August 15, 2021

How to See Orangutans in Borneo: Hanging with the King of the Swingers

Soulful orangutan at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo

Endangered Orangutans can be saved at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre

Wondering how to see orangutans in Borneo? Here's a guide that shows you where to find orangutans in Malaysia, plus what you need to know.

How to see Orangutans in Borneo

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

How to see Orangutans in Borneo, Malaysia

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.


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.
  • For more details, check out this post on what to wear in the Amazon Rainforest. It's a separate place, obviously(!) but the advice is the same.
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. 

Orangutan article about the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok

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

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  1. 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!

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