Sandakan, the second largest city in Sabah, is a gateway to several wildlife conservation centres and other eco destinations, and among some of the popular attractions are the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, the Kinabatangan River Cruise, Gomantong Caves, Turtle Island and the long canopy walk at the Rainforest Discovery Centre.
We stayed at the Hotel Sandakan Waterfront which is located right in town and it boasts a beautiful view of the Sulu Sea. The hotel was going through a change in management and physical renovation, and as I write this post, it is now officially called the Ibis Styles Sandakan Waterfront. The room was comfortable, though a tad small and the ambience seemed rather weary. I hope it has improved now that renovation is completed. Nevertheless, it was still a good bargain for us – only US$40 a night.
Lucky for us, there were several travel agencies located just a few doors away from the hotel. We enquired about the availability of a private car and driver to take us to Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary for a day. The problem was many of these travel agencies preferred to stick to their standard travel itineraries (either half day or 1-day tour) and because we missed their departure time which was an hour earlier, they were not able to accommodate our request for a customized tour.
But one travel agency was able to do just that for us. The travel agent recommended a private car and driver to take us to, not only, Sepilok and Labuk Bay, but also to the Rainforest Discovery Centre for a price of MYR200 a day (US$60)! Our driver, Hadi, came to pick us up in his 6-seater van (though there was only my friend and I) and he turned out to be a chatty guide, sharing with us about Sandakan and its people, food, the daily life here, etc. Hadi is also a freelance tourist guide and he takes tourists to go on the Kinabatangan River Cruise.
En route to Sepilok, Hadi brought us to the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC). The RDC is an environmental education centre for teachers and students but is also opened to the public to boost tourism in Sandakan. There are the botanical gardens showcasing various tropical flora and fauna, a lakeside walking trail and a series of canopy towers which give you an opportunity to have a birds-eye view of treetops. A proper visit along the trails and towers takes around 1.5-2 hours and best to start at 8am or 4pm due to the sweltering heat.
Sadly, we were not able to do that. We did not pack the right shoes for this trip. We just wanted to go to Sepilok and Labuk Bay, thus didn’t expect to be at the RDC. As much as we love hiking trails but wearing sandals ain’t gonna let us enjoy exploring the centre. Furthermore, when we arrived at the RDC, it was almost noon. After walking for 45 minutes, we decided to stop halfway and headed back to the entrance where our driver was waiting for us. We told ourselves, we would explore RDC in depth next time 🙂
When we arrived at Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, it was closed for lunch. We had lunch at the cafeteria and while waiting for the sanctuary to be opened again, we dropped by at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre which is located next door to Sepilok.
Did you know that the Malayan sun bears are the smallest bears in the world?? Each bear has their own chest mark, hence the name, sun bear.
The unfortunate thing about sun bears is that they are becoming extinct due to poaching and brutally killed for trade. They are, more often than not, held illegally in cramped cages under stressful and filthy conditions.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre was established in 2008 and their aim is to rehabilitate sun bears, promote conservation, education and research. While standing at the observation platform, a volunteer from the Centre came by to share a lot of facts and stories about the bears and the Centre. The Centre has managed to rescue, rehabilitate and released the sun bears back to their natural habitat, a 2.5 hectare enclosed forest. The Centre does not receive any government funds, instead depending on donations locally and worldwide.
We were able to spot up to 6 sun bears that day and during their feeding times too. A volunteer came by to throw various types of fruits to the bears. Sun bears feed on honey, fig fruits and termites.
For more information about the Centre and what you can do to help the sun bears, please visit www.bsbcc.org.my
We have been enthusiastic about our visit to Sepilok. The orang utan is a species of great apes and is native to Indonesia and Malaysia, currently found only in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
The sanctuary was opened in 1964 as a rehabilitation initiative to rescue orphaned baby orang utans from logging sites, plantations and illegal hunting. Today the sanctuary is located in a virgin rainforest reserve which covers an area of 4,294 hectares. There are about 60 to 80 orang utans living freely in the reserve and this sanctuary has become one of Sabah’s major tourist attractions.
The tourists mainly come for the feeding sessions which happen at 10am and 3pm. It is advisable to come for the 3pm session because there is less crowd and quieter. Tourists are advised to be silent at the viewing gallery to watch the orang utans come to the feeding platform where they are fed with bananas. Hadi mentioned that the10am feeding session gets too crowded with tourists arriving in bus loads and some actually holler out to the orang utans from the viewing gallery! Thankfully, freelance tourist guides like Hadi and others take pride in Sepilok and their conservation efforts, so they do not hesitate one bit to reprimand tourists for making a lot of noise. After all, tourists are given the opportunity to watch the orang utans up close in their natural habitat, so the least we should do is to respect it.
The moment we saw the ranger walked up a boardwalk with a pail of, I presumed, bananas – we stepped forward in silence waiting anxiously to see the orang utans. For about 5 minutes, nothing happened. No orang utans. And then suddenly we saw the ropes (which linked the feeding platform to the trees) started to move…and we saw a baby orang utan swinging on the rope heading towards the bananas. The baby was, a little shy, perhaps he/she was conscious of the crowd but it wasn’t the case for the adult orang utan. There was one orang utan which was probably aware of the human attention – he was swinging on the ropes, like a trapeze man in a circus – at one point, I thought he (well, I presumed it was male – don’t they just love attention?! Hahah) was performing some kind of a pole-dancing move on the ropes! And that same orang utan was trying to steal some bananas from another adult orang utan who selfishly refused to share and kept showing his/her back to us.
Apologies for only sharing one picture. The rest of my Sepilok photos were blur due to excitement of seeing the “Wild Man of Borneo” that my hands shook while taking the photos!
The day was very humid – hot and sticky – but we didn’t mind one bit. We loved every moment of it. We felt grateful for conservation centres which rescue and rehabilitate sun bears. We had fun watching the playful orang utans swinging especially how human-like they were. And most importantly, as my friend and I talked about our experiences at Sepilok while on the way to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, and that we are so thankful that the state of Sabah has had been actively conserving and promoting their wildlife…for the future.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
– Opening Hours 8am-5pm daily
– Entrance Fees: MYR7 for Malaysians, MYR15 for Foreigners
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
– Opening Hours 9am-3.30pm daily
– Entrance Fees: MYR5 for Malaysians, MYR30 for Foreigners
Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary
– Opening Hours 9am-12pm & 2-4pm daily
– Feeding Times: 10am & 3pm
– Entrance Fees: MYR5 for Malaysians, MYR30 for Foreigners, MYR10 for camera & videos