Orangutans, the critically endangered great apes, live in the wild in only 2 places in the world. That’s right, only 2 places. The rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. We just so happened to be heading that way when we booked our trip to Malaysian Borneo for diving. So, after a little research, we arranged our flights in and out of Borneo to give us enough time to make a stop in Sepilok. Why Sepilok you may ask?
Sepilok is home to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. This center’s program rescues young orangutans and provides them with a sanctuary to heal, an introduction into the wild, and the ability to hopefully be rehabilitated back into the rainforest. It primarily takes in orphaned orangutans that have been stranded by illegal poaching of their parents or that have become part of the illegal pet trade. The Rehabilitation Center borders the Kalili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, a 10,000+ acre nature reserve set aside by the government to protect the area from further deforestation. It is home to a relatively small but growing number of wild orangutans who teach the younger rehabilitated orangutans as they grow and mature over the years. With enough time, the goal is for the rehabilitated orangutans to eventually leave the Center on their own for life in the wild.
Excited to see it in action, we purchased tickets early for the first bus out of Semporna the following morning. We left our hostel with a GPS map on my phone and some general directions from the owner, in broken English of course, and headed toward the bus station. We took a few small streets passing through the overcrowded local market. We definitely felt out of place with the locals staring at us as I stood at least a head above everyone else. I would duck under the edges of many of the overhanging tarps and tents while dodging stale fishy puddles of water draining from the fisherman’s tables. Eventually, we found the bus station which appeared to be shut down with the ticket windows firmly closed. Standing in the middle of a parking low looking around, I’m certain we looked lost as we were approached by a gentleman offering to sell us tickets. Even with having been in Southeast Asia for a few months and aware of the possibility of scamming tourists, I reluctantly asked him how to get to Sepilok. He offered the tickets at the price I was expecting from a quick online search and I simply handed over the cash and walked away with 2 tickets…I just hoped we didn’t buy a couple slips of paper rather than true tickets. In the end though, it turned out that the guy was legit and he met us at the bus station the following morning to sell the rest of the seats. We celebrated our last night in Semporna with a local treat (I have no idea what it is, but it was good).
We finally got on the road to leave Semporna the following morning excited to get to Sepilok. However, our bus, aka packed minivan, certainly wasn’t in any hurry to get anywhere, even in the pouring rain. Whitney kindly journaled the exciting events at the beginning of our ride and I can’t help but share the experience…we left the bus lot, stopped for gas, stopped to wash the van, stopped for some oil at the auto parts store, made a couple roadside bathroom breaks, and even picked up a couple people along the side of the road, one of whom smoked in the back seat next to us for the majority of the ride. The bumpy ride through the remote parts of Borneo took us over many rolling hills of palm oil plantations. Oh, did I mention the cargo on board?…it wouldn’t have been complete without the cardboard box rattling in the back with a couple live chickens clucking throughout the entire ride.
Eventually, we got to our stop at Sepilok Junction, the crossroads near the Orangutan Sanctuary. We stepped out into what felt like the middle of nowhere as harsh rain was beginning to return. Thankfully, a little old taxi was ready and waiting to take us the final few kilometers to the resort as we started out on foot in the direction of our accommodations. We checked into the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort for another private bungalow experience. We certainly felt like we were living it up again in another private and secluded resort especially as we settled in for a late lunch at the outdoor restaurant overlooking the tropical gardens. Even with the pouring rain we could see the beautiful landscapes from the outdoor restaurant and wished we could wander through it all. (Definitely recommend staying here)
Since we only had a couple nights here, we sought to maximize ur opportunity to see the orangutans and headed over to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center that same day to catch the afternoon feeding.
Now, for tourists like us, there is a long wooden pathway leading into the jungle to a viewing platform. Twice a day at 10am and 3pm a few baskets of bananas and oranges are delivered to the platform where a handful of orangutans may or may not come to retrieve these basic handouts. Although this may sound like a way to lure the animals for tourists to see, it serves as a safety net for the rehabilitated orangutans. It is always the same exact food at the same exact time everyday which provides a minimum staple of nutrition for the ones that need it, yet it encourages them to search for a larger variety of food in the jungle. We decided to purchase a 2 day ticket planning to see the other parts of the center the following day and made our way to the viewing platform. There was only a small group of people that afternoon and we watched as the food was laid out on the platform and orangutans came swinging in from the surrounding forest for a small afternoon snack.
Snapping our heads back and forth each time we heard the rustling of branches, we watched as these orangutans gracefully closed in on the platform. At first there was only one young orangutan, then within a couple of minutes we notice a few more. The strength they possess to swing through the forest and even hang by only a few toes while casually munching on some fruit was incredible. We watched as long as we could then headed back to relax at the resort for the rest of the evening.
The next morning we went back to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. We got there early to see the young orangutans climbing in the jungle gym behind the nursery. We watched as the young ones would swing around gaining the strength to eventually live their lives in the trees. We were so entertained and even laughed as a mother orangutan chased her child when he would try to run away.
We then made sure to get back over to the feeding platform to see the 10am feeding and were so excited to see a mother holding her tiny baby in her arms. One of the staff explained that she was one of their rescued orangutans from years prior that has now moved back into the wild and the fact that she was holding her baby proved the successful rehabilitation into the wild orangutan community. What a beautiful sight. This little conversation was cut short as we heard a loud stomp only a few meters behind us. Everyone on the platform was startled, many jumping a few inches as we all spun around to see a big orangutan standing over us. He just sat staring at us all as we simply stared back, then slowly the cameras started snapping around us. It was quite a close encounter to say the least.
Afterwards we toured the nearby Sun Bear Conservation Center located right next to the Orangutan Center. A paved pathway leads to a raised platform for tourists to walk above the fenced areas maintained for these bears. It is a very new program and so far it has simply been a rescue center providing a safe haven for the Sun Bears that have been rescued from the illegal pet trade and others that were injured as humans gradually invaded their natural habitats.
One sad case involves a bear that seeks out human attention putting himself in danger if ever left in the wild after having lived as a pet for many years. This particular bear even goes as far as purposely injuring himself just to get more attention from the veterinary staff. When approached from the viewing platforms he looks up with open hands obviously asking for attention. It’s moments like this that reminds me how important it is to try to conserve habitats as much as possible as our communities grow in the world. Still, we paid our donations and took time to get in all the photos we could.
Interestingly there are a few high powered telescoping lenses donated by the USA to take a closer look at these bears.
These cute little sun bears look like teddy bears even when full grown. Overall, it is only in the beginning stages so hopefully one day this program will also find way to be rehabilitate some of the rescued bears back into the wild.
The final self-guided tour was through the Rainforest Discovery Center a few kilometers up the road. Armed with months of walking further than most people ever would, we began our trek to this center. We stopped briefly for lunch at the little shack just outside the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and were more than pleased. The little shack just outside the gate of the center had the best meal we ate in Malaysia. I have no idea what it was, but it was reddish in color had some rice and tons of flavor…tasted incredible. Additionally, the family that owned it were so happy to have us; they even took a few selfies with Whitney. Not sure why I was left out, maybe it was my aging hippie vibes from trekking through Southeast Asia. Either that or the more likely reason was that I was still focused on consuming each and every bite of my favorite Malaysian meal.
After fueling up, on we went to the Rainforest Discovery Center. We only had a couple afternoon hours to wander the area and I’m sure we could have spent a full day here if we really wanted to take more of the trails and understand more about the rainforests, but we stuck to the basics. We headed straight for the raised canopy walkway high in top of the trees. I felt like it was mostly built for the bird watchers, but having just left the orangutans, I was more interested in spotting an orangutan in the wild. Then at the very end of the canopy walkway with just enough gazing into the forest I eventually spotted a couple climbing in the tree tops. A rare sighting of a hand reaching through some branches caught my eye. Then, when I got Whitney’s attention, she spotted them too. I always need her as proof so she can back up my stories when I get home. A rare sight I’m sure, it was so cool to see them. From there we took a few looping trails through the rainforest circling back to the entrance to call it a day.
We made the long walk back to the bungalow just before dark. As tempted as we were to stop at the same shack for another round, we decided to head back to the beautiful outdoor restaurant for dinner at the resort instead. We took it easy again for the rest of the day catching up with the friends and family around the world with the reliable Wi-Fi at the resort.
In the end, we certainly recommend making a stop in Sepilok if you’re ever in Borneo. There’s only a couple resorts in the area and I think they were all relatively new so any should work for a night or two. For us though, it was time to depart for the next country on our list.
Follow along as we share a little island hopping over a couple weeks in the Philippines!