The Orangutans of Borneo

Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall is on a mission to discover 52 of the most awe-inspiring places to visit across the world. If you're stuck for an adventure this February - seeing an orangutan in Borneo could be the one.


A deep and meaningful moment with a gorgeous, brown-eyed orangutan means something quite different on the island of Borneo, one of only two places on earth you can come face-to-face with orangutans.

A quarter of a million of these ginger primates swung languidly through the jungle a century ago – today there may be as few as 15,000 left in the wild.

Where is the best place to see an orangutan?

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo is the best place to get to know a few of them. It’s here that orphaned and injured orangutans are bought to recover before being released into the wild.

The animals are fed twice daily in front of adoring crowds, but if that’s not adventurous enough for you there are a variety of trails winding into the rainforest. Close-up orangutan encounters and valuables don’t mix – leave hats, bags and sunglasses behind.

If planning on longer walks take water and cover as much skin as you can. Animal encounters are not unknown on the trails, and they may end with you being relieved of whatever food you have on you.

A visit to Sepilok is an excellent start to a Borneo journey or a good reason to come in itself. Many visitors combine a visit to Sepilok with a trek up mighty Mount Kinabalu, at 4095m the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea.

If you have time, a full loop of Borneo is both challenging and hugely rewarding. In particular, there’s real adventure in Kalimantan, whether you’re taking a boat up 600 miles of Sungai Mahakam river to meet isolated tribes living in traditional longhouses, trekking through dense jungle in the Meratus Mountains or diving off Palau Derawan.

When is the best time to visit Borneo?

There’s no bad time to visit Borneo – it’ll be hot, humid and soggy at any time of year. In February you’re at the end of what distinct rainy season the island does have, plus you’ll avoid some of the crowds of August and January.

Planning your trip to Borneo

Note that Borneo is not a country in itself – it is shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. There’s no one tourist information site for Borneo but you can read all about the Orangutans and learn how you can get involved at Orangutan Appeal. See Tourism Malaysia, My Indonesia and Tourism Brunei for country-specific information.

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