We arrived in Sandakan after amazing two days of scuba diving around Sipadan and a mini break of spotting the wildlife of Borneo along the Kinabatangan River.
Our main aim was to visit the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. These are the three main activities in Sandakan and it is not very difficult to find a tour agency able to arrange a day trip for you.
We felt that seeing all three centres in one single day would be too rushed and decided split this into two days and do it independently. As it turns out, it’s not as difficult as it may seem and we had more time to observe and learn about these Bornean creatures.
Day 1 – Orangutans and Sun bears of Borneo
The Oran Utan Rehabilitation Centre opens twice a day, from 9am to 11am and from 2pm to 4pm, with feeding times at 10am and 3pm.
The cheapest way is to get to Sepilok is by catching the 9am public minibus number 14 from Milimewa Superstore. It costs just 6RM one way and takes about 45 minutes to get there. The bus will drop you off directly at the entrance to the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre just in time to buy your tickets (30RM + 10RM camera fee) and see the 10am feeding time. You will need to leave all your bags including camera bag in the nearby lockers (these seem to be free) presumably so you don’t get these nicked by free-running monkeys.
The 10am feeding time tends to attract more visitors. If you want to have an unobstructed view you should get to the observation deck as early as possible though you will still be competing with other keen photographers for that perfect picture.
Your morning ticket is valid for both feeding times so you will get another chance to see these red-headed apes again in the afternoon as they munch on some more fruits and vegetables.
After seeing the morning feeding you can also go to the nursery for a few minutes before the park closes at 11am.
After the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre closes head to the next door Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (31.80RM) where you can spend an hour or two learning about and seeing these amazing little creatures.
Most of the adult bears tend to sleep during the hottest hours of the day in the branches of trees where they build nests similar to those built by orangutans. Obviously these are rather messy as sun bears lack the opposable thumbs.
Don’t be fooled by their cuteness and their fuzzy lethargic appearance as these bears have extremely long claws that could slice you open.
For lunch you can head to the nearby Kafeteria outside the Oran Utan Rehabilitation Centre offering a good variety of food and drinks for very reasonable prices.
The Orang Utan Sanctuary reopens its gates again at 2pm with feeding at 3pm so if you have time to kill, you can also check out the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre.
The afternoon feeding time is less busy, although it still attracts its fair share of visitors. We really loved the afternoon feeding time. We got a chance to see more orangutans as well as macaques and leaf monkeys as they came around after a hot day. On the way to the observation deck from the nursery we were literally surrounded by them.
Afterwards head back to Sandakan on the same minivan leaving the parking lot at 4pm, though you should be there at least 10 minutes before departure time as it may get quite full.
Day 2 – The long-nosed monkeys
There is no public transport to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, so you have to catch a 9.30am minivan shuttle from the Sandakan Hotel at a cost of 20RM per person each way. Though not exactly cheap, the sanctuary is further afield, and there are two viewing platforms where you need to be driven for the feeding times. On the way to the proboscis monkey sanctuary this minivan stops at the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre at 10.30am making it possible to see the orangutans and proboscis monkeys in one day.
The Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is shrouded in a bit of controversy. It is a private enterprise set up by an owner of the surrounding palm oil plantations. On one hand you get to observe these beautiful weird-nosed creatures up close but on the other hand the proprietors are also responsible for destroying their natural habitat at first place. At 60RM per person it is also very steep. Because of that, we were quite hesitant about visiting this place.
To add to the controversy, in the intermission between the feedings you are also shown an hour long video from the life of the monkeys portraying the owner of the sanctuary as some sort of monkey saviour. It just reeks of PR and to be frank it does not really feel right.
Our visit to these sanctuaries was somewhat bittersweet. Don’t get me wrong. We really loved seeing these amazing animals up close. However, it also served as a sad reminder that their natural habitat shrank exponentially over the past decade and all due to the work of us – humans – to produce more and more palm oil which is used in almost everything, from your ‘vegetable’ oils you cook with to your favourite snack bars and crisps to the biofuel we use to run our vehicles.
Have you been to Sandakan? What was your experience?