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Tags: Malaysia, Danum Valley Trek, Maliau Basin Trek, Telupid Forest Reserve Safari, Kinabatangan River Safari, Tips

The 4 best places to see Borneo’s wildlife

Orangutans, elephants, crocodiles and more can all be spotted in Sabah, the heart of wildlife sighting in Malaysia

You have probably seen the NatGeo documentaries - thick and lush jungles teeming with graceful orangutans and prehistoric looking hornbills. From the television screen, these rainforests seemed distant and impenetrable. But it is easier to get there than you think! 

Here’s the how and exactly where of it.

The best places in Malaysia to see wildlife are in Sabah, with Sabah's capital Kota Kinabalu (KK) as your base. The top wildlife experiences are all within a short flight or drive from KK. Regardless of your time schedules, budgets, physical ability and sense of adventure, there is something for everyone in the Borneo rainforest!

1. Kinabatangan River

The bulging 560km Kinabatangan river snakes through the Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary and provides the perfect liquid highway to spot Borneo’s unique fauna. Proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, multiple species of hornbills, salt water crocodiles and of course, orangutans, all line the banks of the river. The beauty of this place is that you can see all of the wildlife without breaking a sweat – you can see them just by sitting back in the comfort of a motor boat.

This trip is ideal for families with young children, travellers with limited mobility or anyone who is travelling just to see Borneo’s animal life, as this trip provides the greatest likelihood of spotting the otherwise elusive pygmy elephants and orangutans.

This experience also allows you to come back to comfortable accommodation at the end of the day, as there are plenty of lodges and B&Bs along the bank. The lodges are typically the ones that organise the river safaris with their in-house guides and boat captains, and the price of the accommodation will include the cost of the river safari.

Many travellers have asked on online forums why the prices at Kinabatangan River differ so much. The price difference is due to the standard of the accommodation (you tend to get what you pay for!) and there is broadly no difference in the nature of the river safari. Some of the lodges have 20-person boats whereas other lodges have 30-person boats, but the nature guides provided by each lodge is of a similar quality, and you will see wildlife regardless of which lodge you go with. 

How to get there: from Kota Kinabalu you will need to catch a quick 45 minute flight to Sandakan. Once in Sandakan it is about a 2 hour drive to Sukau or Bili (i.e. the river villages where the lodges are located). The drive from the airport to Sukau/Bilit is typically organised by the lodge/river safari guide.

Time to get there from KK: 45min flight + 2 hour car drive

Physical intensity of activity: Very Low

Likelihood of spotting animals: Very High

Accommodation Comfort: From Very Basic to Very Comfortable

Price: $-$$

Book Kinabatangan River Safari

2. Maliau Basin

Maliau Basin is one of very few places in the world that has never been inhabited by humans. It was discovered by the outside world in 1947 when a light aircraft almost crashed into the mist-shrouded rim of the basin. The serendipitous discovery didn’t generate much interest at the time, and Maliau Basin slipped back into obscurity. It was only in 1988, when a full scientific expedition into Maliau Basin was first carried out, that news of it began to trickle to the outside world. It is one of our favourite places as we still marvel at the idea that there's somewhere so obscure left in the world! 

The trails here are still being developed and the terrain is not for the faint at heart. Maliau is ideal for true adventurers, lovers of long treks and extended exposures to the great outdoors. Because the jungle is thick, large wildlife can be hard to spot, but deer, boar and gibbons are common in addition to colourful bird life.

Accommodation is very modest in the form of bunk beds, though if you stay in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area for the 3-day trip rather than venture into the rainforest for the 4 or 5-day trips, the accommodation is better.

How to get there: from Kota Kinabalu you will need to take 4WD car. The journey is about 6 hours. Several stops along the way are possible.

Time to get there from KK: 6 hours drive

Physical intensity of activity: Moderate

Likelihood of spotting animals: Moderate-High

Accommodation Comfort: Varies from Very basic to Comfortable

Price: $$$

Book Maliau Basin Trek

3. Telupid Forest Reserve

Telupid Forest Reserve (also known as Deramakot Forest Reserve) is the ultimate spot for diehard wildlife enthusiasts who are looking to get off the beaten track, or those longing to catch a glimpse of the extremely rare clouded leopard. Telupid is primarily a logging area, with a small part (4,000 hectares or so, out of 51,000 hectares) reserved for the abundant wildlife in the area. While the logging of such a special place is heartbreaking, the irony of that is that the logging also means this is the best place in Borneo to see big cats (e.g. the civet cat, the leopard cat and the clouded leopard), as the cats love to splash around in the mud pools created by the logging activity.

Telupid is suitable for solo travellers, for small groups and for couples looking to see somewhere incredibly special, and who want to experience first-hand the complexity of how the modern world interacts with the natural world. 

This trip is done by taking to the trails via 4WD jeeps, as the trails are very muddy and unchartered (it can be a bumpy ride!). A lot of the prime wildlife sighting takes place at night, when it is cooler and the animals are more active - when we were there, we saw the clouded leopard, civet cats, flying squirrel and a herd of elephants but we were told that we were very lucky! As it's a forest, the foliage here is extremely dense so you'll need a very experienced wildlife guide to spot the wildlife in the dark, hidden in the forest. A few short treks are also possible in the daytime.

Accommodation here is very comfortable but not swanky - i.e. a chalet with a private room and bathroom with a hot shower. 

How to get there: from Kota Kinabalu you will need to take 4WD car to Telupid. The journey is about 6-8 hours in length depending on the road conditions.

Time to get there from KK: 6-8 hours drive

Physical intensity of activity: Very Low

Likelihood of spotting animals: Moderate to High 

Accommodation Comfort: Basic    

Price: $$$

Book Telupid Forest Reserve Safari 

4. Danum Valley

Borneo’s best-known name for a true rainforest experience, Danum Valley was one of the first areas to be declared a conservation area in Sabah. 

Seeing wildlife here is not as guaranteed as on the Kinabtangan River, but the variety of trails (varying in time from time and difficulty), including treetop bridges, means visitors have multiple perspectives. Bornean gibbons and sun bears are some of the unique animals that can be spotted here in addition to the orang-utans and hornbills. A visit to Danum Valley is a good for moderate hikers, families with slightly older kids and those looking for their NatGeo dreams to come true.

Both dormitory and private accommodation are available at Danum Valley Field Center but if you want to go more up-market, you can give the Danum Valley Rainforest Lodge a try! The Danum Valley Rainforest Lodge is a favourite of honeymooning couples and if you're keen on booking the lodge, you should go direct to them. Otherwise, if you are looking for comfortable but basic accommodation at the Danum Valley Field Centre, check them out on Seek Sophie! All trips will include wildlife treks and accommodation. 

How to get there: from Kota Kinabalu you will need to take a flight to Lahad Datu (1 hour). From there it will be another 2 hour drive from the airport to Danum Valley Field Centre where your experience will begin.

Time to get there from KK: 1 hour flight + 2 hour car drive

Physical intensity of activity: Low to Moderate

Likelihood of spotting animals: Moderate to High

Accommodation Comfort: From Basic to Comfortable 

Price: $$

Book Danum Valley Trek

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