There is so much on offer from a rainforest that is older than the Amazon; rivers that meander through dense jungles and idyllic beaches that stretch for miles. The wildlife was a real highlight for me too – creatures great and small can be found all over, including the endangered orangutan, the large-nosed proboscis monkey, clouded leopards, sun bears, elephants as well as fabulous birdlife and that’s before I start on the underwater world!
All the international flights from the UK fly via KL or Singapore and then onto Kota Kinabalu (so you can add a city stopover into the equation too). If you fly straight to Kota Kinabalu then it can be nice to spend 3-4 nights at the start of your trip at somewhere such as the Shangri-La Rasa Ria which is just a 30 minute transfer from the airport. The hotel is located on a huge stretch of white sand beach and it is set in really extensive grounds. They have an orang-utan sanctuary attached to the hotels and they have such a vast array of activities on offer ranging from guided jungle walks, nocturnal animal watches, cooking classes, river excursions, canopy walks, kayaking, ATV adventures as well as activities such as exploring the local villages by bike to enjoying breakfast in the Nature reserve to watch the sunrise against Mt Kinabalu. So actually if you wanted longer you could easily have a few more nights and still not do everything! However, I think it is a good starting point to eliminate any jet lag in order to then maximise your time in the jungle.
From Kota Kinabalu you can take a short flight to Sandakan and here you have a couple of options. You could head straight to Sepilok orang-utan centre and then onto either the Kinabatangan River or Danum Valley. Or you could catch a speedboat to Selingan Island– also known as Turtle Island which is the main nesting area for green turtles. In the afternoon you can swim and snorkel and then in the evening you go with the Park Ranger to see the turtles laying eggs. You also learn about the conservation of the animals and witness the collecting of eggs from the nesting site, planting them in the hatcher and see baby turtles scrambling to the shore upon release.
You only need one night on Turtle island so the next day you would transfer back to Sandakan where your awaiting guide will take you to the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre for an incredible orang-utan encounter! From your viewing area on a wooden boardwalk you watch as the trees begin to shake and a flash of orange appears! You get really close and it is fascination observing them playing and interacting with one another. Afterwards you embark on a boat journey through the jungle backwaters of the Kinabatangan River (Sabah’s longest river), for a wildlife spotting adventure like no other in Southeast Asia! The thickly forested river banks are home to proboscis monkeys, wild orang-utans, Borneo pygmy elephants, macaque monkeys and monitor lizards. The excitement in your boat will be palpable as the animals become visible through the rainforest camouflage (it certainly was on ours!), aided by the expert eyes of your guide – and some binoculars too! The birdlife is incredible – look out for eagles, egrets, hornbills and eager kingfishers, ready to dive into the water to fish! Your refuge for 2 nights is Borneo Nature Lodge , an eco-lodge which is very basic but comfortable with air-conditioned en-suite cabins, built under the jungle canopy.
From Kinabatangan you can then travel south to the town of Lahad Datu where you change vehicle and travel by 4WD into the ancient and pristine Danum Valley (an amazing rainforest – I felt like I had stepped back in time). Here you can have 2 or 3 nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, and this one of Asia’s best wildlife lodges. Spend your time here exploring the incredible rainforest with your private ranger guide. Wildlife is prolific and you have a good chance of seeing pygmy elephants, wild orang-utans, gibbons and a range of striking birdlife. There is also plenty of activities from river tubing, swimming in waterfall pools, jungle trekking and if weather permits heading out on night safaris.
Then after your jungle adventures you would fly back to Kota Kinabalu and maybe spend a few nights relaxing at one of the beautiful coral islands just off the mainland. My favourite was Bunga Raya and it is a beautiful beachfront hotel built surrounded by jungle and it felt very natural. Gaya Island was also another lovely hotel and both would be ideal to enjoy the scenery, swim, kayak, snorkel for a few days before heading back home feeling utterly relaxed and with amazing memories.
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