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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
• 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.
Where to Stay
For accommodation in Kota Kinabalu, check out our post where we recommend places of different price range.
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!