While other regions of Sabah are known more for beautiful beaches or mountain trekking, Sandakan is known for its jungle trekking and rain forest-related activities. Visiting Borneo, we wanted to strike a balance between beach and jungle, so it became apparent early on that the Sandakan region (particularly Sepilok and the Kinabatangan River) would factor heavily into our trip.
After a bit of research and many back-and-forth emails with shortlisted jungle lodges, I booked a three-day, two-night all-inclusive jungle package through Sukau Greenview B&B, which we were very pleased with—more details on Sukau in the next post.
Sukau is located a two-hour drive from Sandakan Town, on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. However, we made sure our package incorporated a stop along the way in the small community of Sepilok to visit the world-renowned orangutan reserve and rehab center there. Door-to-door transport was the main reason for incorporating the stop into the package (rather than doing it on our own), but turns out, we got our own very knowledgable English-speaking guide for the morning as well, who accompanied us from our hostel (with private car and driver).
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre has become a must-do for visitors to Sabah. And it’s easy to see why—there’s literally no other place quite like it on Earth. Borneo is the native home of perhaps the most humanlike of all the great apes: the orangutan. And in fact for centuries, people living on Borneo considered these primates akin to humans, giving them the name “orangutan” or man of the jungle.
But gone are the days when orangutans ruled the jungles of Borneo. Poaching, illegal pet trade, and habitat destruction over the past century have decimated their populations. While the Sabah government has set aside large rain forest reserves for orangutan and other species, it was clear by the 1960s that more needed to be done to rehabilitate rescued orangutans—enter the Sepilok rehab centre. The center is located on the edge of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve—10,000 acres of virgin rainforest and native habitat to the orangutan. The orangutans are free to roam throughout the reserve.
The Sepilok center takes in rescued orangutans with the intent of rehabilitating them to the point where they can be released into the Reserve. While many have successfully been released into the reserve and are able to be fully self-sufficient in the wild, some return to the centre to feed for the rest of their lives.
The center is divided into two main parts—the feeding stations (connected via a series of wooden catwalks) and the nursery.
As its name suggests, the Nursery is where younger orangutans come to feed, which can be viewed during feeding times from large rooms behind glass with stadium seating. Our guide took us to the Nursery first, as it has a tendency to fill up as the morning continues.
Afterwards, it was into primary (virgin) rainforest to see if we could find any orangutan. Most of the crowds of visitors were concentrated around the feeding platforms, but if you were lucky (and/or had a good guide) you could find other orangutan away from the masses.
You’re not allowed to bring anything except for a camera and sunglasses with you into the feeding areas, as the orangutan are known for grabbing and running off with things. They provide lockers near the ticket office for storing the rest of your stuff.
We knew we couldn’t bring any water or snacks into the reserve, but in hindsight, wished we had tried to sneak in Noe’s wubanub (monkey pacifier thing). We had hoped that the sheer excitement of seeing the real-life “monkeys” would override any needed for Noe’s prized lovey.
But Noe was in rare form this particular morning—we think it might have been a combination of the excitement, the crowds (which he’s not used to in Laos—and oddly, which I have no photos of), all the aggressive attention he received, and of course, the sweltering heat, that contributed to his moodiness.
Consequently, it did not turn out to be the experience we hoped for. Noe just wasn’t into the orangutans as much as we thought he might be (though we were pretty excited!) and was in full-terrible-twos mode, even having a major meltdown right on the path in a quiet area surrounded by a large group of visitors. Good times.
All made worse by the knowledge that all of this could have been avoided by smuggling his damn monkey in.
Still, Lori and I felt we got our money’s worth, seeing more orangutans than we could shake a banana at. We left the center feeling largely satisfied because of this, and were relieved when we were finally able to access Noe’s snacks, water, and monkey, ensuring an enjoyable remainder of the morning for all.
BUT WAIT!!! YOU FORGOT TO MENTION THE PART ABOUT GETTING CHASED BY AN APE???
Um, no. No, I did not. That actually came AFTER we left the orangutan center…
Next to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre, a newer conservation center has opened up for the world’s smallest bear: The Malayan Sun Bear.
…also perhaps the world’s laziest bear.
Visitors walk through the conservation center via a series of elevated platforms through and around the bears’ habitat. You can view the bears with your own eyes, or, with the assistance of monoculars set up at key points by staff.
Maybe it was his monkey, maybe it was the smaller crowds, but Noe seemed to enjoy his time at the Sun Bear center far more than the orangutan center (though he appears to be merely survivin’ in these photos).
Unlike the Orangutan center, there were few restrictions on what you could bring in to the Sun Bear center (so Noe got his monkey, and we got some peace)—though, in hindsight, maybe there should have been, as you’ll soon discover.
Through the looking glass… (Lori’s idea to take a pic)
One of the first things we learned when we entered the center was that the two centers are connected, meaning orangutan are free to roam amongst the Sun Bears, and visitors will occasionally spot an orangutan in the trees if they are lucky.
With this in the back of our minds, we set off to see what we could see from the safety of our catwalk high above the ground.
At one point, we notice one of the sun bears is actually moving around in a tree, high above. Lori and Noe look through one of the monoculars to get a better view, as a large tour group files between me and Lori and Noe.
I take a few steps backward to let the group go by, when suddenly a flurry of excitement erupts from a half dozen in the group. Wow, that must be some sun bear, I thought, as I turn to my left to see what they are pointing at. I look up, expecting to see a bear, high up in a tree, but see nothing. Okay, weird.
Then, as I lower my head, I’m greeted by this about five feet in front me, just on the other side of the railing…
Oh, hello there.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I should back away slowly, run, or enjoy the close encounter and snap a few photos. One of the senior staff (who was leading the group) happened to be standing a few meters away and reassured everyone that there was no need to worry—that this particular orangutan was shy, but obviously a bit curious—just don’t get too close.
Honestly, what was going through my mind at this particular moment was the irony of paying what we did in the orangutan center to see the orangutans from afar and actually getting a much closer encounter at the sun bear center!
Then, things got even more interesting, as she started showing off for us, swinging around and posing, all the while maintaining that Mona Lisa face that’s impossible to read—content in her natural habitat? Angry as hell? It was impossible to tell.
She did this for a few minutes as the crowd gathered around and watched in awe, taking it all in. Then, the orangutan decided to surprise everyone—including the staff member.
Just as I was getting strangely comfortable with having an orangutan just a few feet away, she began to move closer to the pathway. The senior staff member’s tone changed dramatically at this point and he was now yelling stern warnings:
“Everybody, get back! Do not approach her. Orangutans can be very dangerous! One of our staff recently was badly bitten, so this is no joke! This is a wild animal, so please stay clear but remain calm!”
Then, sh*t got real.
The orangutan quickly flung herself through the top of the railing, cutting me and the other guy off from Lori, Noe, the staff member and the group—and proceeded to run directly toward the two of us!
The staff member yelled, “Run! Run!”
I agreed with the staff member’s assessment and subsequent advice and did just that…RAN.
I got to the end of the walkway, where the jungle meets the path before looking back and noticing she’d decided to take a breather.
Taking a look around at my surroundings, it seemed I’d found myself cornered on an enclosed pathway between the jungle and a wild ape.
My one consolation was that the other guy in the same predicament was closer.
If she did attack, surely she’d go for him first.
But, she didn’t. She actually seemed quite content to lounge for a while—and lounge she did, for a LONG while.
After several minutes, the crowd got bored and moved on to other things. Even Lori and Noe moved on, resuming their sun bear viewing.
Several more minutes passed and I started to wonder if my new “friend” would ever move. I knew I couldn’t chance going around her, so that wasn’t an option.
I had seen a side path behind me leading off into the jungle but didn’t know where it went or if it was open to the public. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the orangutan to move on, I finally realized taking the mystery path was my only way out of here if we were to make it back to the cafeteria by lunch time.
So, I followed the winding path into the jungle, and…
…it spit me out near the front entrance.
After another ten minutes of making my way back up and around to the viewing platform, I finally rejoined my party.
Me: “Look! I made it!”
Lori: “Oh, hi honey. Glad you’re back! Noe’s really enjoying the sun bears. We got a really good view of one. Here, look through the viewer.”
Me: “I was almost mauled by a wild ape.”
Lori: “We saw! I got a good photo!”
Me: “I had to make my way down a side trail through the jungle and walk around the center to the front, then back here.”
Lori: “We were wondering how you made it back. It’s heating up. I think we’re about ready to get some food.”
And, with that, it was lunch time…promptly followed by nap time for the Mister…
Off to our jungle lodge on the banks of the Kinabatangan!