We started our Borneo adventure in Sandakan, on the northeastern side of the island. This is just a small city, dull and not at all impressive. It has some historical sights from the colonial time, but most tourists just use it as a transit point towards other locations, due to the airport located here. We did the same, spending just two nights in Sandakan, one at arrival and another one before departing to the other side of the island. Since we were in Sabah with a toddler, we preferred to allocate our time exploring natural places. In Sandakan we just spent our time relaxing at the pool and Eric was able to catch up with his sleep.
Proboscis Monkeys at Labuk Bay
After spending one night in Sandakan, we were ready to move on to see what Sabah has to offer in terms of wildlife. Our fist stop was the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary at Labuk Bay, about 50 minutes away from the city. We took a Grab there, as it is quite cheap and more convenient than the bus schedule. Make sure you ask your driver to wait for you when you visit Labuk Bay, as this is a remote area, where it might be difficult to find a ride back.
I read lots of bad reviews about Labuk Bay, so I was not sure if we should go or not. In the end, even though I partially agree that this isn’t a proper “sanctuary” and the entrance fee is quite expensive (60 MYR or 15 USD/person), I’m happy we chose to visit. There is no other chance to see the Proboscis monkeys this close.
We got to the entrance point right before 11 o’clock, when it is feeding time and we continued our way in the car to platform B. The area could be better maintained and some more information should be available; we felt like no one was “in charge” of the place. There were lots of proboscis monkeys on the feeding platform and on the surrounding trees, some of the females carrying young babies. They were given cucumbers or watermelon; they are fed only twice a day at each platform and this is an addition to the food they find themselves. We were lucky to see some Silvered Leaf Monkeys too, more curious and less fearful that Proboscis. Eric enjoyed seeing up close baby monkeys carried by their mom and wanted to stay in my arms like a little monkey too.
Orang Utans in Sepilok
From Labuk Bay we continued our way for about half an hour to Sepilok. We chose to stay here for the night, as there are plenty of accommodation options available. After a refreshing nap, we spent the whole afternoon exploring the surroundings, chasing dragonflies and squirrels.
The next morning was again time to meet Bornean animals, during the visit at the two sanctuaries in Sepilok. They offered a great experience, much more authentic than the one at Labuk Bay. For each center, the entrance fee costs 30 MYR/7 USD, which I considered a reasonable sum, especially that all the funds are used for the conservation of there species.
First stop was the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center, designated to assist this endangered species. Orang utans were highly affected by the deforestation done in Borneo to make room for oil palm plantations. It is estimated that the total number of orang utans currently living in Borneo is only 14% of what it used to be until one century ago. The Rehabilitation Center was opened in 1964, as the first official orang utan rehabilitation facility. It is spread over 43 square km where the animals roam freely; 60-80 orang utans reside here, plus the babies in the nursery. Most of them are orphan babies found in the wild. They stay in the center for up to 7 years, while they learn basic skills, before being released back in the forest.
There is one feeding platform where the orang utans are given bananas twice a day. This food comes only as an addition to the food they can find by themselves and it is not diversified in order to encourage them to look for alternatives. It seems that the team here is doing a fantastic job and the rehabilitation works very well, as quite often no orang utans come for the feeding, especially during the fruiting season. It was exactly what happened during our visit too: only long tail macaques were enjoying the fruits on the feeding platform. We were a bit disappointed we missed an encounter with the orang utan, but we were able to see the babies still kept in the nursery.
Our second visit was to the Sun Bear Conservation Center. Here we could pass on the walkway above the jungle to see the smallest bears in the world. There are around 46 sun bears in the center, rescued from captivity, as the species is highly endangered due to forest degradation and poaching.
If you stay longer in Sepilok, pay a visit to the Rainforest Discovery Center and try the Canopy Walkway too.
Kinabatangan River Safari
Early afternoon we had the transfer scheduled to move forward to Bilit, for the Kinabatangan river safari. We arranged this trip with Asia Green Travels, including a one night stay at Natural Sukau Bilit Resort. We reached the resort by 15:30, where we were welcomed with drinks and a snack before embarking on the adventure. There were two boat ride sessions to observe the wildlife in the area, one on the first day, at 4 PM, for two hours, and the second one early next day, at 6 AM for about 90 minutes. So we were able to catch both the sunset and the sunrise on the river, each of them very spectacular.
During the safari sessions we could observe lots of macaques, silvered leaf and proboscis monkeys, a totally different experience compared to seeing them in an artificial setup. Plus we’ve seen plenty of birds species, out of which I remember the hornbills, and also a few crocodiles. Our guide was able to spot wildlife from a great distance and kept pointing us where to look, also explaining a few thins about the animals. We were not able to see any pygmy elephants, but we knew they are not always seen on safari sessions and just in certain periods of the year.
There is also the option to take only a day trip from the city, for the afternoon safari session. Honesty, I wouldn’t advise for it. Firstly, it is quite exhausting, as the journey takes almost 3 hours, one way, and the road is quite bumpy in some areas. Then, we found the morning safari more interesting, as the animals seemed more active at this early hour. Not to mention it is an awesome experience to sleep in the sound of the jungle!
Natural Sukau Bilit Resort is very nicely organised, right on the river bench. The villas are spacious and comfortable, on various setups depending on your group size. The staff was very nice and courteous and they were also very friendly with little Eric. He enjoyed a lot the whole experience and I was actually amazed to see he never got bored on the safari sessions, even though we spent a few hours on the boad. The river safari is indeed an awesome experience for the little explorers!
Late in the evening, after dinner, the guests of the resort can join a night jungle trek. Since Eric was already extremely tired, only Andrei went and said he enjoyed it. Even though they were not able to see much wildlife, the jungle at night brought a special feeling.
After the morning safari and breakfast, we embarked on the bus for another 3 hours ride back to Sandakan. From here we were ready to move on the west side of Sabah, for the next part of our Bornean adventure.
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Disclosure: We received a press discount for the 2 days river safari package from Asia Green Travels, in exchange for an honest review. As usual, all the opinions expressed here are our own.