On the Frequent Miler on the Air podcast last week, Nick talked about a few exotic, off-the-beaten path destinations he’d researched for his 3 Cards, 3 Continents trip which he couldn’t quite work into his plans. Among those “Dream Trips That Got Away” was the Bornean city of Kota Kinabalu, which Nick had never heard of before (as demonstrated by his difficulty in even pronouncing the name.) You can hear him day-dream about the obscure destination in the clip below.
Before you go booking a flight to Kota Kinabalu expecting it to be the perfect one-stop destination for a Bornean adventure, let me tell you what I remember from visiting “KK” in Christmas of 2019, and why it makes a good launching point for going deeper. (Though I officially challenge Nick to talk me into his daydream version of Kota Kinabalu as well!)
Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu may feel far-flung and exotic to Westerners, but it’s also a bustling Malaysian city of half a million people. You’re surrounded by beautiful greenery and a view of the South China Sea, but there are also shopping malls, city parks, museums, and coffee shops (like the “Kenny Rogers Roasters” which I still wish I’d visited), just like any other major city.
While a modern city with lovely sea views and interesting architecture is probably not what Westerners have in mind for a Borneo adventure, it’s not far from the jungle sights they might be looking for.
Mari Mari Cultural Village
For instance, not far outside of the city is the Mari Mari Cultural Village. Unlike some cultural parks which recreate primitive dwellings, food preparations, or dances from the distant past, this cultural village is largely about Bornean tribes which still exist out in the remote forests today. Many of the guides speak about their own tribes (and their own lives growing up in more remote villages) and it’s a great way to learn about a side a Borneo which would otherwise be very difficult to see.
Seeing Borneo’s Orangutans
Our visit to Borneo was a hurried 4 days and the main focus was attempting to see the Orangutans. We achieved this in two different ways, but both required a short flight Eastward to Sandakan.
Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center
~20 minutes from the Sandakan airport is a nature-resort with two side by side sanctuaries: “Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary” and “Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.” (In Asia “Orangutan” is sometimes spelled “Orang Utan” because it comes from the words “Jungle” and “Man”.)
It’s not quite the same as viewing these creatures in the wild, but it allows a more guaranteed sighting experience. For instance there are several feeding times for both the sun bears and the Orangutans which happen along different raised boardwalks out in the forest.
Kinabatangan River Safari
Seeing Orangutans in nature is cool…but we also wanted to see them in the wild. This required going even deeper into the forests with a ~2 hour bus ride which was eye-opening in and of itself. From a peak on Google Maps, Malaysian Borneo looks like a sanctuary of green with refreshingly few cities interrupting. But what you don’t realize until you’re on the ground is that much of that greenery may not be forest at all – but palm oil plantations with orderly palms all lined up in unnatural rows. Not the sort of landscape Orangutans can live in.
The Kinabatangan River makes a good spot for viewing Orangutans because it follows along a wildlife reserve and also creates a natural clearing for easy viewing. We had a local friend who joined us and booked a river safari tour through her brother’s travel agency, but I think it would be easy enough for someone to replicate our experience on their own. Ours was similar to the “2 Day, 1 Night” trip described here for example and it included the bus pickup from Sepilok, rustic but comfortable lodging, meals, a morning and evening river outing to spot Orangutans, and a guided night-walk through the jungle.
We saw the rustling movements of Orangutans in the trees on the evening river outing (and a plethora of proboscis monkeys), but the real gem of the trip was our morning outing when the Orangutans actually came out into view in the treetops close to the river bank. They are massive and beautiful creatures and even though photographing them in the wild was much more difficult than it had been at the sanctuary, it was an incomparable experience and 100% worth the work it took to meet them in their own home.
Conclusion: Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu is a great launching point to go further.
As I said above, our visit to Borneo was only 4 days, somewhat tagged onto a broader trip. Even so, we managed to fit quite a bit into our 4 days by making sure to head out into the natural forests. While there are so many different reasons people like to travel, I feel like the unique rainforest environment and exotic wildlife is the primary reason to go all the way to Borneo, and you’re not going to see much of that in Kota Kinabalu.