Proximity to orangutans is one of the primary reasons Diane and I chose Malaysia as our destination for early retirement. Among the most fascinating animals on earth, their quickly diminishing natural habitat lies in small swaths of the Sabah province in Malaysian Borneo, about a two-hour plane ride from Penang. Volunteer opportunities involving orangutan conservation always piqued our interest so we dedicated our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation to orangutan encounters in the wild, Excursions to The Borneo Rainforest Lodge and The Kinabatangan River Valley did not disappoint, providing several amazing sightings and educating us immensely about habitat destruction.
Needing some R&R after trekking through the jungle, we needed a little pampering and a couple of good night’s sleep before continuing to Singapore. Normally we’re prudent travelers but early retirement still seemed distant since I had no vision of being laid off, so we investigated a more luxurious option and discovered even the world’s best hotel chains have an undiscovered hidden gem. Along with the beauty of The Rasa Ria Resort Resort, one last adventure with orangutans on the resort’s private reserve solidified the entire experience.
Rivaling other beautiful beachfront locations, the Rasa Ria lies about 45 minutes north of Kota Kinabalu by taxi and with an isolated piece of prime real estate, feels worlds away from anything. Feeling like a personally catered private event at an exclusive resort, the occupancy rate appeared to hover in the 20 to 30% range during our stay.
Sadly, we only had 2 nights to enjoy the serenity as this was a relaxing stopover between a week of jungle and six days of “shopper gazing” at Singapore. Understanding this is insufficient time to give a full review, be assured that a week’s stay is easily possible without running out of activities. Priced extremely high by Malaysian hotel standards, make sure your credit card can withstand the shock and enjoy yourself.
Relaxing on an empty beach after a week of sweating profusely every second of day and night is high on my priority list although resorts of this caliber will be way out of range once we become early retirees. Although pickup by the hotel staff is possible, it’s an unnecessary waste of money. Instead, we arrived at the airport, claimed our luggage and walked a few steps to the taxi counter. Forking over about 90 MYR ($27 USD), we told them our destination and stood in the queue.
Without any haggling for price, there is no pressure and the cab drivers in Sabah are all very friendly, courteous and professional. Upon checking in, they prompted us for return limousine service at a higher price but we politely declined with no objections from the staff. Arriving at the beautiful open-air lobby, the welcoming team immediately took our passports and checked us in within about five minutes. Announcing each new guest, a staff member rings a giant gong in traditional dress as they pull up to the resort.
Taking upwards of ten minutes to navigate the large hotel, we meandered our way all the way out to our deluxe sea-view room in the Garden Wing. Promoting the luxurious “Ocean Wing”, many websites, tour companies and staff members push the highest priced option. Providing amenities nobody needs like private access to the wing and your own personal swimming pool, those rooms are more suited for an entourage of Taylor Swift than the average guest. (No, she’s never played a concert in Borneo).
Featuring 388 square feet, and a spectacular view of the beach and surrounding coastal mountains, our sixth floor room exceeded expectations, especially after sleeping in the jungle for a week. Generously comfortable, the spacious room had a private balcony with chairs, an unusually soft bed for an Asian hotel, and a separate large sitting area that steps down off the main room. Providing superior pillows with a cushy feeling, we assumed this was the norm for the Shangri-La, a hotel chain well above our early retirement budget standards.
Tastefully furnished with a great shower, extra fluffy towels and lots of extra toiletries, the attention to detail was wonderful after all the bugs, leaches and sweat of the past week. Literally set in a rainforest that backs up to the hotel, no evil palm plantations are visible, a welcome sight after traversing the roads leading to small patches of “wilderness” that orangutans and other wildlife struggle to survive in. Birds chirp happily here and we did too.
Describing the beauty of the beachfront is difficult and with only two hours of daylight left after arrival, we chose two comfortable chaises in the shade and settled in for a fabulous sunset. Sporting a large beachfront bar/restaurant with the only reasonably priced food at the resort and a large main pool, the serenity seemed endless. Warm water temperatures would make for an enjoyable dip were it not infestations of annoying jellyfish, even in shallow water. Tidal patterns influence when the stinging creatures swim close to shore and so we opted for toe dipping only.
Available activities include sailboats, jet-skis, banana boat rides, snorkel trips and diving. Preferring a margarita, good book and a shady tree, we’re unsure what the prices were for the fun stuff but the giant billboard in the lobby detailed everything. Isolated from everything, a shuttle to Kota Kinabalu is available but frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would pay a king’s ransom and then leave the property. Day spa services are also available; not exactly Thailand priced but not extraordinary for a resort.
Dining options are limited to six restaurants on the property and choices include Indian, Japanese, Malaysian buffet (that restaurant converts into a poolside bar with finger foods during the day), contemporary Western and two casual fare terraces. Choosing the Indian and Japanese for our two luxury dinners, the staff suggested making reservations but with both places less than 30% full each time, we’re not sure why.
Hopefully by now you’re already thinking of opening another browser to book a room but without restaurant reviews, what good would that be? Offering our best Yelp imitations, here’s our take.
1) Naan-Flavours of India:
Enjoyable and featuring standard Indian favorites, the lobster masala was delicious. Spiced much less spicy than most, food was flavorful but service was ridiculously slow, even by Malaysian standards. Peninsular Malaysian hotel staff seem to speak English a bit better than on Borneo but writing like a snobby American is uncool and this didn’t bother me. Cocktails were awesome but pricey. Expect a tab of $110 to $140 USD and remember not to add a tip; it’s already calculated into a service charge. 4 stars out of 5.
Cooking food on a grill in front of the guests, the Hibachi style Japanese restaurant offered complete meal packages varying in price according to the protein selected. Choosing a seafood package with shrimp, mussels, scallops, salmon and beef, the seafood was tasty and the meat was top notch albeit not Kobi beef quality. Ordering chicken cuts the price tag and the usual array of rice, miso soup and noodles comes with the meal. Entertaining but not sociable, the chef provided a nice touch for the end of our amazing week in Borneo. Including 2 cocktails, we paid about $90 USD. 4.25 stars out of 5.
Sadly disappointing, a breakfast buffet came with the room price. Often flavorless but abundant, various stations featured eggs, non-pork bacon and sausage, breads, cheeses, meats, noodles, pancakes, fruit and granola, it was not very good. Tasting like it was cooked the night before, the food was not hot on either occasion. Limited to chili peppers only, omelette stations lacked variety, pastries weren’t sweet and juices were not fresh squeezed. Oh well. Even the best resort has its flaws. 2 stars out of 5.
Orangutan Viewing at the Reserve:
Surprisingly entertaining, the Wildlife Reserve’s Orangutan Viewing was simply amazing. Working in tandem with Sepilok nature Reserve in Sandakan, the reserve cares for abandoned orangutans in need of rehabilitation, mostly due to habitat loss. Feedings occur twice daily at 10 AM and 2 PM. Afternoons are less crowded but also the time when afternoon rains often cancel the event.
Priced at $20 USD, they showed us the same video we saw at Sepilok, detailing destruction of prime habitat for corporate land exploitation and palm plantations. Walking to a viewing platform, food is left about 50 feet away and small groups devoid of crowds made this a better experience than Sepilok. Swinging from tree to tree, the orangutans we saw were a hilarious bunch, putting on a display of gestures, staring at everyone and acting as goofy as any we’ve seen at the San Diego Zoo.
Occasionally they came down for some food and the highlight of the entire resort stay came after most visitors got bored and made their way back down. Fascinated with orangutan behavior, Diane and I can stare for hours and unlike at Sepilok, the staff doesn’t rush you out. Allotted one hour, after all the others were gone, two of the more feisty orangutans came down to greet us personally. Perhaps looking for a smaller audience, they climbed down a ladder, crawled on the platform and walked right up to Diane and me.
Caught totally off-guard, I struggled to get a picture with my phone and the naughty one reached out and tried to steal it. Touching her furry hand was my first real life personal encounter and gave me an awesome thrill. Unpunished, the guides just shoo them off and allowed us to interact for a few minutes. Staying by our side for about another ten minutes, the naughty ones suddenly picked up a big branch and hurled it our way as if telling us it’s time to leave. As an exceptional experience, it solidified my wishes to volunteer in any way we can once becoming expats in Malaysia.
Like icing on the cake, as we walked back a staff member was holding a 10 week old orangutan dressed in a diaper. Possibly the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen, we stopped, looked, laughed and touched once again. Answering all our questions, the staff displayed a professionalism and clearly acts dedicated to the cause of rehabilitating spectacular animals that need human intervention NOW. Twenty six hours spent traveling from California to Borneo proved much more than worthy up to the last day.
Rarely advocating luxurious options on a blog dedicated to an experimental early retirement, allow me to make an exception here. Don’t bypass Borneo when visiting Malaysia. Enjoy its jungles, the wonderful opportunities for wildlife viewing, educate yourself on orangutan rehabilitation and how to stave off extinction threats and after you’re done, treat yourself to some well deserved R&R at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort.
Please enjoy our other posts detailing our fabulous trip to Borneo