Think you can only do Borneo on an expensive package tour? Think again, and think about the Kinabatangan River. Here's how to spot the best of Borneo's wildlife in the wild and on a budget—and have a total blast doing so.
See and Do
When people hear Borneo they typically think of two things: wild orangutans, and expensive. While Borneo is definitely not a cheap destination, especially since the Malaysian ringgit is doing well, it is doable by yourself and on a budget. So forget about the pricey package tours, and do Borneo right on your own—and with your wallet intact.
The three of us had two goals in mind for the "wildlife" portion of our Borneo trip: orangutans and proboscis monkeys. Organizing a trek to see either in the wild costs anything from US$150-400, so that was out of the question. But we did find another less expensive option: Sungai Kinabatangan.
This muddy river, most easily accessed from the tiny town of Sukau, is becoming quite a wildlife watching destination, though the reason is quite sad. A decade or so ago, tourists had to be lucky to see animals on its banks, but nowadays wildlife sightings are practically guaranteed because of the rampant destruction of the surrounding rainforest. With more and more jungle being cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, the animals are forced to head to the river banks for solace and food.
It sucks for them, but it's (sadly) good for us. Two-hour wildlife cruises departing from the lodges in Sukau cost 35-40MYR. You're most likely to see wildlife during the sunset cruise and early morning. We took three cruises and we saw:
A harem of shy proboscis monkeys, a species only found on Borneo
A herd of wild pygmy elephants having a party by the river
Including an elephant who decided to cross the river
Graceful hornbills resting in the treetops
A family of pig-tailed macaques having brunch
And... two orangutans snacking on fruit trees!
That said, we were lucky, especially when it came to the orangutans. Our guide from RB Sukau Lodge was the only one who spotted them and even then, they were hard to make out. Luckily, seeing rehabilitated orangutans is only a minivan ride away in Sepilok (30MYR + 10MYR camera fee).
This world-famous rehabilitation center has two daily feedings and though you're not guaranteed to see the "cheeky" animals, chances are good. The day we went, four orangutans showed up, one of whom had a baby clinging to her belly.
A late-comer to the feeding brought a bag (perhaps to take home the bananas?).
But he left empty-handed via tightrope. It was quite the scene!
The riverside of Sukau is full of lodges that organize wildlife viewing tours. Typically, you'll both cruise and eat where you stay, so make sure you like the vibe before committing to the whole package.
We spent our first night at Sukau Greenview (25MYR for a single bed in a dorm), but then moved to RB Sukau Lodge next door where we paid 70MYR for a bungalow for three.
We did all of our cruises with RB Lodge for 35MYR each. They were cheaper than Greenview and much less crowded, which meant we could tell the guide exactly what we hoped to see.
In Sepilok, we stayed at the Longhouse at Sepilok Forest Edge Resort. It was a shit deal, grossly overpriced at 45MYR each for a bunk bed. There are many cheaper options to stay, but we were dropped off there by our transfer and too lazy to move. That said, the grounds were beautifully landscaped and they even have their own nature trail—on which we got at least five leeches each.
Eat and Drink
Sukau lacks eating options, so you're basically stuck at your lodge. Greenview charges 15MYR for lunch and 20MYR for dinner. It's expensive, but the food is good, though it does tend to run out fast.
RB Lodge couldn't offer us anything besides fried rice with chicken, so we ate at Greenview even after we switched.
The best thing about the Forest Edge Resort was the restaurant, which served delicious food and decently reasonable prices. Another good option in Sepilok is the burger lady right in front of the Rehab Center. She makes good fruit shakes and sandwiches, and delicious samosas.
Getting to Sukau from KK is pretty straightforward, as long as you know what to watch out for. Head to the bus station outside of town (30MYR for taxi) and take any bus headed anywhere. Ask to be let off and Sukau Junction, and don't pay more than 35MYR for your ticket.
At the junction, you can get a minivan or truck to take you to Sukau. We had to pay 20MYR each, but you may be able to negotiate the price down a bit.
Greenview organizes a minivan from Sukau to Sepilok, which leaves daily at 8:30am. It costs 40MYR (highway robbery), but makes the trip convenient and fast.
Interested in seeing Borneo's orangutans and pygmy elephants without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Sukau and Sepilok photo tour.
If you have any tips on budget travel in Borneo, please share them in the comments!