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Borneo/Sabah Itinerary: Danum or Kinabatagan?

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We will be in Kuala Lumpur at the beginning of June. We had not planned on visiting Malaysia originally but only to transit to Tokyo on AirAsia after a night in Kuala Lumpur. But the more we look into what is available to see in Malaysia, the more we want to spend some time there. Realistically, we have 5 nights to spend there before we have to leave (although we could consider adding one or two more nights if that itinerary made more sense). This will be our first time in Malaysia (and Southeast Asia), though we have traveled throughout East Asia.

For this part of the trip, we are not too interested in exploring big cities, but would like to be in nature: either at a beach or in the rainforest. If we choose the rainforest option, we would like the chance to see orangatuns in the wild, if possible.

We have been looking at the 2 night, 3 day package offered by the Borneo Rainforest Lodge as well as Kinabatagan River area, with the Sukau Rainforest Lodge being one of the options we have read about.

We are considering the Borneo Rainforest Lodge which has availability for the dates we need and this would be the itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in KL in evening
Day 2: Morning flight to Kota Kinabalu and explore
Day 3: Morning flight to Lahad Datu to Borneo Rainforest Lodge
Day 4: Borneo Rainforest Lodge
Day 5: Borneo Rainforest Lodge to Lahad Datu to KL
Day 6: Fly to Tokyo

I know only we can answer whether it would be “worth” going all the way there for what is only 2 days, but we would value any input as to this itinerary or ways to vary it. For example, would adding on 2 days in the Kinabatangan River area be advisable? Or would going to the Kinabatagan area in lieu of the Danum Valley be recommended? I think the connections to Sandakan are better from KL than to Lahad Datu, giving us one more day in the area. In addition to seeing wild orangatuns, we are most interested in being in nature as much as possible, but wondering if we can get a similar experience in the Kinabatagan River area, which seems more convenient logistically. Does it feel like you are in the rainforest in the Kinabatagan area?

Though our first choice would be to see the rainforest, if our time is too limited in Malaysia to fully enjoy Borneo, we would also consider staying on the Peninsula to explore some of the beaches, say the Perhentian Islands.

As we are in the early stages of our planning we would welcome your thoughts.
Thanks in advance.

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    Before we went to Borneo, I did a lot of research on where one was most likely to see orangutans in the wild. The answer was the Danum Valley.

    We loved our time at the BRL - really special place. If you could add one more night at the BRL, I think you will appreciate it. As you have noted, just getting there takes a long time. But whatever time you can spend there is well worth it IMO.

    photos from our trip: http://www.marlandc.com/Borneo-2005

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    If the orangutans of Sabah are calling to you, then your trip makes logical sense, and can be done quite cleanly. I was in the Sandakan/Sukau/Kinabatagan River area in September 2015, and I found it to be fascinating and worthwhile.

    Can you stretch this trip to a week? If so, I would allow a full day of sightseeing in Kuala Lumpar. The transit system there is pretty good, and it doesn't feel like a big obnoxious city. It is a food paradise, especially in Chinatown. I have a friend who lives there, and during my last visit, we seemed to eat the whole time.

    Next, you can fly directly from KL to Sandakan. (I would skip KK, I found the city to be dreary, with broken sidewalks, and nothing pretty about it.) From there, you can spend one full day seeing the sites in the area, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

    Next, you can either take public transport or a private car with driver to Sukau. I was there for three nights, and I did a homestay there. The father of the family took me on a total of five river cruises, and we saw different animals each time. Yes, we did see an orangutan, but we also saw lots of monkeys, birds, elephants, and insects. We did a bit of jungle trekking as well.

    I know Kathie enjoyed her stay at the BRL, but the Kinabatagan River area is a nice alternative. I love to hike, but it was nice for a change to be able to sit on a little boat, with my binoculars, and observe. A good boat man can quietly get right next to the animals and stop there for quite a while.

    As a word of caution, it is a bit unpleasant trekking in the jungle. There are leeches, and there is mud. I hiked in Bario, Malaysia, and it was a challenge, so you might want to think seriously about the river cruise option.

    All in all, I would suggest 2 nights in KL, 1-2 nights in Sandakan, and 3 nights in Sukau.

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    I spent 2 nights on the Kinabatagan and 3 nights at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge and by far enjoyed the BRL much more. It is difficult to see organs in the wild anywhere, although we saw them on the river. Everyone we met at BRL who stayed only 2 nights regretted not staying 3 - it's a lot of work just to get there!

    If you can't add time and do both places, I would also suggest that you take an early morning flight to Sandakan and skip KK. That would give you the extra day to spend in either place, maybe even one day on the river and two in Danum (although I wouldn't recommend it). With such limited time in Borneo, you would probably enjoy more time viewing wildlife. We also spent a night on Turtle Island from Sandakan but that is not a popular option. I have a TR from May 2014, click on my name to find it.

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    Thank you all for your helpful replies.

    Kathie, your photos are beautiful and your enthusiasm for BRL is one of the reasons we are excited about the place. I have enjoyed looking at photos from your other travels throughout Southeast Asia.

    CaliforniaLady, it is good to hear that you had a nice experience on the river. Thanks for the tip about KK and for sharing your thoughts.

    FromDC, I really enjoyed your helpful trip report. The information you have there about Japan will also come in handy since that is the place where we will catch our international flight back to the States.

    Concerning adding one more night at BRL, as much as we would like to, I think the cost would be prohibitively expensive particularly since there are three of us traveling.

    We are now mulling over FromDC and CaliforniaLady's suggestion of skipping KK and flying to Sandakan.

    So the itinerary would be:

    Day 1: arrival in KL in the evening
    Day 2: KL to Sandakan (arrival around 9 am if we take the earliest flight out of KL). Visit the Sepilok Rehab Center (in case we do not see orangutans in Borneo Rainforest Lodge), go to Sukau for an afternoon boat cruise, sleep in one of the river lodges (which one)?
    Day 3: early morning transport by car to Lahad Datu by 10:30 for transport to Borneo Rainforest Lodge
    Day 4: Borneo Rainforest Lodge
    Day 5: BRL to Lahad Datu to KL
    Day 6: KL to Tokyo

    I like the idea of substituting Sandakan/Sukau for KK, as we get one more day of wildlife viewing without the expense at BLR (though with transport to yet another place the cost might be similar?)

    But the questions I have are as follows:

    1. What are the transportation options from Sukau to Lahad Datu? How much is the cost and will we be able to arrive in time for the 10:30 departure for the BRL?
    2. What is the cost of and method for arranging transport from Sandakan to one river lodges for the boat cruise on the Kinabatagan river?
    3. We would appreciate recommendations for reasonably priced lodges in the Kinabatagan area that could do a 1 night stay. When I look at the Sukau Rainforst Lodge, they have minimum 2 night packages.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and I look forward to your replies.

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    We worked with an agent and booked everything in Sabah with him. So the cost included pickup at the airport, the guide took us to the rehab center and then to the river lodge. The guide stayed with us during the river tours and then we got driven to the checkin place for the BRL in Lahad Datu. The cost was less than if we had tried to make all the arrangements for transportation ourselves, since we would have had to add those to the base prices....so the transportation and guide came at no "extra" cost. And an agent might be able to get you one night only at a river lodge (they all have relationships with the lodge owners) if you explain your timing situation.

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    Your new itinerary is doable, but a bit rushed. I recommend that you stay one night in Sandakan, since you may have a flight delay. One major problem that I see is that the Sepilok feeding times are at 10 AM and 3 PM, and it is not that close to the airport, so it will take a miracle to get you there on time. However, you can still see the adolescent orangutans in the nursery, and that will make the visit worthwhile. It is a beautiful facility.

    I paid about $60 for a driver to take me from Sandakan to Sukau, but the small car may not fit all three of you and your luggage, so you will probably have to pay more. My homestay found the driver for me, and he was very nice, and a safe driver.

    In Sukau, I stayed at the Mennangul B and B, but, since you are staying at the upmarket BRL, you may not want to share a bathroom. However, you will get a private boat ride with the father, and you can easily stay one night. Also, the father can take you on an afternoon ride, and then after dinner, he can take you out again at night to see lizards and crocodiles. He truly is an amazing animal spotter--we were able to get within a few feet of some monkeys, and I could see the mothers with their clinging babies.

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    Thank you for your replies.

    We have been in contact with some lodges in Sukau that have 2 day one night packages and it appears that the cost of spending one day in Sukau on those packages at the more upscale lodges is nearly equivalent to an additional night at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

    It also appears that we can organize this part of the trip independently and stay at more reasonably priced B&Bs in Sukau, and though 2 days in this area would be ideal, I like the idea of seeing another part of Borneo that will contrast with our 2 nights at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. So I think we will move forward with 1 night in Sukau and 2 nights in Danum Valley.

    I heard from some of the B&Bs I contacted in Sukau that June is a busy time and that the wildlife viewing would be unpleasant with so many boats in the water. One of the B&Bs has an organized trip to the lower part of the river towards Abai, which they said was less touristy but costs more. Was this your experience?


    California Lady, thanks for letting me know about your itinerary to Sukau and where you stayed. I think we will follow a similar route--taxi to Orangutan Rehab Center from Sandakan Airport and then land transport to Sukau arranged by the B&B where we stay.

    I have just taken a look at the tripadvisor ratings for Mennangul B&B where you stayed and it looks like it has gotten lots of positive reviews. When you went on your boat trips, were you going to the same places that all of the lodges take their guests? I'm trying to discern whether it makes a difference from whom you buy the boat trip in terms of the wildlife experience/location of the river. I noticed that the packages offered by the upscale lodges transport you to Sukau by river. Are they in a different location from the more reasonable B&Bs in Sukau that the river cruise experience would be that different?

    Thanks!

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    4quartets, your trip is shaping up nicely, and I'm glad to help. You have me daydreaming about going back to Sukau.

    First, a word about your transportation/logistics. You should have ONE car/driver collect you and your luggage at Sandakan airport, wait for you at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center, and then take you to Sukau. One of the main reasons is your luggage--Sepilok is strict about what you are allowed to bring into the facility, they have free lockers there, and you are not allowed to bring in even a purse, only a camera. One driver would make the operation run more smoothly, and may even be cheaper. If you decide to stay at the Mennangul B and B, then Yanie, the owner, can arrange all the logistics for you.

    Now a word about Yanie--she is extremely dependable when it comes to arranging your transport. When you write to her, you will find that her English is broken, but she speaks quite well. She is 100% reliable.

    In answer to your question about boat trips, the river is quite peaceful, and there were times that we passed other boats, but everyone is respectful. The type of people that go to this area are cerebral and discerning with good manners, so you would never see someone hanging out of a boat drunk. When we travelled a great distance to see the pygmy elephants, there was a large cluster of boats, perhaps eight at the same spot. There seemed to be a system where the boat men moved closer, and then moved back, so each group could take a turn, and all the guests were extremely quiet.

    It has been over a year since I did my "river research", but I think the lodges are spread all over the river. In fact, there is a fancy lodge just down the river from Mennangul. On my five boat trips, we seemed to be going in all different directions, and each trip brought new surprises. So, I don't think it matters where you stay, as the boat men go all over. I did notice a larger boat, with perhaps 12 passengers from a fancy lodge. They had on fancy life jackets with the lodge logo, and they had a spotter and a boat driver, but we were fine with just the basics. I am betting that I had a better, more personal experience for a fraction of the price.

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    Thank you for your helpful reply, CaliforniaLady.

    Thanks for the tip about the one driver. We will try to arrange one driver up to Sukau, and I am planning to write Yanie at the B&B where you stayed to ask about availability and prices. We are also considering Sukau Greenview B&B, as their prices also seem reasonable. If you have had experience with them, please let us know.

    It is also good to know about the boats. My initial concern about the boat trips was that in the photos at some lodges, I saw bigger boats with 12-14 seats. With a number of such boats near one animal siting, I could imagine it being unpleasant. Realistically, we will probably have one afternoon boat trip, and a night boat trip if they offer it.

    If we miss the 10 am orangutan feeding, is the Center worth a visit nonetheless or is there something else you would consider doing before the transport up to Sukau?

    I was searching for a thread you might have posted about your trip to Borneo and came across another one you posted about Southern Africa. We took a similar trip and our time in the Okavango Delta in Botswana was the most memorable. Though we realize that it is a completely different ecosystem from Borneo, we are hoping that we can replicate the feeling of being completely immersed in nature at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

    Thanks.

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    Hi 4quartets--I'll try to answer your questions individually.

    Sukau river cruises:
    I too was fearful that the experience would be like the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, but it was quite wonderful. There were only two times, during my five cruises, when one or more boats joined us for viewing. One time was when we saw the pygmy elephants, and another was when some monkeys were in a tree very close to the water. BTW, you might be able to fit in a morning cruise on your Sukau departure day.

    Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center:
    I remember now that they booted everyone out of the nursery viewing platform around 10:30. I think the center closes at 11:30 or 12 for lunch, depending on the day. So between 10:30 and 11:30, you could walk along the wooden platforms, and there is a bird walk.

    Alternative in Sandakan:
    I imagine you can make a game time decision about going to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, depending on when your arrive. My second choice would be the Rainforest Discovery Center near Sepilok. This is a beautiful facility as well, and you can perhaps spot an orangutan there. I went on the canopy walk, and I also enjoyed the botanical gardens--there was extensive signage about medicinal plants there.

    Mennangul vs Greenview in Sukau:
    I remember looking at the Greenview last year, but at the time, the reviews weren't as good as the Mennangul. My research began with the BRL, but I didn't like the idea of paying a single supplement, and being forced to buy a "package". I put the money I saved in Sukau towards the extensive use of private guides and drivers during the rest of my three week trip.

    Trip Reports:
    I feel so guilty that I have never written a trip report. I have seen so many wonderful ones here, that I feel a bit unworthy of writing one. However, I did post my tentative itinerary at one point, and I pretty much followed it.

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    "is the Center worth a visit nonetheless or is there something else you would consider doing before the transport up to Sukau?"

    The morning feedings tend to be the busiest in terms of visitors which can (depending on the behaviour of said visitors) detract from the experience somewhat. Do get there early to get a good spot to await the arrival of the orangutans. The afternoon feeding are much quieter if you could make that.

    The nursery does have different opening times which from memory are timed to start after the main feeding times. Details are probably on their website.

    The Rainforest Discovery Centre is quite a walk from the Orangutan Centre but is definitely worth a visit (we wish we had spent longer there).

    There is also the Sun Bear Conservation centre close by but we were a little underwhelmed, possibly because there was a lot of construction going on when we visited last year. More detail and photos on our blog @

    http://accidentalnomads.com/2015/08/24/the-wild-men-of-borneo-and-a-few-sun-bears/

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    Crellston, thanks for the tips. I enjoyed looking through your blog!

    CaliforniaLady, thanks again for your taking the time to address my questions. Your replies have been so helpful--can't thank you enough. I have been in touch with Yanie, and it looks like we will go with her.

    So 1 night in Sukau and 2 nights in BRL.

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