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Great Apes & Beach Escapes | Emma’s Borneo Highlights


In April 2014 Tom and Emma headed to Sabah on a mission to explore the highlights of Borneo in just two weeks. Choosing the itinerary ‘Great Apes and Beach Escapes’ they were keen to explore as much nature and spot as much wildlife as they could, and decided to end their Borneo trip on the deserted Lankayan island before hitting the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur.
Decorative torn edge

Kota Kinabalu & Poring Hot Springs

After spending a day exploring the capital city of Kota Kinabalu we set off on our first trip, heading up to the Kinabalu National Park and stopping off at a beautiful viewpoint where we met a Malaysian family who asked us to have a photo with them…

We then stopped at the botanical gardens located at the base camp of the mountain, and had a tour with our guide who pointed out the variety of orchids and other flora that grow in the protected areas.

Woman in the garden
Local family Borneo

Continuing on to the hot springs we hiked up to the canopy walk which stretches across a large section of the forest. High up in the trees we could see amazing views of the surrounding scenery. The humidity was quite high and taking it slow was the name of the game. The hot springs were busy when we visited due it being a weekend and many Malaysian families were making the most of the pools to cool off. After a light lunch we spent some time wandering around the peaceful butterfly garden which was home to hundreds of brightly coloured butterflies and insects. It was a great place to take photos so ensure you charge up your camera for this trip!

Hanging out with Orang-utans in Sandakan

Sandakan is the former capital of Sabah and had to be almost completely rebuilt after much of the town was destroyed by Japanese bombings during WW2. Today it stands proud as a multicultural hub that is a great base for travellers wanting to visit the nearby islands and of course the famous Sepilok nature reserve. We visited Sepilok in time for the morning feed (10am), and witnessed four orangutans swinging down from the trees to munch on bananas and sugar cane. It’s an incredible sight to see and also to spend some time learning about the amazing work the sanctuary does in rehabilitating orphaned orangutans back into the wild.

Orangutan Borneo
Locals in the fish market

Sandakan is also the gateway to the Kinabatangan River, where we spent three days cruising in a small motorboat spotting wild orangutans, pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys with our local guides. Around an hour’s boat ride from Sandakan, the Kinabatangan River winds its way through dense rainforest which is perfect for shielding rare birds and playful monkeys who watch the boats with mild interest as they drift pass.

Cruising along the Kinabatangan River

There are a small number of river lodges dotted along the riverbanks, and their locations enables guests to be immersed in the wildlife that surrounds the area. At the Abai lodge (where we stopped for lunch on day one) they have a frequent visitor in the form of a friendly wild orang-utan who likes to play in the trees around the dining area. We stayed two nights at the Kinabatangan River Lodge in small but cosy wooden cabins surrounded by lush green forest and colourful flowers.

Borneo travellers wearing sarongs
Beach landscape Borneo

Lazing on Lankayan Island

Lankayan Island is a small paradise located in the Sulu Sea, north of Sandakan. You can walk the whole island in just fifteen minutes but it’s much more fun to swim or snorkel the short distance, spotting hundreds of tropical fish darting between the coral and the giant sea turtles who glide gracefully along the sea bed, snacking on the plants below.

Lankayan retains a feeling of a castaway island with just twenty-six bungalows (all sea facing) and has a very eco-friendly feel. We spent our four days here relaxing, snorkelling, sunbathing and enjoying beautiful sunsets on the restaurant veranda (set out into the sea on wooden stilts). You can read more about our time on Lankayan, but in short it was definitely a highlight of our trip and somewhere we will always remember- especially on those drizzly UK days…!

A last minute trip to the Rainforest Discovery Centre

The last stop on the Borneo part of our trip was a morning spent at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, around a half hours drive from Sandakan airport. We took our last stroll through the rainforest on the canopy walk, looking out for monkeys and birds and learnt about the plight of Borneo’s wildlife due to the increasing deforestation due to palm oil plantations. It was hard to realise that despite the steps being made towards protecting the endangered species living in the rainforests of Borneo, they are in real danger of extinction, especially the gentle orang-utans whose habitats are being destroyed and babies being orphaned. If you would like to find out more about the great organisations who are fighting the good fight to protect both creatures of sea and land please check out the links below.

Woman on the canopy bridge