Visiting Sepilok to see Orang Utans!
Anyone who has visited the Malaysian part of Borneo has heard of the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. About an hour from Sandakan, this world famous site is doing a thriving tourist business, which helps fund the program along with donations by people who have adopted an orangutan.
The center’s job is to take an orphaned, injured, or otherwise in need animal and rehabilitate it to be released into the wild. Their number one goal is to teach the animals to become independent and find their own sources of food. They provide two platform feedings a day of bananas and sugar cane to aid the animals when needed, but the food is monotonous and boring to discourage the primates from relying on the feedings.
The feedings are held at 10:00 and 3:00 each day but it is recommended that visitors arrive about 30 minutes before, so they can pay, disinfect their feet and hands, and get themselves settled on to the viewing platform. There are usually quite a few people all hoping to see the orangutans, so it is a good idea to get there early.
As per our usual, we thought we knew exactly where off the main road the center was, but we missed the turn and kept driving. This put us behind and we didn’t arrive at the center until 9:25. Thankfully, there was no line and we checked our bag, paid and walked right in. The visitor center backs right up to the jungle, so walking along the raised wooden path, there are plenty of things to see if you keep your eyes open. We spotted a few pig tailed macaques, but we were in a hurry.
When we got to the sprawling viewing platform it was packed. There must have been at least 150 people there. I was starting to have second thoughts. With this many people around, even if the animals were used to it, there may not be that many who come to eat. The viewing platform was only about 25 feet from where they would be fed and that’s usually too close for many animals’ comfort! Luck was with us, and we saw four that morning– a very scrawny female, a huge male, and a mother and baby. We were thrilled!
Mt. Kinabalu National Park
Driving in Eastern Malaysia (Sabah)
The Wildlife of Borneo, A Photo Essay
The Handicraft Villages of Kudat, Malaysia
The Stinky Rafflesia Flower
Durian, The Stinky Fruit You Must Try
Proboscis Monkeys at Labuk Bay
It seemed almost like a choreographed program. First the squirrels and macaques made their way through, checking the feeding stand for any leftovers, and then the orangutans wandered in one by one. The small female was there the longest, and the man who brought the food was talking about her on the walkie talkie. It looked like they report who has come each feeding, and she certainly looked like she needed nourishment. She was so small we all thought she was a youngster until we were told otherwise.
The “show” lasted for a good hour, so I think most people definitely left feeling very good about spending the money to come. As it is Borneo, I sweated and sweated as I hefted my camera and big lens around. I wasn’t in the perfect place and after holding up about four pounds continuously, you really begin to feel it.
We were probably some of the last ones to start walking down the wooden walkway to go back to the visitor’s center, but we definitely took our time and noticed as many insects and other wildlife as we could along the way.
Back at the main building, we checked the times for the educational film, signed up for our night walk, and went over to the small café for a drink. We were coming back for the 3:00 feeding (your ticket is a day ticket good for both feedings), and this time we knew exactly where we wanted to stand for the best view, so we planned to be the first to enter.
We still had some time to kill, though, so we headed back to Sandakan to grab some lunch. On the way back, we still had more time so we visited the Rain Forest Discovery Canopy Walk (15 MYR per person). It was not the right time to do it, midday, and all we accomplished was sweating some more. We really didn’t see anything.
We were, indeed, the first ones to enter for the afternoon feeding. However, altogether there were probably only about 60 people this time around, many of which had done the morning feeding along with us.
This time, the show was already going on when we arrived. A medium-sized male was very animated. He climbed, he swung, he threw leaves and branches at the macaques, he ran, he upped, he downed, he stared at us. He was very entertaining! But, he was the only orangutan to come, which I think was a little disappointing.
We were very happy that we had our own transportation so that we had the opportunity to go to both the morning and afternoon feedings. There were pros and cons to both. The morning had many more visitors to contend with, but there were four orangutans along with plenty of other animals, before the sun got too high in the sky. In the afternoon, there were fewer visitors (at least half as many), but there was only one orangutan. He did put on the best show, though, however you certainly can’t expect that to be the norm.
After the second feeding we had another couple of hours to kill and once again drove back to town for something to do before our night walk, which started at 6:00. We hadn’t known, prior to talking to a ranger that night walks were even possible, so we hadn’t prepared ourselves properly. Other walkers approached the gate wearing leech socks, which completely got me worried. However, the rangers tailor the night walk to you, so we basically stayed on the paths and wooden walkways instead of hiking around in the mud. If you go, wear your leech socks!
We loved the night walk. Our guide worked very hard at finding things for us to see, he brought flashlights for us to use and help spot, and we enjoyed listening to the sounds of the jungle, watching the flying squirrels leaping through the twilight, and viewing all kinds of scary jungle-y things like scorpions, centipedes, scorpions, frogs, and snakes. One of my favorite things we saw was lantern bugs. Brightly colored in blues and greens with a proboscis that looked akin to a rhinoceros’ horn, the lantern bug was just strangely gorgeous!
I was quite impressed with the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre and its offerings. We learned about and saw the stars, the orangutans, as well as so much other wildlife that it made our day complete! We headed back to the hostel in Sandakan and fell into our beds!
I do think it is a fantastic way to see the orangutans. These are released rehabilitated animals, so they are a little used to humans, but they are still wild. It is not a show or program put on by the center. It is a feeding and whoever shows up to eat, eats. That’s it. I loved it!
Practical Information for Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre:
It’s about an hour out of Sandakan, and there are plenty of day tours or buses that can get you there. I think if you go this route, though, you will only be able to stay for a specific amount of time. If you decided to stay all day, you will find there is a lot of time between feedings.
There is a Sepilok Resort that has accommodations for all budgets and a pool. We didn’t stay there, because we like to be in town in order to walk to restaurants at night, but it does have a pool and is only a five minute walk from the center, so it could be a good option.
Cost and Notes
The day ticket for viewing the feeding platforms cost 30 MYR (about $9.00) per person, plus there is a 10 MYR camera fee. This allows you entry into both feeding times, but you need not pay just to watch the educational film, shop, or go to the café.
There are two feeding times, 10:00 and 3:00, but you can also pay extra to go on a morning walk or a night walk. For both of these, you must sign up at the visitor’s center before, and the cost is 20 MYR. We did not know about these walks prior to our visit, or we would have done both of them and we would have come prepared in our leech socks so that we could go wherever the guide wanted us to go. The night walk was fantastic, and I’m sure the morning walk is too.
Have you been to Borneo? Sepilok? Do you think it’s the best way to see orangutans? We would love to read your comments!
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.