If you are travelling in Borneo, a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is a must. Sepilok is a sanctuary for injured, orphaned and rescued orangutans in northern Borneo. It is the best known orangutan sanctuary in the world and is definitely one of the best things to do in Borneo.
With a passion for orangutans since I was a youngster, the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre has been on my wishlist for years. Even if you are not a fan of orangutans (why wouldn’t you be?) kids and adults alike will be captivated by the adorable “Man of the Forest”.
We visited Sepilok on our recent family adventure to Borneo and it was so amazing we returned the next day.
The Sabah Government established the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in 1964.
Sadly, the orangutan is a critically endangered animal and this is worsening with the increasing loss of rain forest to palm oil plantations. The loss of habitat, alongside the problems of poaching, hunting and the illegal pet trade has led to rapidly declining numbers of orangutans.
The aim of the sanctuary at Sepilok is to provide care for abandoned orangutan orphans and help rehabilitate them for a return to the wild.
Where is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre?
Sepilok Orangutan Centre lays in 4294 hectares of protected rain forest in the state of Sabah in northern Borneo. It is on the edge of the Kabili Forest reserve about 24 km from the coastal resort of Sandakan.
There are several guided tours which will take you to Sepilok. You can choose from a group or a private tour. Generally they include two other animal centres (the Sun Bear and the Rainforest Discovery Centre) as part of a day trip.
Alternatively, you can travel independently by bus or taxi from Sandakan or the airport. There are usually 4 buses per day and journey takes about 35 minutes.
If you are coming from Kota Kinabalu on the west coast, the drive is about 5 hours. Alternatively, you can take a short flight to Sandakan Airport.
However, we chose to stay at a local lodge, the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, and walk to the centre. Some of the local hotels will also offer a transfer.
Opening hours and admission at Sepilok
The Sepilok Centre is open from 9 – 4pm. However, you should plan your visit carefully as the centre closes between 12 and 2pm. You should also note that the ticket office shuts at 11am and reopens in the afternoon. If you visit in the morning, your ticket is still valid in the afternoon.
The feeding times are at 10am and 3pm, so it is a good idea to go to the feeding platforms at these times.
Admission to Sepilok is 30 RM for non-Malay visitors. However, you must pay an additional 10 RM to take your camera.
Things to do in the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
Watch a short film about the centre
On arrival, you can watch a short film. This outlines the history of Sepilok, the decline of the orangutan and the Sepilok’s conservation work. You’ll also learn that the orangutan shares 97% of human DNA!
You have to lock your bags in the free lockers provided and remember to use the hand sanitizer, as apes are very susceptible to human disease. Then, you are ready to go!
Be fascinated by Orangutans!
Of course, the main reason to go is to see the orangutans in the wild. The centre covers square kilometres, so you need to keep your eyes and ears peeled. There are usually between 60 to 80 orangutans living in the reserve, so you do need to be alert.
You may also spot other animals, bugs and insects in the trees. You’ll be surprised how noisy the jungle is as you make your way down the boardwalk to the feeding area.
Join the orangutans’ tea party
You have a better chance of seeing orangutans at the feeding platforms, where they come for food twice a day. However, we had a very close encounter on the boardwalk.
The feeding times at Sepilok are at 10am and 3pm, so it is worth timing your visit to correspond. Some of the older orangutans will come in from the surrounding forest for the food which is provided. Alternatively, some just come to have a swing in the surrounding ropes.
See babies in the nursery
One of the best places to watch the orangutans at Sepilok is in the nursery.
Once you’ve had your fill of the older apes, head back along the boardwalk to the outside nursery. Here you can watch the juniors monkeying around. We had hoped to see our adopted orangutan, Archie. Unfortunately, he was in the indoor nursery with the babies. They keep these little ones away from visitors, so that they don’t get contaminated.
Once at the nursery, visitors can sit in the glassed-in areas to watch the antics of the younger apes in the outdoor nursery. These youngsters are too young to be fully in the wild. They are still learning the basic skills of being an orangutan – climbing, playing, nest-building and eating.
It was absolutely mesmerising to sit in an air-conditioned gallery and watch them at play and we didn’t want to leave.
Sepilok really is an unmissable trip for anyone visiting Borneo, as you can get up close and personal and see the orangutans in a natural environment.
Where can you stay in Sepilok?
There are several local lodges where you can stay in Sepilok, including The Sepilok Jungle Resort, the Nature Lodge Sepilok and the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, where we stayed. These are all within walking distance of Sepilok Orangutan Centre and the Sun Bear Centre.
The advantage of staying locally in Sepilok is that you’re free to organise your own visit times. And even better, you can stay as long as you like to enjoy the orangutans. This is a contrast to some of the organised tours from Sandakan, who will rush you in and out.
Where can you eat at Sepilok?
There is a café at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The café is open even when the Sepilok centre shuts for lunch. Alternatively, you can buy tasty European or Asian dishes at The Lake Bistro (on the Sepilok Nature Resort). Here you can eat with a wonderful view over the lake.
For more authentic Bornean cuisine, head for Mama Wati’s. This was our favourite restaurant in Sepilok. What more can you ask for than an abundance of home-cooked food at a very low price? Don’t be put off by the look of the exterior. Once inside Mama Wati made us feel very welcome and the room is very homely. Plus we were able to see her cook right in front of us.
Top Tip: Ask Mama Wati to cook you some of her banana fritters.
Other things to do in Sepilok
Visit the Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Directly opposite Sepilok is The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of the world’s smallest bear.
Just like the orangutan, the loss of habitat and illegal hunting has resulted in a decline in sun bear numbers and they are now in danger of extinction.
The Sun Bear Centre is fairly small, but you get to see the bears in their natural habitat. Its proximity to Sepilok Orangutan Centre makes it an ideal place to visit on your day out in Sepilok.
Visit The Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC)
The Rainforest Discovery Centre is a short distance away from Sepilok. Here, you’ll find trails and a canopy walk where you can observe more wildlife and tropical flora and fauna. They also offer night time hikes, which sound fun.
We had planned to go to the Rainforest Discovery Centre on our 2nd day in Sepilok, but changed out mind at the last minute and went back to the Orangutan Sanctuary for another visit instead.
PIN FOR LATER: The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Borneo