Honestly, we had no idea we’d ever step foot again in Malaysia, even if was the Peninsular Mainland. The expat destination research vacation of 2011 was actually intended to fulfill our insatiable desire for a close encounter with Malaysia’s best endemic animal in the wild: the orangutan. The Borneo Rainforest Lodge met and exceeded our every expectation and then some.
Let’s get the disclaimer done first. The lodge is possibly Malaysia’s most expensive choice for rainforest activities. It’s also the best. Probably not the best choice for early retirees on a budget, even by Malaysian standards, this trip was an indulgence. While in Sabah, we also visited the Kinebatangan River area, the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve near Sandakan and even splurged for some R&R at the Shanrgi-La’s most hidden gem, the Rasa Ria Resort.
In 2011, my employment situation didn’t seem threatened yet. Penang was a distant choice for our eventual early retirement, so we chose Borneo as our first Malaysian experience. This post is specifically devoted to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge and all its splendor. Paraphrased mostly from my original TripAdvisor review, it showcases many highlights of Malaysia’s biggest tourist attraction in Borneo.
From San Francisco, getting there is half the fun. It took 26 hours of continuous flying with three flights, an overnight stay in Lahad Datu and a 3 1/2 hour trek in a four-wheel drive, often bumpy and rutted due to heavy rainfall. Departing at 12:30 AM on an overnight Cathay Pacific flight, we always leave on a Friday night to ensure better sleep on the long flight. Unfortunately, they serve food on Hong Kong time and dinner arrived at 2:45 AM.
A short delay meant a quick turnover in Hong Kong to catch our DragonAir connection to Kota Kinabalu. With less than 30 minutes to spare, we asked the flight attendants for help getting off the plane quickly. As the only passengers of 300+ connecting to this unknown Malaysian city, the Hong Kong based flight attendants referred to their manuals because they never even heard of K.K. Amazingly, when we landed, all the normally impatient Chinese passengers let us but in front and we ran through the terminal, making the connection with about five minutes to spare.
Once in Kota Kinabalu, we collected our bags and began our first (and now last) experience with ill-fated Malaysia Airlines. Boarding the 20 passenger puddle jumper, we watched Mount Kinabalu pass us and finally arrived at Lahad Datu, gateway to the Borneo Rainforest. The three star Executive Inn is the most luxurious choice available. With dazed body clocks, we wandered to a local food stall and settled in for some sleep before the rest of the journey the next morning.
The Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a spectacular lodge in a stunningly gorgeous rainforest. The staff is professional and guarantees an unforgettable wilderness experience that changes the way you think about conservation, environmentalism a government policy that balances protection of our valuable ecosystems with the economic realities of land use for commerce. Since we are childless, this post is probably best suited for suited for travelers looking “sans children”.
I’d like to share an interesting experience illustrating the professionalism the exhibited by the staff. We booked this trip through a Kota Kinabalu based company endorsed by the Malaysian government. (More on that later – you can save a LOT of money by avoiding direct reservations through the lodge website).
Finalized 8 months ahead of our trip, an unexpected event threatened our accommodations.. About 3 days before leaving the USA, an email informed us that the former Malaysian Prime Minister (affectionately known as “Tune”) and a large entourage would be visiting the lodge during the exact 4 days of our visit. Initially they said we’d be unable to eat at the main dining area. Unacceptable to me, a series of back and forth emails voiced my dissatisfaction of a material change and our deposit was fully non-refundable at that point.
Perhaps unaccustomed to pushy Americans, within an hour the company agreed to no itinerary changes. They assigned us the best table with the nicest view and bent over backwards while ensuring no disruptions due to the entourage. Serena, the support manager was at our side upon arrival and practically every time we showed up in the common areas, constantly attending to our needs.
Sidenote: There were no disruptions other than an unusually large number of vehicles at the lodge and a tent city provided for the security detail. Amazingly, the former Prime Minister even greeted us personally as he walked past us and apparently he participates in all the activities even at age 73). Management went above and beyond normal hospitality and we felt like VIP’s.
Regarding Sabah province. the best two areas in for wildlife viewing are Danum Valley and the Kinabatangen River. Most travelers opt for some combination of 4 to 7 nights in the two regions, sufficient except for serious adventure junkies.
We booked a package from SabahTravelGuide.com, a government backed third-party provider with excellent service. Our contact became a Facebook friend and offered a wealth of information about Sabah. Feeling like we already knew the area, endless correspondence proved worthy.
Our customized 5 night, 6 day package was $2,130.00 USD including transportation and three nights in the Kinabatangen River region. Paying via two credit card installments in USD, the company utilizes a reliable American based billing service.
Picking us up at Executive Inn at 9 AM the next morning, we quickly signed paperwork at a local office in Lahad Datu. The staff is professional and efficient. The 2 1/2 hour trip is very long nauseating on the body depending on your driver and road conditions. Despite recent heavy rain, the road was not bumpy or muddy except near the lodge. On the return trip, we stopped several times for monkey sightings. I suggest Eating breakfast and motion sickness pills.
Upon arrival, the staff greeted us and offered a towel and a cool drink. Introduced to our guide next, a brief discussion ensued and you can discuss specific areas of interest. Pay for a private guide; it’s well worth it; we always avoid group activities if possible. Connecting with your guide socially helps you fully understand the area. We remain Facebook friends with Rafael, the best guide in our opinion. Ask for him personally.
As a consummate professional. Rafael is well versed in local flora and fauna and speaks perfect English. Sharing your own experiences with the guides enhances both your lives. Trekking with a new friend makes a huge difference. Choosing morning and afternoon treks that covered all the area, heavy rain cancelled our first afternoon walk. We just waited it out and it quickly cleared.
Choosing a Deluxe Chalet, the rooms are well apportioned with all natural products, hardwood floors, a queen sized bed and a very nice shower. There’s no air conditioning but the ceiling fan is comfy. Featuring granite counters, the bathroom usually swarms with ants, especially if there is a hole anywhere in the molding. Typical of any rainforest, this doesn’t really bother us.
Garnishing a balcony with a view of the river, there’s an outside tub but we had no ambition to soak. Sweat engulfs you 24/7 the entire stay anyway. Bird sightings from the room are common in the morning. Sleeping was OK on a typically Asian firm bed and the pillows were acceptable. Drinking tap water is discouraged and they provide bottled water. Dimly lit, you probably won’t be in the room anyway except to sleep. Amenities include laundry service and nothing dries in the tropics. Bring lots of dry fit and polyester.
Several different treks offer moderating degrees of difficulty and are tailored to your needs. Purchasing leech socks is essential but bringing better ones will help reduce bites. Wildlife spotting is often difficult but we spotted an orangutan named “Una” on two occasions. Resident orangutans new to the area are tracked for two days. Staying high in the trees, our necks hurt after 15 minutes but Rafael used his expertise and took pictures taken through his binoculars. Treks are short but feel longer with the sweltering humidity. Sorry for the poor picture quality; some were taken through binoculars; they hang out about 10 floors high.
Prevalent during our stay, “red leaf” monkeys dominate the trees near the lodge. We saw them eating breakfast one day and the next afternoon, an entire family nested for the evening not more than 500 feet from the lodge. They are very playful and fun to watch. We also saw long-tailed macaques.
On day two, we visited the canopy viewing area. Although quite scenic, it did not offer the best view of bird life as the website indicated. Lower than similar canopies in Costa Rica, it’s still quite impressive. Encountering flying squirrels, brown wood owls, lots of interesting insects, giant forest ants, millipedes, scorpions and beetles, the wildlife fascinates. Other sightings included flying geckos, fineback pheasants, skink lizards, fruit bats, and a host of birds including stork-billed kingfishers, blue-throated bee eaters, spider hunters, lizards, crested jays and Rhinoceros Hornbills, a species endemic to Borneo.
Trekking to the mountain top was my favorite activity, albeit it the hardest. Offering a spectacular view of the surrounding valley, there’s also an option to swim in a waterfall. Using a walking stick helps during heavy rainfall periods. Gaining about 2,000 feet, we visited an ancient burial ground near the top. Rafael heard the call of a black headed pitta, a very elusive bid. Mimicking his call, we got close but couldn’t snap that impossible picture. Lack of sunlight hinders most amateur photographers but the guides know how so do ask. Lugging professional equipment in 100% humidity probably sucks.
Night walks and driving options provide amazing experiences. Spotting flying lemurs, squirrels, tree frogs, owls, sleeping birds and lizards was easy. Very lucky encounters include a Slow Loris, tarsier or even one of the resident big cats. (we struck out ). Drink coffee beforehand and ask for the two-hour drive.
Meals are served buffet style in an open air restaurant overlooking the river. Samba deer and pygmy squirrels frequent the area. Offering large selections of Western, Malaysian, Indian and Asian food, choices include chicken, beef, lamb and shrimp. Pork is not offered out of respect for Muslim customs. Desserts are typically Asian (not the strongest part of Asian cuisine) including small cakes, various gelatinous offerings and some bread pudding.
Abundant tropical fruit was very tasty. Breakfast choices include eggs, pancakes, omelets, oatmeal and porridge or Congee. Food quality exceeded expectations but is be expected for the price. There is a Wi-Fi connection in the common area that works well allowing uninterrupted bouts of jealousy from Facebook friends back home.
Trails were quite muddy so unless it’s been very dry, expect filthy footwear and remember they stink and won’t dry if you rinse them off. Sneakers (or trainers) provide adequate support for trekking in mud. Hikers might help but are way too heavy for the tropics. Boots would be overkill. Wearing cotton socks was fine although many prefer hiking socks (way too hot for me). Sandals and flip-flops are fine for relaxation. Trails are much muddier and less developed than Costa Rican rainforest lodges but you can’t venture on your own anyway.
Leeches are everywhere in Borneo. Don’t hike anywhere without a good pair of leech socks unless you enjoy bleeding. Bites don’t hurt and take awhile to clot. Tuck socks securely into your footwear and when you change, don’t linger near the rinsing area because that’s where they linger. You’ll earn a certificate suitable for framing if you “donate blood” as we did.
Regarding insect repellent, DEET is not used in Malaysia due to environmental issues. Natural products are mostly useless and the amount of predators keeps the mosquito population low anyway. There’s never been any reported cases of malaria at the lodge but our Kaiser Permanente travel nurse recommended medication anyway. Americans are so over-cautious.
Sweating in the rainforest makes your hardest Pilates workout seem trivial. Everything gets dripping wet and showers help only briefly. Synthetics are essential and nylon long pants work best. Shorts are useless except perhaps in the dining area and will lead to insect bites. They recommend long sleeves but I never wear them even though I always carry a few. Exercise clothing might work but probably make you stand out as a rich yuppie American. Leave all dressy clothes at home. Nobody cares what you look like and the staff treats all clients with the same degree of respect.
It’s hard to find anything negative to say about this experience. Needing to be seen to understand, the rainforest is a special place and documentaries can’t convey the beauty.
Understanding this type of expensive trip will be unreasonable for early retirees like me and Diane, the experience left me hoping the Malaysian government remains proactive to conserve what little is left. My next post on the Kinebatangan tells a sad story of why so much wildlife is easily seen by the river (loss of habitat). Look for it soon.
Half of the million species of plants and animals on earth live in the tropical rainforest. Orangutans face extinction in the wild by 2020 at the current rate of habitat destruction. Malaysia is a wonderful nation where Muslims and Christians live harmoniously with little anti-Western sentiment and no radical fundamentalism. Sadly, most Malaysians face inadequate financial or political means to influence government policy; They need help from people like you.
Vacationing to Sabah is in our future plans as Malyaisn residents even if it’s not to the luxurious tourist lodges. We highly recommend a visit; You’ll come away enriched and yearning for more.