Sabah, Borneo

I’m just gonna come out and say it, Borneo (Malaysian Borneo) was not our favourite. It’s a sentiment reflected by a lot of other travellers we met, and I’d probably say it was even our least favourite place in our trip. Luckily we met some brilliant backpackers in our time there which made the month fun, but a lot of the time we were questioning why we were there and wishing we’d spent longer in Indonesia!

Borneo has a weird vibe, as it’s changed so much over the last few decades, and is now essentially a country existing for palm oil plantations, so you have a weird mix of monied ‘oil cities’, lots of displaced ex-pats, sweet little towns that feel more like ‘real Malaysia’, then just achres of heartbreaking oil plantation. Taking a bus journey will undoubtedly take you through hours of palm oil fields, with ‘Shell’ signs, and row after row of perfect palm trees, cut down in their youth and harvested. As a result, there are some amazing animal sanctuaries there, which are simultaneously great (you get to hang out with orangutangs) but tragic (they only exist because logging has destroyed their natural habitat).


Anyway, to back up to the start. We spent a few nights in Kota Kinabalu – a small town that people use as a base to climb up its namesake, the nearby KK volcano. We were far too lazy by this point to consider another big trek, so we just based ourselves there at the mumsy Lucy’s Homestay to plot out our plan. We considered various things – visiting tribes in the jungle; cruises on the Kinabatangan River – and put in some research only to find that many of these had become over-touristed to the point of no longer being socially responsible, and any authenticity had ceased to be. Slightly deflated, we decided to just take it step by step, and after a couple of nights enjoying the delicious foods and nice local markets in KK, we took a local bus to Sepilok to visit one of Borneo’s big draws, Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.

We stayed at a really great jungle lodge, Uncle Tan’s, where we bagged a private double with all meals included for £8pp/pn! The communal areas of the lodge were really nice, and we made some great friends there. Meals there were also great: buffet style and plentiful, from tasty curries and veggies to huge breakfasts with eggs, fruit and cakes! Uncle Tan’s is also great because he offers a free shuttle bus to and from the sanctuary, so we soon bonded with our fellow lodge mates and had a really fun day exploring the area.


We ended up visiting the Orangutan Sanctuary twice in our full day there, as we were so impressed by our first visit. The visit didn’t begin that well, however, as we all traipsed through the park to watch the morning feeding at one of the platforms. Stuffed full with tourists, the feeding felt a little exploitative, and lacked any real magic, as the sanctuary worker climbed the platform and handed out bananas to a group of the orange fuzzy guys with their backs turned to their captive audience. People were moaning about them not turning around, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for the orangutans, who were just there to get fed and supplement their diets from the jungle.


However, after the circus subsided we took a walk onto the ‘bird trail’, where we were lucky enough to encounter a couple of cheeky young orangutans playfully interacting with some tourists – wearing a big floppy hat, and attempting to use a Go-Pro stick! They were pretty hilarious, trying to grab onto people’s trousers and doing somersaults on the path, wrestling with each other and pulling each others’ fluffy ginger hair! We sheepishly tried to approach them, and they immediately grabbed onto our friend Ilona’s trousers, and then one of them grabbed onto Sam, locking his hands around Sam’s wrists and his feet onto Sam’s legs! It was adorable to watch him grinning away as Sam swung him round and round, partially trying to free himself but also playing with him too!

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Sam eventually freed himself from the little guy’s grasp, and we spent a fun 10 minutes walking through the jungle with the two little guys, occasionally stopping to let them have a little play (which took over the whole jungle path!) but mostly just enjoying the opportunity to watch them playing alongside us. Then our fun ruined when a bunch of idiot tourists caught up with us and started making loud monkey noises at them, which drove them off into the jungle. After some harsh words from us, the idiot tourists quietened down a bit, but it wasn’t the same after that (they were more concerned with selfies than actually enjoying this rare encounter!) so we sloped back to the centre, where we watched a video about the conservation of the sanctuary and chatted to a volunteer about their feeding and behaviour (turns out our two guys were always up to trouble!)


We went back to Uncle Tan’s for lunch then headed back in the afternoon, first stopping off at the Sun Bear Sanctuary, where we got up close and personal with the world’s smallest bear species – SO CUTE!! – and learnt all about their behaviour, fed them with some watermelon, and generally had a great time… until, on leaving, we saw that the sanctuary was financed by a huge oil plantation!! Furious, as we’d been told they couldn’t breed any bears because of ‘lack of funding’, it left a bad taste in our mouths as the whole area’s been so fucked by the oil industry, and this is the equivalent of burning down a whole house then offering up a tent by means of rehabilitation. Uch!

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Finally, we returned to see the Orangutans again – firstly at the afternoon feeding, which as far quieter, then at their nursery where we watched them monkeying around in a hilarious fashion – pulling faces at their trainers, refusing to cooperate with their training activities (like strengthening their muscles so they can use the high wires and tree branches in the sanctuary), and generally larking about. We took a fun walk home, chatting with our new friends Ilona and Emmanuel, a great Dutch/Italian couple, then had a great night bonding with our other fellow lodge buddies Nicola and Jack, an Irish/Polish couple, and we all got on really well, laughing and story-telling, then finishing the night with a heated game of couple’s table tennis!


The following day we’d planned to go the Kinabatangan River for a cruise, but found it to be nigh-on impossible on public transport (without a tour) so we soon gave up, also because there’d been an incident in a nearby town a few weeks prior where a Canadian was beheaded by extremists! The whole Sabah area of Borneo – especially near the islands – is continually plighted by pirates and terrorist activity, and we got a dodgy feel from one of the main towns when trying to travel independently, so we obeyed our gut instincts and headed back to Kota Kinabalu!