Arriving in the small city of Sandakan early evening we grabbed a taxi to our hostel and got checked in, ready to plan the next couple of days. We stayed at the Sandakan Sea View Backpacker Hostel and while there are a few hostels on this road I’d wholeheartedly recommend this one. The sea view rooms are great value and the staff are super helpful when it comes to booking tours, recommending restaurants, organising logistics and anything else you might need. We enjoyed a seafront dinner of tasty chicken and rice for less than £2 and headed to bed.
Day 1 – Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, Sun Bear Sanctuary & Sandakan Heritage Trail
The next day we grabbed the bus to Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary – it leaves at 9am from the mini bus station over the road from Hotel Nak, is the number 14 and costs 6MYR per person one way. This gets you there in plenty of time for the 10am first feeding of the day, and there’s another feeding at 3pm.
The sanctuary itself is seriously impressive. It has four nursery areas for the Orangutans, all of various difficulty to help them adapt to life in the jungle so they can be rehabilitated and released. Most have been rescued from extremely traumatic experiences, with poachers and plantation owners killing older animals and selling on the infants as pets. We were appalled to discover that they are even butchered and eaten in some areas of Borneo.
Visiting Sepilok was one of the highlights of our Borneo itinerary and we were spellbound as we watched an adult Orangutan with her baby sitting and eating. Moments later as we left we caught sight of another Orangutan in the trees above the walkway and watched it swinging around and climbing, seemingly oblivious to us standing below. If you’re a wildlife lover, this is the place for you!
Next up, we visited the next door Sunbear sanctuary, where over 40 bears are cared for. A little less polished than Sepilok, this was still a worthwhile visit. Sunbears are also suffering enormously from the effects of poachers in Borneo and it’s great to see the team at the sanctuary working so hard to combat this.
The bears themselves are pretty cute – one of the smallest species of bear and massive honey lovers they’re like little black furred Winnie the Poohs!
Our final stop on day 1 – told you it was busy – was to take a look at some of the sights in Sandakan. It’s only a tiny city, more like a town really, but it has a couple of places that are worth seeing. The ‘heritage trail’ is well signposted and includes spots like the memorial to Australian soldiers who died in the infamous WW2 death marches and the home of author Agnes Newton Keith. We finished up with a trip to the English Tea House, a colonial style building in a prime location overlooking the sea. Here we enjoyed afternoon tea with scones and jam… as you do in Malaysia!
If you wanted to you could skip the city and head to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey sanctuary, although we opted not to as we’d heard they were more of a tourist attraction than a place focused on conservation of this endangered species. The centre is owned by the owner of an oil palm plantation… the very things that are destroying the rainforests and,with them, the habitats of the monkeys so make of that what you will.
Day 2 & 3 – Kinabatangan River Trip
We were only planning a day trip to Kinabatangan, the main spot for those looking to visit the rainforest in Malaysian Borneo, but we’re so glad the team at the hostel persuaded us to stay overnight!
The morning was spent on a 3 hour drive to the riverside lodge where we dropped our stuff and settled in before taking a cruise. Packed into a small boat it was like being in the Amazon all over again, and we sailed along in search of wildlife. The jungle scenery was breathtaking, and we managed to spot several species of birds and monkeys – luckily including the proboscis monkeys that we’d missed in Labuk Bay. These have got to be some of the most bizarre creatures we’ve ever seen, with oddly oversized noses and pot bellies!
We then went off in search of the Pygmy elephants, but despite tip offs from other boat drivers who kept pointing us down river enthusiastically, we only spotted a couple of silhouettes. Even without elephants the cruise was fantastic and our driver was so keen to show us the local scenery that what should have been a 2 hour cruise ended up as more than 3.
As with all the other people we met in Sandakan the team at the lodge were unbelievably friendly and welcoming. A couple of hours after our return we were gathered to watch a local song and dance routine before we took part in a dance class and tried and failed to beat them at the limbo. This was a night in the jungle that was memorable for all the right reasons… unlike our last jungle experience!
The evening was rounded off with a night walk, which was only slightly terrifying. It’s easier if you try and forget you’re wandering round in the dark with snakes and spiders! We spotted several colourful tropical birds as well as some tree frogs… and too many spiders for my liking.
The morning dawned misty and we set out for our final river cruise. I think it was perhaps a little early for us to see much with the fog so thick, but we still enjoyed some awesome jungle scenery and saw more proboscis monkeys, which I think may be my new favourite animals.
Our bus driver dropped us off at the airport en route back to Sandakan and we hopped on an afternoon flight to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysian Borneo.
We might not have seen quite as much wildlife as we would have liked, but spending a couple of days in the Bornean Rainforest was really one of those travel moments that you can hardly believe is real. It’s by far the best spot to base yourself if you want to explore the rainforest, visit the famous orangutan and sunbear sanctuaries, and if you have a little more time there are some beautiful islands off the coast to explore as well.