Monday, 3 December 2012

Three Eco-Sights in Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Eco Sights in Sandakan
by Kristin Cosgrove

I only spent 3 days in Sandakan - barely enough time to scratch the surface of things to do there - but the little I did see whetted my appetite to come back, bring the kids and explore the fantastic sights the area has to offer. Here are three of the eco-spots I was fortunate enough to experience and highly recommend (in no particular order):

1. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

A mere 20 minutes from the Four Points by Sheraton lies the area of Sepilok, a division of Sandakan which houses several sanctuaries in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. The Orangutan Sanctuary focuses primarily on rehabilitation and releasing orphaned orangutans back into the wild.  It is not a zoo, but a place where the orangutans roam freely. As such, it is important to remember these are wild animals, and our tour guide tells us in no uncertain terms to avoid bright clothing, lest the orangutans mistake us for a giant walking banana!  

Visitors are restricted to the wooden walkways that make a path through the jungle and lead to viewing platforms where we wait to watch the orangutans arrive for the 10 am feeding (there’s also one at 3pm). Seeing the orangutans is not guaranteed, but arriving during feeding time will increase your chances.   
"What are you looking at?"
Orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Orangutans drop by for a free lunch.
Even before the rangers arrive with the meal, a few orangutans begin to make their way in on the ropes. They patiently wait for the ranger to bring the milk and bananas, the only food provided. The hope is for the orangutans to get bored with the lack of variety and begin to forage for themselves, helping the rehabilitation process. 
Orangutans and walkways at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Left: Swingin' on in for lunch; Right: Visitors must stay on walkways and
platforms which guide them through a short forest walk to see the orangutans.
Even though the feeding goes quickly and our group is sharing the experience with dozens of other tourists on the platform, I still feel in quiet awe for these amazing animals. The feeding probably lasted about half an hour, during which we saw approximately 13 orangutans including a mother and baby - a great bonus! 

The Sanctuary is a great place to bring young children as it is an easy walk through the jungle requiring very little effort. While you’re there, do make it a point to catch the short video shown at the centre. It explains the fabulous work being done at the site that isn’t obvious to visitors. 
Reason to Visit:  Orangutans (is there any other reason needed?), an easy walk for families, support the  work being done to save these endangered animals. 

Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Tel: +6089-533780/1

2. Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (Opening to the Public in mid-2013)
We all know the threats to the panda and the polar bears, but even some Malaysians don’t know that South East Asia has its own bear species teetering on the brink of extinction – the sun bear.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder Siew Te Wong calls them the “forgotten bears.” Hoping to change that, he is dedicated to saving the bears and educating the public. As so few people know about the sun bears, including Malaysian and Indonesians, the BSBCC is also involved in education and raising the animal's profile.

Won Te Siew, Founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
BSBCC founder Wong Te Siew gives us an overview of the centre.
Our group arrives at the viewing platform and immediately we see two sun bears in their large forest enclosures. Before they retreat, we are quick to snap pictures of these adorable bears, the smallest sub-species. This is purely an educational visit for members of the media, and Wong is already talking passionately about the centre and his work. His excitement is contagious, and I can’t imagine these creatures could have a better spokesperson. Watch Wong Te Siew's TedxKL talk on the sun bears here.

The sun bears at the centre are kept in varying enclosures based on their rehabilitation level. On his website, Wong writes, “Conservationists are nursing [the centre’s 27 bears] back to health and where necessary, educating in how to be a wild bear. The intention is then to release them into the forest.”
Sun Bear, Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Relaxing in a tree in a forest enclosure at the BSBCC [Photo by Jack Tong Photography]

Strategically located right next door to the Orangutan Sanctuary, the BSBCC is not yet open to the public. Wong hopes to open his doors in summer of 2013 after the visitor centre building is constructed. 

Reason To Visit:  Easy access to a little-known, endangered bear.  Great educational eco-experience. 
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
PPM 219, Elopura, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia Email:
Website: CLICK HEREPhone: (+6) 089-534 491

3. Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC)
Only two kilometers from the Orangutan and Sun Bear Sanctuaries lies Sepilok’s Rainforest Discovery Centre, a place where one can walk beautiful trails through the forest, bird watch, and maybe even see an orangutan! 

Rainforest Discovery Centre, Sepilok, Malaysia
Plant Discovery Garden, Rainforest Discovery Centre, Sandakan  [Photos by Jack Tong Photography]
Our first stop was the Plant Discovery Garden, where our guide talked about some of the amazing flora of the rainforests.  I loved the orchids and the pitcher plants and was blown away by some of the biggest ferns I’ve ever seen!   It was helpful and fun to have our guide, but for those going it alone, interpretive panels provided plenty of interesting information.

Rainforest Discovery Centre
Our awesome guide, Sevy, who was a wealth of knowledge and pretty hilarious, too!
Stairs lead to a stunning canopy walkway [Photo by Jack Tong Photography]
Visitor's Centre and Lake at the Rainforest Discovery Centre [Photo by Jack Tong Photography]
Unlike the canopy walkway, this bridge was merely 
suspended rather than bolted down,
making for a fun walk across the lake!
The highlight of the Discovery Centre was the 300m canopy walkway, 25 meters above the ground.  Spiral stairs led us into the impressive canopy, and once at the top, our group was equally thrilled and terrified by the height. Walking amongst the treetops gave us perspective as to just how big these trees were, and yet many still managed to tower over us! The walkway is sturdy and stationary, allowing for large groups and easy walking. The floor is made of metal grating, making for a thrilling look down!

Bird watchers have their enormous
 lenses poised to capture a picture of one of the
 many beautiful birds.
Reason to visit: Experience nature with good trails and a beautiful canopy walk, family friendly, a plant lover's dream.

Rainforest Discovery Centre
PO Box 1407, 90715 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
Tel: +60 89 533 780



  1. Great experiences, they told me...all these places. Would make one appreciate nature and love one's own country a lot more, I hear.

    1. Sometimes being an expat helps as it forces us to get out and see our adopted country. I've probably seen more of Malaysia than I have my home state back in the US!

  2. what gorgeous views and my hubs would definately love the rainforest!

    1. The rainforest experience was definitely a highlight of the trip! The plants were just amazing.

  3. The Orang Utan so cute, I always like to admire them when I visit a zoo, their act are very much similar with us human!

    1. True, Choi Yen. Seeing them in the wild was unforgettable and very inspiring. Helps reinforce the idea that we must help save them.

  4. I'd been there last year, too bad, only 3 orang utan came out to say HI!!
    the rest, Zzzzzz....