A Borneo Rainforest Adventure – on the hunt for the Big Five!

It’s bucket list stuff isn’t it! The name alone conjures up that white tropical beach, backing on to jungle teeming with wildlife and colour. For most visitors, a trip to Borneo offers an opportunity to combine rainforest exploration with water activity – be it diving, snorkelling or just lounging by the pool for a few days.

Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Most tourists head for the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The majority of visitors traditionally come from China but, as of August 2022, the Chinese are still not travelling so the industry is dependent on South Koreans and a smattering of travellers from Europe and the US.

A typical two week vacation will allow for time in both jungle and resort. Our own 15 night trip to Sabah (booked through Trailfinders) included 2 nights in the air, one night in Kuala Lumpur (due to flight connection times), 7 nights rainforest and 5 nights resort. Everyone we met up with had a different schedule depending on their preferences – most had fewer nights in the jungle and maybe added some nights on a nearby island for diving or perhaps extended their stopover in KL or Singapore.

What to Expect

A Variety of Wildlife Locations

Typically, you can expect to spend 2 nights each at a selection of reserves, be it on the river or in a jungle setting, all with their own unique ecosystems.

Transfers between Lodges

Most reserve lodges are quite isolated and at least a few hours apart. Typically, we transferred after breakfast, arriving at our new accommodation in time for lunch. It sounds like a lot of driving but it offers a chance to see some of the countryside….

The main highways are fine but access to the lodges may include long stretches of unpaved road.

While some 60% of Sabah is still covered in forest, the real eye opener is the palm oil expansion in the region. Over the past few decades, palm oil plantations have rapidly encroached on the primary rainforest.

You mightn’t have a bottle of palm oil in your cupboard but it’s everywhere! Would you believe that close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets contains the oil – from foodstuffs such as pizzas, margarine, biscuits, doughnuts, chocolate and ice cream to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world.

Palm oil is a very productive crop, yielding four to ten times more oil then other oil crops. A native of Africa, the plant grows only in the tropics and was introduced to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago as an ornamental tree crop. Nowadays, Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply with India and China being its main consumers.

Across Indonesia and Malaysia, about 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. In Sabah alone, there are an estimated 53,000 smallholders where the crop provides between one third to half of the family income. While the business may have helped lift millions out of poverty, it has come at a price. The clearance of land for plantations has destroyed critical habitats for many endangered species while the intensive cultivation has resulted in erosion and water contamination.


Lodges vary in standard from 2-3+ star. Individual, air-conditioned bungalows usually surround a central Lodge.

Bilit Rainforest Lodge, Kinabatangan River (2*)

Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley (3*+)

Tabin Wildlife Resort (2*)


The lodges operate on a full board basis with breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets included in your package. Selection and quality will vary of course but you’ll get plenty to eat and the food won’t be too spicy. You’ll have to forego your pork sausages for a few days and you’ll need to like sticky rice and noodles. Soups, chicken, fish and vegetables are served at most lunches and dinners. Lunchtime dessert usually consists of fresh fruit – papaya, pineapple, watermelon, etc. – with the addition of perhaps a cake at dinnertime.

Early morning breakfast – tea, coffee and toast -is made available around 5.30 – 6.00am for those heading off on an early excursion . Don’t worry – you’ll be back on time for your full breakfast later! There may also be ‘afternoon tea’ before heading out on a late afternoon trip. Wine and bottled beer will be available for purchase.


Schedules are organised and led by the lodge guides. Self exploration is largely discouraged except for short trails in the immediate environs of the lodge. Activities are shared – visitors are divided into groups of 8-10 for walks and drives.

Typically, there will be a walk, trek, boat trip or drive at early morning and again either late evening or after dinner. There may be another activity after breakfast and lunch – perhaps a canopy walk or a trek to a nearby waterfall or mud volcano,maybe even a relaxing foot bath.

The Highlights

Everyone hopes to spot Sabah’s ‘BIG 5’ – Proboscis Monkey, Pygmy Elephant, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Crocodile and, of course, the Orangutan. It’s all a matter of luck needless to say, and, while we saw plenty of wildlife on our travels – including 4 out of the 5 (no elephants alas) – we didn’t see as much as expected and much of what we did see was too distant for a half decent photo. But, to put it in context, I should qualify that with the following: one – we’re actually rather spoiled, having enjoyed trips over the years to Namibia, Belize, Tanzania and Costa Rica among others, we’ve seen so much already. And two – the lodges, to their credit, do nothing to artificially encourage wildlife to their grounds – they don’t even have bird feeders – so there won’t be 20 species of bird awaiting your crumbs at breakfast!

So what DID we see? – Primates including Orangutans and Gibbons; lots of monkeys, particularly Macaques, Proboscis and Red Leaf; Civet Cats, Flying Squirrels and Crocodiles; beautiful Hornbills, Bee eaters and Trogons; river birds and Monitor Lizards; one snake and one tarantula (that was enough!); massive snails and tiny frogs and some – but not too many- creepy crawlies!!

The Tough Bits!


Oh boy! This is the real challenge! The air is so saturated with moisture that clothes are sodden with sweat in a matter of minutes. That’s only half the problem – changing into fresh clothes is one thing but getting laundry dry is another. Forget about rinsing something out at night and wearing it the next day….


Well – it is the rainforest. We were there in dry season – which meant we just had rain maybe once per day. Typically it fell around early afternoon – sometimes lasting for a few hours. But on only one occasion was our activity delayed for an hour or so due to weather.


It’s not a myth alas – they really are lurking on the low lying plants, awaiting your arrival! You stop screaming for your guide after a while, and learn to look for them yourself and to casually flick them off your fellow hikers’ backs or legs….. all part of the fun!

Forget the fashion parade – it’s leech socks or football socks and wellies….!!!

Early Mornings

Now you know I don’t do mornings but you just get on with it – it’s early to bed and early to rise….

The Sanctuaries

Most itineraries include a visit to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok. The 43 sq kms of protected land offers sanctuary for up to 80 orangutans while nurseries cater for orphaned babies. The animals are fed here, but the diet is kept particularly monotonous so that the apes will be encouraged to go forage for themselves. While great work is being done here, the visit- which coincides with feeding time – is akin to a visit to the zoo. It’s main appeal is for anyone who has a particular interest in conservation of wild animals or for those who don’t have the opportunity for an extended stay in the rainforest but want to see this beautiful creature.

The nearby Sun Bear Conservation Centre offers an opportunity to see the smallest bear in the world. Like the Orangutan, these bears are also threatened by forest degradation and illegal hunting and this facility includes large forest enclosures which provide a natural environment for up to 40 bears.

Getting There

From Kuala Lumpur, it’s a circa 3 hour flight to Sandakan Airport in Sabah.

What to Bring

No need for formal wear…

Lots of t-shirts

Lightweight trousers – not cotton or linen and preferably not black/navy

Long White Football Socks or Leech Socks

One or 2 long sleeved shirts (short sleeves fine during the day)

Swimming gear and jelly shoes

OLD runners or walking shoes (wellies supplied at Tabin Reserve)

Lightweight bags for dirty/wet clothes (those free shower caps are great for mucky shoes!)


Raincoat or poncho

Small backpack, torch (water bottles provided in most lodges)

Camera and binoculars

Cash – small notes – for tips

Money /Cd card for drinks

Sunblock and bug spray

Basic toiletries are supplied in the lodges but bring your own particular favourites.

The usual medicines, first aid supplies, chargers, reading material, etc…

Attribution – Wikimedia / EHitchcock

35 thoughts on “A Borneo Rainforest Adventure – on the hunt for the Big Five!

  1. Such a thorough and informative post! I could easily take the early mornings (never a problem for me), long drives and even the creepy-crawlies, but the thought of too much heat and humidity has always put me off Borneo in the past and you confirm my fears on that count! We once had three nights in the Amazon rainforest and I really struggled! But maybe a trip with less jungle time could be manageable??!

    1. You know how it is – we just got on with it when we had to. Having travelled so far, I was actually delighted with the full 7 days… and sure we still had 5 nights at the resort. We’d been to Kuala Lumpur before so didn’t want to extend that part and didn’t really have enough time to split the journey and visit elsewhere. I’d say most people opted for 5 nights – and some just 3. Even the shorter stint would give you a nice experience.

    1. I’ve always wanted to go there but it was a very sudden decision in the end – I’m home now and still can’t believe we got there! I hope you make there some day Hannah.

  2. Looks like you had a great time in Borneo Marie. We had about 10-15 leeches each after one day of trekking in Borneo! We didn’t see pygmy elephants either ☹ Maggie

  3. Wow what a fabulous experience, this is absolutely definitely on our list! We can cope with humidity – and our experience of it is ever growing. We are definitely going to look into emulating your trip. Watch this space!!

    1. Well then you’ll have no problem – and you’ll love it… looking forward to reading about your trip one day! XXXMarie

  4. Wow, what a fantastic trip, Borneo is a wonder to visit for the curious traveller, especially for those who wish to experience the natural wildlife on the Kinabatangan River. I am glad to see you had a great time in Borneo, Marie! Thanks for sharing and happy September. Hard to believe kids are back to school already 🙂 Aiva xx

    1. It definitely was Aiva – E’d a wonderful experience…
      Ah school – Amn’t I so glad this week to be retired from all that and not facing a new group of 30 Junior Infant boys – dotes as they all may be!!

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