The Best Place to See Wild Orangutans: How and Where

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Most people are completely unaware of just how accessible and affordable it is to view wild orangutans. I’ve seen them many times so I thought it was about time I wrote about the best place to see wild orangutans. It’s so easy.

The easiest and cheapest place to see wild orangutans is in Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Visit during the fruiting seasons of December, January, and August and you are virtually guaranteed to see wild orangutans, on an easy day hike.

This is a comprehensive guide so you can visit the park and see wild orangutans independently. You will learn how to get there, where to stay, and the various trekking options. From day hikes to multi-day camping trips, I’ve got it covered.

Let me begin by clearing up any misunderstandings. This post shows you how to find and photograph truly wild orangutans in their natural habitat.

I’m not writing about orangutan orphanages and rehabilitation centers. Nor am I promoting an orangutan tour, an expensive luxury lodge, or an outrageously overpriced reserve.

I’m going to show you where and how to see wild orangutans, stay in local guest houses, with local people, and use local tour guides. You can do it all yourself. Follow my lead step-by-step.

OK let’s start

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Seeing Wild Orangutans in Sumatra

I have spent many months in Gunung Leuser National Park over the last few years and I have become very attached to the forest and the people that live there. It’s no coincidence that Gunung Leuser NP also happens to be the best place in the world to see wild orangutans.

This is my unedited forest encounter with wild orangutans.

That’s a strong statement, how can I be so sure, and how do I know? Well for one thing I’ve visited most places where I can hope to find wild orangutans multiple times, and it is in no way a guarantee that you will see a wild orangutan.

What you will see are orphaned, rehabilitated, and semi-wild orangutans. Fine, if all you want is to see an orangutan, but in all honesty some of these experiences are only marginally better than visiting a zoo.

Why Visit Gunung Leuser National Park?

Why is Gunung Leuser NP so special?

Gunung Leuser NP is unique. It’s the last stronghold of the Sumatran orangutan and the only place in the world where wild orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos can all be found in the same forest.

Gunung Leuser National Park is the last great rainforest in Northern Sumatra. It’s a true wilderness that runs along the mountain spine of Aceh province. The rugged interior remains for the most part inaccessible.

Only the most determined expeditions venture far inland and much remains unexplored even to this day.

Not only is Gunung Leuser vital for Sumatran Orangutan conservation, but it’s also a critical refuge for Sumatran tigers and Sumatran elephants too.

Sumatran rhinos still occur in isolated pockets but in tiny numbers. No one is sure quite how many remain, but we are talking small numbers, in the 10s not even 100s. There is still hope but time is ticking.

Realistically you will not see any signs of a rhino, you might be very lucky and see an elephant if you go looking for them deeper into the jungle, and you might see signs of a Sumatran tiger.

There is a very good chance of seeing truly wild orangutans up close.

Gunung Leuser NP should be firmly on the tourist map, yet few people venture beyond the so-called rehabilitation center at Bukit Lawang.

To see wild orangutans in a primary forest without any crowds, the people that know head for Ketambe.

Ketambe, The Base For Seeing Wild Orangutans

The village of Ketambe spreads along a road that slices the park in two and is situated next to the last forest corridor linking both sides of the park.

The encroachment and habitat loss is heartbreaking but within this last link lies one of nature’s gems.

Wild orangutans. Baby orangutan in Gurah forest, Ketambe, Gunung Leuser National Park
A baby orangutan in Gurah Forest, Ketambe

This is Gurah forest, a section of magnificent community forest within the park boundaries and it’s full of life.

If you plan your visit during the fruiting seasons of Dec, Jan, and August and don’t see Orangutans then you aren’t looking up!

And considering this is one of the easiest and possibly best places to see 100% wild orangutans on the planet, it’s yours for next to nothing.

To put things into context…

If you want to see the other great apes expect to pay a small fortune. To see wild mountain gorillas, cough up $700 in Uganda and wait for it, $1500 in Rwanda for a one-hour permit! A Chimp encounter will cost $200 in Uganda and $100 in Tanzania.

These prices are beyond the reach for most people and don’t forget, you still have to get there in the first place and pay for visas and accommodation.

I’ve done all these things, thankfully before the prices went ballistic, and I can assure you that watching wild orangutans is just as good.

The wild Sumatran orangutans of Ketambe are yours for about $20 and that’s your guide fee. You’ll pay about $15 -$20 for accommodation. I have never been asked to pay the Park fee in all the time I’ve spent there. The entrance fee is officially set at Rp150,000 ($11) per day.

I’ve seen orangutans so many times just sitting on my veranda in my favorite lodging, and seen them many times from the side of the road. If a tree is in fruit an orangutan will be there. Wait around and it’s all yours, for free.

Hiking Into The Gurah Forest to Find Wild Orangutans

You can access Gurah forest on a guided day hike and your chances of seeing an orangutan are very high. Your chances are even better if you camp for a night or two in the forest.

Everyone goes to the same area. The campsite next to the river, and Gurah hot springs, further along.

Orangutan hotspot. Gurah hot springs near Ketambe Gunung Leuser national park
Gurah hot springs after some rain

Don’t dismiss this camping option. It’s beautiful.

This rainforest has everything you’ve ever imagined. Giant trees, mountain streams, and natural springs for a steamy jungle bath.

Google earth  revealing the deforestation around Gurah in Gunung Leuser National Park
Gurah Forest: Note the extreme deforestation either side.

Monkeys will pass by, hornbills will beat their wings overhead and orangutans will make the occasional deadpan appearance.

If you visit in the low season, you’ll have the camping almost to yourself but it’s also the best time to see orangutans. If a tree is in fruit there will be plenty of action.

Now if you want some real adventure and want to go further into the forest, this is your chance to go beyond your comfort zone.

Mount Leuser at over 3000m is yours to bag if you are up for the challenge. If not then a jungle trek partway is possible. The open country at Camp Padang Rumput, along the Pepanyi Ridge, is your best chance (if negligible) of actually spotting a tiger.

I’ve trekked deeper into the forest myself on a couple of occasions. Once to a tannin-black lake called Danau Marpunge and once to the Kapi Plateau, a flatter area and home to tigers and especially elephants.

Marpunge Lake, a Sublime Setting to See Wild Orangutans

The lake is simply stunning. It’s a black pearl surrounded by thick forest. After such a grueling trek, the sight of that cool still water was irresistible. I swam out to the middle and took in the amazing scenery.

In search of orangutans in Sumatra. Tommy photographing Marpunge lake in Gunung Leuser National park
Early morning mist over Marpunge Lake

Our campsite was on the lakeside and we got up at dawn to watch the mist rising in the morning light. It was hard work getting there but boy, this was our reward.

NB: Incidentally it was only much later that I was told that a giant python lives at that lake which might have influenced my decision to swim out so far!

Our route back was less demanding and took us through some magical forest with twisting jungle streams where we camped on the open banks.

Our guide remembered seeing some rafflesia once before and we were in luck. We came across a bunch and one was in full bloom.

Discovering a new Rafflesia in bloom in Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra
Rafflesia in bloom

My trekking buddies were over-the-moon and spent some time taking photos from every angle. After sending the images to researchers in Bogor Botanical Gardens for identification, it later transpired that we may have stumbled upon an undescribed species.

After 7 days of toil, we returned to Gurah hot springs for a well-deserved steam bath.

Trekking The Kapi Plateau to Find Orangutans and Elephants

The following year we hiked to the Kapi plateau, a beautiful area with easy hiking crisscrossed by clear jungle streams

The best place to see wild orangutans. Rainforest in Kapi plateau, Gunung Leuser National Park
Sunbeams in Kapi forest

In some places, the forest was particularly beautiful and we walked under a forest canopy of giant trees.

Signs of elephants could be seen everywhere and consequently, we had to be vigilant. Forget about tigers, it’s elephants that you have to worry about. Only the year before a fisherman had been killed in this area.

Our destination in Kapi was the sulfur springs area called Cempegu. This is a large natural fumarole with loose ashen rocks, cold bubbling springs, patches of struggling greenery, and blackened tree stumps.

The area is ringed by forest and is perfect for wildlife watching. We saw the big black siamang gibbons, pouched hornbills, and a low-flying eagle passed by.

For once the birdlife was plentiful. Anyone familiar with Indonesia knows that bird trapping is a national obsession so it was a pleasure to see so many wild birds.

And the icing on the cake?

Tiger Poo!

You won’t see a Sumatran tiger but you can in India: Where to See Tigers in the Wild: 9 Best Places in 2023

We found one pugmark which I was skeptical about at first but only a few meters away we came across a tiger scat (poo) which was conclusive. Great news.

Wild sumatran Tiger droppings found in the Kapi Plateau. Gunung Leuser National Park
Genuine wild tiger poo

We made camp that night at the forest edge

In stark contrast to the arduous hike to Marpunge Lake, Kapi was a relative breeze. The only climb was on the first day as we accessed the plateau from the nearest trailhead.

We camped at the side of rivers, on picturesque grassy banks. And our guides took great pleasure in fishing for supper.

The guides relaxing at camp with a spot of fishing in Gunung Leuser National Park
Our guides fishing in Kapi, Gunung Leuser

We had three trekkers in our party with three porters/guides to help. Luckily we managed to hire a guy called Madan who has the eyes of a hawk and is one of the best guides in Ketambe.

Everyone was friendly and super hard-working. The guides carried all the food and camping gear. They did the cooking and set up camp. At times I was embarrassed to be so passive.

Walking was at a measured pace and we hiked about 4 hours a day.

This doesn’t sound much but the forest is a tough environment. The packs were heavy, the trails were muddy and sweat pours off your back.

Besides who wants to look at your feet all day. The whole point is to appreciate your surroundings and find stuff.

Exploring orangutan habitat. Campsite at Kapi fumerole. Gunung Leuser National Park
Our campsite at Kapi Fumarole

Returning back down we had our best sighting of a female orangutan and her very young baby.

If you think they are passive gentle souls you haven’t had an orangutan throw branches at you.

I didn’t blame her, she was rightly agitated. It’s a sad fact that humans represent a real danger.

Approximate Costs For Orangutan Trekking

We paid about the same for both treks. It worked out at about Rp 300,000 per day per person not including tips. Using the exchange rates at the time, it’s about $30 a day. That was pre-pandemic. Expect to pay slightly more now.

NB: Please factor in tips for the guides. They are not overpaid for their services and rely on the extra money to make it worthwhile.

Each trekker tipped each guide Rp 100,000. So they had an extra Rp 300,000 each at the end.

One of our party then added a little more privately because he needed some extra help during the walk.

The guides were happy and so were we.

Day hikes are good and cost around Rp 300,000 for the day. If you stay in Gurah, Pak Mus will happily take you out and his English is very good.

My young guides in Ketambe on a day walk aroung Gurah forest.
Are the guides getting smaller or are the flowers getting bigger? (Amorphophallus Gigas)

Where to Stay in Ketambe Village (Orangutan Trekking Base)

There are numerous places to stay along the approach road and you will receive a warm welcome anywhere.

Leuser Ketambe Guest house an restaurant. Gurah. Ketambe. Gunung Leuser National Park
Leuser Ketambe Guest House, the main restaurant

There are presently three stand-out options in my opinion:

  • Leuser Ketambe Guesthouse
  • Thousand Hills Guesthouse
  • Friendship Guesthouse

Your first choice should be Leuser Ketambe Guesthouse, it’s the only place to stay inside the forest itself. The accommodation is a bargain and you can see most of the best wildlife within a stone’s throw of your room.

My choice for comfort would be the delightful Thousand Hills Guesthouse. What the place lacks in service skills, they make up for with good food and Balinese styling, and beautiful gardens. It should be a gem and it’s raised the bar in standards, locally.

Lastly, I would choose The Friendship Guesthouse. Namely, because their website brings in much of the western trade and subsequently you have a good chance of teaming up with others for a trek. The folks are friendly but it lacks the charm of the first two choices.

I chose to trek with Pak Mus who now runs the concession to manage the accommodation in the national park itself. The Leuser Ketambe GH (formally called Gurah Station) is state-owned and was totally neglected until Pak Mus took on a lease.

The setting is beautiful and the bungalows hide amongst the trees and overlook the Gurah River.

View of the Gurah River from the balcony of our lodgings in Gunung Leuser National Park
Panorama from the balcony in Gurah

My chalet cost Rp 150,000 ($11) per night and I stayed for 2 weeks and paid for 8 days camping in the forest.

I wrote this before the pandemic, don’t be surprised if the prices are higher and don’t be shy about hggling for a good deal.

I stayed in the more expensive rooms with more comfort and a splendid balcony overlooking the river.

There are cheaper rooms available for Rp 100,000 and are slightly more basic.

I’ve just met a couple coming from Ketambe and they were disappointed by the lack of maintenance in the rooms. Sadly I can testify to that.

The food is pretty good and reasonably priced and offered as a set meal which works well. Teas and coffees are made on request.

I paid Rp 20,000 for breakfast and lunch and Rp 40,000 for dinner. Teas and coffees are Rp 7000.

There’s certainly no need to worry about being in a captive market.

The last time I was there they did an all inclusive deal including unlimited teas and coffees.

Pak Mus lives on-site with his wife and 3 lovely kids.

They are easygoing and friendly and the kids are fun.

Sightings of orangutans around the station are common, you’ll see plenty of macaques and Thomas leaf monkeys   You will also see and hear hornbills every day.

With luck and especially if a tree is in fruit, a local Siamang gibbon might appear from time to time.

There are mini trails around the station including a great lookout point high over the river so get Mus to show you the way.

Look out point above Leuser Ketambe Guest House in Gunung Leuser National Park
Lookout point above Gurah Station

I’ve seen some interesting wildlife during my stays at Gurah Station

Notable wildlife sightings include:

  • Orangutans
  • Siamang Gibbon
  • Slow loris
  • Fishing owl
  • Hornbills (Rhinoceros, Black, and Wreathed)
  • Pig-tailed and Long-tailed macaques
  • Thomas Leaf monkeys
  • Flying lemur
  • Pit vipers
  • King Cobra

Add to this list an amazing array of creepy-crawlies, beautiful butterflies, frogs, and reptiles.

Giant Atlas moth next to my hand in the grounds of Leuser Ketambe Guest House. Gunung Leuser National Park
Atlas moth and my hand for scale

To be honest you are unlikely to see much more on a longer trek than you may see locally but being in the true wilderness is an amazing experience in itself and I encourage you to give it a go.

Hiking Kit For A Tropical Forest

Sleeping Bag

Bring your own. You can use one of theirs but they are either warm and heavy or light and cold. Take your pick but do get them to wash it beforehand.


Take something for cool nights. You are quite high and the temperature at night is just cold enough for a jumper or light jacket.


You need a strong backpack, capable of surviving the conditions. Think about the weight, the stitching, the zips, will they hold up to rough treatment? take a look at my suggestions HERE

Mozzy repellant

The mozzies are not too bad. There weren’t many in January at least.

Dry bags

Take a dry bag or grab some bin liners to take with you. You need to protect your camera and change into dry clothes. This is a priority.


You need deep tread because the paths are slippery. The locals buy cheap plastic soccer boots, while we took hiking sandals.

Bear in mind that you will wade across many streams and muddy pools so if you wear boots, you’ll be endlessly taking them off and putting them back on again. Better by far to just wade through in sandals.

Bring some flip-flops for walking around camp.

Sleeping mat

I take a self-inflating half-mat. It packs small and is lightweight. I also take an inflatable pillow. Comfy bedding makes a world of difference at the end of a hard day.

Long pants/trousers.

Don’t trek in shorts. There are stinging plants, insects, leeches and of course snakes.

Leech socks.

You should wear leech socks, your guesthouse will probably have some. If none are available, tuck your trousers into your socks and either soak them in tobacco juice or spray them with repellant.

Top Tip: Take a styptic pencil to stop leech bleeds

Travel towel

Take a quick-drying microfiber towel.


Take some sweets and cookies along. It’s instant energy along the way and enjoyable


You’ll need a torch for the tent but a bright one for spotlighting at night. My torch is 300 lumens but it eats the batteries. Take spares.


Take the least you can. Ditch the toilet rolls and wash instead. Bring hand sanitizer.

Medical kit.

I bring band-aids, painkillers, antihistamines, antiseptic cream, and iodine.


You can be provided with a dome tent but if you don’t mind sharing you can sleep under the makeshift shelter with the guides. I wanted a tent. My trekking buddies brought their own.

Useful items include:


Remember to keep it dry in a waterproof bag and take a silicone bag to keep the moisture at bay.

The best place to see wild orangutans. mum and baby orangutan in Gunung Leuser national park
Mum and baby in Gurah forest, Ketambe


Wildlife watching is frustrating without a pair of binoculars. I have a waterproof pair because the humidity is too high for normal bins, they steam up. Unfortunately, they are also a lot heavier which is a pain.


You can’t get a signal deeper in the forest but my phone’s camera is great so I took it along


In all honesty, you might choose not to bother with a rain jacket. You are soaked in sweat the moment you start trekking and sweat even more when you’re wrapped in plastic. A poncho makes more sense, at least you can protect your pack.

Transport to The National Park

Fly from Kuala Lumpur or Penang to Medan, the capital of Sumatra. Most people will search for a flight as they are usually the cheapest. is a handy Indonesian flight comparison and booking site. It covers Indonesian routes only and accepts foreign credit cards. Most Indonesian sites do not.

If you use to buy a ticket be warned that the process is slow and painful. Get through the cumbersome trauma of it all and I can vouch that it works. I’ve used the site many times.

If you know your dates book as early as possible for cheaper fares. You can get a 30-day visa on arrival in Medan for $35 which can be extended for a further month if required.

You arrive in Medan at their new airport which is connected to the city center by a new express train which takes about 30 mins at a current price of Rp100,000. Enjoy it, that’s as fast as it gets from here on in.

From the Medan city terminus, you can get a taxi to your hotel or go to the bus station for connections to Brastagi or Kutacane (the nearest town to Ketambe).

You can even bypass Medan altogether and go straight to Brastagi by taxi or by bus from the airport. The bus station is on your immediate right as you leave the airport lobby.

The journey will take 3 – 3.5 hours and cost Rp50-60,000. Look for the red Minibuses called Almasar. You may have to change buses halfway but don’t worry.

Ask at the airport info desk and they will help you.

From Medan, you can take a shared taxi (called Kijangs) or a minibus to Kutacane which will take all day. Count on 7-8 hours. 

For your sanity, I advise you to pay the extra and travel by shared taxi. These cars are 7 seater Toyota Kijangs and far comfier than the minibusses. They will also take you all the way to Ketambe for an extra fee which should be about Rp100,000.

All transport to Kutacane and Brastagi leaves from Padang Bulan. It’s an area of town far from the city center. The ticket offices are strung along Jalan Jamin Ginting, ask your driver to drop you at the right place.

Adi Guna Travel, ‘Ala’ koperasi jasa angkutan (082165650777), or CK Travel Wisata all have offices along this road. Ask your driver to drop you at one. The prices are the same. Or ask to stop at BTN or Karsima minibus stations.

Kijangs cost about Rp130-150,000 ($10) and minibusses about Rp70-80,000 (pre-pandemic)

The only way to reach the Padang Bulan quicky is by Ojek (motorcycle taxi). There are two apps called Gojek and Grab (which is similar to Uber) and you can call a bike or a cab for the best price.

You can stay the night in Medan if you wish but there are no sites to be seen in this frenetic city. Plan on one night and an early start to get to Ketambe.

There is one more option but few take it. You can fly from Banda Aceh to Kutacane with Susiair.

In theory, you could take a cheap flight from Kuala Lumpur to Banda Aceh, visit Pulau Weh for diving or snorkeling, then catch a Susiair flight directly from Banda Aceh to Kutacane. It flies twice a week. As I right this it fliess on Tuesdays and Saturdays, but check first.

It’s next to impossible to book ahead. Your best chance for a ticket is to turn up at the Susiair office in person, at the airport. You cannot book online but try these numbers anyway, 0811-2113-081, or +62 811 211 3080, or +62 811 211 3090. Good luck.

Getting around Medan is a pain

If you haven’t already bought a sim card, get a local person to use their app to get you a ride for you. People are so friendly.

UPDATE: Rule changes mean that you have to register a foreign phone before you can use a local Sim card. Your best bet is to visit a Telkomsel office and ask them to do it.

If you take a normal taxi then choose Bluebird Taxis ( blue, surprisingly ), they’re known throughout Indonesia as a reliable metered taxi firm.

Most people get in and out of Medan as quickly as possible. I always get a bus straight to Brastagi, the cool hill town south of Medan.

Berastagi: A Cool Retreat on The Way to Ketambe

(Dutch – Brastagi) is a small town only 2-3 hours from Medan and breaks the journey to the park.

The climate is cool which comes as a relief and you can climb the nearby volcano if you wish.

I stay in Wisma Sibayak in town, it’s been there for a very long time. I first stayed back in the ’90s. There are other places to stay if you search on

Take a jumper, you’ll be surprised how chilly it can be at night

Wisma Sibayak guest house in Brastagi, Sumatra
Wisma Sibayak in Brastagi

I stayed in the lower rooms with en suite bathrooms. You can also choose the cheaper upper rooms with a separate bathroom or a couple of very basic wooden bungalows at the rear.

Find out the latest prices on

Warning: 3 major state-owned banks have been merged and finding an ATM that accepts foreign cards is now a big issue. Take plenty of cash with you to Katembe. Unless things have changed very recently there is nowhere to withdraw money beyond Berastagi, 5-6 hours away.

To reach Ketambe and the park you must catch a minibus to Kutacane which takes about 5 hours for Rp80,000 but be warned the music can be DEAFENING.

Take Ear Plugs!

Shared taxis (150,000) to Kutacane all originate in Medan so if you secure a seat, you will have to pay for the whole journey and arrange a pick-up in Brastagi.

Once in Kutacane, you need to ask to be dropped at the labi-labi (local pickup) stand for Ketambe which is in the town near the market. 

Make sure you have enough cash in Kutacane. There are ATMs that now take both Mastercard and Visa.

A labi-labi into Ketambe takes about 45 mins for Rp20,000. You will have to wait until there are enough passengers before they leave. Catch one from the old market, along the main road. Locals will help you.

If you need a shared taxi to/from Medan/Berestagi/Kutacane contact:

‘Ala’ koperasi jasa angkutan (Shared taxi firm)
Kutacane : Jln A.Yani 081360152777
I paid Rp130,000 from Kutacane to Berestagi.

Leuser Ketambe Guest House
Jl. Blangkejeren, Ketambe, Kutacane
e-mail :
FB : @ketambetour
Whatsapp : 085360626329
IG : ketambe_tour

Pak Mus
+62 (0)85360626329 – Good English.

For an up-to-date overview of the conservation pressures facing the park visit HAKA, an Indonesian NGO working hard to save the Leuser forest.

6 Alternative Places to See Orangutans: Wild and Semi-Wild

If you have looked through other blogs you will see quite a few places where you can see orangutans. These are your main choices and I’m including one I hope you choose not to visit for ethical reasons.

These are the 6 places most often suggested:

Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang is a joke. It’s a glorified theme park next to a jungle. This place is dismal. There are 35 trained guides, and 500 freelance untrained chancers waiting to catch out the gullible. This is wildlife tourism at its worst. 

If you want to feed a red ape and take a selfie, you’re in the right place. The rehabilitation center was closed down years ago when the greed for tourist money took hold. What remains is an exploitative circus.

I pity the guides and locals who care about what’s happening, but they are in the minority. There’s too much money being made to stop the train. The main market is local weekend party-goers from Medan who want to feed a ‘monkey’ and little else, but Western backpackers are also attracted to Bukit Lawang.

Many backpackers will have good intentions, while others are less bothered. I’m sure the young western women hanging around the village pretty boys are there for conservation purposes and are highly principled. This place sucks, no pun intended.

Don’t support this farce. Read what has to say

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Sepilok, by contrast, is a world-renowned rehabilitation center for orphaned orangutans set within a 4,294-ha area of primary forest in the state of Sabah, northern Borneo. It was created to rescue orphaned baby orangutans from logging sites, plantations, illegal pet trade, and hunting.

Today the reserve has a modern visitor center with well-maintained boardwalks through the primary forest to the feeding platform. There are two feeding times per day, at 10 am and 3 pm. Entry tickets are valid for one day, so overnight visitors can visit twice. 

As far as I am aware the entrance ticket is still RM40, which works out at roughly $8.50 or £6.75.

There are walking trails, night walks, and other interesting visitor attractions nearby, such as the Rainforest Discovery Centre and Sun Bear Centre, to keep you busy for a few days.

There are places to stay along the quiet access road to suit all budgets and they can arrange tours of the nearby Kinabatangan River.

Kinabatangan River Wildlife Sanctuary

The Kinabangan River offers some of the best wildlife watching in Southeast Asia and all from the comfort of a boat trip. 

Wildlife that can be seen along the river banks include:

  • Bornean Orangutans
  • Proboscis Monkeys
  • Bornean Pygmy Elephants
  • Saltwater Crocodiles
  • Silver Leaf Monkeys
  • Rhinoceros Hornbills

The list of wildlife is extensive and what you will see is a combination of luck and the expertise of your guide. The birdlife is prolific. 

Will you see orangutans? Probably. You will have a far higher chance in the lower Kinabatangan river where the forest is more intact. There are orangutan nests everywhere. I have visited many times over the years and have only ever seen orangutans from a distance. Definitely take binoculars.

This river is not in the wilderness as such. Visitors will be shocked at the deforestation. There are miles and miles of palm oil plantations before you reach the river at Sakau village.

The remaining forest lines the river on either side, until the lower reaches where it spreads out over 28000 ha of protected lowland forest. 

Danum Valley Conservation Area

The Danum Valley Conservation Area is a 438 square km tract of relatively undisturbed lowland forest in Sabah, Malaysia. It is the protected heart of a selective logging concession. 

There are limited choices of accommodation. Most visitors stay in the luxury Borneo Rainforest Lodge. From here visitors can do guided walks through lowland rainforest trails and experience night safari walks or drives. Package prices are very high.

A more affordable alternative is offered in the Danum Field Center. Accommodation is in comfortable dorms, chalets, and resthouses, and it’s also possible to camp.

This is flashpacker pricing, so do not expect a bargain. There are walking trails and the opportunity of night drives.  

The chances of orangutan sightings are good but not guaranteed. All the glamorous wildlife is present in this area, and you can hope to see elephants and gibbons in this area. There is the chance to see leopard cats on a night safari and if you are very lucky indeed, a clouded leopard.

Semenggoh Nature Reserve

This tiny reserve of just 653 ha is a 30-minute drive from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre manages a semi-wild orangutan population that relies on the feeding station to supplement their diet. This small forest is home to far more orangutans than can be supported by this small forest.

Feeding times are at 9 am and 3 pm every day and cost RM10 ($2 or £1.70) for foreigners.

​There used to be a bus service that passed by the reserve but on my last visit it was discontinued. Check to see if it has restarted, otherwise, you will have to hire a taxi or go on a tour. 

I have been to Semenggoh twice, and it is OK. I saw a huge male orangutan in the car park area which was great. If you are in Kuching you should visit, but it is a little underwhelming compared to Sepilok. 

Tanjung Puting National Park

Tanjung Puting National Park is a popular ecotourism destination in Kalimantan, southern Borneo. There are many local tour companies offering multi-day boat tours to view wildlife, or day trips to visit the research centers. 

River cruises are on traditional Klotok river boats. They are typically two-deck wooden boats equipped with a simple toilet, a kitchen, and sleeping arrangements. The boats are open-sided, allowing for panoramic views of the surrounding rainforest. 

Visitors have the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife. This includes orangutans, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, crocodiles, and a wide range of bird species as the boat winds slowly along the river. The cruises stop at the orangutan feeding stations within the park, including the first and most famous, Camp Leakey. Visitors will encounter very many semi-wild orangutans close up.

There were very few independent travelers on my visit and I chose to hire a speed boat and visit as a day visitor. It was enough for me. 

The Best Place to See Wild Orangutans: Final Thoughts

Now you know how where and how to see wild orangutans ethically and without spending a fortune.

Do your research and verify prices and travel info. The world has changed since the pandemic.

Thankfully the villagers in Katembe are still operating and offering very similar prices as before. If seeing wild orangutans is a priority, time your trip and visit when the trees are fruiting and you won’t be disappointed.

Do consider a few nights in the jungle. The locals do most of the hard work and will accommodate your level of fitness.

Now arrange it. Life is short

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The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
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