’s mother when she went on safari in India to see the tigers but never saw one. Or, the people that we met in Norway who spent five days searching for the northern lights only to be disappointed.
We had one day left. Only one more chance. Our guide told us that it was hard to find orangutans from a boat.
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Then, on our last morning cruise, it happened. An orangutan up in the trees eating. It paid us no mind. Languidly moving around the tree branches. It could have won an Olympic medal in gymnastics.
We were the only boat there. We watched for about 30 minutes, then left and came back to watch some more. It was so much fun seeing this beautiful and amazingly flexible animal climb the trees, go into gravity-defying positions to reach the fruit to eat, and just go about life.
We were delighted to have the experience in a way that did not disturb the orangutan.
When it rains it pours. We saw another orangutan the next day as we were leaving the lodge to go back to Kota Kinabalu. Looking skyward finally paid off.
Borneo River Safari Trip Overview
We had about 2 weeks left in Singapore before returning to the U.S. It was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and we wanted to slip in a last regional trip. Originally, we planned on going to Myanmar but decided Borneo might be safer due to COVID. We booked a 4 day/3 night stay at an ecolodge on the Kinabatangan River.
The centerpiece of our trip was in the jungle, but we also spent a few days in Kota Kinabalu and saw some of the sights in Sandakan.
Sandakan The Gateway to the Kinabatangan River
Sandakan is the gateway to the Kinabatangan River. Most people arrive on an early morning flight, go to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and then proceed onward to their lodge or jungle trek.
Stop By The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
Our adventure started in Sandakan, a short 45 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu. There, we met up with the tour guide and immediately drove to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Sepilok rehabilitates orphaned orangutans and habituates them back to the wild.
Sepilok wasn’t high on our list for visiting, but it came with the tour. It ended up being more interesting than we anticipated. Within a few steps, we caught our first glimpses of orangutans high up in the trees, hanging and swinging from branch to branch. We also saw two millipedes mating, an unusual sighting, and a 12 foot long bright yellow/green snake (you can’t go to Borneo without seeing at least one snake).
In the nursery, we saw female orangutans with their young. We sat there for a while watching the interactions. Then, we went on to the feeding stations where we saw a few orangutans.
See the Sun Bears at the Bornean Sun Bear Centre
A short walk took us to the Bornean Sun Bear Centre which rescues and rehabilitates sun bears. Only found in Asia, sun bears are endangered by deforestation and other environmental destruction. We enjoyed seeing them in their natural environment.
After that, it was on to the main event.
Take A Speedboat Up Kinabatangan River
We went to the marina and hopped on the speed boat that would take us up the river to our eco-lodge. After speeding across Sandakan Bay, we entered the Kinabatangan River and the adventure began. We saw the first of the Borneo Big Five—crocodiles—on our way to the lodge. The ride was long and bumpy but beautiful.
Kinabatangan River Borneo Orangutan Tour
Upon arrival at the lodge, we had tea and then took off on our first cruise. We were rewarded with the opportunity to see the endangered Borneo Pygmy elephants along the shore. We sat quietly, watching them eat through the forest. They made quite a racket.
We watched monkeys high up in the trees jumping from branch to branch. We never tired of watching the acrobatics—though sometimes we were scared they would fall. And, the interaction between the younger monkeys and the dominant males was very interesting to observe.
See Kelenanap Oxbow Lake
The next day, we rose before the break of dawn for the morning cruise. The sun rising over the calm waters was breathtaking as we cruised towards the Kelenanap Oxbow Lake. On this morning cruise, we saw proboscis monkeys up in the trees while their cousins, the long tail macaques, played on the sand. We also learned to recognize which type of hornbills were flying above us. There were Black and Red hornbills, Asian black hornbills, and oriental pied (bluebelly) hornbills.
More Elephants on the Kinabatangan River
Word got out that the elephants were by the river again, so we took off on the boats to find them. When we arrived, there were lots of boats in the same place. Our lodge had eco-friendly electric boats but many of the other lodges had gasoline powered boats. In addition to not being good for the environment, they were noisier and smelled. We enjoyed watching the herd eating and plowing through the forest but it wasn’t as peaceful as the night before.
Danger During the Night River Safari
After dinner, there was an optional night safari for those who wanted to discover what nocturnal creatures would be out there along the river. We spotted beautiful, tiny kingfishers resting on low hanging branches by the river’s edge. On the way back to the lodge, we literally ran into a lone elephant making its way across the river. It was impossible to see at first and the boat almost tipped over when we hit it. It was scary for the elephant and us.
More To Do In Sandakan
See Bats Fly Out of Gomantong Cave
Almost every itinerary that we saw included a trip to Gomantong Cave to see the bats flying out. The cave is caked with guano (bat feces) and there are locals that harvest it. There are also lots of large millipedes and other insects. On the day we were there, it rained and the bats stayed inside. We weren’t too impressed with the cave. Many people take a trip to the cave from Sandakan.
Visit the Rainforest Discovery Center
We arrived at the Rainforest Discovery Center in the afternoon, climbed the observation tower and took a canopy walk. It is a beautiful place. There wasn’t much action in the middle of the afternoon. We would advise going in the early morning or evening.
Pay Respects at Sandakan Memorial Park
Sandakan Memorial Park is definitely worth a stop. It is a memorial to the thousands of Australian, British, and other allied Prisoners of War (POWs) that died during the Japanese occupation during World War II. Of the 3,000+ POWs held at the camp, all perished during forced death marches, torture and captivity. Only 6 escaped and they were the only POWs to survive. The memorial tells their stories.
So You Want To Go To Borneo
Where can you see orangutans?
There are only two places in the world to see orangutans in their natural habitat: the northern part of Sumatra in Indonesia or throughout the island of Borneo. Either way, you have to make your way into the jungle.
Is Borneo a country?
Borneo is an island divided into three countries—Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. The Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak (also called East Malaysia) make up part of the island. The area called Kalimantan is part of Indonesia and the small country of Brunei makes up the rest.
We decided to spend a few days in Kota Kinabalu before going on to the Sukau Rain Forest Lodge for our 4 day/3 night river safari. We paid to take the 2.5-hour speed boat. The other option was a 2-hour bus ride and then a short boat ride to the lodge.
Where is the Kinabatangan River?
The 350 miles (560 KM) long Kinabatangan River is one of Borneo’s most important waterways and is home to magnificent wildlife. It is a more straightforward trip with fewer connections than going to Kalimantan to see the orangutans.
Choosing An Eco-Lodge In Borneo
We would only recommend going to Borneo with an eco-lodge or tour group. Climate change, palm oil plantations, tourism, and deforestation are the biggest dangers to the biodiversity of Borneo. If you are going to go, then explore an ecologically safer way to go. Support the local economy by using local tour groups. Find out about sustainable practices at your lodge.
Sukau Rain Forest Lodge
While there were a few eco-lodges along the Kinabatangan River, we were impressed with Borneo Eco Tours and Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Sukau is one of 24 unique luxury lodges curated by National Geographic for “its intimate experience, its dedication to protecting its habitats, its commitment to the local culture and community.” We chose the lodge for its environment and sustainability practices. The Lodge had hybrid electric/gas boats. The team collects and recycles rainwater while using solar heaters for the showers. Water containers provide drinking water. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own refillable bottles as the lodge is moving towards a single-use plastic policy.
Our Borneo villa had a private balcony that enabled us to meet and greet visitors from the rainforest. Each boat sat 12 people and had a driver who also served as a guide. Life vests are provided and required to be worn while in the boat. At the time of our visit, the Lodge was undergoing a major renovation. Sukau has a pool and other amenities. The Lodge offers 2 cruises every day and an optional night cruise (for an additional cost). The Sukau Rainforest Lodge has 2 accessible villas with boardwalks connecting all villas and facilities. The boats are not easily accessible by wheelchair.
Dining at Sukau
A buffet dinner was served by candlelight next to the river. Local dishes included chicken, fish, rice, vegetables and dessert with coffee and tea. Liquor and soft drinks were additional. One night there was a slide show presentation by the guide naturalist on the history of the lodge and the biodiversity of the area.
We flew from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu and then connected on a domestic flight to Sandakan, the gateway to the Kinabatangan River. From Sandakan, you will need to take a 2.5 hour boat ride up the river to your accommodation. You can also take a bus through the jungle and then a short boat ride to the lodge.
Is Borneo Safe for LGBTQ+?
Malaysia has strict laws against LGBTQ people. Punishment can be up to 20 years in prison and include caning. Islam is the official religion and Shariah law can be enforced. In addition, there are anti-trans laws on the local level. That said, we didn’t have any problems while in the country and there were LGBTQ+ couples on our tours. Public displays of affection are not recommended.
7 Tips for Going to Sabah Borneo
1. We highly recommend going to Borneo. It is an adventure. You can either trek through the jungle or do the river cruise as we did. There are itineraries and lodges for all budgets.
2. Given the importance of preserving the environment, an ecolodge is the only way we recommend traveling to Borneo. The gas-powered boats that some of the other lodges use are noisy, smelly, pollute the environment and disturb the wildlife.
3. Consider a 4 days/3 night trip. It gives the most possibility of seeing orangutans and other animals. We would not have seen the orangutan if we had left after the 3rd day.
4. There are day cruises from Sandakan, but highly unlikely that you will see orangutans.
5. Borneo is great for family travel, including families with young children.
6. Make sure to have all that you need for your stay (personal items, SD cards, batteries)—there is very limited ability to buy anything that you have forgotten.
7. Consider spending a day in Sandakan. If you do, go to the Rainforest Discovery Center in the early morning or afternoon. There are also some evening possibilities. You will also have time to see Sandakan Memorial Park, Sam Sing Kung Temple, Bulu Sim Sim Water Village, and the Heritage Trail.
Is Borneo on Your Bucket List? Leave a Comment.
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