Borneo Orangutan6
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Borneo is 'one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself', wrote Charles Darwin in the 1800s. He was fascinated by this immense island's unique wildlife and despite the impact of logging and mining, it remains a rainforested trove of birds, plants and animals. Exotic orchids, orangutans, sun bears, pygmy elephants, Irrawaddy dolphins, clouded leopards: there is much to see, but some, like the orangutan, are under threat.

Away from a number of very worthy sanctuaries, it's not easy to spot these rare creatures. So take a paddle up river deep into the jungle to stay with tribespeople in a traditional longhouse. Here, you can get a local to show you around.

4 days

Orangutans and Tanjung Puting

Kumai | Tanjung Puting National Park | Sekonyer River | Camp Leakey | Pesalat Reforestation Camp
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14 days

Orangutans, rainforests, beaches

Kuching | Bako National Park | Batang Ai | Sandakan | Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary | Kinabatangan river | Kinabalu
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7 days

Sarawak’s national parks

Kuching | Gunung Gading National Park | Semenggoh Nature Reserve | Bako National Park | Kuching Wetlands National Park
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  • Sandakan

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  • Mount Kinabalu

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  • Sabah

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  • Kalimantan

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  • Sarawak

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  • Kuching

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Orangutans in Borneo

A guide to responsible orangutan tourism

Orangutans are magical creatures. Whether gracefully swinging through the trees, staring at you soulfully from their deep black eyes or watching a mother carefully groom a grizzling baby, seeing your first orangutan up close is a moment you never forget.

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Seasons and climate

Sitting astride the equator, Borneo has a warm, tropical climate. Although it is broadly possible to separate Borneo’s climate into the usual two seasons for the region — wet and dry — weather conditions are often very localised and extremely difficult to predict. Even in the dry season, it is better to prepare for the odd downpour rather than assuming it will stay dry.

Unusually for South East Asia, the dry season in Borneo runs from March to October, and the heaviest rainfall is in December and January, although the far north is at its driest in February and March. Kinabalu National Park is considerably cooler than its surrounding lowlands so make sure to pack layers to keep warm, especially in the evening.

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Month-by-month

January is best avoided in Borneo, as heavy rains fall over the majority of the country and most wildlife will hide away in the dense jungle. February brings drier weather in the north of the country, so head to Gaya Island or plan a trek up Kinabalu, taking advantage of the low season offers. March and April offer more dry weather, as well as the start of whale shark season for divers, which runs until May.

June, July and August are peak season on the island, with the best travel conditions but the biggest crowds and highest prices. The wildlife is very active at this point in the year – the summer months are a perfect time to see the famous orangutans and turtles native to Borneo. It is also the best time of year for diving, with excellent visibility of up to 40m on calm days. Baby turtles hatch on Turtle Island in August.

September marks the end of high season and while the weather is not as reliable, the crowds thin and there is still a good chance of sunshine in the majority of the island. Head away from the coast and travel inland to the Danum Valley and Kinabatangan River. October is similar to September but brings more frequent rain, which really takes hold in November and December. This is Borneo’s low season and can be a good time to take advantage of cheaper prices.

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Events and festivals

The heavy rains mean that the beginning of the year is quiet on the festival front, although Chinese New Year is celebrated at the end of January or start of February.

The majority of Borneo’s festivals fall in the dry season. May brings the Miri Jazz Festival to northern Sarawak, where world-famous musicians entertain the crowds, whatever the weather. The festival only allows a very small number of tickets to be purchased at the gate, so make sure to buy yours online before you go to save disappointment.

The end of May is Borneo’s Harvest Festival called Gawai Dayak. It is a national holiday in Sarawak. Beginning at sundown on May 31st, the celebrations include wearing traditional dress, sharing of food, music and even a ritual sacrifice of a chicken.

The middle of the dry season is also the high point for festival season. Head to Kuching for the Rainforest Music festival in July, where musicians from all over the world perform at this three-day festival – one of the biggest in Asia. Despite the dry season date, it is likely to be as muddy as anything Glastonbury can offer. If the mud puts you off, instead head for Sibiu, where the Borneo Cultural Festival draws 20,000 visitors each July to marvel at Borneo’s indigenous music, art and culture.

As the festival season draws to a close, don’t miss the Borneo International Kite Festival in Bintulu where teams fly complex kites over Bintulu airfield. Held in September, this festival includes cultural performances and authentic Malaysian food, making for some excellent photography opportunities. For something more cultural, visit Tenggarong in East Kalimantan for Erau, one of Indonesia’s oldest festivals. Held since the 16th century, Erau celebrates the region’s Dayak people with music, traditional dance and sporting events.

Borneo travel FAQs

All you need to know to begin planning your trip to Borneo

Do I need any vaccinations to see orangutans?
There are no vaccinations required to see orangutans, but humans can pass certain diseases on to orangutans and vice-versa, so contact is discouraged. Depending on where else you choose to visit, you may need to take malaria tablets or have vaccinations. As with any travel, speak to your doctor to get the most up to date medical advice.

What will seeing orangutans be like?

Try not to have any expectations. Remember that it is a privilege to see these animals at all and each experience will be different. Respect the orangutan, so do not call out to it, feed it or approach it. There are other reasons for this: to rule out potential danger if the orangutan feels threatened, and to avoid the animals becoming too used to humans or developing bonds with them.

What’s the difference between visiting orangutans in the wild vs conservation centres?
Orangutans on show in conservation centres are just that. Remarkable as they are, the spectacle is staged and the orangutans are habituated to come every day at the same time for food. This does not rule out variety, or unpredictability, but narrows it down.

Seeing orangutans in the wild is more difficult, but is also more exciting and more compelling. It can also be disturbing when you see their natural environment being compromised by forestry, palm oil and other industries.

How can you ensure that the places you visit are ethical?
Choose your tour group well. There are a handful of local setups — in Sarawak, Sabah, and Borneo-wide — who really stand out as ecotourism pioneers. Going local is generally better. Try to use a tour company who is genuinely local (and not just a foreign interest with a local shopfront), and is actively involved with local communities and on the ground conservation. When booking with them, always mention this as one of your reasons for getting involved.

How physically demanding are orangutan tours?
This depends entirely on the tour you choose to take. Some jungle treks allow you to decide how much or how little you trek, while others feature full-on itineraries with full-day walks. Whatever option you choose, it’s important to remember that the climate will play a big part in how physically fit you feel. With high humidity and temperatures, it is easy to get more tired, more quickly.

Should I tip my orangutan guides?
Tipping is not compulsory nor expected, so how much you tip is entirely up to you. If you do choose to tip, try to do so for both good service and ethical behaviour — this encourages guides to become more ethical.

What is life like on board a klotok?
Klotoks are the famous houseboats that you’ll sail on to reach more remote parts of the jungle or rainforest. Typically, visitors will stay for several days on board the klotok while exploring the rainforest. On most klotoks, you’ll sleep on the top deck in the open air, with mosquito nets and clean bedding. Showers are generally buckets of water (although more upmarket ones may have showerheads) and most don’t have electricity.

A klotok tour is a chance to unwind and experience the jungle scenery, away from the gadgets (and comforts) of modern life. Apart from trekking, watching the jungle go by and eating delicious home-cooked food, there is little else to do — but that can make for a magically relaxing experience.

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