I can’t imagine there are many of us out there that wouldn’t want a chance to come face to face with these amazing animals.Seeking out animal encounters like this has been a big feature of our travels as our girls have a passion for wildlife, so it seemed a no brainer to take a trip here when we visited Borneo. We took the short flight from Kota Kinabalu, over the jungle to Sandakan, dropped our bags and headed straight out to The Sepilok Orangutan Centre.
This magnificent sanctuary provides a unique opportunity to get up close and see the orangutans in their natural habitat.
While you are visiting the centre make sure to plan in time to check out the Rainforest Discovery Centre and Sun Bears adjacent to the orangutans. You can read more about these two attractions here.
Hear our top tips to guide you through an unforgettable family trip to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre!
What is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre?
The Centre cares for young orangutans orphaned as a result of illegal logging and deforestation and those who have been illegally caught and kept as pets. At Sepilok the new arrivals are given a complete health check before starting on the long road to rehabilitating them back into the wild. This process takes up to seven years and requires dedication and commitment for all those involved. Baby orangutans are cared for 24 hours a day, just like a human baby and as they grow older they join various ‘classes’ with their peers in the nursery and at night they are housed indoors for their safety. Around 60 to 80 orangutans are living independently in the reserve and approximately 25 orphaned orangutans are housed in the nurseries
The facility provides medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans as well as dozens of other wildlife species.Some of the other animals which have been treated at the centre include; sun bears, gibbons, and elephants. Whilst we were there, we could hear some recently rescued pygmy elephants that had been found wandering around a palm plantation.
Located in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Sepilok is easily accessible by air. Most international flights arrive at Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI), and from there, you can catch a domestic flight to Sandakan Airport (SDK). Once you land in Sandakan, it’s a short drive to Sepilok. Consider booking your flights and accommodations well in advance, especially during peak travel seasons.
Best Time to Visit:
Borneo’s climate is tropical, so be prepared for sweaty, humid conditions year-round. Pack a few changes of lightweight clothes and a waterproof or poncho stashed in your backpack for a sudden downpour.
The dry season, from March to October, is generally the best time to visit Sepilok, as the chances of rainfall are lower. However, if you’re willing to brave a few showers, visiting during the wet season (November to February) can offer a unique and lush experience, with fewer crowds.
On our visit in mid June we were at the observation platform watching the orangutans when the heavens opened and it poured down, instead of dashing for cover we stayed to watch. One orangutan tried to shelter itself under the remaining lettuce leaves by balancing them on her head, another attempted to make a hat with the banana and another took shelter up in the canopy. Once the rain stopped they came back down and carried on with their snack. I’m so glad we stayed for those moments, it was very sweet and funny and the kids still talk about it this day.
There are various accommodations available near Sepilok Orangutan Centre, ranging from Airbnb apartments and cosy guesthouses to luxury resorts. If you’re travelling with children, it’s advisable to choose a family-friendly option that offers comfortable amenities and possibly an outdoor pool to cool off after a day of exploring.
We choose to stay in an Airbnb midway between Sepilok and Sandakan town. It had three rooms, a good kitchen area and comfortable living room to rest in after a long day. It costs $50 a night and we used Grab app to get food deliveries. A bargain. We knew we would be out and about most of the time so we just wanted somewhere to rest our weary heads at the end of the day.
Some accommodations also provide guided tours and transportation to the centre, which can be convenient if you prefer to take your foot off the planning pedal while you are there.
On your visit, there is an opportunity to visit the feeding platform which provides supplementary food for the rehabilitated orangutans (and a couple of cheeky macaques!). We visited three times and were happy to support the work at the centre and learn about the work that they do. When you buy a ticket you can enter for the morning and afternoon session, so make sure to get the most out of your visit.
Here are the highlights of your visit:
a. Feeding Time:
The daily feeding sessions are the main event at Sepilok. Head to the feeding platforms during the scheduled times to witness the orangutans appearing through the trees and enjoying their meals. It’s an incredible sight to see these majestic creatures up close, and the centre’s knowledgeable staff will share interesting facts and stories about each individual orangutan. The orangutans only turn up if they want to, this is not a zoo, so while you’re very likely to see them you also have to be prepared for a no show. During fruit season out in the jungle the orangutans have plenty of food to choose from and may be less likely to show, they are also not keen on getting wet so the weather could play its part too.
TOP TIP: You can enter the centre from 9:00 and most people head up to the Nursery to watch the youngsters until feeding at 10:00. The small gate to the feeding platform opens 20 minutes before so make your way down then and get a great viewpoint. When we visited the morning session was much busier with tour groups, but we were at the front of the platform so the kids still had a great view.
b. The Outdoor Nursery:
For an extra dose of cuteness, visit the outdoor nursery where adorable young orangutans are cared for until they are ready to join the adult orangutans in the centre. We loved watching their playful antics and mischievous personalities as they swing from ropes and interact with their peers. The air-conditioned rooms that you watch from don’t have the immersive experience that the jungle platforms provide but it is a welcome relief from the heat and a chance to cool everyone down. While the Nursery is a great opportunity to watch the orangutans at play nothing beats the anticipation and excitement waiting on the jungle platform for a sighting as they swing down from the trees and appear out of the jungle.
Tips for a Successful Visit:
To make the most of your family trip to Sepilok Orangutan Centre, here are some essential tips to ensure a successful and enjoyable experience:
a. Plan your visit in advance: Check the centre’s website or contact them directly to confirm the feeding times and any additional activities or events happening during your visit. This will help you create a well-rounded itinerary and avoid disappointment.
There is a cafe on site but it isn’t open and had no indication of when it would be open. If you are planning on trying to stay for both feeding times, incorporate a visit to the sun bears, and rainforest discovery centre and bring along a picnic or head to one of the nearby restaurants (there are a few) for lunch.
b. Respect the orangutans’ space: While it’s amazing to be close to these incredible creatures, remember that they are still wild animals. Follow the rules and regulations set by the centre, such as maintaining a safe distance and of course refraining from touching or feeding them. This ensures their well-being and preserves their natural behaviours. There are no cages and the orangutans are free to use the walkways so be vigilant.
c. Pack the essentials: Don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent, sunblock, a hat, and comfortable walking shoes. The tropical climate and dense vegetation make these items essential for a comfortable experience. Also, carry a refillable water bottle to stay hydrated throughout the day.
You can not bring water or bags into the centre, lockers are provided to start your belongings. So drink up and go to the toilet if needed before you enter the sight. You can buy water and cold drinks in the gift shop at the Sun Bear Centre next door to the orangutans.
d. Bring a camera and binoculars: Capture those special moments with the orangutans and the stunning surroundings. A good camera and a pair of binoculars will enhance your experience, allowing you to observe the orangutans and other wildlife from a distance. You pay a 10 MYR charge for bringing your camera.
TOP TIP: Use the binoculars to magnify your phone’s camera, helping you grab a closer shot of the orangutans instead of zooming in on your phone and getting grainy or blurry pics.
e. Embrace eco-friendly practices: Borneo’s rainforests are among the most biodiverse habitats on the planet. Show your respect for nature by avoiding single-use plastics, disposing of waste responsibly, and following sustainable practices. Let’s leave Sepilok and its inhabitants as we found them, ensuring their long-term survival.
f. Engage in educational opportunities: Take advantage of the educational resources available at the centre. Attend talks, presentations, or even volunteer programs to gain a deeper understanding of orangutan conservation and the challenges they face in the wild. Instil a sense of environmental stewardship in your children and inspire them to protect our natural heritage. Prepare yourself for the visit by learning and sharing your knowledge with the kids before, during and after your visit. We watched the documentary series Orangutan Jungle School to reinforce our experience with the kids and had lots of discussions to make the most of this educational opportunity.
If you want to help support Sepilok, you can donate or adopt through the orangutan appeal uk.
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g. Explore beyond Sepilok: While Sepilok is undoubtedly the highlight, Borneo offers an abundance of other natural wonders. Consider extending your trip to explore the Kinabatangan River, where you can spot proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, a variety of bird species and if you are lucky herds of pygmy elephants. We priced up an afternoons riverboat safari but after discussion with the kids they preferred to visit the Orangutan Sanctuary again. We had also taken a river safari in Borneo already when we stayed in Brunei.
h. Support local communities: Borneo is home to diverse indigenous communities with unique cultures and traditions. Consider visiting local villages and supporting their livelihoods through responsible tourism initiatives. It’s an excellent opportunity for your family to learn about different ways of life and foster cultural appreciation. We visited the Mari Mari cultural centre in Kota Kinabalu and tried our hand at blow pipes, traditional dancing and learning about traditional life of the indigenous tribes of Borneo.
A trip to the Sepilok Orangutan Centre is one of those things you will never forget, it really is an adventure that will leave your family with memories to last a lifetime. From witnessing the incredible orangutans up close to exploring the lush rainforests, this sanctuary offers an immersive experience in nature conservation.
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