We decided to go to Borneo (Malaysia part) for a long weekend in October as there was a public holiday in Singapore. Friends of ours had gone there and told us about the Orangutan rehabilitation centre and turtle sanctuary so we decided to check it out.
On the way there we flew Air Asia Singapore → Kota Kinabalu → Sandakan. We took the last flight into Kota Kinabalu (2.5 hour flight) and the first flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan the next morning (50 min flight). We would recommend avoiding this if possible, as there’s nothing to do for one night in Kota Kinabalu. On the way back we flew Kota Kinabalu → Kuala Lumpur → Singapore with Malaysian Airlines and this was much better as the stopover in KL was just a couple of hours.
Upon landing in Sandakan we considered renting a motorbike to get to the hotel, to enable us to have freedom to drive around after but it turned out to be quite far away (about 45mins drive). The bike rental place in the airport offered to rent us a car for a couple of dollars a day, even though we didn’t have our driver’s licenses on us (they really don’t care there), but we didn’t want to risk being caught without a license so we took a taxi. We ended up getting taxis everywhere in Sandakan as they weren’t very expensive.
We stayed at Sepilok Nature Resort (~40 USD per night), which is right next door to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. The hotel was in the middle of the nature, with a restaurant and lounge bar/cafe overlooking a small lake (where snakes and water monitors reside) and gardens. The rooms are in individual chalets with floor to ceiling windows that give you a view of the lake / vegetation. The homemade pizzas (with interesting options, such as pumpkin crust pizza) were delicious and felt like a godsent after a long day.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
The Orangutan Rehab Centre was by far the most touristy of all the centres/sanctuaries. There are two feeding times per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon and we went to the morning one. Before you enter the rehab centre they play you a video about how they care for the Orangutans and their rehabilitation efforts to eventually try to release them back into the wild. However, we were disappointed to find that the video avoids mentioning the reason why they are there in the first place; their natural habitats being destroyed by deforestation from the palm oil industry. We were told by a volunteer of the Sun Bear Conservation Centre (an independent centre) that this is not mentioned as the Orangutan Centre is government-owned and it is in their interest to not portray the palm oil industry in a bad light.
The entrance fee for the Orangutan centre is approximately 7 USD, with an additional 2 USD camera fee (you can use your phone camera at no extra cost … and it’s not very difficult to sneak in a real camera under your shirt). All bags have to be stored inside their lockers. The feeding station is a few meters away from edge of the guest viewing platform, so if it’s a busy time it’s good to get there a bit earlier to get a good spot.
There were about 5 orangutans feeding when we went and two that came to the viewing platform to see the tourists. One was a large male that has a reputation of being a naughty trouble-maker. He was sitting on the roof of the platform trying to catch eyes with someone, and eventually jumped on a man and started to pull his pants down. It was funny to watch from afar but everyone did get quite scared of him and quickly ran away as he approached them. We were told by the staff that he had a reputation of jumping on redheads and attempting to mate with them …
After the feeding, tourists are directed to the nursery where baby orangutans are kept in a safe outdoor space and play with each other until they’re mature enough to be released to wider rehab forest area with the adults. This part is like going to the zoo – you sit in an air conditioned room and look at the babies through a glass window.
The best part of this visit for us was when we decided to leave the nursery before the others and explore the rest of the centre alone. We came across an orangutan in a pond, moving logs around, drinking and climbing up trees. It was amazing to observe him in his natural habitat like this, and much more interesting than the feeding platform as that is not a very natural behaviour. If you go there, we really recommend you go off alone to explore the park.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
The Bornean Sun Bear Centre (7 USD entry fee) was much less busy and was run in a way that we much preferred – fewer rules and tourist attractions and more of a focus on educating guests and letting the bears live in a way as close to normal as possible. We saw about 6 bears.
This centre shares the same grounds as the Orangutan Rehab Centre (they’re right next door to each other), and whilst we were there the trouble-maker we had previously encountered in the Orangutan centre has climbed across trees and buildings to check out the tourists visiting the sun bears. The staff was on high alert and trying to escort us away from him but he managed to target a redhead girl and chased her around trying to jump on her. If you visit this area try not to wear red and maybe wear a hat if you have red hair or you might risk being the target of this trouble-maker 😉
Turtle Park Island
The next morning we went to the port to get the 9:30am boat to Turtle Park Island, a private island that runs a sea turtle conservation programme, where we would spend the day and night. We booked this stay through Crystal Quest, which is the cheapest booking option (and also the least convenient). We booked this overnight stay months in advance, and we recommend you also book ahead of time, as they have very limited space on the island and you may not get your desired day if you don’t book well ahead of time. Moreover, if you are booking via Crystal Quest you have to do this via back and forth email communication and they can be very slow at replying (leave a comment if you would like us to provide you with their email address).
We paid 140 USD for two people, which includes accommodation (very basic), two-way boat transfer, and 3 meals (if booked through a travel agent you will pay in excess of 150 USD per person). There was an additional charge of 30 USD (for two people) for the conservation fee and camera fee, which goes to Sabah Parks. The boat ride to turtle island takes about 1 hour, and we were really sad to see the amount of trash in the ocean, as sea turtles, and other marine life, suffer and die from ingesting plastic (confused for jellyfish) and other trash.
We spent the day on the beach at turtle island (there’s nothing else to do), soaking up the sun (make sure to bring suncream as the sun is very strong there) and snorkelling. In the evening we had dinner (nothing special but edible and with veggie options) then and sat around the dining hall waiting for the turtles to arrive (this took about 2 hours … we had brought playing cards and spent time talking to other guest, most of which were in their 20s and from Europe).
We walked across the beach, past numerous turtles laying their eggs, with the guide to watch one turtle lay her eggs. The park rangers select one turtle to show the guests the laying process, to disturb as few turtles as possible. We watched this for an hour and she laid a total of about 25 eggs, each of which was collected by the rangers to bring to the hatcheries for the conservation project.
We then proceeded to the hatcheries where the ranger explained how the eggs are buried, protected and marked. The soil temperature affects the sex of the turtles, so half the eggs are kept in a shaded hatchery and the other half not. The ranger brought a bucket of baby sea turtles that had just hatched and we went to the beach to release them into the sea. This was one of the most amazing experiences – to watch about 50 baby turtles run to the water (we sometimes needed to steer them into the right direction). The next morning, during breakfast, the staff announced the total number of eggs that were hatched the night before. We then returned back to Sandakan via boat, arriving there at 8am.
In the evening, went for a 3 hour boat ride on Kinabatangan River, the second longest river in Malaysia. This turned out to be amazing as we saw a wild orangutan mother with her baby swinging from the trees near the river. Our boat driver said he hadn’t seen one in over 6 months, which is really sad to hear as he does this daily, twice a day.
We also saw crocodiles, proboscis monkeys, pig tailed macaques, long tailed macaques and hornbills. Other people have seen pygmy elephants along this river, but unfortunately we didn’t. However, it was still amazing. We were the only ones on the river, we got to enjoy the sunset there and the boat crew were really fun!
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
To end the trip we decided to go to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. We were a little hesitant about doing this as it’s quite far away from Sepilok and we had seen some in the wild during the river ride, but we ended being happy we went. The entry fee was only about 2 USD, and we didn’t go during the feeding time the sanctuary was empty, there was just us and another couple – a completely different experience to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
We saw 50+ monkeys, usually in family groups. These monkeys (indigenous to Borneo) are the strangest looking animals we’ve ever seen with their long droopy noses, and make very strange noises! It was highly entertaining to watch them and they were not scared of us (but, unlike the Orangutans, did not seem to want to jump on us)!