November 23

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: Hanging with the King of the Swingers

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Soulful orangutan at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo

Endangered Orangutans can be saved at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre

Visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Time is running out for the orangutan. And the Borneo rainforest is one of the few places left in the world where orangutans live in the wild. At the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, travellers can meet these astonishing cousins of ours in an ethical way. [Hosted by the Sabah Tourist Board]  

The Orangutan

He loiters. He lurches. Legs bent squat and arms stretched wide, far so, ever so, ridiculously wide...he swings, then swivels, swings, then swivels. Front, back, front, back, lurch, linger, lurch linger like a twisted yoyo on a horizontal jaunt through the leaves.

He's competent but not yet confident, an adolescent in terms of tree swinging and indeed at everything else. He's what the locals call the man of the forest (the literal translation of the words orang utan) and he's a curious man to watch indeed.

Adolescent orangutan learning how to swing through the trees at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre

Adolescent orangutan learning how to swing through the trees at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre

Education at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Orangutans are endangered apes. They swing through the canopy but they lack, like humans, a tail.

Like their longer-legged human counterparts, they need years of patient encouragement and instruction before they can take care of themselves and that's where the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre comes in.

The Rainforest School and Sanctuary

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre takes in orphans, sometimes via the nursery at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria at Kota Kinabalu, and trains them up to full swing.

To start with, it's sweet milk and smiles and before too long it's rope courses and daily top ups of fruit. After approximately 10 years (I know, gadzooks! Ten years?!) they're ready to swing free. The staff work 24 hours a day to combat the damage done by illegal and excessive deforestation or the use of orangutans as pets. 

Adolescent orangutans wait on a viewing platform at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo

It takes 10 years for orangutans to be able to fend for themselves after losing their mothers...

Other Rainforest Visitors

It's a curious viewing experience at both the rehab centre in Sepilok and the nursery at the Shangri-La. Both feeding platforms live high in the canopy of legitimate Borneo rainforest. In both places, orangutans are free to roam and return as they please. And in both places, other creatures of the jungle sneak out, swing high, swing low and scurry around to make the most of the free food on offer.

At the same time, though, it's a half way wilderness experience. There's a schedule and a programme and, of course, a big crowd. It's an adventure but it's not hiking in seclusion through the rainforest and meeting the king by accident.

For a wilder experience, hop on a boat and try a Borneo night safari.

Easy to Visit: Next to the Sepilok Nature Resort

However...There are plus sides. Most obviously, the rehab centre lives right next to the Sepilok Nature Resort.

So, instead of spending the afternoon swatting mosquitos and sweltering in search of flashes of orange fur, you can soak up orangutan goodness in the morning and grab a hammock after lunch.

And in this way (oh, indulge me, dear reader) you can become your own king of the swingers. Especially if it's already your name ;-)

And on that note, I'm off for a swing...

Borneo Rainforest Hammock

 Where to see orangutans in Borneo?

It can be hard to track down orangutans on account of their endangered status. I'd highly recommend a visit to the Sepilok Nature Reserve detailed above and, if you're lucky, you can find them at the nursery at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria in Kota Kinabalu, the main airport on Borneo Malaysia.

What to wear when visiting an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo

Note - if you buy anything through these links, I may earn a small commission at no cost to you.

  • It's cold in the morning but hot and sticky all day long with plenty of things around that will bite (though not the orangutans.) Bring bug spray.
  • Wear loose-fitting trousers and long sleeved tops to prevent bites.
  • Check with your doctor about malaria prophylaxis long before you travel to Borneo.
  • Bring plenty of fresh, clean water with you.
  • There's no need to bring food for the orangutans - in fact, it's discouraged.
  • You can take photos though, so snap away.
Orangutan swings through the trees at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo

Orangutan swings through the trees at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo

Where to stay in Borneo

To see orangutans, two hotels live right next door to Borneo orangutan sanctuaries: the Sepilok Nature Reserve and Shangri-La Rasa Ria in Kota Kinabalu. However, there are many other beautiful places to stay in Sabah so check out the handpicked recommendations over here.

Other things to do in Borneo

As well as watching orangutans and heading on safari, you can play golf among the crocodiles and take cooking lessons to learn some authentic Malaysian cuisine. 

How to reach the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre

Fly to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. From there, take a domestic flight up to Sandakan.

The centre is located 23km from Sandakan. You can reach the centre by bus or by taxi. There is a visitors reception centre which provides walking guides that illustrate the trails and points of interest. 

Notes about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

  • Remember, it's a sanctuary not a zoo and there are no guarantees. Orangutans can roam freely.
  • Avoid crowds and head to the quieter viewing area. The less noise, the more likely the orangutans will venture into the open.

    The best time of day to visit the Sepilik Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is in the morning and again in the afternoon.
  • Feeding takes place at 10am and 3pm and you are advised to arrive 30 minutes before this.  
  • Information about the Mangrove Forest Trail can be found at the Visitor Reception Centre. The trail itself takes 2-3 hours one way. There is plenty to see including water-holes, transitional forest, lowland rain forest and boardwalks into a mangrove forest.

    There are many diseases that humans carry that can affect Orangutans. Visitors to the centre are requested not to touch them, even if they wander up to you, for their safety.
  • The facility was constructed so that visitors can access the feeding platform and be immersed in the whole experience. It is, however, a subtropical rain forest. This facility is mostly disabled accessible, with a few slopes that may be a bit steep.
  •  The ideal time of year to visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo, Malaysia, is between March and October. It will be hot and humid throughout. Temperatures tend to rise toward the end of the season before the rains come.

Disclosure - I visited the Borneo Rainforest as part of a project with iAmbassador, Sabah Tourism and Royal Brunei. As ever, as always, all words and thoughts and dreams and bad jokes my own. Otherwise, there's just no point.


Sustainable Travel

  • Sarah Lee says:

    Like it – “King” of the swingers. Swing on!


  • A visit with the Orangs of Borneo and Sumatra
    has been at the very top of my travel bucket list
    for many years. Your post has served to make me
    want to go even sooner as one never knows what tomorrow will bring. Have a wonderful time amongst
    some of the most fascinating (to me) members of
    the animal kingdom. I have seen plenty of Orangs in
    various zoos over the years. I would truly love to see
    them in a more natural setting, preferably in the wild.


  • Oh, I really hope you get to see them soon. They’re absolutely fascinating. These ones may not be 100% in the wild but they’re certainly not in a zoo. Fingers crossed!


  • I’ve heard nothing but good things about Borneo. Definitely a place that’s a must see.


    • Hm – well there are some things that aren’t so good and (as with so many places in the world) it’s a complex place currently divided into three separate countries. But in terms of travel experiences, yes, I’ve heard plenty of good things!


  • Hee hee, “the king of the swingers.” My dad lives in Indonesia and has long wanted to take me and my kids to see the orangutans. Someday we will get there. They are such beautiful creatures. Thanks for sharing your lovely photos.


    • Hehe – I may use the term more often! I can see why your dad wants you to see them – they’re so fascinating and oddly human. And, of course, as they’re endangered you never know how long they’re going to be around for…


  • Alastair McKenzie says:

    I’ve seen them at the Semenggoh sanctuary just outside Kuching (Sarawak). It’s a great experience but, I’m told, a poor substitute for seeing them in the wild – which is still possible (ironically easier on the Indonesia side, which is also where the illegal logging that destroys their natural habitat is most prolific).


    • Hm…the tricky balance between seeing what you want and supporting the causes you want to support, eh? It’s good to hear what Sabah is doing now to try to keep the rainforests safe and staggering to see how many palm oil plantations there are from the sky as you fly in. I’d be a little wary about meeting a fully grown adult in the wild though – they look huge even when they’re just teenagers! What if they moved in for a fight? Or…a hug?!! ;-)


  • it looks amazing. my dad went there on his honeymoon a few years ago and I’ve wanted to visit and see the orangutans ever since!


    • Hope you get there – it’s such a special experience whether you’re on honeymoon or not!


  • I went to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre a few years back and it was so worth it. Wish I had known about the resort next door!


    • Ah, shame! And that hammock was soooooo comfy. Still, the apes themselves were definitely the highlight so at least you got to see them!


  • Alvina Labsvirs says:

    Spent a couple of weeks in Sabah. Visited the rehabilitation centre then went on to a homestay in Abai, Tabin wlidlife reserve and Danum Valley research centre. Saw wild orang-utan at both Tabin and Danum. Totally awesome.


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