5 best places to see orangutans in Borneo

Written by Wayne Tarman. Last updated .

5 best places to see orangutans in Borneo

Seeing an orangutan in its natural habitat is one of best wildlife experiences you can have in Borneo.

We are often asked: Where is the best place to see wild orangutans?

This guide will help you answer that question.

It focuses on destinations in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak where you have a good chance of seeing this fascinating animal.

There are around 11,000 orangutans in Sabah and 1,600 in Sarawak.

In our opinion the five best places to see orangutans in the wild are:

  1. Kinabatangan River, Sabah
  2. Danum Valley, Sabah
  3. Deramakot Forest Reserve, Sabah
  4. Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah
  5. Batang Ai National Park, Sarawak

So what location is best for you?  This will depend on a few factors:

  • How fit you are
  • Your budget and accommodation preferences (budget, mid-range or luxury)
  • How much time you have
  • The way you want to go in search of orangutan (by foot, boat or 4WD safari)
  • Whether you want to see an orangutan in pristine primary rainforest or don’t mind where you see one

The following sections give the run down on each of the places in our top 5.

1. Kinabatangan River, Sabah

Watching orangutans on the Menanggul River, Kinabatangan

Searching for orangutans on the Menanggul River, a tributary of the Kinabatangan River.

The Kinabatangan River offers the best chances of seeing a wild orangutan of all the locations in Sabah and Sarawak. If you go on a three or four day Kinabatangan river tour you are almost guaranteed to see an orangutan plus a whole range of other endangered wildlife, including pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys.

This is why the Kinabatangan River is one of the best wildlife watching destinations in Southeast Asia. However, it is also important to note that habitat fragmentation remains a key issue in this region of Sabah. On a trip to the Kinabatangan you will see a mosaic of oil palm plantations, degraded habitats and protected forest.

It is estimated there are 1,100 orangutan living in the Lower Kinabatangan River. Unlike other locations where you trek through the rainforest and search for orangutan, wildlife watching on the Kinabatangan is done from boats.

It is easy, comfortable and you don’t have to be fit.  Both old and young can see orangutan here. It is the best option for families with young children and anyone unable to walk long distances in the forest.

There is a variety of accommodation options ranging from budget guest houses and homestays to comfortable lodges so the destination caters to visitors on all budgets. Most of the lodges are located at Sukau with a few at Bilit and Abai. For travellers on a tight budget the Kinabatangan is the cheapest location in our top five.

Sightings of orangutan occur at oxbow lakes and along the banks of the main river and its tributaries, including the Menanggul River where most tours go to see the proboscis monkeys.

To conclude the Kinabatangan is the easiest and most ‘comfortable’ orangutan watching option available in Borneo. It also offers the highest chance of seeing wild orangutans. Sandakan serves as the jumping off point for the Kinabatangan.

If you are interested in an organised Kinabatangan tour please get in touch or see the range of trips we offer.

If you are on a budget check out this great article by Violette Vauchelle on how to organize a Kinabatangan River Cruise on a Budget.

Kinabatangan River Summary

Accessed fromSandakan
Orangutan population1,100 in the Lower Kinabatangan
Chances of seeing an orangutanVery high
HabitatFragmented. Mix of plantations, protected forest and degraded forest.
Style of watchingBy boat
Type(s) of travelOrganised tour or independent travel
Fitness requirementsLow. All you need to do is step from the jetty into a boat.
Cost (per person)RM 800 for DIY independent travel, staying at budget guest house

RM 1,200-1,600 for 3D2N tour staying at at budget lodge

RM 1,800-2,400 for 3D2N tour staying at at good lodge. Price varies based on room type, number of pax per booking, etc.

RM 2,200-2,900 for 4D3N tour staying at at good lodge. Price varies based on room type, number of pax per booking, etc.

Note: Cost per person listed in the summary tables is for a booking with 2 people (i.e. twin share).  Prices for families and larger groups are cheaper.

2. Danum Valley, Sabah

Orang Utan at Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia

Orangutan at Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

Danum Valley is the best place to see wild orangutan in pristine, undisturbed forest. Sightings are not ‘guaranteed’ like the Kinabatangan River but there is a pretty good chance of seeing orangutan at Danum. It is estimated that there are 500 orangutan living in the Danum Valley Conservation Area.

Danum’s 43,800 hectares of virgin rainforest are home to an astonishing variety of wildlife.  It offers some of the best wildlife watching and rainforest experiences in the world. You don’t just come here for the orangutans. You come here for everything. And walk away knowing that a massive tick has been added to your bucket list.

There are a range of different treks at Danum. The trekking is relatively easy so you don’t need to be super fit. Plan on staying at least 3 nights if you want to see an orangutan.

It is possible to arrange a trip to Danum Valley independently but most people go on organised tours. There are two accommodation options at Danum. The Borneo Rainforest Lodge offers a luxurious jungle experience with prices that match the excellent facilities and reputation of the Lodge.  The Danum Valley Field Station is the budget option. It is primarily a research station but offers a range of rooms for visitors. You can book rooms independently and hire guides as you need or you can opt for an organised tour with accommodation at the field centre.

Danum Valley Summary

Accessed fromLahad Datu
Orangutan population500
Chances of seeing an orangutanMedium to high
HabitatPristine, primary rainforest
Style of watchingTrekking
Type(s) of travelOrganised tour or independent travel
Fitness requirementsLow to medium. There is a range of trails at Danum, including some that are flat and easy. You can sometimes see orangutan near the lodge.
Cost (per person)RM 3,400-4,000 for 3D2N organized tour staying at the Field Centre.

RM 5,000-5,900 for 3D2N tour staying at Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

RM 7,000-8,500 for 4D3N tour staying at Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

3. Deramakot Forest Reserve, Sabah

Wildlife watching at Deramakot is very different from the other places where you can see orangutans. At Deramakot 4WD vehicles are used for day and night drives along logging roads.

Deramakot Forest Reserve has quickly gained a reputation as one of Sabah’s best wildlife watching destinations. Whilst it is perhaps more famous for its cats (including the rare clouded leopard), Deramakot is also a good place to see orangutan. This may come as a surprise considering that Deramakot is logging concession, albeit one of the longest timber certified tropical forests in the world.

An aerial assessment of orangutan distribution and density found that there are 1,400 orangutans living in Deramakot. They are often spotted along the side of the two main dirt tracks that run through the forest reserve. They are also sometimes spotted near the accommodation area.

Deramakot is a place for more adventurous travelers. It is more difficult to get to than the other places in our top 5. The reserve is accessed from Sandakan or Telupid via unsealed plantation and logging roads. Whilst it is possible to go trekking at Deramakot most wildlife watching is done in 4WD vehicles. So expect bumpy rides sitting on a bench in the back of a Toyota Hilux.

It is difficult or nearly impossible to visit Deramakot as an independent traveller so the only option is to go on an organised tour. There are a limited number of rooms at Deramakot so it can get full in the peak season months of July & August.

To sum up Deramakot is a good place for orangutan sightings but it is not for everyone. Accommodation is fairly basic when compared to the lodges in the Kinabatangan, Tabin and Danum and access is more difficult. The forest is also fragmented with logging operations taking place. If you are looking to experience pristine forest and see an orangutan, then Danum is a better choice.

Deramakot Forest Reserve Summary

Accessed fromSandakan or Telupid
Orangutan population1,400
Chances of seeing an orangutanMedium to high
HabitatMixed, mostly disturbed logged over forest plus patches of primary rainforest.
Style of watching4WD safari
Type(s) of travelOrganised tour
Fitness requirementsLow to medium. All you need to do us clamber in the back of a Toyota Hilux.
Cost (per person)RM 3,500-4,500 for 3D2N tour.

RM 3,350-4,500 for 4D3N tour.

Prices depends on pick-up location, room type, meal package, guide, amount of drive time, etc. If you make you own way by bus to Telupid the price is cheaper. Getting picked up in Sandakan is a lot more convenient.

4. Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah

Tabin Wildlife Reserve is a vast protected area covering 122,500 hectares. A significant proportion of Tabin consists of previously logged forest. Despite this the reserve is home to 1,400 orangutans.

There are reasonable chances of seeing an orangutan at Tabin but they are not as high as Danum or the Kinabatangan. On the plus side, Tabin is unlikely to disappoint as it is home to a wide range of wildlife.

It is only possible to visit Tabin on an organized tour and the only place to stay is the Tabin Wildlife Resort, a 3 star jungle lodge offering hill and riverside chalets.

The small town of Lahad Datu serves as the jumping off point for Tabin. The reserve is accessed via plantation and logging roads. Wildlife watching activities are focused on jungle trekking with some 4WD night safaris.

Tabin Wildlife Reserve   Summary

Accessed fromLahad Datu
Orangutan population1,400
Chances of seeing an orangutanMedium
HabitatSecondary forest with some areas of primary forest.
Style of watchingTrekking. 4WD safaris are also available.
Type(s) of travelOrganised tour.
Fitness requirementsMedium to low.
Cost (per person)RM 2,800 for 3D2N organized tour staying at Tabin Wildlife Resort

RM 3,440 for 4D3N organized tour staying at Tabin Wildlife Resort

5. Batang Ai, Sarawak

Lunch on the red ape trail in Sarawak

Lunch on the Red Ape Trail at Batang Ai. Searching for orangutan at Batang Ai is a very different experience from the other places in the top 5. Getting to know your local Iban guides and camping out in the rainforest are all part of this upriver Borneo experience.

Batang Ai is the only place in Sarawak where you can see wild orangutans. It is one of the least known destinations for spotting orangutans in Malaysian Borneo.  Like Deramakot it is not easy to travel to Batang Ai as an independent traveller so most people go on organised tours.

Around 170 orangutan live within the boundaries of Batang Ai National Park. An estimated 1,200 orangutan live in the neighbouring Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary. Recent research found that up to 200 orangutans live outside of Batang Ai park in the adjacent Ulu Sungai Menyang landscape. A tiny isolated population of orangutan living in mostly logged over forest in the Sebuyau-Sedilu area make up the balance of the orangutan population in Sarawak.

Two organisations offer orangutan treks at Batang Ai with the tours taking place outside the national park.

Borneo Adventure offer three tours with a good chance of seeing orangutans. These are the 5D4N Red Ape Trail, the 6D5N In Search of Wild Orangutans and the 4D3N Lubok Kasai tour. All take place in the upper Delok River which is about two hours by boat from the Batang Ai reservoir.

This area is part of the Ulu Sungai Menyang Landscape where researchers recently discovered a new population of orangutan previously undocumented by science. The local Iban people obviously knew there were orangutan here and tourists have been spotting orangutans in these areas for 30 years.

However, it was not until 2012 that scientists conducted research and nest surveys to estimate the population of orangutan in 14,000 hectares of unprotected forest. They were somewhat surprised to find that 200 orangutans were living outside of Batang Ai National Park.

You have a 70-80% chance of a sighting on Borneo Adventure’s five and six day orangutan tours. The Red Ape Trail requires a higher level of fitness as it passes through hilly terrain with some tough up-and-down trekking. In Search of Orangutans offers the best chances of seeing orangutan as it covers two different areas (Delok and Lalang Rivers) and a number of trails. The Red Ape Trail focuses on the Ulu Mawang area.

Whilst on these tours you stay in Nanga Sumpa lodge and basic jungle camps. You will be accompanied by an English speaking guide and local Iban guides. Camping out in the forest and getting to know your Iban guides and boatmen is very much a part of the whole experience.

The treks pass through a mosaic of primary and old secondary forest. Some of the secondary forest is 50-60 years old. Generally, you will trek for a few hours in the morning. Then you take a rest and have lunch before going trekking again late in the afternoon.

Map of the Red Ape Trail, Sarawak

Follow the ridges. The Red Ape Trail follows ridges as this image shows. The trail from Mawang Camp to Nalan Tenu rises from 185m to 415m. Forest people have used ridges since time began, and so have animals. Even in the most remote parts of the forest, you will find neat trails along ridges. Most of these are animal trails. If you thought animals wander aimlessly through their forest home, you would be quite wrong. Just like humans, animals follow trails, which, over time become well-established paths through the forest. Almost all walking trails in national parks started out as animal trails.

In addition to the specialised orangutan treks, there is also a reasonable chance of seeing orangutans on Borneo Adventure’s shorter tours, for example the 3D2N Ulu Ai Experience. Whilst seeing orangutans is not the focus of the shorter tours, sightings have become more common over the last 5-10 years.

The other organisation that offers orangutan treks at Batang Ai is the NGO Project Orangutan. It largely focuses on conservation work and volunteering at Matang Wildlife Centre. However, they visit Batang Ai as part of a 13 day Sarawak trip that includes volunteering at Matang and orangutan treks near Jinggin on the upper Ai River. Orangutans are sighted on 30% of the tours.

In theory it is possible to visit Batang Ai National Park as an independent traveller and search for orangutans. In practice it is quite difficult to arrange. Travelling from Kuching to the Batang Ai jetty is the easy part. When you arrive you then have to organize a boat to travel to the park. If you have not pre-arranged something things can be hit and miss. You might get lucky and find a boatman or you could end up hanging around for hours.

If you do find a boat it will cost around RM 400-450 for a return trip to the park. There is no visitor accommodation at the park. The rangers sometimes let you sleep on the verandah of one of the HQ buildings. You will need to take enough food and drink for your stay and a sleeping bag and mosquito net.

Another option is to find a boat (RM 200-300 return) to take you to Nanga Delok longhouse. When you arrive at Nanga Delok ask to see the headman or one of longhouse elders.  Then you can make arrangements to stay overnight in the longhouse and rent a boat to take you to the national park the following day. All up you will need to budget RM 400-600 for boat rental.

The longhouse charges modest fees for food and board. However, renting a boat is not cheap at Batang Ai. A simple return trip to the park HQ is the cheapest option. If you want to travel further upriver past the park HQ the boatman will charge more to cover the extra fuel costs.

To get a good idea of how difficult it can be to get the park read Amy and Andrew’s account of their trip to Batang Ai National Park.

There are five trails at the national park but they are not well maintained so you will need to recruit a local guide or ranger to accompany you on the longer treks. If you are staying at Nanga Delok you can ask your boatmen to be your guide in the park.

It is not easy to spot orangutans in the forest near the park HQ.  The chances of seeing one whilst on a day trip are slim. To have a good chance of seeing orangutans near the HQ area you will need to stay for 4 or 5 days. There are better chances of seeing orangutans if you travel upriver, deep into the park, and camp overnight in the jungle. But this is costly and can work out more expensive than an organised tour.

Batang Ai Summary

Accessed fromKuching.
Orangutan population370. 170 in Batang Ai National Park and 200 living in the surrounding, unprotected forest in the upper Delok and Ulu Sungai Menyang landscape.
Chances of seeing an orangutanMedium to high
HabitatMix of old growth secondary and primary forest.
Style of watchingTrekking
Type(s) of travelOrganised tour. Independent travel to Batang Ai National Park is possible but not easy to arrange.
Fitness requirementsMedium to high. Some trails that run alongside the rivers are suitable for most people. However a few trails pass through hilly terrain so a certain level of fitness if required.
Cost (per person)RM 2,000-4,500 for an organized tour. Price depends on duration of the tour, number of people, location of treks, etc.

Juvenile orangutan spotted on Red Ape Trail, Sarawak.

A juvenile orangutan gathers some fruit on the Red Ape Trail. Photo by Mark Boyd.

Featured image at top of the blog post was taken in the Upper Delok River at Batang Ai by Ch’ien C Lee.



Leave a Reply