Malaysia – Mabul Island, Sipadan, Borneo Sabah (Sepilok & Kinabatangan River)

We had to leave Indonesia because our 30 day visa ran out so we decided to spend some time in Malaysia. Getting to our first destination of Sipadan was really complicated! First we had to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then catch an onward flight to Tawau (gateway to the Malaysian state of Sabah). The Bornean state of Sabah joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 so it basically meant we had to pass through passport control to get stamped into the territory even though we had already been stamped into Malaysia! From Tawau, we caught a shuttle to Semporna and then hopped on a boat to the island of Mabul. We had signed up for 8 days of diving with Scuba Junkie and pre-booked 4 days at Sipadan Island (which requires a permit system to limit only 120 divers per day). All this effort was worthwhile because Sipadan is touted as one of the world’s top SCUBA destinations and it has long been on our bucket list! The other 4 days of diving were scheduled for Mabul and Kapalai which aren’t bad consolation prizes for not being able to dive Sipadan. The diving here was excellent and we were so lucky to see everything we wanted to – the famous barracuda tornado, a massive school of bumphead parrotfish, and the huge schooling ball of jack fish. Just amazing and a magical place that lived up to its legendary status. After 25 dives here, we took a break from the water and focused on our above land activities. From Semporna we caught a 5 hour bus to Sepilok where we based ourselves for the next week. Sepilok is home to two excellent and worthwhile animal sanctuaries – the Orangutan and Sun Bear rescue centers. We were keen to see both but first took a detour to see the animals out in the wild during a 3 day, 2 night Kinabatangan River tour in Borneo. This is the longest river in Malaysia and it sustains one of the world’s richest ecosystems. Alas, we visited during rainy season so we probably didn’t see as much wildlife as usual but there were two sightings of wild orangutans, dozens of macaque and proboscis monkeys, hornbills and a juvenile salt water crocodile. After returning back to Sepilok, we decided to sign up for a night walk at the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sandakan. What an excellent experience and two huge thumbs up! Had we known we would see so much variety at the nature preserve, we would have skipped the Kinabatangan River Tour and signed up for multiple night walks instead. On our two hour tour we spotted red giant flying squirrels, two slow loris, two western tarsiers, a sleeping kingfisher, a tarantula and a green lizard. The rainforest is chockablock with wildlife that we couldn’t see during the day so it was incredible to see it transform at night. Next up was some up close and personal time with proboscis monkeys. We spent a half day at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary and attended both morning feedings at Platform A and B. Learning about how this “sanctuary” came to be was a bit sad but being so close to the semi-wild monkeys was unforgettable. Our last full day in Sepilok was spent with both the orangutans and sun bears. We started off in the orangutan nursery (where orphaned and traumatized orangutans learn how to play and interact again) and then made our way over to the feeding platform for the semi-wild adult orangutans. There we watched as the orangutans were terrorized by the aggressive macaque monkeys who stole all their food when the basket tipped over! The sun bear conservation center provided a break from the orangutans and we got to see the world’s smallest bear during their feeding session. Afterwards, most of them laid out on the ground to soak up the sun but one sun bear decided to climb a tree! It was really cool to see how easy it made its way up to the top of the tree for a snooze! In the afternoon, we revisited the orangutan sanctuary for the afternoon feeding and this time, the orangutans were more successful in getting fed as the macaques steered clear. Orangutans can only be seen in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo (split between Indonesia and Malaysia), so it was a privilege to spend this much time with them. Just a wonderful end to our time in Malaysia and we prepared for our onward adventure back in Indonesia. Goodbye Malaysia and thank you for several unforgettable weeks!

Nitty Gritty

Scuba Junkie Mabul Island Resort: We signed up for their “dive & stay” package which included 8 nights accommodation and 8 days of diving (3 tanks a day), a private en-suite room with AC and hot water shower, all meals and transport to/from Semporna. Since we booked at two other Scuba Junkie resorts, we got an additional discount of 15% off our total cost which worked out to $1380 per person.

Nature Lodge Kinabatangan: We signed up for their 3D2N Kinabatangan tour which included 2 nights accommodation in a shared 4 bed dorm with AC, all meals, 4 river boat cruises along the river, night walks and transport to/from Sepilok. The cost was $105 per person.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: There are two feedings at the main platform (morning and afternoon) but as the orangutans are semi-wild, there are no guarantees they will show up. Hungry macaque monkeys are always around though. Also not to be missed is the orangutan nursery – check out the youngsters playing and feeding in a viewing room behind a glass partion.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre: Most people skip this but that would be a mistake. It is a labor of love by animal conservationists and non exploitative. Feeding times are varied so you have to be lucky to coincide your visit with a feeding session. The sun bears take a nap afterwards so it can be hit or miss if you see any activity.

Labuk Bay Proboscus Monkey Sanctuary: The most exploitative of the area’s sanctuaries because the proboscis monkeys’ natural habitat has been completely decimated. We learned that two Chinese brothers bought a huge track of land to develop into palm oil plantations. All the jungle’s trees and surrounding mangroves were destroyed and the monkeys were starving. They started stealing the palm oil workers’ food and were getting shot as pests until one of the brothers who bought the land heard about their plight. He created the “sanctuary” and has been feeding the monkeys twice daily ever since. Watch “The Biggest Nose in Borneo” narrated by Stephen Fry ( to learn more. Despite the origin story of the sanctuary, we were glad we visited because the proboscus monkeys in the wild stay far away from humans and these semi-wild monkeys get up close and personal.

Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Center: Do not miss this highlight, especially the night walk! You will see more wildlife than you dreamed possible during the 2 hour tour. This is held every night there is no rain and you must pay for your slot in advance at the ticket counter.

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