Monkeying around in Malayisan Borneo’s Kinabatangan River Valley

We made our first friend in Malaysia. No, not the monkey.

The expat destination research vacation of 2011 continued after our amazing adventure at Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Still a current Facebook friend, our guide at The Bilit Adventure Lodge in the Kinebatangen River Valley enhanced our adventure with a personalized style not found in a tour guide manual. Unlike the college educated and company trained professional staff we’d met at the luxurious lodge, Loy is a local resident from the village that just happens to work for the lodge. Sharing local knowledge, a few rounds of guitar and some cold beer it was more like hanging out at a friend’s house.

bilit dock

The Bilit Adventure Lodge dock

Whatever The Bilit Adventure Lodge lacks in luxury, it more than makes up for with its character. Guaranteed satisfaction, the main draw in the Kinabatangen River Valley is the wildlife. With all the lodging options, why not choose one that makes you feel at home? The staff at the Bilit Adventure Lodge made the trip more than just another memory; they treated us like one of the gang.  Viewing wildlife with friends instead of tour guides greatly enhanced our experience.

The lodge is owned by Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure. They also run a very touristy lodge minutes from Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Thanks mostly to corporate greed, habitat loss has pushed almost all the area’s wildlife within a short distance of the river. Overnight adventure trips are inexpensive and a variety of lodges offer various levels of service. Ensure to ask for a private guide. Unlike impersonal group tours, most personal guides will spend extra time in one place, allowing for some bonding with a monkey. (as seen in the featured image)

Dropped off in Lahad Datu, our six night package continued when Loy and his driver picked us up right on time. Driving past rather ordinary scenery and some evil palm plantations for about two hours, we arrived at Bilit, a small village southeast of Sandakan and hopped on a quick boat ride. Set in a lush rainforest, the lodge features small buildings with four guest units each. Unaccustomed to Americans, the staff laughed at the enormous amount of luggage we toted.


Units are not luxurious but do have fantastic air conditioners, a very welcome addition after three sweaty nights in Danum Valley. Small but adequate, the rooms have showers, a double bed with average mattress and pillows and an extra bed. Sleeping is the only reason to be in the room, except perhaps for the super cool closeup views of the cicadas. Apparently they don’t live in Alberta since Diane wasn’t familiar with their crazy never-ending sounds but strangely, they did like the streets of Brooklyn. Prior to that day I’d never seen what they look like.

A Cicada: I'd never seen one before

A Cicada: I’d never seen one before

Active mostly at dawn and dusk, animal viewing starts with 6 AM river cruises and again at 4 PM. Filled with a cornucopia of wildlife, the river’s banks are teeming with macaques, birds and occasionally pygmy elephants (we didn’t see any). Spotting orangutans is less common than in Danum Valley but we got lucky. Often walking down to the river to forage, monkeys stare you down and almost become friends. Perhaps they’re actually telling you to go away. Crocodiles abound and barely scamper away until you almost touch them.

Shrouded in a mystical fog reminiscent of the movie Apocalypse Now, we set off for the morning cruise just in time while the clouds magically began to lift. Gliding along the river were many hornbills, egrets, pittas, and the fabulously colored kingfishers. While searching for fish it seems they almost walk on water.

tree monkey 4Monkeys must enjoy sleeping in as they skirted our morning boat cruises almost entirely. Our afternoon and evening cruises were spectacular, marked by more monkeys than we could count. Endemic to Borneo, proboscis monkeys are one of the highlights of the area. Among the funniest looking monkeys with their enormous long noses, they hang out in the trees as if placed there by someone. Although they don’t like to scamper down to the river very often, a good telephoto lens will help you get incredible pictures and very enjoyable blog posts. Sadly, we did not have one so please excuse the crappy picture quality.

Since afternoons are quiet on the animal front, a tour to the famous Gomantong Cave is on tap. World renowned for colonies of edible-nest swiftlets, the birds’ nests are harvested annually by daring (and crazy) people. Scaling the cliffs, they collect ingredients for one of the most expensive delicacies in Asian cuisine, birds nest soup. Enduring the disgusting environment, they live in little huts due to the level of difficulty involved.

Mostly Filipinos, they live in the caves while collecting birds nest soup ingredients

Mostly Filipino, they live in the caves while collecting birds nest soup ingredients

Filled with mounds of bat shit and millions of creepy cockroaches, trails circle the cave and grossing out your wife is relatively easy. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly and never touch anything afterwards. While mildly interesting, I found caves we visited in Costa Rica more interesting with their geographically unique landscapes. Tours often call for a return trip in the afternoon but we opted for beer and music on the patio with Loy and his buddies instead.

Night walks are available but without leech socks, we opted out of that. Leeches are probably the most annoying part of the Malaysian jungle and thankfully, you can visit two of the world’s other rainforests leech-free. (The Amazon and Costa Rica. We’re unsure about Madagascar, the only rainforest we’ve never visited.)  Slow lorrises are the main attraction should you decide on this option. We had enough of leeches by this point.

crocs so close you can almost touch them. But don't !!

crocs so close you can almost touch them. But don’t !!

Served on the main lodge area overlooking the Kinabatangen River, meals are quite tasty albeit it relatively simple. Kept to a minimum due to its eco-lodge status, the dim lighting makes for a beautiful backdrop while dining on Malaysian Chicken Fricassee, whole prawns, beef, fresh vegetables, fruit and best of all “chips” (that’s french fires, not Lays potato chips). Cooking in palm oil adds an incredibly delicious dimension to something so simple. Breakfast items are fried eggs, non-pork sausage, toast and potatoes. Bring your own coffee unless you consider Nescafe packets adequate for a caffeine boost (impossible since it has none).

 The staff; mostly young local and very friendly

The staff; mostly young local and very friendly

Activities in between cruises are quite limited and that’s where character tops professionally trained tour guides. When he’s not cooking or catering to guests, Loy and his buddies mostly hang out on the deck playing guitar and singing American pop songs. Chatting it up with the entire staff adds an element that makes you understand Malaysian culture a bit. Most Borneo residents will never see Peninsular Malaysia and may never stray further than Sabah. The warmth and personality of each staff member shines through. They are genuinely interested in learning our culture and vice versa.

 A tearful goodbye to Loy

A tearful goodbye to Loy

Diane and I enjoy personal communication with our guides and we’ve been lucky every time on our expat destination vacations. Although we remain friends with Loy on Facebook, we’re not entirely sure what he’s up to these days or if he even works there any more. If anyone’s been there recently, please contact us and let us know. We know he’s genuine and The Bilit Adventure Lodge is probably still an awesome choice for visiting the area.

After six days in the jungle we opted for two nights of luxury at the Rasa Ria Resort, a hidden gem in the Shangri-La chain located north of Kota Kinabalu before heading to Singapore. Confident we’ll be unable to splurge for luxury resorts as early retirees in Malaysia, we look forward to our first visit to Sabah as MM2H holders and Malaysian residents. Hopefully Loy is still around.



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