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

By Abi King | South Asia

Nov 23

Borneo Orangutan Sanctuary sees the great ape ready to leap

Visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

The Borneo rainforest is one of the few places where orangutans live in the wild. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo is one of the few places where travellers can experience this.

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.

Orangutans look back in Borneo Rainforest

Education at the Borneo Orangutan Sanctuary

Orangutans are endangered apes. They swing through the canopy but they lack, like humans, a tail. Again, like their longer legged human counterparts, they take years of patient encouragement and instruction before they can take care of themselves and that’s where the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre comes in.

Rainforest School: A Borneo Orangutan Sanctuary

They take in orphans, sometimes via the nursery at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria at Kota Kinabalu, and train them up to swing. To start, 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.

Silver monkey eyeing up orangutans in Borneo RainforestOther 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.

Sepilok Rainforest Lodge: Next to the Borneo Orangutan Sanctuary

Swinging in a Hammock: Yourself

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

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.) Wear loose-fitting trousers and long sleeved tops and bring mosquito repellent. 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.

Where to stay in Borneo

To see orangutans, two hotels are 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. 

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.

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Sarah Lee says:

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

  • SAM says:

    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.

  • Abi King says:

    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!

  • De'Jav says:

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

    • Abi King says:

      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!

  • Jenna says:

    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.

    • Abi King says:

      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).

    • Abi King says:

      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?!! ;-)

  • laura says:

    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!

    • Abi King says:

      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!

    • Abi King says:

      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. http://reasonstogonorth.com/tabin/

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