How to See Orangutans in Borneo Independently

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If you choose to travel to Borneo, we bet you’ll want to put a ‘see wild orangutans’ note on the top of your itinerary. And if you are a traveller who counts each penny and you expect it’s going to be a cheap deal in Borneo, as in many other Southeast Asia countries, then you might be shocked by the prices you’ll find here to pay for activities that include seeing orangutans.

To get a better picture, a basic 2-day, 1-night package booked through a travel agency will usually include a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, the drive to Sukau (where you stay overnight, the start of a river cruise or a jungle trek), a 3-hour boat trip on the Kinabatangan River in the early afternoon and one later in the evening.

Orangutans in Borneo
An orangutan in Sepilok Center

The next day you go for another 2.5-hour boat trip on the way back to Sandakan. Add some meals during the trip and you’ll pay MYR 1092/$343 per person (excluding the entrance fee (MYR 30/$9) and a camera fee (MYR 10/$3) at Sepilok).

Now if there are two of you and you’d pay double, i.e. $686, that would be one flight ticket from Asia to Europe, or three months rent in Chiang Mai in Thailand. And that’s only one full day of activities, if you imagine that you need only about 6 hours for the transfer to and from each place.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
A young lady orangutan at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

See orangutans in Borneo independently and save money

But what if we told you that you could spend less than one third per person when you do all of those activities independently? Absolutely! You can see wild orangutans by yourself and go for a river cruise in Kinabatangan without booking overpriced tours.
How can you do it? The short answer: use local transportation, buy your own food and privately contact a lodge where you want to stay overnight.

So, how much are you going to spend in total if you decide to see orangutans in Borneo and wildlife along the Kinabatangan River independently?

This is what we spent:

Transport Sandakan-Sepilok-Sandakan: MYR 10/$3
Entrance to Sepilok: MYR 30/$9
Camera fee: MYR 10/$3
Transport Sandakan-Sukau-Sandakan: MYR 80/$25
One river cruise: MYR 50 /$16
Morning Jungle Trekking: MYR 15/$4.70
Twin bed room: MYR 75/$23
Our own food: MYR 26/$8

Total: MYR 296/$93/per person
Saved: MYR 796/$184/per person

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
Sunset on the Kinabatangan River.

We went only for one river cruise since we had been already on a day cruise in Kota Kinabalu, where we also did a short night cruise to see fireflies. Honestly, once you do a two-hour river cruise during the day, you’ll see enough to be satisfied with your trip to the Kinabatangan River.
And even if you like to observe wildlife near the river and you decide to pay for an extra cruise, you’ll only add MYR 50/$11 for a day cruise and MYR 60/$14 for a night one.

In case you are not interested in visiting Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary near Sandakan, which we recommend visiting anyway, you can do a 2-day, 1-night trip to Sukau, go for two river cruises (day and night) or one river cruise and one jungle trek. If you do it independently, you’ll pay MYR 246/$77.

If you still need more comfort when organizing a day in the wild for yourself, another option that is cheaper than a tour operator, but still more expensive if you go your own way is to arrange a tour at your guesthouse in Sandakan.

The one we stayed in offered a 2D1N trip to Sukau (without Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary) for MYR 360/$113/pax.

Some travel agencies go really high with the prices and you can pay for a one-day trip to Sepilok Center and an hour-long boat trip on Kinabatangan in average MYR 792/$248.

In case you would like to book a 3-day, 2-night trip, get ready to put MYR 1,522/ $ 478 on the table.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
Welcome to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

How to get to Sepilok from Kota Kinabalu

Although tour operators encourage their clients to take a flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan where they pick you up, to travel by bus is a good option, too. It’s very comfortable with A/C, and much cheaper. Plus, planet Earth will say a big “thank you!” for travelling overland.

You will need to take a bus from Kota Kinabalu (bus station on Jalan Padang street near hotel Shangri-la) to the long-distance bus terminal in Inanam.

A one-way ticket costs MYR 1.50/$0.47 and it takes about 15 minutes to get to Inanam. Local buses in Asia depart when they are full, so be ready to wait 20 minutes for a bus.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
A crocodile spotted on the Kinabatangan River.

From Inanam bus terminal you’ll take a bus to Sandakan. The route costs MYR 43/$13.50 and takes about six hours. In case you are prone to motion sickness, get your pill ready. You’ll need it.

From Sandakan, you’ll take the bus #14 from the main Bus Terminal in front of Nak Hotel. The ticket costs MYR 5/$1.16 and it takes about an hour to arrive at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilition Center. The last bus from the sanctuary back to Sandakan leaves at 4pm, so make sure you catch it.

The center is open daily from 9am-12pm & 2pm-4pm. On Friday it’s open from 9am-11am & 2pm-4pm.

How to get to Sukau from Sandakan

Take a local bus from Genting Mas Supermarket on the Jalan Pryer street. A one-way ticket costs MYR 30/$7, the drive takes about 2.5-3 hours and buses to Sukau leave between 10 am and noon.

If you are lucky enough as we were, you can ask at your guesthouse that organizes a tour to Sukau if you can pay only for the lift. .

What to Expect

In Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center they rehabilitate and train about 60-80 orphaned orangutans to survive in the wild, nature and they releasinge them once they are independent enough.

The sanctuary is located within a rainforest of 10,610 acres and you can explore part of it by having a walk on nature trails within the reserve. Apart from semi-wild orangutans, you can also see nocturnal animals here if you go for a night-guided walk. Walks and trails vary from 250 m up to 5 km. The only downside is that they close at 2 pm, so in case you want to come for the afternoon feeding and do a bit of trekking in the forest or canopy walking, arrive far enough in advance.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
Feeding time at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

To make sure you see the orangutans here in Sepilok, we recommend coming for the feeding time that is twice per day, at 10 am and 3 pm, without relying on seeing them in the jungle. We chose the afternoon feeding session and it was a good decision, because there were only a few people around.

The whole procedure of feeding is quite exciting, when you see orangutans arriving shortly before the clock strikes three. Rangers come with baskets full of bananas and sugar cane and the feast begins. The orangutans eat and hang around on the mangrove trees for about 20 minutes, and then they start to disappear slowly in the forest.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
Mother with her baby at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

You might ask if it’s always guaranteed to see these ‘men of the forest’ at feeding time and we can only mention a remark of a ranger who works there and who said there he had been working there for 20 years, and it never happened that they (the orangutans) hadn’t come for at least five minutes to take some food.

During our visit to Sepilok, we saw five adults and one baby orangutan plus a few macaques that arrived to pick some leftovers.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
A young orangutan with a ranger at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

We were also extremely lucky to meet a ranger with two young ‘lady orangutans’ that he was walking with on the path in the forest. We basically saw them face-to-face, that is, when they weren’t hiding behind the ranger.

When you decide to take a river cruise on the Kinabatangan River, you’ll see the proboscis monkeys, red-leaf monkeys, lots of hornbills and a crocodile or two. For those of you who have never seen a crocodile in reallife , we suggest sitting in the middle of the boat, not on the edge, so you don’t panic if you spot him just 2 m away from you.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
A hornbill spotted on the Kinabatangan River.

Happiness is always a coincidence

When we went to Sukau, our big wish was to see a wild elephant near the river. The staff at our guesthouse told us it’s not the season to spot them and we believed them, although a friend of our friends saw them in lower Kinabatangan a few days before us.

Anyway, the alarming situation with deforestation in Borneo also plays its role and we truly wish it does not end up in a total disaster for the animals and their habitat. So, the fact that you encounter an elephant on the Kinabatangan in the future will be a sign the situation is stable or improving.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
An adult orangutan watching us from above.

We didn’t see wild elephants in Sukau, but we went for an early morning guided trek and came back with a big smile on our faces and an exciting feeling in our hearts, which were beating fast. We had just seen a wild male orangutan only a few meters from the path we were walking on.

Apparently we were not very welcome in his territory as he started to throw a huge 2 m-long log from above the tree on us, but we learnt a lot about their behavior and habitat that day.

Muse, our guide, confirmed we were extremely lucky to see a wild orangutan so close to the road and we could be only grateful for that precious moment.

What to bring with you for a river cruise:

• sunglasses
• sunscreen
• mosquito repellent (especially for the late afternoon and night cruise)
• a hat

For jungle trekking:

• leech repellent or special socks
• outfit in natural colours. Leave your bright red pants or shiny, blue t-shirt at home. You don’t want to make an enemy in the wild jungle, right?
• comfortable, sturdy shoes (although it’s possible to run up and down the hill with flip-flops, as our guide did).

For both trips, take a bottle of water with you and a binocular, in case you travel with one. Otherwise the guides on river cruises provide a couple of them for the tourists, too.

how to see orangutans in Borneo independently
Sukau Backpackers B’n’B – a place where we stayed.

Where to Stay

For accommodation in Kota Kinabalu, check out our post  where we recommend places of different price range.

In Sandakan, we recommend to stay at the Rose Guesthouse and in Sukau you might like to check Sukau Backpackers B&B.

Our dream to see wild orangutans in Borneo came true and we were as happy as kids to leave Borneo with a great feeling that we experienced something that we will carry with us on our journey for a very long time.

Do you prefer an independent way of living your adventures on the road or would you rather book a package via a tour operator? We would love to hear from you!

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38 thoughts on “How to See Orangutans in Borneo Independently”

  1. What incredible experience! I love orangutans like every other animals and everything that involves watching them and learning about them can only make me happy. It’s incredible that they rehabilitate and train orphaned orangutans to survive in the wild, such a good cause, thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thank you for reading, Franca. Yes, definitely, they do a good job at the Sepilok and I wish we could spent more time there 🙂

  2. Wonderful post and photos Ivana and Gianni. A few years ago, I saw orangutans in Sumatra, but would love to visit Borneo too – looks beautiful.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thanks for reading, Mark. We’ve heard great things about wildlife in Sumatra, too. Yes, Borneo is indeed a wonderful place for ecotourism, hope you can make it there one day. ps: and once you are in Kota Kinabalu, you will love this city. Durian is at each corner there 🙂

  3. I love to travel independently and to see wildlife (it might be great for others to join a tour, I won’t judge them at all). So glad I found your article, so far I always wondered whether I would be able to see the Orangutans in Borneo without joining a tour group. I read an article (somewhere) that palm oil use is responsible for large-scale deforestation. Ever since I heard about it I check product labels for palm oil and search for alternatives. There is an awful lot of products containing palm oil. Thanks for the lovely post, I want to go there straight away. Safe travels 🙂

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Dorothée, thanks for commenting. Yes, palm oil plantations are a big threat for Borneo, as we could witness ourselves. Luckily a few NGOs have started to take action there. Have a good time on the road also yourself 🙂

  4. Good information. I’ve had Sabah on my list for a long time and we’ll eventually get there. A bit shocking about the prices but I would do like you and go independently – with our new life on the road our motto is slow travel and you just save so much money by not having to take flights or take expensive tours. Did you notice a huge difference in lodging/food expenses on Borneo vs the mainland?
    Hey, look forward to seeing you guys in Prague! Let us know when you’re arriving so we can schedule something.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Frank, sure, slow travel mode is a wonderful way to explore the world.
      We cannot really compare the prices with the mainland, since we travelled only to Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Sukau, but we noticed it’s definitely pricey compared to Thailand, let’s say. Check our post about Kota Kinabalu so you can get an idea about different standards you’ll pay for in KK.

      Definitely, we’ll stay in touch once we arrive to the Czech 😉

    2. In Borneo is very easy to hitch-hike, so if you want to save much more money and have a lot of fun, this is perfect place, where to do so! Also you will dont need to pay accommodation, as they are very hospitable and will invite ou home. It is the same in Malaysian, Indonesian and Brunei part of the island. 😉

  5. Wow! Ivana and Gianni, this is a great post and powerful photos. I’d love to see orangutans (and Borneo) from the perspective you have.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thanks a lot, Maria. Hopefully you can experience Borneo and its marvels one day.

  6. Hi, lovely post. Orangutans are definitely cutest, and I’d love to see them by myself. They always look so sad. Thank you for detailed guide….

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Yes, Dejan- Bavaro, they are indeed sweet and so wise 🙂 Hope you’ll have a chance to encounter them one day in the wild or in a sanctuary.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Katie! Yes, the choice to go independently was indeed an amazing experience. And cheaper, too 🙂

  7. Hey, found your post on Pinterest and enjoying reading your hints and tips. I’m planning a trip there and very interested to see the Kinbangan river. I have been told that Kota Kinbangan is where the tours pick up from. Do you think it is possible to arrive there by public bus in the morning and pick up a cruise for the same day?
    Thank you for your help and beautiful pictures!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Lauren,

      Thanks for reaching us out!
      Maybe you mean Kinabatangan river? If yes, then you’ll need to travel to Sandakan town and from there you either take a local bus or book a tour at any guesthouse. Then there is Kota Kinabalu city, from where you can take a trip to Klias river, which is also cool as you will most probably get a chance to see the fireflies at night. You can read more about this here: https://nomadisbeautiful.com/travel-blogs/kota-kinabalu-a-city-of-seafood-beaches-and-durian/

      Hope this helps 🙂 Happy travels!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      I can hear you, Laura! The prices for the tour packages are insane there, but it was really easy to do it independently. Happy travels!

  8. Great and informative post, thanks for sharing! I was looking for something like this for our independent holiday this summer!
    Cheers,
    Dora

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Glad to hear that, Dora! The prices for trips to Borneo, particularly those that include wildlife, might get very high, so we’re happy to help out independent travellers 🙂 Have fun!

  9. Thanks for sharing, some wonderful photographs of these wonderful creatures, plus some useful tips. Hoping I’ll be seeing them or myself next month

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thank you, Iain, best of luck with your orangutan adventures then! We’ll be happy to hear how did it go 🙂

  10. thats exact what i need. thanks for the tips. so you did jungle tracking and river tour during one day?

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Konstantinas,

      We did the boat tour in the afternoon (straight after we got there) and jungle tracking in the morning after, but you can do both in one day. All depends what time you arrive there. Cheers!

  11. Great post 🙂 Really helped us out. Just wondering about your transportation from Sandakan to Sukau and back. Did you get a private van or take a public mini bus? You paid 80 for 2 people for return trip … thats 20 ringgits, per person per way … what a deal! We were just quoted 50 per person per way in some kind of private van that takes 2.5 hours. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Jonathan, thanks for stopping by!

      You might have missed out the part about transport, there is a whole paragraph in the article “How to get to Sukau from Sandakan”.

      “Take a local bus from Genting Mas Supermarket on the Jalan Pryer street. A one-way ticket costs MYR 30/$7, the drive takes about 2.5-3 hours and buses to Sukau leave between 10 am and noon. If you are lucky enough as we were, you can ask at your guesthouse that organizes a tour to Sukau if you can pay only for the lift.”

      So yes, we went with a private car from our guest house named Rose Guesthouse, the link of the place is at the end of the post in the section “Where to stay”.

      Cheers and have a great time in Borneo! .

  12. Are there many cheap lodging options in sukau? I’m worried abou tnot being able to find one if the backpacker hostel place you mentioned is booked….. Thanks!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Sam,
      I’m afraid there aren’t many budget options in Sukau. At least they weren’t in 2014, when we visited the place.
      I’d suggest contacting them in advance and check the availability, so you don’t end up paying for a luxury bungalow.
      Cheers!

  13. Hi Ivana, I’m heading to Sepilok in July and hope to travel to Sakau independently for 2 days/1 night. I understand the public bus takes 2-3 hours and arrives in the afternoon. Did you book onto a boat tour when you arrived or did you book it in advance? I’m worried that if I get there in the late afternoon I’ll miss all the cruises! Also, how do you suggest to return to Sandakan from Sakau as the only information I can find is a public bus leaving at 06.30am! Thank you in advance!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Coral,
      We arranged the boat tour after we arrived to Sukau, directly at the Sukau Backpackers B’n’B. There was one boat trip in the afternoon, and one early in the morning. They might try to convince you to buy a full package and go for as many tours as possible, but pick just those activities that you want and pay for only for them, not for the whole package. We arrived in Sukau around noon, and there was a boat tour around 2pm or 4pm if I remember well…
      Regarding returning to Sukau, I am not sure whether there is another bus back to Sandakan, I’m sorry. We arranged the pick up with the owner of Rose Guesthouse in Sandakan I mentioned in the article. She basically brought us to Sukau from Sandakan by car, and picked us up to bring us to Sandakan. You might try to contact them, and ask if they still do such a thing if you book a room at their place. It’s very simple guest house, but OK for a night or two.
      Take care and enjoy Borneo!

  14. Hello Ivana,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I’ll be visiting Borneo in July and hopefully spot an orangutan!

  15. We did a very similar trip but spent a BIT more money. We did the sanctuary via minibus, but did an inclusive tri with the Sukau Backpacker’s B&B (where you also stayed). We customized it and didn’t include lunch/dinner which saved us some money. We had a crazy mosquito problem in the B&B cabin but otherwise it was a great experience – we even saw a tarsier at night! If anyone’s interested, we kept it under $60 per day for two people — check out our site for a breakdown.

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