Both semi-wild and orphaned orangutans are easy to see independently and for a fraction of the price of a tour. So how do you visit a rehabilitation center?
Buy a return ticket to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Get a cheap AirAsia flight to Sandakan in Sabah. Get on a local bus or get a taxi for the one hour trip to the Sepilok rehab center. Stay overnight in a local guesthouse or hotel. Buy a Day ticket and visit the feeding platform at 10 am and 3 pm.
It’s as simple as that.
In this article, I will outline the steps you need to take in order to visit 2 easily accessible reserves independently.
- The first is the famous rehab center in Sabah, northern Borneo, where you will see semi-wild and orphaned orangutans
- The second is along the nearby Kinabatangan river where, with luck, you can see wild orangutans by boat.
Now let’s go into more detail.
Visit Sepilok Orangutan Orphanage and Rehab Center
Anyone with a passion for orangutans will delight at the chance of seeing semi-wild orangs coming down to feed in a beautiful forest setting.
Put simply, Sepilok is a world-renowned rehab center for orphaned orangutans set within a forest reserve of 4,294 ha (10,610 acres).
For many, it’s a dream come true and high on their bucket list.
And it’s sooo easy!
You can get close, sometimes too close.
It’s quite possible and even likely that some orangs choose to approach you on the way to the feeding platform via the boardwalk. The savvy visitor might choose to linger in the hope of a better photo opportunity.
BUT BEWARE! some orangutans are known to snatch belongings, hence the ‘no bags’ rule. (lockers are available)
Feeding takes place twice daily at 10 am and 3 pm, with the gates opening one hour beforehand.
Your ticket is valid for the day and costs 40RM (2020)
Many overnight visitors take advantage of this deal and make a day of it.
Visitors arrive at 9 pm, go to the nursery viewing gallery and wander back to catch the platform feeding at 10 am. When it’s all over visitors head for sun bear center next door in time to see them being fed too.
A ticket to the sun bear center costs 30RM (2020)
Then its time for lunch which can be had at bargain prices in the Sepilok Cafe.
Gates re-open at 2 pm with another chance to witness the feeding at 3 pm.
It’s all over by 4 pm.
For anyone wishing to stay longer, there are forest trails to explore and an interesting night walk. I was lucky enough to see a slow loris, various snakes, and all manner of creepy crawlies. You may even see the flying squirrels at dusk gliding from the treetops. Hang around the entrance.
If that’s not enough, the Rainforest Discovery Center is close by and you can do the canopy walk at a cost of 15RM.
I saw a mother and baby orangutan on my visit, a hawk-eagle eating its prey on a nest and two grey langurs up close. Admittedly I was very lucky.
Sadly the Discovery night walk was not available when I visited which was a pity as they have tarsiers.
Do I have any criticisms? Yes, a couple.
The new nursery viewing gallery is a glass-fronted building that feels exactly like being in a zoo. I was very disappointed and few people lingered for very long.
The sun bear experience had a similar zoo-like feel. The walkways are elevated high above their enclosures which means you are looking down from afar. I know the center is doing a good job but the visit is very so-so.
Getting to Sepilok Orangutan Orphanage
Find a flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia using the flight comparison sites. I usually start with Skyscanner then Kayak. There are many more including Momondo, Google Flights, and Expedia. Google ‘cheap flights’ and see what pops up.
After getting a good idea of what to expect, check the airline sites as well. Sometimes dealing direct is cheaper.
Top Tip: Don’t just blindly buy the cheapest ticket. Think about the added costs to and from the airport, the timings, and if you want a stop-over.
You’ll feel more secure landing in a foreign city in the daytime.
Coming from Kuala Lumpur you need to take a cheap internal flight to Sandakan in Sabah.
Sabah is in northeastern Borneo and part of the Malaysian Federation so apart from some minor custom formalities is no different from the mainland.
At the time of writing, there are only two airlines flying directly to Sandakan, AirAsia the budget airline and Malaysian Airlines the national carrier. AirAsia is cheaper.
Kota Kinabalu the capital of Sabah has more options but costs the same and involves a 6-hour bus journey to Sandakan.
Book ahead and the prices are very reasonable.
Once in Sandakan, you can either stay in the city or travel on to Sepilok. The city is nothing special but the people are friendly.
There is plenty of accommodation to suit every budget. Take a look at Tripadvisor.
Sepilok is one hour away by bus or simply grab a taxi, but remember your ticket is valid for the whole day.
You can catch a #14 local bus in Sandakan from the minibus station. Ask your hotel/hostel for directions. The buses run from 9 am in time for the 10 am feeding and it takes you to the gate.
The last bus back leaves at 4 pm so you can make a day of it.
Many people and that’s me included, prefer to stay closer and book a night or two in Sepilok. Again a quick look at Tripadvisor provides the info.
If you decide to catch a taxi, use the Grab App to book the cheapest ride. It’s the same as Uber.
When you are ready to leave you can ask your hotel to ring Mr. Choy to pick you up for the ride to Sukua or you can arrange a tour. All the lodgings offer in-house tours or act as agents.
Visiting The Kinabatangan River For Wild Orangutans
Why the Kinabatangan river?
It offers some of the easiest wildlife-spotting in SE Asia.
You take a small boat along the main river and its oxbows and the sightings are frequent and often very close.
It’s the perfect place for any photographer to get good clear shots of wildlife without much effort.
Further Reading: Best Budget Camera for Wildlife Photography
What’s not to like with pygmy elephants playing on the waters edge just in front of your boat, only a few meters away?
The Kinabatangan is pinched between vast palm oil plantations.
All is not well in Borneo. You’ve heard the stories and you’ve seen it on the TV but it doesn’t prepare you for the extent of deforestation.
The cruel irony is, the lack of forest has stranded the wildlife along a linear forest. In some places, a mere line of trees is all that remains along its banks.
The result is bitter-sweet, a concentration of life in full view, for all the wrong reasons.
That said, a wealth of life exists. This is your best chance to see wild Pygmy Elephants. And here’s the good news they are growing in numbers.
You will also get close to proboscis monkeys, silver langurs, pig-tailed Macquacs, and several species of hornbills.
Orangutans are sighted regularly but they tend to be high up in the canopy.
Further Reading: Best Budget Binoculars
Crocs are common and occasionally you might encounter otters. On one occasion I got to see Borneo gibbons.
I’ve seen all these and much more over a number of visits to the river.
As with all wildlife experiences everywhere, serendipity plays its part, but your best chance of having a great time is having a great guide.
I can’t tell you the difference it makes. The best guides are often tied to the more expensive lodges but not always.
Local guides are often just as good at spotting wildlife but lack the background knowledge or language skills to explain everything fully.
I have always gone with the budget options and for the most part, been very pleased with the outcome.
Independent travelers are not likely to save any money by going it alone. If the price is the deciding factor go with a package and save yourself all the bother.
Further Reading: What’s it like to Travel Solo? (Isn’t it Lonely to Travel Alone?)
I stayed with Sukau RB lodge in Sukau village. A bare-bones option is more than adequate for all but the pickiest. Contact Tel: +62 (0)1135383981
The 3 days 2 nights deal costs as little as 250 RM (£48/$61) which is very cheap. (2018-19)
If you arrive without a package, a room will cost 50RM (£9.60/$12.20) for B&B, then each boat trip will cost 50RM per trip. (Min two people). Plus you make your own arrangements for food.
There are more dining options along the river road. One roadside stall nearby with very friendly owners. 3 more restaurants further up.
To see an up to date list of options check Tripadvisor
My ‘extra’ walk to nearby bat caves through some forest was fun and cost 45RM for about 2.30 hours. A better cave than I expected.
The night boat trip costs the same but lasts only one hour, not two. I found that to be enough. Getting so close to sleeping birds is special and there are lots of baby crocs. They are cute believe it or not.
There is an element of luck when sighting wild orangutans. Most people get to see one from afar. And the elephants move along the river. If they are nearby the locals will know and take you there.
NB: The side trip to Gomotong caves were overpriced at 35RM (£6.70/ $8.50) each way and 30RM £5.70/$7.30) entrance fee but it is usually included in tour itineraries as part of the deal.
From Sandakan or Sepilok, Mr. Choy will take you to Sukau for 50RM (£9.60/$12.20) and take you back again at 6.30 am for the same price. Ask for him at your hostel. He will also drop you off at the junction to catch a bus to Semporna for 25RM. (£4.80/$6.10)
Do tap Mr. Choy, Whatsapp: 019-536-1889 ([email protected]) for info on the area. He has a wealth of knowledge having worked for WWF for 5 years. He can tell you all about the environmental issues, the problems and some of the successes. Yes, there are some!
Take enough cash to Sukau. There are no ATMs and they don’t accept credit cards.
A budget tour along the river is the best value experience you’ll find in Sabah.
This was my 4th visit to Sabah and the prices for almost everything else besides Sepilok and the river are now much higher than before. Too damned high!
Kiss goodbye to a few hundred dollars to do just about anything worthwhile.
Budget accommodation is available in most places. You’ll stay in a mixture of dorms and basic rooms which is the same as on the mainland.
As usual with any travel guide, if you are reading this as an older post, treat the prices with a pinch of salt. Click the links to see up to date prices.
Things change, but hopefully, with the right kind of tourism, the Kinabatangan has a brighter future.
I pay for all my wildlife trips by selling my wildlife art. If you want to know how I do it and copy me, you should look at my guide!
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- How to Find and Photograph Wild Tigers on a Budget – Independently
- How to Plan a Wildlife Photography Trip (A Detailed Beginners Guide)
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