Sepilok is a small place that’s been made popular by the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Three unmissable attractions in a relaxing environment make a perfect couple of days.
A lot of people will only visit Sepilok as a day trip from Sandakan, but they’ll have to rush/miss out on the attractions. I recommend a couple of days to really explore the conservation centres and the rainforest centre. You won’t regret it, I promise!
This is quite a long post, because I feel very passionate about the conservation of the endangered orangutans, sun bears and the rainforest.
Sepilok is very easy to get to from Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Kinabalu National Park – most buses stop at the Sepilok junction. I got a fancy double-decker bus from the National Park which took five hours and cost £7 / RM35.
Sepilok is only a thirty/forty minute drive away from Sandakan, so it’s also possible to get a taxi.
I stayed at the fantastic Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat. There is a mix of accommodation on offer. Ste and I stayed in a spacious, long-house dorm for £6 / RM32 each a night and my parents had their own bungalow for £10 / RM54 each a night. A substantial breakfast was included in the price. Although it was away from the centre, the hotel offered a free shuttle bus to/from the centre each morning and afternoon.
The accommodation was in amongst the jungle, so it was very peaceful and relaxing (just don’t forget mosquito spray!). There were a number of hammocks to rest in and the restaurant served good food with veggie options. It was one of my favourite places to stay so far!
Things to do
Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
The main draw to Sepilok is the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which opened in 1964. The centre looks after the endemic orangutans that have been kept illegally as pets or injured or orphaned due to deforestation (primarily for palm oil plantations). Orangutans that can live independently are released into the forest, or transported to a larger forest area in the south of Sabah.
The visitor area is laid out well, with long board walks running through a small part of the forest, a feeding platform and a nursery for the baby orangutans who are still learning to climb and live independently. The centre currently houses twenty-five babies in it’s nursery area and between sixty to eighty orangutans living freely, in an area of forty-three sq km (which is smaller than the amount of space these animals would have in the true wild).
The nursery is a great place to watch how the young orangutans learn how to eat, climb and move around. They all seem to have a unique personality which is very entertaining to watch. Visitors are kept within enclosed rooms, with a floor to ceiling glass window looking out over the youngster’s playground, so noise and smells can’t disturb the animals.
Away from the nursery, the centre puts out a limited amount of food at 10am and 3pm on the feeding platform, supposedly so the wild orangutans can access food to supplement their diet, or have a food source when the forest isn’t in fruiting season. Although I think the centre’s conservation efforts are still genuine after fifty-three years, I think the continual feeding of the orangutans is more for the purpose of the tourists, rather than the animals which is a shame. The feeding platform feels very zoo-like and the tourists are incredibly noisy even when the orangutans are only 10 metres or so away.
My tip is to avoid the morning feeding session like the plague, as it’s heaving with day trippers, and wait until the afternoon feeding session as there’s hardly any tourists. I also told a few people to quieten down, which is something I think the rangers should be responsible for.
Another tip is to spend time walking slowly along the boardwalks after the throng of tourists has disappeared (before 10am and after 11/11.30am), looking out for tree branches moving and swaying. I managed to spot several orangutans making their way leisurely through the trees. If you have binoculars, bring them – it’s worth it.
As I was leaving the centre, I encountered a large, aggressive looking male walking along the boardwalk towards me. I backed away slowly, scooping up a Malaysian family as I went, telling them to stop screaming and shouting. Although it can be dangerous for the humans to be so close, I was more concerned about the orangutan contracting a disease (they share 98% DNA with humans, so catching a cold can be fatal to them). It did worry me how comfortable the orangutan was around humans, and made me think how successful their rehabilitation actually is.
Another observation is that although the centre had some signage about orangutans, none of the signs seemed to be in Malay, which is a shame for the local people and school children.
Despite my criticisms, the centre is worth a visit, but avoid the peak visiting and feeding times because it’s not enjoyable in the slightest. Entrance is £6 / RM30 for adults and there is a camera fee of £1.50 / RM10.
Sun Bear Conservation Centre
The Sun Bear Conservation Centre is located next door to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, making it easy to visit both in one day. The centre is fantastic and really well run. There are lots of good quality information boards about the sun bears and their conservation, in English and Malay. The endangered bears in the centre have been rescued from the illegal pet and medicine trade and can now live out their life in a spacious, peaceful, natural habitat. Some
people idiots believe that eating bear paws or using them in medicine cures a number of diseases and aliments, which is why the bears are so popular on the black market.
There are elevated viewing platforms and bridges that run over a few of the sun bear enclosures, meaning that visitors can’t get close to the bears, which doesn’t disturb or aggravate them. Binoculars and telescopes are available to use on the platforms, which allow for closer viewing of the beautiful animals. I spoke to a couple of really friendly, informative staff members about the bears, governmental policies and the wildlife trade.
Trading and keeping sun bears is meant to be a criminal offence in Malaysia (jail and fines), but no one has ever been prosecuted, which obviously doesn’t send a good message to poachers and owners. It’s about time the government stepped forward and actually started prosecuting people, so these cute bears can be saved and properly protected.
Despite the lack of governmental support, the centre is doing an amazing job and it’s really worth a visit to support it’s work and see the endangered animals. Entrance for adults is £6 / RM30.
Rainforest Discovery Centre & Night Walk
How would I describe the Rainforest Discovery Centre in two words? Absolutely fantastic! Walking through the treetop canopy along a 25 metre-high walkway that’s 347 metres long, climbing observation towers to get panoramic views of the primary rainforest and spotting birds and animals is such an incredible experience. There are a number of signs along the walkway that exhibit the different species of birds and trees.
Surrounding the walkways, there are three acres of plant discovery gardens that showcase pitcher plants, orchids and medicinal plants (amongst others), an exhibition hall and a lake. There are also a number of self guided, marked trails through the rainforest, varying in length and gradient which makes for a day of exploration. I’d really recommend spending at least a half day here – being able to see the rainforest from a range of heights is so unique.
As incredible as the centre is in the day, it really comes alive at night. Night walks are offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6-8pm, as long as there are a minimum of four people signed up. The cost is £6 / RM30 per person but it is really worth it.
We had two guides take us up onto the walkway, where we spotted a number of Giant Flying Squirrels, Black Squirrels and a Wallace Hawk Eagle. The guides then took us on an easy (but sweaty) hour and a half walk through the forest where we saw a number of animals, insects, birds and plants. We spotted:
- A Slow Lorris
- A sleeping Rufus Back Kingfisher
- Tasiers (seriously cute, tiny animals with huge eyes)
- A Hammerhead Worm
- Black Scorpians
- A Soft Shell Turtle
- Mouse Deer (beautiful, but funny looking creatures!)
- Cat Fish
- A Reef Scorpian
- Flying Lizards
- A sleeping White Crown Shama (a popular songbird in the Malaysian pet trade)
- Giant Millipedes
- Glow in the dark mushrooms
I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want to disturb the animals with my flash. The walk was certainly a highlight of my Borneo trip and the guides were amazing at spotting the creatures. I really recommend everyone to visit to this incredible conservation centre. Entrance for adults is £3.50 / RM15, which you don’t pay if you just do the night walk (£6 / RM30).
Places to eat
- Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat – we ate dinner at our accommodation in the evenings. We had a variety of soup, noodle and rice dishes.
- The Lake Bistro – more of a pricey place but the location on the lake is beautiful. The menu had clear vegetarian, including western-style, options and the food was tasty.
- Kafeteria Sepilok – this cafe is next to the Orangutan Centre and was a good lunch stop. Food was basic and cheap, but tasty. We had to make it very, very clear we were vegetarian, but they understood.
Next stop: The Kinabantangan River.