SANDAKAN, SABAH - WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Explore The Rainforest Discovery Centre
The Rainforest Discovery Centre is situated about 25km to the west of Sandakan City. It is easily reachable from Sandakan by either public transport to Sepilok (Bus 14 - approx MYR 6), by private taxi or by Grab taxi (which we find to be the best balance of cost and convenience at approx MYR 30-35). The journey from Sandakan will take between 30-45 minutes.
Although the centre is mostly visited during the day, a night walk is also available from Monday to Friday at an additional fee. You will, however, need to register for the night walk at the ticketing counter before they close at 5pm and the walk itself takes place between 6pm-8pm. We registered for the night walk as soon as we arrived in Sepilok, to secure our place, as the group is limited to a maximum of 10 people. If there are less than 4 people, or if you would prefer a private guide, then you will need to pay the equivalent for 4 people.
We enjoyed the night walk experience as it is very different walking through the rain-forest in the dark and you have the opportunity so see a few nocturnal creatures. The guides were absolutely excellent with such keen trained eyes and really made an effort to ensure that everyone got to see anything that they spotted. That being said, don't expect to see large primates! It is more about the overall night time experience and spotting and observing the smaller insects and creatures.
The walk started along the high up canopy walkways to spot the Flying Squirrels launching themselves out of trees as the sun set. The highlight for us was getting to a see a young slow-loris high up in the trees. Watching him move around so ridiculously SLOWLY made us truly appreciate where the name slow-loris comes from! There is no way that we would ever have spotted this special little primate without the guides.
We also saw two different types of sleeping birds who hide under the leaves of trees at night (no idea how the guides even spotted these?!). It was really cool to see a Bornean Keeled Pit Viper Snake (very poisonous) all curled up in the branches of a nearby tree. Luckily we didn't see too many spiders, but they did include a few of the well known Huntsman Spiders. There were also Stick Insects, Crickets, Caterpillars and Worms, Geckos and even a Bornean Tree Frog! The most interesting insect to us was the Black Scorpions, that glow in the dark when the guides shine an ultra violet light on them. There were plenty of these and they were rather fascinating to watch.
We then returned to the Rainforest Discovery Centre the next morning at 8am to explore it further on our own. And that's exactly how it felt...as though we were absolutely alone in a deserted rainforest - no people, and also no animals! Now I know it's not a zoo, but for some reason I had expected to see a little more wildlife in some form or another. There were a few birds, but in this regards it was really a bit of a disappointment to me. We may have just been unlucky though, as we know that just a few days earlier a friend of our had a great encounter with an Orangutan right on the Canopy Walkway! Other than my disappointment with regards to wildlife spotting, we spent about 4 hours walking through the more remote trails and the extent and tranquillity of the rainforest itself was very impressive. The size, age and variety of trees and other vegetation really make one appreciate just how special and irreplaceable a place like this is.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Approximately 2km from the Rainforest Discovery Centre and about 25km to the west of Sandakan City, you will find the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where you can meet the world famous Borneo Orangutans. The centre rehabilitates orphaned and injured Orangutans back into the wild, so your entrance fee is going to a good cause. They are really good at making sure that you understand their purpose and strongly discourage any interaction with the Orangutans as we should all remember that they are wild animals.
There are various feeding times throughout the day at both the feeding platform and the nursery, so be sure to check when they are for the most of your experience. We spent the entire afternoon session in the Centre (2pm-4:30pm) and were lucky to spot two Orangutans while walking through the area. The feeding times at the nursery were by far the most entertaining, watching the Orangutans play, swing and interact with each other. They are such incredible animals and I could easily have spent another few hours just watching them here! There wasn't much activity out at the other feeding platform, but we did enjoy watching two mum Orangutans with their little babies feeding away at their own pace.
Even though I had high expectations of this place going in, it completely exceeding my expectations and if I had to pick only one place to visit in Sepilok, then it would undoubtedly be the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Situated adjacent to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, you will find the The Sun Bear Conservation Centre. This is approximately 2km from the Rain-forest Discovery Centre and about 25km to the west of Sandakan City. In addition to rehabilitation, the centre aims to raise public conservation awareness about this rare species. the staff are extremely friendly and passionate about their purpose and educating the public. We arrived just after 2pm and spent over an hour walking around the area trying to spot the bears in the various different areas. We were very lucky to see more than 10 bears in the time (or maybe it was the same 3 little bears who kept following us?!). you do not get close tot he bears and any interaction is strongly discouraged as the aim is to rehabilitate the bears not tame them. It is really quite special to see these rare animals and learn a bit more about them.
We also had some close encounters with the naughty Macaque Monkeys here, so keep your eyes peeled for them and follow the instructions to ignore them! Once the centre closed at 3:30pm, we continues to stroll along the outside walkways and spot plenty of squirrels before leaving. They may hide in the limelight of the Orangutans here in Sepilok, but these little bears are definitely worth visiting if you have the time (and money) and are nearby.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Unlike the other Rehabilitation and Conservation Centres, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is privately owned. It is located within a working Palm Oil Plantation, about 40km from Sandakan. The relatively small pocket of Mangrove Forest that remains (surrounded by the palm oil plantation) does not provide sufficient food for the monkeys, so they are fed daily from the various feeding platforms. We chose not to visit here, in the hope of rather seeing these very special species in their natural habitat along one of Borneo’s rivers. However, if you desperately want to get up close and have a photo opportunity with the Proboscis Monkeys, then this is probably the best place to do so.
Eat Like A Local In Sepilok
There are not many local eateries in Sepilok, but one well worth visiting is Mama Wati's. We returned here a few times and every meal was both delicious and cheap. Be sure to take some Pisang Goreng for the road!
Where To Stay In Sepilok
There are far more budget accommodation options available in and around Sandakan than there are in Sepilok. Although most wildlife attractions are actually based in Sepilok, it is quick and easy enough to reach these either by Grab taxi (approx MYR35) from Sandakan or by public bus (number 14 - approx MYR6). It is also easier to find cheap local food around Sandakan, whereas you may be limited to eating at your accommodation if you stay in Sepilok.
We chose to stay in Sepilok (at Sepilok Bed & Breakfast) so that we could walk to the Rain-forest Discovery Center. Agoda.com and Booking.com seem to offer the best range of accommodation options in the area.