How to see orang-utans in Borneo on a budget
Most people head to Borneo for one thing: the wildlife. In particular, the Bornean orang-utan. Whether you’re planning to visit in the future, or you’re already on the beautiful island, one thing might be clear to you – it can be extremely expensive to see the great apes, and for those people travelling on a budget, it can seem out of range. I recently visited Borneo, saw the orang-utans at Sepilok rehabilitation centre, and booked a 3d2n river cruise full of wildlife, with accommodation and food for less than £150, including flights from Kota Kinabalu. In this article, I’m going to show you how it’s not only possible to do it cheaper, but how to maximise your possibility of seeing these elusive creatures, plus see the other wildlife Borneo has to offer. I will include all my outgoings, and offer alternatives towards the end.
Getting to Sepilok
Most people arrive in Borneo at Kota Kinabalu International Airport, and whilst some people transfer straight to Sandakan, I wanted to explore KK first (NB. there isn’t much to see in Sandakan either). There were a lot of tours on offer from the hotel and from travel agents, but as I did my research, it didn’t seem very cost effective or time efficient. Kota Kinabalu is a 6 hour drive to the orang-utan centre, meaning a return trip will strike a full day off your trip, and you would pay a good price on top. What’s more, a lot of the river cruises charged an extra fee to include the orang-utan centre, making it even more expensive; the best price I could find for a 2D1N cruise, without Sepilok included was around 500rm, and included the 6 hour bus ride each way. I decided to look into booking each part separately to compare prices. The results were surprising…
Before we start, a quick note for those people who are very limited in their time. It is possible to do the orang-utan centre as a day trip from KK – flights are relatively inexpensive (<150rm return), and the entrance fee is only 30rm, plus 10rm camera fee. Add in a little for the taxi and food, and you could do this day trip for less than £50 per person. Not bad, but if you’re heading all that way, it makes sense to me to make the most of your time there. Also, at the rehabilitation centre, the orang-utans aren’t necessarily completely wild, so a river cruise gives you the chance to see them in the wild. But if you are pushed for time, it’s an option; get the 06.30 AirAsia flight out of KK, and the 19.50 flight back giving you a full day at the Orang-utan centre, or a morning there, and the afternoon at the sun bear centre.
Anyway, onto how I did it… The trip I’m going to set out takes 4 days, returning to KK.
Day one – Orang-utan centre (Thursday 16th February 2017)
I started my day as mentioned above, with an early flight to Sandakan (my return flight was 160rm). From KK, use an Uber taxi instead of the regular taxis and it will cost you around 12rm. Also return flights work out cheaper than 2 single flights. Don’t worry about checking baggage in, you can fit your clothes in a normal bag, and at least when I flew they didn’t worry about the liquid restrictions, so take your insect repellent! The flight is just over half an hour, so by 7.15 you are in Sandakan. No Uber here though so buy a coupon from the taxi counter for Sepilok (40rm) and get on your way. Try to find someone to share your ride with and you can half this fare. NB. There is no ATM in Sepilok so if you need money, visit the ATM in the airport.
The taxi ride will take around half an hour, and the centre doesn’t open until 9, so you have time for breakfast at the reasonably priced on-site café (10rm including coffee). When the centre opens at 9am, pay your 30rm fee and 10rm camera fee. NB if you have a good camera phone, you don’t have to pay the camera fee. So get a Samsung!
They have feedings at 10am and 3pm, although there is no guarantee that any orang-utans will turn up for the feeding and actually the centre states that if they don’t turn up, this is a good thing as it shows that they are finding their own food. Head towards the nursery though for some great sightings throughout the day. The centre closes at 11am, and reopens at 2pm; in this time I went to a local café around 100m down the road away from the centre called Mamma Watts homemade cooking, which was amazing and cheap; for 10rm I got a portion of Nasi Goreng, a coffee and a portion of curry puffs. If you go there, don’t leave without trying her curry puffs! You could visit the sun bear centre in this time as you only really need an hour or two there, but remember this will add 31rm per person. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s worth it. After the afternoon session, I caught a free shuttle bus back to my accommodation, Paganakan Dii tropical retreat. This place was incredible; a set of wooden buildings set right in the rainforest, and for a night in the dorm, evening meal, beer, water and breakfast the total cost was 53rm. That’s a steal and a really nice relaxing end to the day. You’ll be happy of the relaxation in a few days!
Day one total cost – 315rm/£57/$71 (excluding sun bear centre)
Day 2 – River cruise (Friday 17th February 2017)
This morning you have chance to take it slow, and in fact today isn’t really going to get started until late afternoon. Get your breakfast at the resort (please feel free to search around and look for other accommodation if you wish) and get ready for the river cruise. The company I used for the river cruise is called Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, and on Hostelworld they offer a 3D2N river cruise stay including all meals for 361.80rm for a 4 person dorm. This is way cheaper than anywhere else I’d found, and believe me it is worth every penny and more. The cruises are incredible, the food is delicious and the staff are second to none. I actually emailed the lodge directly and secured the same price as Hostelworld, but I like doing it this way as it ensures that the resort gets 100% of the price. The minibus will pick you up from your accommodation providing it is in the Sepilok/Sandakan area at around lunchtime. The journey to the lodge is around 2 hours and included in the price. Upon arrival you will check in with a welcome drink, go through the safety arrangements, drop your bags in your room, and then set off on your first river cruise. This lasts 2 hours and gives you your first taste of the true Bornean wildlife. Expect to see proboscis monkeys, long tailed macaques, hornbills, crocodiles and other things on your journey. You will arrive back, eat dinner and then have the chance to embark on a night trek through the rainforest. I actually did this on the second night, but on reflection would probably do it on the first night. You have one night trek included in the price, but if you want to go a second night then you can pay 15.90rm for the privilege. Throw in a beer with your new rainforest buddies after (9rm) and then head to bed with a bottle of water (3rm); tomorrow will be a LONG day!
Day 3 – River Cruise (Saturday 18th February 2017)
You will be woken up at 5.45am for an early morning river cruise. This will be your chance to see a wild orang-utan as they wake from their nests to return to the jungle. You will also have the chance to see some crocodiles out of the water and a few other bits and pieces. After this, you will have breakfast before setting off on a 3 hour trek through the jungle to the oxbow lake. This will be a strenuous activity, so be warned. It is more than achievable by most people, but just be aware that you will need long trousers, wellies (available to hire for 10rm; get these on the first day ready for your night trek), long sleeved top and a poncho to protect from rain and leeches. Combine that with the tropical climate and you have a lovely recipe for human full of sweat. But it’s worth it to say you trekked through the rainforest in Borneo! You will return to lunch and have the afternoon to sit back and relax. Your next river cruise will be at 4pm, followed by dinner and your final evening. Time really flies here.
Day 4 – River Cruise (Sunday 19th February 2017)
Prepare for another 5.45am wake up call for your final river cruise. This will be your last chance to spot something rare, such as that elusive Orang-utan or croc on the bank. I actually was able to spot a pair of otters running along the river bank, and your guides seriously have a super sense when it comes to spotting wildlife, so you are in good hands. After here, you will have breakfast before checking out and getting back into the minibus. The minibus will transfer you back to the airport for a 2.30pm flight through AirAsia back to KK. If you were wanting to save money, they will also drop you at the bus stop to catch a bus back to KK, which would take around 6/7 hours, but only cost 45rm per person (saving you 30rm/£6; that could be spent on the sun bear centre…)
Day 2/3/4 total price – 383.80rm/£70/$85
Total price – 698.80rm/£127/$158 (excluding sun bear centre)
3 day option
If you are pushed for time, you can actually complete all of this trip within 3 days. If you follow day one for the morning, visiting the orang-utans until the centre closes at 11am, then grab an early lunch, you can get picked up by the minibus from the centre at around 12-12.30pm. To be honest, for most people this might be fine, as long as you get to see some orang-utans in the morning session. I’m a bit obsessed with orang-utans and wanted as much time as possible in the centre, which is why I chose to do it as outlined above. However, for the 3 day version of this trip you are looking at 645.80rm/£117/$141
5 day option
This is actually what I did, but on reflection I wouldn’t recommend it. Days 1-4 were as outlined, but upon my return to Sandakan, I decided to stay in the city for an extra night. I did this because I was taking part in my first ever Couchsurfing experience, so the extra night didn’t cost me anything. I loved the experience, but to be honest, there isn’t much in Sandakan to see and you can quite easily miss it.
Things to consider
Equipment – you are going to need at least 3 t shirts, a long top, long trousers, socks, clean underwear, insect repellent, toothbrush/paste, charger, some face wipes/cleaning wipes and maybe sun cream. Don’t bother with a towel or shower gel etc; it is provided at the lodge. All of this will fit in your hand luggage easily, and I even took my laptop so I could write this post on location.
You are going to sweat. A lot, so you need to pack for that. You also need to be aware that the rainforest can be a dangerous place. As long as you follow the rules of your guide you will be fine, but there is a high chance of getting a leech on you. Although it didn’t happen to me a few of the other customers did get a leech during the night walk and jungle trek. This is nothing to worry about at all; take your bug spray with you, and if you get a leech, just give it a quick spray. It will drop off in seconds, and there is no harm done.
There is no guarantee of seeing an orang-utan, but there is so much else to see that it is still more than worth it. Your guides will do their best to find as much as possible for you.
Once you know your dates, try to book in advance. The air fare can be slightly cheaper (although the fares on this route don’t change too drastically), and you will avoid disappointment from the lodge being full. Also, think about downloading the AirAsia app to your phone. This way you collect flyer points, save a little money, check in online and receive an E-boarding pass, making the airport a little quicker and easier.
So there you have it – 4 days of true Borneo, including Orang-utans and lots of other wildlife, for £127, give or take. I know this approach takes a little messing around, but hopefully I have done most of the leg work for you, and you can grab yourself a bargain. I would love to hear your experiences, and if you have any questions then please get in touch. I love researching things like this, and I would be happy to help you with any booking queries etc.
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Paganakan Dii Tropical resort Sepilok –
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre –
Nature lodge Kinabatangan – http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Nature-Lodge-Kinabatangan/Sandakan/11794