It’s no big revelation that one thing that draws many travelers to Borneo is the chance to see orangutans in their natural habitat. While Sepilok up north is home to the bulk of the island’s orangs, SVV and I decided not to make the long, bumpy trek to the sanctuary—especially considering there was little else in those parts to hold our interest—when our first resort, Shangri-La Rasa Ria, had a family of them living on its premises. So we paid our $20 (each) and joined the nature hike out to see the gangly goons.
It wasn’t long until we heard the leaves start to rustle and the vague change of colors from green to maroon in the foliage. Our first friends swung out to say hello.
Now if you think wildlife photography is hard, that’s NOTHING compared to orangutan shooting. Not even factoring in the heavy brush and dappled lighting, these suckers swung so swiftly through the trees that I had a hard time following them with my (crap) zoom lens.
And they’re so mischievous, you have to constantly be on your guard, watching all around you, lest they sneak up behind you to play, as well as above you, or risk being soaked by a warm summer shower.
What, that doesn’t look like trouble to you? No really, these warm summer showers aren’t just a myth. Luckily, we were forewarned, everyone managed to get out of the line of fire, and my camera even succeeded in capturing the evidence, the stream if you will. I then somehow subsequently deleted it, no doubt thanks to the excitement of witnessing such an occasion.
One particularly troublesome dude—I only assume it was guy orang based on the criteria that a) it had an ego and b) it was a total pest—even thought it hilarious to pull limbs off the trees and hurl them at the people below. (Truth: I also found this pretty darn funny. Then again, I wasn’t one of the people on his hit list. Perhaps I wouldn’t have found it so funny then. Video evidence after the jump.)
Orangutans are also some of the more limber creatures I’ve ever encountered. Much of the time, I was pretty sure someone had dressed up a Cirque du Soleil contortionist as an orangutan and asked him to play one big joke on the crowd.
The reason that people come so far to see these extremely endangered species (serious cuteness aside) is because they are only native to two countries: Malaysia (Borneo) and Indonesia (Sumatra). In fact, the word “orangutan” (or as they spell it in Borneo, “orang utan”) is Malay: “orang” means “man” and “utan” translates to “forest.”
I’m pretty sure I could have watched them swing and beat their chests—oh wait, I’m confusing my pals, the gorillas; too many primates in one calendar year—and pick leaves off tree trunks for days. But alas, after an hour, we were ushered back, so they could get back to their jungle-y ways.
As if the orangutans or the fact that this was the view at the end of our day every day weren’t enough to bring us back to the Shangri-La Rasa Ria in the future…
…when we departed, the staff sang us a lovely Malaysian blessing. It was all just too much sweetness for one 24-hour period.
(If you haven’t had your fill of orangs and/or want your co-workers to positively hate you? Play this video, and I guarantee they will once they have this song stuck in their head for the rest of the day.)
Getting There: You can’t fly directly to Kota Kinabalu, the main hub in Sabah (the Malaysian state in northern Borneo), from anywhere in the United States. You can, however, get there with just one easy connection from San Francisco or LAX. We flew China Airlines from SFO to Taipei, then caught low-cost carrier Malaysia Air from Taipei to KK. That’s probably the more difficult route (but we used SkyMiles); instead, you might want to look into sticking to one airline such as Cathay Pacific, which travels the whole route. If you have miles to use on the long leg as we did, you can fly into one of the many Asian cities that have direct flights onto KK, such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Ho Chi Minh and Kuala Lumpur, then book a cheap connection on Malaysia Air and Air Asia once you’re in Asia. (Just don’t forget your transit visa if you fly through Vietnam!)
From the KK airport, it’s around 45 minutes by car to the resort. Taxis are easy to catch and will run you around $30 (settle on a rate before you go, as taxis aren’t metered). The resort also has a private pick-up, but it’s much more costly ($71).
Where to Stay: We spent the first three nights of our honeymoon in the KK area at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria. This is the type of secluded resort that you check into without the intention of leaving the grounds, as it’s located pretty far out of the city (and traffic is quite bad most days). We found its remoteness welcome, and there was plenty to do to keep us occupied for four days. The resort has two pools, five restaurants (Naan was our favorite), two bars, an open-air market-type food court with various stalls, a fitness room, a store, a business center with free Internet, beach access and various water sports.
What it Costs: For the Shangri-La, rooms start around $200 a night. We splurged and paid a little more (around $260) to stay on the ocean wing (less families, quieter) on the fourth floor (second from the top, excellent views). Breakfast, a delicious brunch in the Coast restaurant, was included in our rate. Factor in $15 a person for all other meals (sans alcohol), plus $20 a person for orangutan visit. Given the fact that a lot of accommodation in Borneo is pricey—and none, nowhere near as luxe as Rasa Ria—this isn’t actually all that bad.