At the start of this year we made a list of places we wanted to visit while living over this side of the world. “Aren’t you always on holiday?” is something we are asked- a lot. The truth is that we studied, we worked. We still study and we still work, hard. But now we have some serious adventuring to do in between. We never had plans to travel, and never quite fitted the gap year model.
Borneo was, embarrassingly, at the bottom of our list. With such a short distance from Bangkok, albeit a stop in Kuala Lumpur, it should have caught our attention sooner. Our friends rave about this corner of the world, but seeing orangutans had never really been my dream.
I was always a dolphin girl, my ten-year-old bedroom plastered with dolphin posters left, right and centre. However, Hong Kong was at the top of our list. So, a plan was formed. Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu (Eastern Borneo), Kinabalu to Hong Kong and then Hong Kong back to Bangkok. All flights to/from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu have to stop, so we chose to stop in Hong Kong on route home to see some long time friends. You can see just how crammed in this trip was about to become.
Planning Borneo was a nightmare because we wanted to keep the costs down while experiencing all the fun things. Joining a tour is not for us, but it by far the easiest way to do it. I can now sit here and say that you can plan it by yourself. It just takes time and a bit of patience, which, after working five days a week, I really don’t have. I am not a patient person either. I tend to save my patience up for work then arrive home on empty, grabbing snacks for the cupboard to top back up again! Hangry, impatient Hannah is not a good person.
My more logical-thinking hubs helped set up a Google Docs spreadsheet so we could keep tabs on transport, accommodation and costs. Borneo is not the easiest place to get around, and there is a lot of Borneo to cover. We stuck to Sabah only and did a few internal flights to speed things up. The plan was starting to shape up nicely:
- Kota Kinabalu (city, marine park, sunsets) – three days
- Sepilok (orangutans, sun bears) – three days
- Kinabatagan (river cruises, wildlife, homestays) – three days
- Mabul island (diving, snorkeling, marine life) four days
The plan took time, but the plan was so good. Better than I could have ever imagined, actually. Borneo became a place where the pictures and stories I had seen and read about the rainforest became real. Not interested in orangutans? I couldn’t have been more wrong! At twenty-nine years old I thought I knew my interests inside out. Borneo opened my eyes just that little bit more and I am forever thankful that we persisted with the plan, parted with the cash and packed our bags on a bit of a whim. Borneo, in a nutshell, was just breathtaking. It should have been at the top of our list, in bold, with bells on.
We rented an AirBnb here for some down time. Staying a little bit further out of town was nice as we jogged around Likas bay in the mornings and went to the little shop for coffee. The town has some great little bars and restaurants, as well as some beautiful sunsets on the beach near the airport.
You can also hop over to the marine park, but we found this very touristy. At the ticket office before boarding the boat we had a sudden epiphany. Let’s try parasailing! We paid about £27 and got our paper ticket stamped. For this price health and safety could have been an issue, but an adventure wouldn’t be the same without a bit of risk would it? We have survived in Thailand this far anyway. Will was not keen, but I forced him into it, poor thing. Once at full height, the scenery was beautiful. Extra points for feeling completely safe too.
There is so much wildlife in Borneo that even the shallow parts of the sea were teeming with hundreds of tiny jellyfish. Many had been washed up to shore, so we took a closer look.
We asked the man in the shop about the jellyfish, but the language barriers got the better of us. I have no idea what kind of jellyfish these are, at what stage of growth they may be, or if they are dangerous. We swam in the water anyway, but we were truly outnumbered by these little flabs.
Taking a hike up one of the islands brought us face to face with a huge monitor lizard. He was so well camouflaged that I nearly stepped on this huge beast. We had clearly invaded his territory and he was not happy. I don’t think humans were really meant for Borneo.
Around three the crowds had started to fade away and we got some stunning shots as the storm clouds were rolling in.
Three nights in KK was more than enough. Unfortunately we did not have all the gear to climb the mountain. We had also heard from the locals that it was not safe at the moment. For us, the best of Borneo was yet to come.
From KK, we took a forty-five minute Air Asia flight to Sandakan. This cost a mere £25 for both of us. Our accommodation was in Sepilok, near the orangutan centre. We booked a Grab taxi via the handy App and were on our way. The car was speeding along nicely, when it took a sudden right up a very steep rocky road. Where the hell were we going? The road only got steeper and the car only just about managed to haul us to the top. We hit the jackpot with this place. The rainforest was right there!
After a peaceful nights sleep listening to the rainforest soundtrack, we boarded the free shuttle bus to find our orangutan friends. We attended two feeding times- at ten, and again at three. The morning slot was chock-a-block with tours and at times it felt like we were part of a Shearings holiday. The second slot was much more chilled- recommended. The rehabilitation centre is semi-wild and helps the orangutans to live independently when they are finally released. Here they come!
Seeing the orangutans for the first time was one that we will never forget. The way that these animals move is mesmerizing, and some of them played up to their their Go-Pro loving audience. Oh how we love the Drama Queens! These swinging pals were just our kind. They stuffed down bananas and papaya, staring at us right in the face. At the second feeding, one orangutan caught everyone’s attention high up in the trees. He then took his sweet time to swing across the rope above us to get to the platform. “Ahhhhh” and “ohhhhh” went the Go-Pro gang, until he started peeing on the ones positioned perfectly below. Totally hilarious, and totally Go-Pro worthy. I was chuffed to catch this on camera. Unfortunately our Canon battery had died by this point, so it was Go Pro only. Yes, we were part of the gang.
The rehabilitation centre also has a Nursery. You can sit quietly in the air conditioned glass room and wait for the babies to come by. This little one fancied a snack.
In between feeding times we went across the road to visit the sun bears. Unfortunately the bile of these bears is historically used in Chinese medicine. It is not uncommon for them to be kept as pets too. One sun bear here had been a pet since birth and was wholly dependent on humans. He can never be released into the wild as his bear instincts are non-existent. He simply cries for food and waits for the humans to get it. Only a few days in and Borneo was opening my eyes to things that I would simply read about and move on.
Can you spot a sleepy sun bear?
The Rainforest Discovery Centre was also worth a visit. Located one sweaty kilometre down the road, it is a place of tranquility where you can take different trails. Why I wore flip flops here I will never know as I nearly stepped on a black Cobra that happened to be slithering along the path. This could have been snake bite number two for me, and you would not have heard the end of it. You’re lucky and off the hook.
One trail led us to this strange-looking flower. Looks like a mango, feels like a peach. I don’t think Will was very impressed and likened it to something out of Pokemon (of course…)
Where we stayed with a local family. Father is the co-ordinator of the conservation projects along the river, but mother runs the homestay and brothers lead private river tours for homestay friends. We slept in a simple room, decorated in lime green hues with a Disney Princess blanket to wrap up in. If you have read my other blogs you will know that we enjoy a bit of luxury, but this was not the place to indulge. We ate local food with local people. At dinner time we sat on the floor with the family, all of them eating the traditional way with hands only (no cutlery), and gorged on fish, rice and vegetables. Our shower was simply a bucket of cold water in a little cubicle. This was a great experience for us and we felt so humbled to be welcomed into their home. On our last night we were taught traditional Malay dancing and joined all the siblings in some karaoke. I supported Will as a backing singer while he belted out ‘Five Hundred Miles’ in a Scottish accent. He was applauded, but my face looked like I was chewing a fly (massively tone deaf). A three-day, two-night trip (including everything) set us back £200 for both of us. It was worth every penny.
Four cruises down the river was our grand total. Two in the afternoon, one at six in the morning and one at night. Our favourite was the night cruise. This is what we saw:
- Proboscis monkey
- Silver leaf monkey
And much, much more!
Spotting a completely wild orangutan brought a tear to our eyes. This one was very old and moved slowly around the tree. He managed to wrap himself in some big leaves and then we waved goodbye.
This part of the river looked like a scene from Jurassic Park. We huddled together, convinced that a huge croc would leap from the water and snap us up. Needless to say, we were mocked by our guides as a baby one struggled to swim up river.
One cruise welcomed torrential rain. All the other boats carried sensible passengers with all their Borneo gear. “Where’s your raincoat” asked Will. “In Bangkok” I replied. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Why were we the only two explorers along the river with zero protection? We questioned our shoddy trip prep. We were coming to the rainforest for goodness sake! The clue was in the title. We left the boat soaked from head to toe, looking like we had stepped out of the river itself. See below for no idea:
This is what I wore to the rainforest. Who am I kidding?
The final leg of our trip was commencing. We said goodbye to our Malaysian family and took a four hour local bus to Semporna to catch the afternoon boat to Mabul island. We debated for months about visiting here. There is a history of kidnappings, but so many forums had said “go”. In the end we decided to get on with it. The main thing to note here is that we felt safe. There were police boats patrolling the islands, but this was for our safety and we never felt scared. Our eyes were treated to these Instagrammable scenes upon arrival:
The water was crystal clear and I could see hundreds of fish while stomping along the jetty. Our hut was very cute too. It was placed in a neat row, where other guests had their balconies laden with diving gear and swimwear. This was a serious diving resort and we were excited to get going. Welcome to hut number five, Scuba Junkie Resort!
But it wasn’t meant to be. On our first day of diving the rain came down and nerves got the better of me. I was barely two metres under water with an amazing, and very patient, diving instructor and I just froze. I was so scared that I was holding her hand like a baby. Three attempts later I quit, dragging my long body out of the water in shame. This is my second time diving and I can confidently say it is not for me. I am proud that Will continued. He experienced turtles swimming above him and Nemo fish playing before his eyes in beautiful coral. He completed his second dive in the afternoon and saw frogfish too. Well done Will.
The great ocean and I have never seen eye to eye, but since living in Thailand I have grown to embrace the sea (but not diving… maybe one day…)
The following day we joined a very small snorkeling tour around the island and were guided by a lovely diving instructor called Rachel. She swam us out over thirty metres deep and guess what we saw? Turtles! It was just us and the turtles, swimming up to us to say “hi”. Can you see the sun rays piercing through the water?
We also saw other amazing marine life like pufferfish, trumpet fish, chocolate chip starfish, a giant barracuda and triggerfish. Did you know that triggerfish have big teeth? I nearly found out as I was attacked by one pair. Silly old me, just innocently swimming over their nest. Luckily they went for my fins, not my legs. Don’t mess with nature!
Our love for turtles reached it’s peak when the conservation manager at Scuba Junkie knocked on our hut one evening to let us know that baby turtles were being released. We all stood in a semi-circle on the beach and saw ninety run towards the waves. As if our Borneo adventure couldn’t get any better. This was certainly a right place right time moment. The next day we adopted one and named him ‘Kemble’. Hope you have made it out there little one!
Well this has been a rather long blog post hasn’t it? If you have got this far, thank you so much for reading and for taking an interest. Borneo was a game changer for both of us. I haven’t gone into detail about the deforestation and the lack of care for our planet that we also experienced during this trip, but let me tell you that it is real.
You can read all you like about palm oil plantations but when you drive for four hours and all you see is palm trees either side, it kicks you hard in the stomach. What was once there has now gone. Luckily there are many people and organisations that are working hard to preserve what is left. Scuba Junkie and Sukau Homestay are examples of this. It is important that out of sight out of mind does not mean that it is not happening. Borneo has taught me that while capturing my attention through the natural beauty that remains.
So we return to work refreshed, with all these memories in tow. Our next adventure will probably cram some more things in, but time is short and we have our list to get through. Go adventurers!
Thank you for reading!
Hannah and Will 🙂