A note about the photographs: I really never do any photography of any kind, except to snatch an occasional photo of the kids. I was eager to get these pictures out there so that friends and family could see them, so they have not been edited in any way yet, aside from some quick cropping. I shot in RAW and am told by a friend who knows something about photography that some of the "graininess" in the photos can easily be dealt with -- I hope so, as eventually I would like to edit and print some of our favorites for framing! We used two cameras: a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot that we've had for years, and a Canon Rebel t2i DSLR, for which I also rented a lens to take on our trip -- a Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. (I really have no idea what those numbers all mean, to be honest. I was told by above-mentioned friend as well as some very friendly camera shop workers that it was my best compromise... I could optimize for either light or zoom -- but not both -- and still manage to hike with the camera comfortably. Since it can be quite dark under the tree canopy, and we cared most about getting a few good orangutan shots, we opted for "light", thinking we could crop whatever images we ended up getting. I'm happy with the result!)
A Little Background Information
My husband and I often plan our personal and family travel around wildlife viewing opportunities and fantastic natural experiences. In particular, we have a strong interest in primates. Ten years ago (prior to having children) we embarked on our first major "primate endeavor" in search of wild chimpanzees. We visited Gombe Stream, in Tanzania -- the national park where Jane Goodall set up camp and spent years researching the native chimpanzee population. It was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives! We decided then that we would make it a goal to observe all of the great apes in their natural habitats. Orangutans, which can only be found in the wild in Borneo and Sumatra, were naturally "next" on our list because they are the most highly endangered of the great apes due to rampant destruction of their natural habitat for palm oil production (check out the deforestation map of Borneo, below).
. . . So, finally, after about ten years of dreaming and two years of intense planning, in April 2011, our family of four (myself, my husband, and two daughters - ages 6 and 8) set off for our next big "primate adventure", and traveled 30 hours (and 12 time zones) to Sabah, Borneo! Our itinerary was as follows:
- 3 nights Le Meridien, Kota Kinabalu (tripadvisor reviews) with day trips to Mari Mari Cultural Village and Gaya Island for snorkeling with Divedownbelow
- 3 nights Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley (tripadvisor reviews)
- 2 nights Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge, Sukau (tripadvisor reviews)
- 1 night Abai Lodge, Abai (tripadvisor reviews)
- 3 nights Lankayan Island (tripadvisor reviews)
- 2 nights Sepilok Nature Resort, Sepilok (tripadvisor reviews), with a day trip into Sandakan
The Journey from Boston to Kota Kinabalu
The good news is that, despite some chaos getting our flights in order (read below), in the end, all of our flights took off and landed as planned, and we arrived in Kota Kinabalu exactly on schedule. We flew from Boston to JFK airport in New York on an American Airlines shuttle, then from JFK to Seoul and Seoul to Kota Kinabalu on Asiana Airlines flights. (Feel free to skip ahead to the next session if you don't particularly care to read about the details of this "journey"!)
...When I originally booked our flights (about 10 months in advance of our trip), we were supposed to depart Boston on a Friday at 9:00am, getting us into JFK at about 9:50am. Our Asiana Airlines flight from JFK to Seoul was scheduled to depart at 1:00pm, so I thought this was perfect -- enough time for a slight delay (which, as we all know, is not uncommon!), but not so much time that our layover in JFK would be miserable. Well, that 9:00am flight got canceled several months before our trip, and we were automatically re-booked on a 10:40am flight out of Boston -- getting us into JFK at 11:30am, only an hour and a half before our internatioal flight was scheduled to depart. I was not comfortable with this! Not only was the 1:00pm flight the only Asiana flight of the day between JFK and Seoul, but it was "vacation week" for much of the east coast, and so the likelihood that the flights would be full over the weekend was high. The one and a half hour connection time is the absolute minimum legal time allowed for international connections to be scheduled at JFK -- if our flight out of Boston were delayed for any reason, we could EASILY have missed our flight to Seoul, and who knows if we would have been able to get on another one that weekend! I called American airlines, and after MANY HOURS on the phone (truthfully -- no exaggeration --I spent 4-5 hours on the phone with various representatives), they FINALLY agreed to re-book our family on a flight departing Boston at 6:00am. This meant a much earlier wake-up than any of us would have liked, and a 5 HOUR layover in JFK, but it allowed room for error, so I didn't complain!
... I am very, very glad that I anguished through the hours on the phone with American Airlines! It turned out that we could not be ticketed beyond our Boston - JFK flight when we arrived at the airport. This meant that, after landing in JFK, we had to transfer to the international terminal (which actually took significantly longer than I would have anticipated), and once we were there, we had to go back to the check-in area! Because we were early, we had to wait for the Asiana counter to open, but once it did, we had to get in line as though we had just driven to the airport from New Jersey or something. If we had arrived at that counter at 12:00noon for a 1:00pm departing international flight (which we only would have managed in the best-case scenario if we had been on that 10:40am flight), we would have had to stand in a LONG line! Then, of course, we had to go through security, and then on to our gate... I believe with every fiber of my being that if we had been on that 10:40am flight from Boston, we could have missed our JFK - Seoul flight -- even if there were no delays or other problems!
Phew! So, crisis averted, we checked in as soon as the Asiana desk opened, went to our gate, and enjoyed our flight. I had read fantastic reviews of Asiana Airlines. I have to admit that I found the planes to be a bit drab, outfitted in tan overtones, and just not very bright or cheerful -- a little dated. That said, the service was fantastic, and each seat (we flew economy, or "travel class") had its own seat back entertainment system complete with videos and games on demand. The food was fine -- not the best, but certainly not the worst, airline food I've ever had. Overall it was a fine flight, but nothing really to write home about.
Seoul airport was easy to navigate, but food options were limited. I enjoy Asian cuisines, but I find eating generally difficult the first few days of international travel. My stomach seems to be the most effected by jet-lag. I can manage the sleep, but food becomes very unappetizing. When we landed in Seoul, I just wanted something light and cool -- a fruit smoothie or something similar, which just wasn't easy to find. I managed to find fruit juice and made due with that!
Kota Kinabalu (KK)
Our senses were ignited as soon as we landed in Kota Kinabalu. It was a little after 11:00pm, local time. The humidity and tropical smells permeated even the jet-way to the airport terminal. We were so excited!
We traveled with carry-on luggage only, so headed straight out once we passed through security. I had arranged for a pick-up from our hotel because I knew we (and especially the kids) would be exhausted, but I have to admit, we really didn't need to do this. There's a sort of concierge desk at the KK airport where you can easily arrange a taxi -- you tell the agent at the desk where you're going, you pay right then and there, and they give you a slip of paper that you take out to the official taxi cab line (we figured this out later in the trip!) and hand to the driver -- definitely cheaper than arranging transport through the hotel, and equally as safe, reliable and quick.
Since we had arrived so late at night, and we were all so exhausted, we immediately fell asleep after checking into our hotel, Le Meridien. This was perfect, actually! We were all sound asleep by midnight, and slept through until about 8:00am. It wasn't quite as much sleep as the kids needed, but it was enough, and we were so eager to begin our adventure, that waking up the next morning was really no problem!
We had two full days in the city before we would need to fly to Lahad Datu for our transfer to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. We wanted this time in KK so that we could adjust to the time change before heading out for several-hours-long hikes in the heat and humidity of the jungle. Two days isn't really a lot of time, but it was enough to give us all a sense for KK -- it really is a small city. It's an interesting place. Luxury hotels mingle with the "real" KK -- where the local people live, work, eat, shop . . . I loved staying at Le Meridien because it was in the heart of all of this.
Our first full day was a Sunday, so after breakfast we headed out to the Gaya Street market. It was a nice walk from Le Meridien, which enabled us to see a good bit of the city, and poke our heads into some shops. The market itself wasn't really very different from markets I've visited all over the world -- and I doubt it's a whole lot different than the markets that can be found throughout KK the rest of the week. Maybe it's bigger? Not sure... But it was fun -- lots of food, clothes, pets, toys, and everything else imaginable for sale. It was very crowded (and hot!), but we all felt totally safe - even carrying around what felt like a big camera. There were a few "entertainers" (one guy with snakes, as I recall) near where we entered the market, but the kids were getting tired, so we headed back to the hotel for a swim. (It was also going to be the only pool of the trip, which the kids knew, so they were anxious to take advantage!)
We ate lunch at the pool, and then headed back to our room to freshen up. A little after 1:00pm, we were picked up for our visit to the Mari Mari Cultural Village. I know, a packed first day, but I wanted to make sure we all stayed awake!
Mari Mari Cultural Village
The drive to Mari Mari Cultural Village took about 45 minutes. We picked up a few guests from other hotels along the way, and when we arrived, there were a few other visitors as well. All in all, there were maybe twelve of us or so for the afternoon visit. The center is set in a beautiful location by a roaring river, and the grounds are lovely. As soon as we began walking over the swinging bridge that takes you into the "village", the skies opened up, the thunder cracked, and it just started pouring!! This may not sound ideal, but it was actually VERY cool and really added to the "vibe" of our visit!
When we got to the village side of the swinging bridge, we were greeted by "villagers" who jumped out from behind the bushes and demanded to know who our "leader" was. Very theatrical! ;-) We then proceeded to visit the various buildings of the center. As visitors, you are lead around the center by a guide ("tribal leader"). There are five replica homes representing the lifestyle of five different tribes indigenous to Sabah. In each building, the guide tells you about the home, the tribe and their way of life, and you take part in a traditional activity -- cooking, tasting rice wine, making a sweet from rice paste, starting a fire without matches, and getting a henna tattoo. The tour ends with a dance performance and the chance to eat some of the food that you had helped to prepare earlier on. It was a very interesting visit, and a low-key way to spend our first (very tired!) day.
To be honest, my recall of the visit isn't quite what it should be. When we were touring the 4th building, my younger daughter slipped on some wet wooden steps and landed quite hard on her back. A huge lump and some ugly bruising and scrapes immediately appeared on her spine, but luckily we had our first aid kit, so once it was clear that she could move and see alright, we cleaned and patched her up. (As you can imagine, we were jet-lagged, as far from home as possible, and a little uncertain of our surroundings -- so this was actually pretty scary for a few minutes! It could have happened on our porch steps in our backyard, and it wasn't the sort of "accident" I had prepared myself for on this trip!) We missed the henna tattoos, which was a bummer, but caught up with our group for the dance show. In the end, my daughter was fine, the rain that we experienced at Mari Mari was the only rain we had (during daytime hours) for the entire trip, and thankfully, my daughter's fall was our only injury!
We got back to our hotel around 6:30pm, ordered some room service, called a friend of ours who is a doctor to make sure there was nothing we needed to worry about pertaining to my daughter's injury, and were all asleep before 8:00pm!
Snorkeling on Gaya Island with Divedownbelow
Ahhh. . . a good nights' rest later, we were ready for some action on our second day in KK. After a fantastic breakfast, we were picked up from the hotel at about 8:15am by Divedownbelow. We then picked up guests from two other hotels, and proceeded to the jetty, which is located at the Sutera Harbour Resort. I have to admit, pulling into the Sutera just reinforced that feeling of contrasts present in KK -- I honestly felt like, if I only saw a picture, I could have believed it was a photo taken in Orlando ... It didn't feel like I was literally on the other side of the world!
The boat out to Gaya island only took about 10 minutes -- very quick. Pulling up to the beach/dock where divedownbelow has their operations is lovely. They are the only outfit stationed there, so the whole thing feels very intimate. The entire experience was VERY laid-back! They helped us find gear (and had equipment that fit my very small 6 year old) and get suited up -- putting us all into full body suits even though we were only snorkeling, for sun protection, but also because there are little microscopic "jelly bugs" that sometimes brush by you while snorkeling, and they do sting just a little (certainly not enough to keep you out of the water, though, so no worries!).
Our day consisted of a morning snorkel one one side of the bay, rest, another snorkel on the other side of the bay (both of these snorkels involved swimming out a fair distance), lunch and rest, then another afternoon snorkel at a nearby location that they took us out to by boat. The quality of the snorkeling was fine. It was not the best snorkeling I've experienced (Lankayan was much better -- see below -- as was snorkeling in Akumal, Mexico which we did a couple of years ago), but it was very enjoyable, and I did see some fish that I had never seen before! We felt very well taken care of, and the lunch they offered, though simple, was very good (there were sodas and pringles for purchase as well, and free juice and "biscuits" were on offer all day). We were back at the Sutera jetty around 4:30pm.
When I was initially planning our trip to Sabah, I had assumed we would stay at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru while we were in Kota Kinabalu. It had the best tripadvisor reviews, and I thought we may just really hang out at the resort, rest, and not venture out -- after all, it would only be two days, cocktails by a pool is appealing, and we would be tired . . . But then I got a 50% off coupon for a Starwood stay of my choice in the mail (my husband travels a lot for work and is Starwood Gold), and a club room at Le Meridien ended up costing just about $100 per night . . . it seemed far too good a deal to pass up, and all three nights would cost less than one night at the TA! I am so glad we ended up staying at Le Meridien! It really was the perfect choice for us.
In the end, although we stayed in KK for three nights, we were really only there for 2 days, and so paying for the Tanjung Aru probably would have been an extravagant choice. And actually, I LOVED venturing out into the city. Both in KK and Sandakan (later on) everyone we met was so friendly and inviting. People literally touched my children's faces as they walked by, and at one point (in Sandakan) a woman who was in front of me in line turned around completely of her own will, looked at me, smiled, and said "Welcome to Malaysia." I am so glad that I had the chance, even though brief, to have those experiences. KK is a feast for the senses (at least for someone who doesn't spend a lot of time in SE Asia), and just really shouldn't be missed!
Staying at a "Western-style" hotel turned out to be a good choice for us at the beginning of the trip as well. The breakfast buffet was incredible, and we all felt comfortable eating absolutely everything on offer. The kids were able to find things they liked easily . . . it was a good way to ease into things slowly. The truth is, Le Meridien is a chain hotel. It was very nice, but the hotel itself is, by no fault of its own, "generic". "Generic" worked for us at that point in our trip. I would rate Le Meridien very high for what it is -- everyone we met was friendly and helpful, the food was very, very good, the rooms were clean, familiar and spacious, the beds were very comfortable, and the bathrooms were very nice, with all of the amenities you would expect. . . . the view of the harbour from our room was fantastic! I'd say that the only thing that could be a little nicer is the pool area -- but even that suited our needs just fine (we only swam once during our stay because we were too busy doing other fun things!).
Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL)
The Borneo Rainforest Lodge, on the other hand, was anything but "generic"! I honestly believe that it is one of the most magical places on Earth that I will ever have the fortunate opportunity to visit. It is stunningly beautiful, rich with life, smells, sounds . . .
OK, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning!
We flew on the 7:00am flight from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu. (And by the way, I just have to mention that we rode in the coolest taxi ever on the way to the KK airport! "Bling" does not seem like an adequate word to use in describing how this driver had decked out his car! I only wish my camera hadn't been put in the trunk with the rest of our luggage!) The flight was smooth, and you are granted a great view of what I assume was Mt. Kinabalu, as well as the jungle and palm oil plantations below.
Upon landing in Lahad Datu (nothing more than an airstrip, really), we were driven to the Borneo Nature Tours offices -- about a 2 minute drive. There, we signed all sorts of forms, used the bathrooms, and had some water. They offered food as well, but we declined, having already eaten breakfast at the airport in KK. Also there was a lovely British couple who we chatted with. They were returning visitors to the BRL, having visited 5-6 years prior for almost a week. Since the Danum Valley was, in our minds, our best opportunity for orangutan spotting on our trip (and that was the whole reason for planning this trip!), we couldn't help but ask them how many orangutans they had seen the last time they visited. Their reply: "None". We knew this was a risk we were taking, so we managed to keep ourselves together, but we were all a little crestfallen, I must admit.
Once all of the paperwork was sorted out, we were on our way. I read many blogs and reviews before our trip that bemoaned the very bumpy ride out to the lodge. Well, it had rained non-stop the days/weeks leading up to our visit. We were very, very lucky (blessed?) to have beautiful weather for our entire stay, but the roads were still pretty rough from the rain they had been having the days prior. That said, though, it wasn't as bad as I expected. Yes, the roads were bumpy, and some of the bridges were under repair, but it really was manageable until the last 4km or so -- when the road turned into the lodge property. (OK, I'll be honest -- my youngest experienced some motion sickness, which she's never had anywhere ever before -- but I think the jet-lag contributed to this, too.) Those last 4 km were rough, I must admit. . . but we made it! If you're prone to car sickness, or still simply recovering from jet lag, I would recommend that you carry some plastic bags and hand wipes -- just in case (luckily, we had both!)!
Upon reaching the lodge, we were greeted with leaf-necklaces and glasses of fresh juice. We were introduced to our guide (we had arranged for a private guide), who spent some time chatting with us about our goals for our stay, and were given a brief introduction by a manager before being led to our room.
We stayed in one of the deluxe chalets during our visit. The rooms are actually very simple, but really lovely -- all natural materials, plenty of water and tea, balconies with exquisite views of the rainforest (and attached drying racks for clothes!). . . I should mention that the balconies, while very private, do not offer 100% privacy, as guests do sometimes venture out onto the grounds by the river, and if you really, truly wanted to, you could see your neighbor's balcony. Also, before leaving for our trip, I imagined we would make good use of the outdoor tub on the balcony, but we actually didn't use it all that much mainly because we were so eager to explore the grounds during our "free" time, and the one time we did try a bath, there really wasn't enough warm water to take a comfortable soak -- it got chilly rather quickly!
Our guide, Sylvister, was fantastic! When we had our initial chat upon arrival, we talked with him about our eagerness to do whatever we needed to do to find orangutans in the wild, and assured him that our kids were great hikers and were as enthusiastic in this endeavor as we were. In retrospect, I think it was really good that we were so direct with him about our objectives. I don't think that everyone visits the lodge planning to spend their hours hiking through muddy, thick jungle. We often saw people milling about the lodge and on the canopy walkway without leech socks, dressed nicely at each meal, and definitely not as sweaty as us!! We were there to get into the thick of things, and we made that clear early on!
My impression is that each guide at the BRL tailors activities according to his guests' interests. Sylvister planned two major hikes a day for us -- one in the morning (departing after breakfast around 8:30am) and one in the afternoon (departing around 3:00pm). He also offered night walks/drives, which we took advantage of, as well as early morning walks, which we declined, preferring to get started after breakfast. A part of me would have loved to head out early one morning, but I think I really needed that sleep! Guides at the BRL carry walkie-talkies, and they communicate frequently about sightings -- if something is out there, your guide will know about it!!
We were so, so lucky in our wildlife sightings during our stay!!! I am so thankful! Our first hike was the 3:00pm hike the day that we arrived at the lodge. It was a fantastic two-hour hike -- we had spotted red leaf monkeys, long-tailed macaques, lots of cool insects . . . We were just returning to the lodge when Sylvister's walkie talkie got very excited! . . . Sure enough, a ranger had just spotted an orangutan in the area! After a moment's hesitation (after all, our children had just finished a long hike in the mud and heat!), he told us about the sighting and asked if we were up to taking off again -- in the other direction, up a very steep hill, and off the main trail. We all held our breath while we waited for our 6 year-old's reaction, which was "let's go!"! So, off we went! The hill was steep, and it actually turned out to be the most difficult hike of our entire stay because it really was still quite muddy and slippery from the rains that had just ended. About 4/5 of the way up the trail, we were met by a ranger, who helped clear the path with his machete. Sylvister was absolutely wonderful. He guided my youngest so well -- taking her hand, helping her over logs, making sure she didn't touch anything that she shouldn't. He was amazing. I was weighed down with camera equipment, and my husband took the rear, watching out for my eight year old. All was right with the world!
... About 30 minutes later (we were moving quickly!), we spotted the orangutan -- a young adult male that was called "Roni" (not sure if I'm spelling that correctly). He was sitting in plain view on a large extended tree trunk, and he was watching us as intently as we were watching him! It was amazing, and the "hunt" just added to the thrill! We had arrived just in time, because about 5 minutes later, Roni moved on. But it was enough. We were ecstatic! Then, just as we turned around to head back, my youngest screeched "I got a leech!". Sure enough, she had a leech -- she was so excited!
When we returned from the lodge, it turned out that we all had leeches on our leech socks! In our days at the lodge, everyone but me ended up with an attached leech at one point or another. Honestly, they are no big deal and are very easy to get off. My kids were actually competing to see who could get more leeches, and when they found them hanging off of leaves along the trail, would "play" with them! They would put their hand close enough that the leech detected it, but not close enough that it could attach, and then they would move their hands and watch the leech inch across the leaf trying to get to the source of heat! This, the "touch me not" plants (sensitive plants that fold when touched), and the ball millipedes (they were everywhere, and roll into a hard ball as soon as they're touched) were their favorite amusements at the lodge!
On our second day at the lodge we had another amazing orangutan sighting. We again had just finished a hike -- our morning hike, actually -- and were on the dirt road leading back to the BRL when we saw a lot of movement in the vegetation along the side of the road. Sylvister jogged ahead, and right away started entering some sort of code into his walkie-talkie. Sure enough, it was an orangutan -- and not just "an" orangutan, but the the current dominant male orangutan in the BRL area right now -- "Abu". He was literally sitting at about a meter's depth in the shrubbery, eating the wild ginger growing along the side of the road! It was amazing -- we sat there, about 3 meters away, watching him eat for about 15 minutes, at which point he moved deeper into the forest, and we felt we had invaded his privacy long enough. What was amazing, was that even though he was SO close, the thickness of the vegetation obscured him so much! If he hadn't been tearing apart the ginger, but had otherwise been sitting calmly just as close to the road, we could easily have walked right by him, never knowing he was there! Note: Many reviews/blogs mention an old male orangutan named "King", who was the dominant male in the area for years, and enjoyed exploring the grounds of the lodge -- he was often seen very close to the lodge, even occasionally on the walkways! . . . Sylvister informed us that he has not been sighted since October 2010, and is feared to have died. If this is the case, it was hopefully of natural causes, as he was very old for an orangutan in the wild. As of yet, no other orangutan has taken up residence quite as close to the lodge, though Abu spends more and more time in the vicinity of the staff quarters, and seems to be venturing closer to the lodge as well.
The next day, we also encountered orangutans. First, we found Abu again, who was higher in the trees this time. As we were watching him, we got word that a mother ("Linda") and juvenile male ("Acho" -- again, not sure about the spelling) had been spotted on the other side of the trail system, so off we went . . . They were in a tree that was located just across the river from the lodge. The mother stayed well hidden, but the juvenile was quite active and came in and out of view. In fact, after watching them from directly below where they were eating, we hiked back to the lodge and watched them from the bank of the river, where just about every other lodge guest had already congregated.
It was just an amazing experience, and we were in awe of our good fortune. By our last hike, we didn't even seek out the orangutans, and instead opted to search for a troop of red-leaf monkeys that were known to be in the area. Once again, we didn't have any luck after trying two different trail systems, and then, when we were about 5 minutes away from the lodge, the sun getting low in the sky, we came upon a HUGE group of them! They were playing and swinging from tree to tree -- eating as much as they could before sunset! We watched them for about 20 minutes, and then headed back to clean up before dinner.
All in all, our sightings included:
- 4 orangutans (4 separate sightings)
- Red Leaf monkeys (2 sightings, once at the end of our last hike, when there was a very large, very active group of them!)
- Long-tailed macaques (2 or 3 sightings)
- Rhinocerous Hornbill and many other birds (the birds in this jungle are not as generally colorful as they are in South American jungles)
- Samba Deer (they appeared every evening at about 8:30pm on the bank of the river to graze -- unfortunately, I never could get a decent picture because it was too dark! They were also grazing directly outside our chalet at night -- I woke up once at 2pm because I heard noise, just to see 5 or 6 right outside my window!)
- Flying Lemur (apparently very rare, seen on a night walk at a great distance -- got a picture, but the quality is terrible)
- Very cool bugs and spiders
- Prevost Squirrels and a pygmy squirrel
- Kids: There were a surprising number of families visiting the lodge when we were there. We had really talked with our children about how we were visiting some places on our trip where there may not be many children, and why that meant that it was especially important for them to be well behaved. And they were behaved -- I was so proud of them! But actually, there were more children at the lodge than I ever would have expected. I didn't get the impression that all of these families were doing the kind of hiking with their children that we were, but nevertheless, they were there and seemed to be having a great time!
- Babysitting: The lodge offers babysitting service for 20RM/hour, which was fantastic. Our kids were amazing, but they were definitely tired by the end of the day, so we payed to have a sitter come on two evenings for about an hour and a half each time so that we could enjoy the night activities. Actually, on both occasions, the sitter came with a friend, and they sat out on the balcony while the kids slept soundly inside. We aren't sure if the sitter coming with a friend is BRL policy, or if she just wanted to have someone to chat with, but we liked that there were two of them because neither one spoke very much English, and so if one of the kids had a problem, it may have been hard for her to really understand and help. Since there were two sitters, if there was a serious problem, one could remain in the room with the children while the other ran to the main lodge to get assistance
- Food: The food was fantastic, and the lodge goes out of its way to ensure that everyone's food needs are met. In fact, we were asked on more than one occasion if we had any special dietary needs. We had only one: my youngest daughter required a cheese omelet at every meal! ;-) OK, we didn't actually request this up front, but seriously, they made her an omelet at every meal! My oldest was happy that pasta was available at every lunch and dinner. They have a large selection of both Western and Asian choices, an egg station at every breakfast (as well as corn flakes, for pickier children), a pasta station at every lunch and dinner, and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Additionally, if they had the ingredients on hand, they would make special orders upon request. Everyone should be able to find something to eat at each meal at the BRL!
- Trails: I have hiked in Tanzania, Costa Rica . . . places I thought would be similar to what we would experience at the BRL. In general, though, I found the trails to be muddier and less groomed than others I had hiked, though not really any more "difficult". This wasn't a problem at all, and I actually rather enjoyed it because it felt so natural, but it's just something to know . . .
- Deet: I don't know how I missed this, because I researched this trip obsessively before we left -- but products containing deet do not appear to be available for purchase anywhere in Sabah (I would guess Malaysia?). Since we traveled with carry-on luggage only, I refrained from bringing things like sunscreen, insect repellant, shampoo, etc. since I could never fit enough in those silly clear plastic bags anyway. I figured I would just buy all of that stuff once I got to Kota Kinabalu. Sure enough, there were plenty of pharmacies close by the hotel, but insect repellant containing deet does not exist for purchase. Instead, there are several brands of "natural" repellants, which worked, but had to be applied very liberally and frequently. The other problem we had with these repellants was that they were highly irritating to apply (particularly to the neck and face), especially when our pores were opened up because were already hot and sweaty. It stung terribly, and was not fun. That said, these repellants were widely available, and could be purchased on-site at the BRL and every other place we stayed during our trip. We all got mosquito bites during the trip despite our best efforts, but it wasn't awful. Actually, it was probably worse than usual because it had been raining so hard for so long before we got there.
- Clothing and Gear:
- Cotton vs. Synthetic: My husband and I both agree -- synthetic wins. It packs so compactly, is so light, and dries so quickly. . . and it holds its shape even when wet and sweaty. The BRL offers same-day laundry service, but we hand-washed some items anyway. Later in the trip, I was so thankful that I had packed some synthetic clothing because it turned out that neither the Kinabatangan lodges nor Lankayan offered any kind of laundry service, and you really can't imagine how sweaty you will get in the heat -- believe me! I did just fine with "yoga" apparel. I didn't buy a lot of "travel" clothes that I would never really wear again, I just packed exercise clothing that I use at home, too.
- Hats: I didn't think we'd really use the hats we packed until we were sitting in boats under the sun along the Kinabatangan -- but we used them quite a bit at the BRL, so I highly recommend them.
- Camel-packs: My husband and I didn't need these, as we were fine carrying water bottles. But each of our kids had a backpack (they were responsible for carrying their own binoculars, rain jackets, sunglasses . . .) with a camel pack, and it was fantastic! The kids tucked their straws into their pockets, and could sip water whenever they needed! They loved it, they stayed hydrated, we didn't have to constantly stop to retrieve water for them . . . it was PERFECT! I HIGHLY recommend this for families with kids!
- Binoculars are a MUST. Preferably one set for each person traveling.
- Leech socks. The leech socks at the lodge were OK, but not great. We had brought two pairs each for myself and my husband that I had bought online from an outfitter in the UK. They were extra long, with a bungee-type cord that secured just below the knee as well as on the thigh. These were GREAT! We bought the leech socks at the lodge for the kids, but they constantly fell down -- they ended up using the spare pairs (I had planned on alternating them, so we could wash between hikes) we had, and they were much better. By the end of our third day, our leech socks SMELLED. Really, it was bad.
- SHOES! The question that tormented me before we left -- WHAT shoes do I pack?!?! We were traveling with carry-on luggage, so I didn't want to waste precious space with hiking boots that would only be used for three days of our trip! I didn't want to pack regular sneakers or hiking shoes because if it was wet (which it was, even though it didn't rain), they would get wet and heavy and never dry. I didn't want a sandal that would be totally open to the leeches... In the end, I opted for the "barefoot Merrell" shoe for my husband and I, and these were PERFECT!!! Perfect, I tell you!!!! They pack up into almost nothing, they are super light-weight, they dry faster than most water-shoes, and the have a fantastic grip! No, they don't offer "arch support", but I think that's way over-rated. They hug your foot so that you make SOLID contact with the ground -- it would be very difficult to, say, turn your ankle, wearing these shoes (as opposed to a thick hiking shoe with a huge sole). I LOVED them. They dried in no time flat! And actually, we walked "quieter" wearing them! I will never hike in anything else, ever again! I called Merrell, actually. They will be coming out with kids sizes this fall. If I were going again, I'd get them for the kids, too. They're expensive, but ours got so muddy during the trip, and when we got home, they cleaned up just fine!
Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge (KRL), Sukau, Kinabatangan River
The drive from Lahad Datu to Sukau took about 2 hours. And I kid you not -- was palm oil plantations as far as the eye could see for the entire drive. It's hard not to feel really, really sad. I am certainly not part of the solution when I get on a plane and fly to the other side of the world, using LOTS of natural resources in the process, for a vacation. But you know, this topic is another blog, and there are plenty of them, so I'll let more educated people debate the question of which is worse (because neither is good) -- fossil fuel extraction vs. wholesale habitat destruction...
The Kinabatangan River is a wildlife Sanctuary that creates a "corridor of life" for wildlife whose habitat has otherwise been destroyed. All of of Borneo was once jungle, what is left now is a narrow strip of secondary jungle along the river. Before leaving for Borneo, I imagined this to be a "thick" strip -- many kilometers in depth. I was so wrong! In places, the palm oil plantations come up to the bank of the river, and they have strung thick rope as "monkey crossings"... in other places the jungle is "as thick as" 1-2 kilometers deep. :-(
The Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge sits on the Kinabatangan River near the town of Sukau, but not IN the town. We were actually discouraged from exploring the village, and ended up being fairly occupied at the lodge, so didn't press the matter. The lodge is simple and basic, but clean and comfortable. The main building and dining area is open air and overlooks the river. The food served was very good -- each morning there was eggs and cereal, and each lunch and dinner there was rice, chicken, seafood of some sort . . . Sodas were available for purchase, and there was always coffee and tea available. The main building had a small seating area where people occasionally congregated before or after mealtimes. A guitar was left on one of the seats for general use, and both guests and staff occasionally picked it up, which contributed nicely to the general atmosphere. Overall, it was a really pleasant place. I never got up close to any other lodges along the river, but they all seemed roughly the same. I'm sure this was as nice as any. A few things to mention, that would be helpful to know about if you ever plan on visiting:
- The mosquitos here were worse than they were in the jungle. Repellant is a must! Remember (see my discussion about this under the BRL section), deet is not available in Sabah!
- The lodge accepts cash only. There is no access to an ATM. They will exchange money, but the rate does not work in your favor!
- There is no laundry service, and it is hot! You WILL get sweaty and need clean clothes! Bring soap with you for hand-washing, or arrive with a suitcase packed with plenty of clean clothes! Also, there is not a lot of space for hanging clothes, so consider bringing along a clothesline that you can tie up.
- There is also no good place to buy supplies. We needed toothpaste (our tube had sprung a leak and emptied all over our bathroom bag!), and thankfully our guide did help us out -- but just make sure to arrive with everything you need if at all possible!
- There is a small "souvenir" corner, which had snacks, small trinkets, bug repellant, sunscreen and things like that.
- Photographing wildlife along the river presents two challenges: 1) Because the boat trips are in the early morning and late afternoon, the lighting conditions are far from ideal, and 2) Because you are on a boat, it is very hard to get a still image -- the boat is always rocking a little bit, moving back and forth...
- A male orangutan building his evening nest
- Long-tailed macaques (LOTS of them!)
- Proboscis monkeys
- LOTS of hornbills and other birds
- Monitor lizard
- Monitor Lizard
- Lots of hornbills, several eagles, and other birds
- Longtailed macaques
- Mangrove snake (we later saw one of these at the lodge, too!)
What made our cave visit worthwhile was that we did see a juvenile orangutan along the road as we were setting out to head back to the lodge (making this our 6th orangutan sighting of our Borneo trip!). We watched him for a while, which really was wonderful! We also saw pig-tailed macaques around the cave entrance. . .
That evening, we had our third boat ride and saw more of the same -- adding silver-leaf monkeys to the list.
The next morning, our boat ride was a transfer to the Abai lodge. Having already seen so much, we moved at a quick pace, and only stopped once to view a large crocodile sunbathing on the riverbank.
Abai Lodge, Abai, Kinabatangan River
Abai Lodge and the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge are sister lodges, both operated by SI Tours. The Abai lodge is located an hour's boat ride from Sukau, in the direction of Sandakan. Somehow, although closer to Sandakan, the lodge's location is more remote, with no other lodges close by, and only Abai Village (accessible only by boat) across the river as a neighbor. We felt that Abai lodge was much, much nicer than the KRL. The wildlife viewing is about the same, as are the rooms/chalets (slightly newer, with slightly nicer bathrooms, but really very similar), but the grounds are so much prettier. Flowers spill over pots that are placed all around the main dining area, which is also open-air and set at the river's edge. There is a fairly extensive boardwalk that runs back into the forest behind the lodge, with several viewing platforms -- we greatly enjoyed walks along this boardwalk, and spotted birds, a pygmy squirrel, a very cool little frog (toad?). . . Other guests have reported seeing orangutans here, although we did not. Somehow the lodge just had a more "special" feeling than the KRL did, and we strongly preferred it to its sister lodge.
We spent an hour or so around lunchtime visiting Abai Village, across the river. We walked around the village, learning about the reforestation project run there, and seeing the school, community hall, and the homes of its residents. The tour ended with tree planting and lunch. I had thought that the lunch would be a little more interactive -- and the village children did mingle about close by, but the truth is that it was more of a catered lunch that happened to be served in the village for us tourists, than a "village lunch". My kids finished up early, and introduced themselves to some of the children, but they would have enjoyed being able to stay and play with them a bit. My husband also tried to connect -- since language was a barrier, he taught them a silly game that involved putting his hand in front of his face, lifting it to reveal a goofy expression, hiding his hand behind his face again, and then lifting it to reveal a different goofy expression . . . (I think he got this idea from the movie Madagascar -- the lion does this). As we pulled away in the boat to head back to the lodge, the children were still playing the game. It was sweet!
As we set out for our evening boat ride, after having spent a relaxing afternoon exploring the boardwalk and sipping tea by the edge of the river, we had one goal in mind -- elephants! When we left for our trip, we set our expectations low, knowing that we would have to be lucky to find both orangutans and elephants in the wild. Orangutans were our priority, and we were amazingly lucky in sighting them as often as we did . . . but by our third day on the Kinabatangan, we had still not seen an elephant! Our guide, John, stayed with us at the Abai lodge, and informed us that the elephants could be seen anywhere at any time. There really was no best place, according to him, for sightings. It all depended on luck! And, unlike Danum Valley, where there were rangers and researchers out with the sole purpose of keeping track of the local orangutan population -- noone was really doing that with the elephants along the Kinabatangan, so you had to be lucky enough to sight them on your own!
As we drifted along the river, we saw more birds, long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys . . . and then about 20 minutes into our ride, we spotted two boats pulled up right to the edge of the river, nestled into the vegetation. That meant, of course, that they had seen something -- so we tootled over. . . We were about two meters away from the boats when we heard a blood-curdling roar from an elephant! We about jumped out of our boat, from both surprise and joy!!! Our adrenaline levels immediately surged!! We spent the next 20 minutes or so just trying to get a glimpse -- they were right there!!! we could hear them!!! -- but somehow, we couldn't see them! Over the course of the next hour or so, though, we saw several of them as we went back and forth 50 meters or so up and down the river. It was a herd of about 15-20 elephants, including several juveniles, and at several points, we were fewer than 2 meters away from these beautiful creatures as they came down to the water to drink (or, in one case, to stand guard between us and a passing baby) It was such an emotional and amazing experience -- that I never dreamed I would have! John, seeing how amazed our boatload (there were 8 of us) was, made sure the driver stayed with the elephants, and we were there longer than any of the other boats that passed by. We thought that maybe the elephants would swim across the river, as they sometimes do, but they didn't -- they were settling down where we had seen them.
As the light faded, we needed to head back. This was Easter Sunday, and as we sped back to the lodge, there was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen over the river. It felt too magical to be real -- and yet it was! Even as I type this, I feel the emotion swelling in my chest!
We were at the lodge for about 20 minutes (just enough time to apply some insect repellant!) before we got back into the boats to zip up the river. It was completely dark now, and the stars in the sky were so bright!!! (We don't have stars so bright here -- too many lights, and too much pollution!) We were riding out to see the "fireflies" of Abai -- a type of firefly that swarms a particular type of tree, of which there were 5 or 6 bunched together 2-3 minutes away from the lodge. The trees truly looked like they were alight with blinking Christmas lights -- and under that starry sky . . . The magic just continued!
The next morning, we transferred to Sandakan to connect with our boat to Lankayan Island. The ride from Abai to Sandakan only took an hour, but about half of that time is spent in open water. It would be easy to believe that Abai isn't all that remote . . .but the local people cannot afford to travel by speed boat, and a typical, small motorized boat would take most of the day to make the journey, and still be very costly. . .
The boat ride to Lankayan Island was bumpy (life jackets were provided) and took about an hour and 45 minutes. As we approached the island, we really were amazed by how postcard-perfect it appeared -- a tiny little, jungle-covered island sitting in the middle of the ocean surrounded by a ring of pristine aqua blue water!
We had never had the experience of staying on a "deserted" island before, so this was a new experience for us! We were provided an introduction, shown to our room, and then, I must say, pretty much left alone for three days! I do think that the resort caters to divers, and so as non-divers, we were pretty much left to our own devices. If we needed anything, the staff was very courteous, but it was a change of pace from the rest of our trip, for sure!
Let me bullet-point some things of interest to anyone planning on staying here:
- Kids: This time I was surprised. Ours were the only kids there the entire three days that we visited. There were a few older teenagers, but certainly no one else under the age of 15. This was totally fine, but just a point of interest! I actually thought this would be the place where there WOULD be families!
- Rooms: Each "room" is a chalet, and all are ocean-facing. They are all quite large and of similar decor (a little dark, in my opinion). However, they are not all the same -- they come in different configurations (a single very large room, a large room with another smaller room attached, two-stories, etc.), and not all are equally "idyllic". I don't want to create a craze, whereby everyone who books Lankayan demands a certain chalet, but I think it helps just to go with appropriate expectations. Not all chalets have "beach" access due to erosion. There are quarters for resort staff and a military presence that resides on the island, and while they do a very good job of keeping these quarters nice and fairly out of the way, some of the chalets are closer to these areas than others. Some chalets are close to the dining area, or the main dock. Some have hammocks, others do not... For example, when we arrived, we were assigned a chalet with a single, enormous room with a king bed and two twin beds. This configuration was fine, but the chalet was situated right next to the restaurant where there was a fair amount of "traffic" -- not a quiet place to get lost in your own thoughts. Also, there was a hammock, but it was located on the side of the chalet -- so when sitting in it, your view was of the underside of the chalet (all of them are built on stilts) -- not especially special. We requested to change rooms, and while they were unable to change us that day, they were very, very nice and offered to move us the next morning when a few chalets were going to open up. Really, they couldn't have been nicer about it. I don't like conflict, I must admit, so I hated even asking -- but I really had been hoping for a hammock on a quiet beach (I hadn't gone with the right expectations!)! I was relieved to see that the next morning, another couple was also changing chalets! Our new chalet WAS "idyllic". It had one large room with two twin beds, and a smaller attached room with a king bed, separated by one step and a door. It had a small beach in the front, a hammock. . . Perfect!
- Food: The food was fantastic here. Coffee, tea, juice, biscuits, and a toasting station (with butter, jam and peanut butter) are on offer 24-hours a day, and snacks such as soda, chips and ice-cream could be purchased. The mealtime buffet choices offered plenty of variety, and there was always plenty of fresh fruit.
- They are currently building a new restaurant at Lankayan. This is just an FYI -- the construction didn't bother us while we were there. In place of the current restaurant, they are expecting to build 3 new bungalows.
- Turtles: If you want to see turtles nesting or hatchlings being released, resort staff will come and find you -- just place the placard that is provided in your room on your door handle. We were fortunate to see a hatchling release our first day on the island, and it was a lot of fun! We opted not to be woken for the nesting because the kids really needed to sleep, and the nestings can take a good bit of time. There is a "Reef Guardian" turtle protection information center on the island, and there's all sorts of neat information in there -- definitely poke your head in if you visit.
- There seemed to be a slight lack of attention to detail, in general. The shop, for example, ran out of sunscreen while we were there! Sunscreen?!?! Also, they didn't have enough pads for the chairs that are set out in front of the chalets; there was a trash can located outdoors in front of our chalet (which was good), but in the three days we were there it was never emptied and was VERY full (bad); there was no soap in the bathroom; the overhead fan in our room didn't work (they told us to turn on the AC -- but I didn't want to close all of the windows and listen to the AC, I wanted to have the windows open and listen to the ocean, which we did, but it was HOT). So, nothing that really mattered, and a lot can be forgiven considering the resort's remote location -- but we did feel like it didn't quite live up to our expectations.
- No laundry service (not a big surprise, but since they had boats going back and forth to Sandakan daily, I had hoped that maybe there would be a service).
- The snorkeling was very good -- best right by the pier -- and the dive shop has everything a snorkeler would need for rent at a fair price. I would say that the snorkeling was on par with some snorkeling that we had done a few years prior in Mexico.
Overall, it was a very, very nice and relaxing 3 days. The staff was courteous and responsive -- if a little aloof, the rooms were comfortable, and the snorkeling was very good. We're glad we had the experience. The truth be told, though, we have decided we're not island people (now we know!). One more day, and we all would have been going a little crazy. It was wonderful, but not the highlight of our trip.
Sepilok Nature Resort
We booked plenty of time in Sepilok because we wanted to visit Labuk Bay, and we wanted to make sure to have plenty of time observing orangutans at the rehabilitation center if we had not been lucky with our sightings in the wild. Well, we had been lucky -- very lucky -- with our sightings in the wild, but we still enjoyed our stay in Sepilok!
The Sepilok Nature resort is located about a 30 minute drive from Sandakan (with traffic), a 5 minute walk from the entrance to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center, and a 15 minute walk from the Rainforest Discovery Center. It's operated by the same group that runs Lankayan, and the rooms (chalets), as well as the dining were very similar. The main building was very nice -- open and spacious, set aside a small lagoon of sorts -- and the grounds were very lush and beautiful. A few points of interest:
- Laundry service is available (which we desperately needed by this point!)
- They offer a night walk and provide boots, though leech socks are still recommended (several people got leeches on this walk!)
- They offer access to a computer with internet for a small fee (RM 15, I believe).
- We saw some beautiful flowers and birds, including hornbills, just walking the grounds, which back up to the Sepilok reserve. Potentially, monkeys and even orangutans could be spotted, though we didn't see any.
Sepilok Rehabilitation Center
The Sepilok Rehabilitation Center is set on the edge of an 11,000 acre reserve and is dedicated to rehabilitating orphaned and injured orangutans. What tourists see when they visit is a small part of what Sepilok does, and is meant to provide education and understanding for the general public about the importance of habitat protection. Tourists are invited to pay a fee to visit one feeding platform at Sepilok (there are others that tourists do not have access to -- each is managed differently, targeting groups of orangutans with differing needs). This feeding platform caters to the more newly-arrived orangutans who cannot sustain themselves completely on their own yet and need the support of these feeding times. The feedings offer nutritional supplement, but are kept simple (boring) so that the orangutans are encouraged to venture independently into the forest, learning survival skills in a safe place, for a more varied natural diet.
We visited Sepilok for both the morning and afternoon feeding. The morning feeding was quite crowded with tourists, but people were generally quiet and respectful, and it was still a very nice experience. Ropes crisscross the area, and orangutans (as well as pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques) come in from all directions for the feeding. The morning we were there, several orangutans made an appearance, including mothers with infants. It was wonderful to watch, and to see them interact (which they don't do as much of in the wild, as they are generally solitary creatures). They're very gentle, and appear to be so focused and thoughtful.
When we returned for the afternoon, there were probably only about 1/4 as many people visiting, but we enjoyed the visit much more. The orangutans lingered longer, and as we were leaving, one very curious young male orangutan was waiting to greet us along the walkway -- he was just sitting on the railing, watching us! He was clearly as curious about us as we were about him, and moved along the walkway way in the adjacent trees, following us, but never showing any kind of aggression. Eventually we were encouraged to move on, and one of the staff directed the orangutan in another direction. When we exited Sepilok, we stopped by the snackbar that's located on-site to get an ice-cream. Our daughters began playing with a young girl whose mother worked at Sepilok, so we sat down on the grass to let them play. Just at that moment, orangutans began working their way to the trees directly overhead. In the end, there was a mother and infant, as well as three other orangutans eating in those trees, and so we just sat and watched them while the kids played and the evening closed in. It was so nice!
It's important to note that, technically, no orangutan is "forced" to stay at the rehabilitation center. There are no fences --just the natural boundary of the forest edge. Once the orangutans have moved deep into the Sepilok reserve, and are no longer depending on the feeding stations and other support provided by the rehabilitation center, they are released into the wild at other, larger reserves, such as Danum Valley. This is, of course, the ultimate goal for all of the orangutans, and seems to be working, as some of the orangutans in Danum Valley, for example, they know to be offspring of orangutans who had been previously released there from Sepilok!
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
On our second morning in the area, we visited Labuk Bay. This is primarily a palm oil plantation, but has a significant amount of acreage that has been kept "wild" for the indigenous wildlife. It is not a rehabilitation or research center, it is simply a sanctuary with feeding platforms -- again provided as a tool for education. It's located about 30 minutes from Sepilok, and at least when we were there, is much less touristed. The viewing is different -- you observe from a large, covered room (with snacks and trinkets available for purchase), while the proboscis monkeys (as well as long-tailed macaques and silver leaf monkeys) make their way to the feeding platforms, which are set at a comfortable viewing distance. Throngs of monkeys appeared! Proboscis monkeys are rambunctious and a little aggressive, so it was a very different viewing experience than Sepilok. We stayed for about an hour.
After visiting Labuk Bay, we decided to head into Sandakan for the afternoon.
Sandakan is a very small city set on the ocean. We saw very few tourists as we walked around, and we certainly garnered a lot of curious looks. At one point, we sat down at a table on the sidewalk to enjoy a cool drink, and passersby continuously approached us to smile, and touch my daughters' cheeks. It wasn't something that we expected, and at first the girls were a little uncertain, but soon realized that the gestures were made out of curiosity and kindness, and so they didn't mind. We visited the central market, poked into some shops, and then headed back to the Sepilok Nature Resort. We only spent about 3 hours in the city, but it was enough to get a taste of what it was like, and we look back on the afternoon fondly.
I had talked about this trip non-stop for a year before we left -- really "building it up" for all of us! A few days before departing, I thought to myself -- "geez, I hope we aren't all disappointed!" But the trip did not disappoint -- it exceeded every expectation. When it was time to go home, we all left with heavy hearts -- especially my youngest, who cried and cried, and will still tell you that she is going to live in Malaysia when she grows up!
I booked all of the lodging myself, contacting each lodge/resort via email, and I was a little worried that the transfers wouldn't work out, or a reservation would be "lost" . . . But everything went completely smoothly. The infrastructure is excellent, service was fantastic, and communication -- though a little bit tricky at times simply due the language barrier -- was good. Really, anyone who can afford it can take this trip, and it is worth every hour spent traveling, and every minute of lost sleep! It truly was a trip of a lifetime.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading. If you have any comments or questions - just use the comment tab below!