If you’ve been dreaming of seeing the orangutans in real life, then chances are Borneo is the place you’ve been imagining. And it sure sounds far-flung and hard to get to, but it’s surprisingly more accessible than you might think. A trip to Borneo can be done on a budget, but it can also be done in pure luxury. So this guide aims to cover everything you need to know about visiting Borneo – particularly Malaysian Borneo – including how to get there, where to go, what things cost and of course – where to see the orangutans in Borneo. Read on to find out more!
Where to see orangutans in Borneo?
First things first, it’s key to understand a little more about Borneo. Beautiful Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and by far the largest island in Asia. Borneo is home to three countries – Indonesia, covering the southern portion, Malaysia, covering the northern portion, and Brunei, occupying a teeny tiny 5,765km2 (about 1% of the land mass!) and surrounded entirely by Malaysia.
Orangutans can be found in both Malaysian Borneo (split up as two Malaysian states called Sabah and Sarawak) and Indonesia (spit into the provinces of West, Central, South, East and North Kalimantan).
The only other place to see orangutans in the world is the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. So there are two species of orangutans – the Sumatran species and the Bornean species. Both have 96.4% identical DNA to humans!
And did you know that orangutans are the only great ape to be found outside of Africa? The others – gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are all found in Africa.
Malaysian Borneo or Indonesian Borneo?
One of the first decisions to make is deciding whether to go to the Malaysian part of Borneo, or the Indonesian part.
I did a lot of research before embarking on this trip. In the end, I opted for Sabah in the Malaysian part of Borneo in the north. There were a few reasons for this. For one I was flying into Kuala Lumpur, which had affordable and convenient connections onto Sandakan. And I’d read that animal sightings were more common as the area was smaller (covering only about 25% of the island). Tourism infrastructure is also more developed here, and I had identified some accommodation and tours that really met my expectations, and so, I was set on northern Sabah – specifically around the Kinabatangan River.
This part of Borneo is also home to Mt Kinabalu (one of the highest mountains in the world!), and also the vibrant city of Kota Kinabalu – two locations I was also very keen on seeing.
The state of Sarawak is slightly more challenging to get to – the main airport is Kuching. But Sarawak is home to 30 national parks covering its magnificent rainforest, mountains and coastline. Sarawak offers a deeper dive into indigenous tribes, traditions and cultures. I found we saw less of this in Sabah, which has a more established tourist setup compared to Sarawak.
Kalimantan Indonesia is even more far flung. It covers a whopping 76% of the island of Borneo, so it can be harder to see orangutans in the wild – especially as the tourism infrastructure is still somewhat limited here.
The Indonesian states and the Malaysian state of Sarawak both provide a complete adventure and incredible wildlife, but for the purpose of the rest of this guide, I will be focusing on Sabah.
Borneo Travel Guide: Useful Information
How to get to Sabah, Borneo
The main way to arrive in Sabah is by plane. The two main entry points are either Kota Kinabalu, the capital, or Sandakan, the airport nearest the northern rainforest area.
We flew into Sandakan to begin our adventure. Then at the end of the week, we took a very quick internal hop from there to Kota Kinabalu, which is where we flew onwards to Manila.
Air Asia and Malaysian Airlines both fly to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur multiple times a day, with the flight taking about 3 hours. This flight often costs as little as £30. You can also start your Borneo journey in Kota Kinabalu if arriving from other Asian cities such as Singapore, Taipei, Penang, Seoul or Hong Kong. Flights between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan take about 40 mins and can be as cheap as £15 or so.
Malaysian visas, currency and budget
Visas to Malaysia are straight forward, and dozens of nationalities are eligible for visa-free entry. This includes EU countries, the UK, the UAE, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil.
The currency in Malaysia is the Ringgit. Malaysia is a little more expensive than other places in South East Asia, but a fair bit cheaper than Singapore!
I’ve written a detailed post about covering all essential information for visiting Malaysia here, which I recommend checking further information.
How to get around Sabah, Borneo
One of the game changing things about travelling South East Asia now, compared to my first visit in 2010, is the introduction of ride hailing apps. The main one in Malaysia is Grab – and my goodness, is it game changing. No standing around on roads trying to hail a local taxi and then haggling over short journeys.
Once we landed at Sandakan airport, we simply hopped in a Grab into the centre of town. We also used Grab in Kota Kinabalu from the airport to the port. It’s just like Uber and the journeys were always so inexpensive. It’s so easy to take Grab that it doesn’t really make sense to try and navigate local buses or use any other method.
When is the best time to go to Borneo?
April to September is typically the best time to go to Borneo. Unlike the rest of South East Asia, June to August is particularly dry whereas the rest of the region faces frequent daily showers in these months.
However, November through to February is monsoonal in Borneo. When speaking to our guide, he described it as torrential and near pointless trying to visit in this time. He said these aren’t just tropical showers, but nearly all-day rain. It means most of the guides are out of work during these months, waiting for the peak season again. And similarly, this weather can make seeing the orangutans in Borneo difficult.
We went to Borneo in April and the weather was perfect. Hot and humid, with one downpour in 4 days (which was really refreshing, plus we were on a speedboat on the river!). A friend of mine went to Sandakan and the Kinabatangan River in February and said they did experience an awful lot of rain.
How long do I need in Borneo?
I would say you need a minimum of three days in the rainforest. I do know you can fly in and fly out from Kota Kinabalu into Sandakan in a day as part of tour, but I don’t recommend this. The adventure lies in exploring the rainforest after all!
Some people do visit Sandakan and just go to Sepilok, a small town 30 minutes away. Sepilok is home to several animal sanctuaries and centres. You need two days in Sepilok, ideally. But as you are guaranteed to see orangutans here, I see why you could in theory do just the day visit.
I would strongly recommend joining a tour and heading out along the Kinabatangan River. You need a minimum of two nights to do this. But we did a tour that took in Sepilok at the start and finish, and meant we saw all the key highlights in three full days. Amazingly, it was brilliant and we were so satisfied with our animal sightings along the river in this timeframe – and we also had plenty of downtime to relax. But, if we were to go back, I think I’d add in another lodge even deeper in the Kinabatangan River. After all, you have travelled a long way.
So, my final answer is – a minimum of five days in total – two days in Sepilok, two to three days deeper in the rainforest. And if you’re an animal fan, I’d add another 2 or 3 days onto that.
You are likely to need an additional night either side of any rainforest adventure because of flight timings and early starts.
Our time in Sabah looked like this:
- Day 1: Landed in Sandakan 6pm in the evening, checked into local hotel
- Day 2: Picked up at 8am for day 1 of the tour (morning and lunch in Sepilok, speedboat along the Kinabatangan River to our lodge to arrive by 3pm, free time, evening safari and first night in the rainforest)
- Day 3: Full day in the rainforest at our lodge (morning river safari, free time, evening river safari)
- Day 4: Morning at the lodge before departure back to Sandakan. Back to Sepilok to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre before checking into local hotel in Sandakan
- Day 5: Early departure from Sandakan airport to Kota Kinabalu, arrive 10am.
We met a couple in Sepilok’s Rainforest Discovery Centre who had visited 10 days in a row as they were passionate birders and absolutely loved the viewing areas!
What to bring on a trip to Borneo?
Bug spray, bug spray, bug spray! The mosquitos are in the millions, and the biting felt incessant, especially from about 5pm.
I would also say to bring some long, lightweight trousers and proper closed toe shoes.
Even in the dry season, there can be sudden downpours so when you head out in wildlife river cruises, the guides advise to take a hat, suntan lotion and a raincoat!
Where to visit in Sabah to see the orangutans?
So, we’ve got the logistics down, but where to see orangutans in Sabah?
As just mentioned, you are guaranteed to see orangutans in Sepilok. This small town is just 26km from Sandakan and is home to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. You will 100% see orangutans here. Nearby is the Rainforest Discovery Centre, another place where you have a high chance of seeing orangutans.
A trip along the Kinabatangan River – the second longest river in Malaysia – is another key place to spot orangutans where over 1,100 live. Yet it is significantly harder to spot them as they are rather elusive and the rainforest here is very dense.
We saw two orangutans at our lodge, far along the Kinabatangan River. However, we saw far more at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre, and therefore, for close and intimate viewings, you have to go there. Plus, they are strictly arboreal (living in the trees) so you do have to be surrounded by the thick rainforest to have a chance of seeing orangutans.
Other areas in Sabah, Borneo to spot orangutans in the wild include Danum Valley, the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Deramakot Forest Reserve. You can only visit these locations on longer trips to Sabah due to the added travel time to get there. If had had more time in Borneo, Danum Valley would have been my pick to add another 2 or 3 nights.
What other wildlife can you see in Borneo?
So of course, most people come to Borneo with the goal of seeing orangutans. But there’s actually a Borneo Big Five!
The wildlife animals in the Big Five include: the Pygmy Elephant, the Proboscis Monkey, the Rhinoceros Hornbill, the Estuarine Crocodile and of course, the Orangutan.
We were lucky enough to see all of these, except the Rhinoceros Hornbill, during our three days in Borneo. But other guests were even luckier and did see the Rhinoceros Hornbill!
On one of our afternoon river cruises along the Kinabatangan River, I saw a flash of black and then a swooping primate swinging between the trees. Our guide was seriously excited. He told us it was the Bornean Gibbon – a rare sighting and something he hadn’t seen in over 4 months!
I also loved the Proboscis Monkey. These are endemic to Borneo, which means they can’t be found anywhere else. They also really stand out due to their very large noses. In fact, their noses hang down their faces and are distinctive. It’s only the male proboscis monkeys that have this nose. And apparently, female proboscis monkeys prefer to mate with male proboscis monkeys with the larger noses…
This was actually the animal we spotted most frequently in the wild whilst cruising along the Kinabatangan River. We also saw dozens of long tailed macaques, many of which were very curious about us and caused the tall trees to swing all over the place.
Other animals to spot include the clouded leopard (extremely rare), the western tarsier, sun bear, the civet and the pangolin.
Should I explore Borneo on a tour or independently?
I would say that Sandakan to Sepilok is very easy (even just jump in a Grab). There’s plenty of accommodation options in Sepilok and the area is small and walkable. However, I don’t think you should even attempt to visit the Kinabatangan River independently. Firstly, I don’t know how you’d travel to such a remote location without using the speedboats of one of the lodges. I don’t think there are local boats to catch up the river. Secondly, to try and visit the rainforest independently means risking your safety (wild animals!). It also means not receiving the incredibly interesting and insightful information from your tour guides.
We arranged our whole rainforest adventure with Borneo Eco Tours (sometimes called BET). I couldn’t recommend this experience enough. You can book them for tours in both Sabah and Sarawak. We specifically did this tour here – Kinabatangan Wildlife Safari (by boat) 3D2N (code BB7D for booking). Whilst it wasn’t particularly physically challenging in any way, the tour was so efficiently organised. It really helped us achieve everything we wanted in Borneo.
It isn’t too cheap – MYR 2,820 per person, based on two people sharing. This is approx. £500 per person or USD$614. But it did take care of everything. From transport, accommodation, all meals, river cruises, and entry to the main sights in Sepilok. Plus of course, the excellent guides. That’s about £166 per person per day, which I felt was a fair cost for the experience.
You can book directly on their site here. Here you will be connected with one of their helpful customer service staff via email. They will help ensure you’re booking the best tour for you and advise on all other logistics – an invaluable resource.
Borneo Eco Tours own the most amazing lodge, located along the banks of the Kinabatangan River. It’s called Sukau Rainforest Lodge and is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.
Accommodation options in Sabah, Borneo
Sukau Rainforest Lodge
As just mentioned, I personally stayed at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which was about a 2.5hour speedboat from Sandakan, nestled along the Kinabatangan River. It was absolutely perfect, and the best luxury stay in this part of Borneo.
Your stay here is on a full board basis, so excellent buffet breakfast, lunch and dinners are included. Alcoholic drinks are an additional cost. The food was really impressive and hugely varied. We loved the Asian options and enjoyed the chance to try some more unusual dishes.
There are two room categories. The more affordable option is the superior room, tucked away behind the main social areas of the lodge. These rooms offer excellent facilities and very comfortable rooms.
The other option is a Borneo Villa, which is what we booked. We found the villa to be very luxurious and completely magical. We loved sitting by our balcony where all kinds of wildlife would swing by. Or even stomp on the roof of the villa! The Borneo Villas are tucked away down wooden boardwalks, meaning they feel really private and are completely surrounded by the rainforest.
River wildlife safaris are conducted twice a day, with one at sunrise and one departing around 3pm. Each boat has a highly informative guide on board who will endeavour to spot as much wildlife as possible. There is also the option of a night cruise at a small additional charge, which goes out with a flashlight. We saw a lot of crocodiles and snakes during this cruise but no orangutans as they were fast asleep!
Also, there are a couple of delightful outdoor pools here, making for an all in all, wonderful and relaxing stay!
Other places to stay in Sabah, Borneo
Along the Kinabatangan River are a few other lodges, which can be booked online without using a local tour company. I’ve listed a couple of suggestions below:
- Kinabatangan Wildlife Lodge (£50 per night)
- Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort (£150 per night)
- Bilit Adventure Lodge (£252 per night)
- The Last Frontier Boutique Lodge (£308 for two nights, which is the minimum stay)
- Borneo Nature Lodge (£333 for a two day, 1 night package)
Back in Sandakan, a few suggestions include:
We bookended our tour with a first night at the Elopura Hotel and a second night at the Sabah Hotel. The Elopura is located right in the heart of Sandakan Waterfront, so great for 1 or 2 nights if you want to experience a bit of local life. The room was great in Elopura and the hotel was heavily themed around movies, which was quite cool!
Sabah Hotel is located a little out of town, on a hill and a short taxi from restaurants etc. Sabah Hotel has a great pool area and lots of facilities, as well as several onsite restaurants, so I’d recommend staying here if you want a full day of relaxing.
There are a lot of accommodation options in Sepilok, so perfect for exploring the various attractions here. Lots of the lodges and guesthouses are small and family run. A few options include:
- Sepilok Forest Edge Resort (£85 per night)
- Sepilok Jungle Resort (£30 per night)
- Nature Lodge Sepilok (£40 per night)
- Sepilok B&B (£27 per night)
- Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat (£43 per night)
Where to See Orangutans in Borneo: A Guide
So, there’s my complete on where to see orangutans in Borneo. I really hope this blog post has helped in your research and planning for your trip to see the orangutans in the wild. It really is the most magical experience but does take a fair bit of planning to get there and to maximise your time.
As always, let me know if you have any questions.
If you’re planning a longer trip around Malaysia, or South East Asia, then make sure to check out my other posts here:
- Malaysia Travel Guide: The Best Places to Visit in Malaysia (including Borneo)
- Thailand Travel Guide: The Best Places to Visit in Thailand
- Vietnam Travel Guide: The Best Places to Visit in Vietnam
- Singapore Travel Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Singapore
Disclaimer: This guide has no involvement from the local tourism board or a hotel.
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