It seems that, nowadays, there are only two ways backpackers intake information about new destinations: Lonely Planet and word of mouth. While the internet is becoming a huge resource as well, it is so easy to have conversations with travelers about a destination that leads to some form of the statement, “…well Lonely Planet said (insert outdated price, guesthouse name, restaurant, etc.).” For me personally, I’m more of a word of mouth, stumble upon something awesome with dumb luck type person. In the case of traveling in Borneo, Malaysia, this type of travel did me well.
I didn’t do any research before coming to Borneo. I knew one could hike a 4000 km mountain called Kinabalu (but apparently only if you have a spare $1000), and I knew there was massive amounts of deteriorating jungle. This, of course, isn’t much to go off of. While I thought this indecision could come back to haunt me, upon initial introduction to Kota Kinabalu, before even checking into a hostel, I found out there was a Couchsurfing meet up the night I arrive. This lead to new friends, new faces, and a wealth of information. It also defined the rest of my time in Borneo.
After going on a random jungle cruise excursion with a dude I met on a bus (dude gets on bus, says he is going to a river in the jungle. Chris gets off bus, they see elephants!) I found myself in the second largest city in Sabah, called Sandakan. While the harbor area of the city is decently pretty, besides the super fast WIFI at my hostel, Sandakan didn’t have much to offer. This, though, was remedied by two British girls telling me about the town of Sepilok about 30 minutes away. It cost the equivalent of $1 to get there by local bus, and if I wanted to stay the night, there was a hotel called Paganakan Dii that was literally in the jungle. While the hotel was pricey, the traditional long house style structure that offered dorm beds for around $10 with breakfast was a deal in Borneo. Once again, with little foresight, I found myself on the bus to a new destination with no idea what I was getting in to.
Sepilok, for most travelers, is a place visited for a day or 2 at most. The visited part of town is literally based off of 2 tourist destinations and a jungle research center, with no other businesses, structure, or buildings besides a few resorts popping up next Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Excited visitors normally head to the Orangutan center around 10 am to see the morning feeding, then trek over to the RainForest Discovery Center to sweat in the jungle heat, then back to the Orangutans at 3 pm for the afternoon feeding. After this, they drink beer, eat food, and get ready for the next adventure. This, of course, is a mistake.
While on paper a town with 2 attractions doesn't sound that great, the fact is Sepilok is so much more than what is advertised. For those with a keen eye, you will find that the Rain Forest Discovery center has access to nearly 25 kms of hikes in the jungle. 25 km! While the main attractions are the raised canopy walk and a few small stretches of groomed jungle made for tourists, for an extra 5 Ringgit (less than $2) you can hike from the RDC 8 km to a mangrove forest on an inlay from the South China Sea. The research center here is called the Speilok Laut Research Center, and is also host to a camp ground (which I think is free due to no staff being there anymore). On top of that, The Paganakan Dii resort offers an entire complex with short hikes, free paddle and pedal boats, fishing, and thousands of places to sit, listen, and enjoy untouched nature that may or may not make it past our lifetime. Sepilok has more to offer than meets the package traveler’s eye.
Although Borneo has a lot to offer, it seems to be moving farther and farther off of the backpacking radar. Malaysians have no problem charging foreign visitors 50% more than locals. This, as well as the preference for packaged tours instead of the DIY backpacker approach, has made the ability to visit the jungle, scuba dive, raft, hike, or climb become only available for those with deep pockets. Borneo may be trying to head in a different direction, but for the time being, a trip to Sepilok can still offer even the thriftiest of budget travelers an introduction to the jungle, and a gloriously relaxing nature escape.
Photos courtesy of Mulv Jones