Sepilok and Kinabatangan River

To round out my stay in Borneo, I visited Sepilok and the Kinabatangan River. I went to several animal rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries in Sepilok, which was about a 45-minute drive from Sandakan.

I heard that the Labuk Bay Sanctuary allowed visitors to see proboscis monkeys up close. Proboscis monkeys have prominent noses and live in two types of groups. A “harem” group (a cringe-worthy name) consists of a dominant male, a group of females, and their offspring. A “bachelor” group consists of single males who have reached mating age. Males from a bachelor group may try to win over wives from a harem group.

When I visited Labuk Bay, I learned that a palm oil plantation owner built the sanctuary. In the 1990s, the owner was responsible for destroying hundreds of acres of mangroves, which served as the habitat for proboscis monkeys. On the drive from my hostel to the sanctuary, palms stretched as far as I could see. The owner claims to have regretted his actions and built the sanctuary to try to reverse the harm he created.

The sanctuary didn’t feel like a genuine conservation or rehabilitation effort. Instead, it felt like a business catered toward giving visitors Instagram-worthy moments. I’ll show a couple of photos from the sanctuary for honesty’s sake, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending the sanctuary to others.

Labuk Bay has a feeding for the proboscis monkeys in the morning and another in the afternoon. Silvered leaf monkeys wander around the viewing platform where the morning feeding occurs. The monkeys weren’t afraid of humans, and other guests invited the monkeys to climb on them and cuddle. I was wary of touching the monkeys, and I thought the extensive contact with humans might have been harmful. It didn’t seem like the center was helping to ensure the monkeys could survive on their own.

labuk bay

Many proboscis monkeys came to the viewing platforms for both feedings. Although I didn’t like the sanctuary’s focus on profit rather than conservation, the proboscis monkeys were still fascinating to watch.

labuk bay

A male proboscis monkey

I didn’t voice my concerns about Labuk Bay to the staff. (You can call me out for having a weak backbone.) Sepilok is not an affluent area, and Labuk Bay and the palm oil plantation provide jobs to locals. As a privileged foreigner who didn’t know much about the local economy or best conservation practices, I wasn’t in a position to lecture anyone. Plus, I had made the decision to visit the sanctuary in the first place. It seemed hypocritical to try to deprive the staff of their livelihood.

That said, if your goal is to get good photos of proboscis and silvered leaf monkeys, you’ll get them at Labuk Bay. Obviously, each traveler can make his or her own decision on whether to visit.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center provided a more positive wildlife experience. Like Labuk Bay, the center has a morning and afternoon feeding. A ticket grants you access to both feedings, although you have to leave the center between feedings. All visitors must disinfect their hands before entering for the orangutans’ safety. The center made clear its priority was to reintegrate orphaned and injured orangutans into the wild.

As I was waiting for the orangutans to arrive for the morning feeding, I realized that the memory card in my digital camera wasn’t working properly. I became frustrated as I fiddled around with the memory card. After a few minutes, I decided to get over myself, take some photos with my phone, and just enjoy the experience.

The viewing platform was crowded, and everyone whispered in excitement when the first orangutan appeared.

sepilok orangutan

An orangutan scurries away with his pick of the food, while macaques try to swoop in on the action.

Four orangutans came to the feeding. All of them kept their visits brief and swiftly disappeared into the trees. Visitors are free to walk around the center for about an hour and a half after the morning feeding, so I started heading to the nursery. On the way, I saw an orangutan hanging out in the trees. The orangutan was a total flirt, alternating between staring coyly at bystanders and climbing further up the trees.

sepilok orangutan

Oh hai.

The nursery was the highlight of the sanctuary. Hilarious profiles of each of the orangutans hung on the walls. For instance, one profile said an orangutan named Ceria could “look evil when he close[d] his eyelids” and “like[d] attractive-looking ladies.”

sepilok orangutan

Ceria, you’re my favorite.

Watching the orangutans play in the nursery was so entertaining. They loved to somersault, wrestle, and tease each other. The nursery was the highlight of my visit to the center.

sepilok orangutans

Orangutans tormenting each other

Instead of going to the afternoon feeding at the orangutan center, I visited the Sun Bear Conservation Center, which was next door. Sun bears are relatively small and predominantly live in Southeast Asia. The bears were active when I visited, sniffing and roaming for food.

sun bear

Ah, so cute. I die.

One bear stood up when a ranger approached with corn and sweet potatoes.

sun bear

Macaques scrambled around the visitors’ platforms as they tried to steal food. A couple of macaques proudly enjoyed their loot.

sun bear sepilok

After seeing aggressive macaques in Thailand and hearing stories of other travelers being bitten, I kept my distance from them. A staff member advised us to avoid eye contact with them.

sun bear sepilok

No eye contact!

As I was walking on the visitors’ platform, I nearly stumbled into an orangutan hanging out on a railing. I was startled, but it couldn’t have cared less about me.

sepilok orangutan

The orangutans from the rehabilitation center are free to roam, so they regularly visit the sun bear center. I saw three orangutans at the sun bear center and was able to see them at a closer range than at the orangutan center.

sepilok orangutan

The orangutan rehabilitation center and the sun bear conservation center were absolutely worthwhile. It was great that they focused on providing information about the animals and conservation efforts.

I also visited the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sepilok. I don’t know much about flora and have never cared much for plants and flowers, but I do appreciate that rainforests are enormously important. An exhibit on Bornean wildlife was especially informative. The center contained a canopy walk that allowed visitors to walk among the trees.

rainforest discovery center

I went on a two-day, one-night tour of the Kinabatangan River as my last activity in Borneo. The river is home to pygmy elephants, crocodiles, orangutans, and other wildlife. It’s very rare for visitors to spot pygmy elephants and orangutans, but crocodiles are more common.

My tour included two cruises: one in the late afternoon and another in the morning. Unfortunately, it poured during the afternoon cruise, so we didn’t see the rarer animals. We did spot proboscis monkeys, silvered leaf monkeys, and macaques. The animals were far away, so I couldn’t take great photos. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the monkeys in their natural habitat.


Bornean version of Where’s Waldo? Can you spot the proboscis monkey? (Hint: look for an orange-ish blob.)

The rain reduced to an occasional drizzle for our cruise the next morning. We saw more proboscis monkeys and macaques and caught the end of the sunrise.


I apologize if my posts on Borneo sound preachy and/or long-winded. I’m still processing my visit, and I haven’t found an articulate way to voice my thoughts. Overall, I loved most of my experience in Borneo, but I was uncomfortable with a couple of wildlife encounters (most notably Turtle Island and Labuk Bay). It was also upsetting to see so many palm oil plantations in Borneo. However, a number of organizations are valiantly attempting to save and maintain the wildlife in Borneo. I definitely should have been more thorough in researching companies and organizations that focused on conservation, but hopefully others can do a better job than I did.

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