With my legs dragging behind me from the climb of Mount Kinabalu, I took my journey east towards Sandakan, and some of the most richly inhabited rainforest in Borneo. Beyond the immediate appeal of seeing Orang Utans, there was an endless spectrum of nature to be seen, including birdlife, snakes and pigmy elephants. 

Sitting on the coast, the city of Sandakan doesn’t muster too much personality. Buildings jostle around the seafront with clusters of restaurants, although unfortunately none of the cuisine would live up to the high standards set on the Malaysian Peninsula. Sandakan was, however, the perfect base for exploring the surrounding forested lands, which was rich with nature.

The first stop would be the famous Orang Utan rehabilitation centre in Sepilok. Here, orphaned, abandoned and injured Orang Utans would recover under careful care before being released back into the wild. Immediately, you could tell the distinguished features of each Orang Utan. Older Orang Utans would sit calmly and enjoy the plentiful food supplies, whereas the younger generation would roll around playfully and swing along the structures build in the communal areas. It was amazing to see so much character amongst the group. After a few days, I imagine you could tell each Orang Utan apart through their look and personality.

It was amazing to see the Orang Utans up close when they approached the boardwalks
Fun fact: the name Orang Utan is derived from the Malay/Indonesian words “orang”, meaning person, and “hutan” meaning forest, thus “person of the forest”.

The following day, with two Canadians, I managed to sneak into a luxury hotel’s infinity pool area by pretending to be a guest. It was a habit I had got into throughout much of Asia when days were too hot to do anything else. With enough confidence to appear like a 5 star customer, you can generally get to enjoy the finer things without the finer price tag.

After an afternoon of luxury, it was time to return to the jungle with a few nights on the Kinabatangan river. Around the Kinabatangan, it would be possible to see the diverse selection of nature on offer in Borneo from the relative comfort of a boat. Gliding through the river we witnessed various birdlife, including Hornbills and Owls, perching on the canopy roof. Monitor lizards crept graciously on the forest floors, snakes clung to branches. Although the wild Orang Utan remained elusive, families of Macaque and Proboscis monkeys could be witnessed in mass.

Proboscis monkeys can be identified by their elongated noses and golden coats, and would generally congregate at the higher branches to leap between trees. They seemed to enjoy a peaceful existence up there. Macaques on the other hand, with their grey coats and mischievous faces, would boldly enter the river lodges, and jump onto our tables to grab our tasty snacks whilst bearing their teeth. I definitely preferred the Proboscis.

The last days were a quiet few spent in Kota Kinabalu. Annoyingly, I hadn’t foreseen how difficult it would be to travel by land to some of the more remote national parks which lay in the centre of Borneo. Flying was the only realistic option, and unfortunately I was already over my Malaysia budget. I would have to keep busy with the library of books which I had spontaneously purchased (in hindsight, it’s not so wise to buy books about the journeys of famous explorers – it just gives you itchy feet!) Still, with Kota Kinabalu being situated on the coast, the fish markets were always a safe bet for a good meal with other backpackers. The evenings would come alive with smokey stalls grilling the seafood of your choice, be it lobster, crab or Red Snapper.

Approaching five months of travel, it’s easy to keep motivation high when you have a lot to do, although during quieter days your mind wanders towards memories of home and an easier (or at least simpler) life. Today I fly to Bali, where no doubt I’ll be thankful for the few quieter days I allowed myself. I’ve already got turtles on the mind…

Kinabatangan River
My river reading spot
River panorama
Probiscis monkeys in the trees

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