Seeing orangutans in their natural habitat is one of the top bucket list wildlife experiences for many travellers. Orangutan means ‘man of the forest’ in Malay, a fitting description. These red-haired long-armed great apes are the closest living relatives to humans and can be found on only two islands in the world: Borneo and Sumatra.
Located in Borneo, the states of Sabah and Sarawak offer excellent opportunities for seeing wild and semi-wild orangutans in Malaysia. Much easier to travel than Indonesian Borneo, Malaysian Borneo is especially ideal for budget travellers.
On a recent trip, I went in search of orangutans myself and learnt a few things about getting the most out of the experience. Read on to find out where you can spot orangutans in Malaysia and exactly how much this bucket list experience will cost.
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Best Places to See Orangutans in Malaysia 🦧🇲🇾
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1. Kinabatangan River, Sabah
One of the most accessible and budget-friendly options for seeing wild orangutans in Borneo is to take an ever-popular Kinabatangan River tour. Malaysia’s second-longest river, the Kinabatangan, snakes through the jungle before emptying into the Sulu Sea on Sabah’s east coast.
Most people opt for either a 2D/1N or 3D/2N tour. Each includes river cruises at dawn and dusk, which provide a real sense of adventure as you float down the murky river in the morning mist, surrounded by pristine rainforest.
While Kinabatangan offers some of the best chances of seeing wild orangutans, as with any wildlife spotting experience, sightings can’t be guaranteed. However, you will also have a high chance of seeing some of Borneo’s other Big Five: proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, rhinoceros hornbills, and if you’re lucky, pygmy elephants.
How to visit: To get to the Kinabatangan River the easiest way is to book a tour in advance (you can usually book up to the day before), which you can do through your hostel in Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan. Tours will include a transfer from Sandakan or nearby Sepilok. Sandakan can be reached by bus or by domestic flight from Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu or Kuala Lumpur.
Alternatively, you can book accommodation at the river directly and then book the tour through them. It’s possible to take a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan town and most accommodations will offer a pickup service. Check out Nature Lodge Kinabatangan or Sandakan Backpackers Hostel for decent accommodation and recommended tours.
“Cruising along the Kinabatangan River was a magical experience. Not only did we see orangutans high up in the trees on the riverbank, but also all of Borneo’s Big Five!”
2. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah
For the highest chance of seeing orangutans, a visit to a rehabilitation centre is an excellent option, and the world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is one of the best. At just 30MYR (approx. $6.30USD) for a day entry ticket, it is also the cheapest place in Sabah to see orangutans and easy to visit independently.
The centre is funded in part by the Sabah Wildlife Department, and it cares for orphaned and injured orangutans, rehabilitating them before returning them to the forest. The Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve covers more than 40 sq km and around 100 semiwild orangutans are free to roam.
The animals survive on a mixture of self-foraged fruits and the food provided by the centre. Daily feedings take place at the feeding platform at 10 am and 3 pm and visitors can watch as a handful of resident orangutans come to enjoy some tasty treats. Nearby is the nursery where young orphaned orangutans are often found playing and can be observed from viewing stalls.
How to visit: Sepilok sits just 25km west of Sandakan, so it’s possible to do a day visit from there. Sandakan has its own airport and bus links with Kota Kinabalu. If you would prefer to stay in Sepilok take the Kota Kinabalu-Sandakan bus and alight at the Sepilok junction. Nature Lodge Sepilok offers clean but basic dorm rooms and is within walking distance of the rehabilitation centre.
3. Danum Valley, Sabah
Danum Valley is often the most recommended option for wild orangutan encounters, and the experience of trekking through primary rainforest to see the animals in their natural habitat is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, it is also one of the more expensive options.
The Danum Valley Conservation Area is home to around 500 orangutans and is one of the best places to see Borneo’s endemic animals in the wild. Other exciting sightings may include red leaf monkeys and the elusive clouded leopard.
The only budget accommodation option is the Danum Valley Field Centre, from where you can take guided hikes in small groups into the jungle in search of orangutans. The trekking requires a reasonable level of fitness. There are far fewer visitors here compared with Kinabatangan, which makes any sightings feel even more special. Early booking is advised.
How to visit: To get to Danum Valley you will first need to reach Lahad Datu, a small town on Sabah’s southeast coast. Buses run from Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu (both of which have airports). Here you will find the Danum Valley Field Centre Office where you can book accommodation and transport to the Field Centre. 4WDs leave Lahad Datu each Monday, Wednesday and Friday – be prepared for a very bumpy two-hour drive!
An easier option is to book a tour that will include accommodation and logistics, such as a transfer from Sandakan to Lahad Datu and onto Danum Valley. River Junkie offers good packages at reasonable rates.
“Jungle trekking in the pristine primary rainforest in Danum Valley was a trip-defining experience during my Southeast Asian travels. Spotting wild orangutans in their undisturbed natural habitat was a moment I’ll never forget.”
4. Batang Ai, Sarawak
Batang Ai is the only place in Sarawak where it is possible to see orangutans in the wild. It is also very remote and not easy to reach so is one of the lesser-visited options. Around 170 orangutans live within the boundary of the Batang Ai National Park and a further 200 were recently discovered to live outside of the National Park, in the Ulu Sungai Menyang landscape.
Tours are comprised of multi-day treks which involve camping in the jungle so a good level of fitness and a sense of adventure are a must for this orangutan-spotting option.
How to visit: Independent travel to Batang Ai is not impossible but it is very difficult, and the park can only be accessed with an official guide, so a tour is the best option. Tours will usually include transport from Sarawak’s capital, Kuching. Travel includes a 4.5-hour journey by road followed by a boat ride upriver to the national park.
5. Deramakot Forest Reserve, Sabah
Deramakot Forest Reserve is earning a reputation as one of the best wildlife-watching destinations in Malaysian Borneo. Most well-known for its big cat population, it is also a good place to spot orangutans in the wild. There are around 1,400 orangutans living in the reserve – one of the highest populations of anywhere on this list. You might also spy gibbons, sambar deer and pygmy elephants.
However, unlike Danum Valley, don’t expect pristine rainforest here. The reserve is an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forest, and a flagship project of Sabah’s Forestry Department where careful stewardship of the land has encouraged wildlife to thrive despite logging occurring here.
As Deramakot is a little off the beaten tourist trail, visits here are a quieter affair. It’s not a particularly easy place to access and accommodation options are very basic. 4WDs are used to spot wildlife, which may be more relaxing than trekking depending on your preference. It does, though, mean hours on a bumpy road so be prepared for an adventure and little comfort if you decide to visit.
How to visit: As with Batang Ai, visiting independently is possible but very challenging. It’s recommended to book a tour, which will include transport from Sandakan, a four-hour road journey away.
6. Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Sarawak
Like its counterpart in Sepilok, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre (sometimes called the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre) is a sanctuary for semiwild orangutans. Some of the orangutans here were once kept as pets, or have been injured or orphaned, and the centre helps them to develop survival skills before releasing them into the forest.
At feeding time, many of the orangutans come to the platform to enjoy a meal of bananas and coconuts. Less well-known than the centre in Sepilok, Semenggoh attracts fewer visitors, which may appeal to some. However, there is also a much smaller population of orangutans meaning that sightings might not be as common as in Sepilok.
How to visit: Just 30 minutes by road from Kuching (the capital of Sarawak), Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is easy to visit independently by bus or taxi (online hailing app Grab is best). It’s also very budget-friendly at just 10MYR ($2USD) a ticket.
7. Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah
At 1,225 sq km, and almost three times the size of Danum Valley, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is a huge swathe of protected land, much of which was previously logged forest. Around 1,400 orangutans live here, and it is used by Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre as a place to release the animals they have cared for back into the wild.
Jungle trekking is the way to move around the reserve in search of wildlife, so you’ll need to be reasonably fit. Tabin offers good opportunities for spotting orangutans, but the chances are not quite as high as at Danum Valley. However, there is also the chance of coming across the rare clouded leopard as well as pygmy elephants.
How to visit: The only way to visit Tabin Wildlife Reserve is with a tour, and there is only one accommodation option in the reserve, Tabin Wildlife Resort, which offers basic chalets. Tours include transport from Lahad Datu (around 1.5 hours by road), which you can reach from Kota Kinabalu by bus or air, or from Sandakan by bus.
“I heard great things about Tabin Wildlife Reserve during my time in Borneo, and friends of mine were even lucky enough to see a clouded leopard during their visit!”
Seeing Orangutans in Malaysia FAQ
When is the best time to see orangutans in Malaysia?
Malaysian Borneo’s dry season from March to October is the best time to see orangutans in the wild, with May and June being the best months.
This is the height of fruiting season, which is great for wild experiences. However, you’re less likely to see orangutans at the rehabilitation centres during this time as the abundant fruit in the forest means they don’t need to rely on the food provided by their human carers.
July and August are peak season and generally best avoided if possible.
Are orangutans endangered?
The global orangutan population has plummeted over the last century, and today they are classified as critically endangered.
How many orangutans are left in Malaysia?
How much does an orangutan spotting trip cost in Malaysia?
This depends hugely on what type of encounter you want to have. If you are satisfied with seeing semiwild orangutans in a rehabilitation centre you can see them for as little as $2USD!
However, if you really want to see them in the wild then this won’t come cheap. The most budget-friendly wild experience is the Kinabatangan River tour, and you can find 2D1N tours for under 500MYR (approx. $105USD). If a multi-day jungle trekking experience is what you’re after, then prices start from anywhere between $370USD and $540USD depending on destination and number of nights.
For wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers, seeing orangutans in their natural environment is one of the most special experiences to be had in Southeast Asia. Malaysia offers excellent opportunities for spotting our hairy cousins, with everything from independent budget options to all-things-taken-care-of tours.
If you’re content with a semiwild orangutan encounter, you might also find that seeing these red-headed arboreal mammals is much more affordable than you might think!
If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, seeing orangutans in Malaysia should be high on your list – you won’t want to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Have you seen orangutans in Malaysian Borneo? Share your memories with us in the comments below!