It rains in the rainforest

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Asia » Malaysia » Sabah » Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary
December 24th 2011
Published: January 9th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

We all make mistakes: that’s the thing about travelling you can’t see what you book first. You faithfully rely upon that popular travel guide, booking sites, reviews and photos submitted by the hotel or guesthouses themselves as reliable sources of information. On the very rare occasion we were lucky and got better than we bargained for but sadly too many times a hotel has been booked in good faith only for an ugly truth to be revealed upon arrival. More than anything, a traveller depends upon the information from others and we rely upon each other like a network. In Ho Chi Minh I met an Austrian girl in my hostel who told me about “the only place to be” in Muine called Vietnam-Austria house. Since she had booked for three nights but ended up staying ten I figured it must be pretty good and indeed it surpassed every expectation I had of it. I met many incredible individuals along that quiet stretch of coast inparticular three travel companions who I went on to share my later experiences with as we conquered the rest of Vietnam together.

But really my gripe is against that travel guide book – the one you see hanging out of every backpackers bag side pockets.

Carl arrives in Kuala Lumpur typically with minimal boxers and toiletries but equipped with the guide book on Malaysia and Borneo. We peruse through ‘things to do’ and look for ideas on places to go, see, do, just in case we miss anything on one of our random walks which are more like completing a marathon. At least my feet hurt more after these long explorations than completing 26.2 miles. One morning just before Christmas day I wake up and Carl hands me my notebook telling me to log onto my email. I do. There is one message which stands out amongst the penis enlargements and liposuction adverts (obviously I am an overweight unfortunately endowed male) and it’s from Carl. Opening the attachment reveals two tickets to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu; I’m spending Christmas in the jungle with the orang-utans and I am EXCITED! Aside from mentally preparing myself: what would Mowgli do? I flick through The book intent on discovering some incredible jungle hideout where I and the orang-utans can become friends. There are far too few options in the book and far too much of personal opinion and space wasted for slanderous comments so we embark on lengthy surfing on the old world wide web until it reveals The Sepilok Jungle resort. Excitedly I pay for four nights and am ecstatic when it’s all confirmed. This is where my gripe begins....

We arrive in Kota Kinabalu and fly across from there to our destination of Sandakan. On the way Carl flicks through the travel guide to see if there is anything we might have missed and suddenly reveals the resort we booked, The Sepilok Jungle resort is in the book. Except it’s a bad review. A very bad review. In fact it tells us this place should be called “Last resort”. I panic. I was hoping to spend Christmas with a pool, in the jungle, relaxing, seeing orang-utans and enjoy my limited time with Carl. Suddenly I feel like an idiot. The review was in the book all along and I hadn’t realised, I just hadn’t connected the two and immediately I am conjuring ways to cancel our booking without losing all that money. It even says there is no swimming pool and the book is quite recent so can’t be that out of date!

The taxi ride to the resort was arduous.

We pulled up into the entrance and piled into the reception area. Colourfully decorated as if in my local zoo and greeted with a great big smile did little to boost my confidence in the place. The Book had spoken after all. The lady showed us to our room. We passed through a long corridor, through mesh doors which swung back on their hinges as we passed through. I felt like I was in a zoo or a sanctuary for animals. I liked it. It was quirky and made you feel close to the outdoors. The lady opened the door to our room and I hesitantly peered around the frame. It was clean, comfortable, and homely, smelled lovely and was decorated simply but overall it was beautiful. The bathroom was big and spacious, the balcony overlooked a lake. This can’t be the same place the book was on about can it?

I don’t usually use this blog as a forum to advertise but I really feel the need to explain to all those who look at staying in Sepilok that your travel guide sucks. I am appalled that something so slanderous was allowed to go to print with the intention of mass production without being checked. This little resort must have lost so much custom – the guide book even goes as far as saying “Don’t trust the snazzy website...maybe this place should be renamed Last resort”. Sadly I have read so much rubbish in those set of books, not just the one on Malaysia but the Vietnam guide promotes hotels which haven’t existed for years and in Hanoi they ‘our pick’ tour operators well known for their lack of care for foreigners – some have even been responsible for deaths not just once or twice but three times in Halong Bay. I have met too many people with similar experiences to me. Oh and by the way, there was a pool and it was wonderful.

In conclusion to that little episode – Sepilok Jungle resort is a viable option, the rooms are clean, you are right in the jungle and next to the Orang-utan Sanctuary, the staff are friendly and the food at their little cafe is out of this world. My love of food started there. I know we all buy the guide as ‘back-up’ and to make us feel a little safer and sometimes they are really good but, and it’s a BIG BUT – don’t let it rule your travels. Some of the writers have become too opinionated and too corrupt for it to be a reliable source of information. You are far better off looking at accommodation on somewhere like Agoda or hostel bookers where you can only review a place if you have stayed there.

Any who – Sepilok itself constitutes a little road lined with a handful of resorts, jungle treks, the orang-utan sanctuary, a school and the rainforest discovery centre. There ain’t much there I’m afraid folks but if it’s orang-utans you want then this is the place to be. You are surrounded by dense rainforest, the calls of the birds competing with one another vying for attention. Every so often a monkey howl escapes the tree tops. Huge red ants adorn the walkways protesting against our presence biting at toes which step in their way. Despite the noises and the creepy crawlies there is peacefulness here which is unavoidable. You cannot help but feel it seep in to you as you sit and listen to the world which is so unlike any I have ever heard or known. It’s hard not to let go and allow it to envelop you. Speeding motorcars are replaced with birds crying out in to the sky, human sounds are substituted with waling monkeys and the chattering of lizards; lorry tremors are replaced with the shattering sounds of rain as they crash in to the corrugated metal roof tops and slide down gently plopping in to the surrounding lakes. As I write this I feel myself transported.

We spent an entire day at the Orang-utan sanctuary. There are strange feeding times morning and afternoon for an hour each and it’s closed in-between feeding times. At first I thought this was odd, I imagined I was going to a zoo which upon reflection is not an ignorant assumption seeing as I have only ever known wild animals trapped behind glass cages. Here the orang-utans are free and wild to roam the rainforest and once released back in to the trees there is no need for them to come back. Once the humans have intervened, saved, brought them back to health and given them back their confidence there is no restriction of their freedom. Some come and go when they please, some always come back as they are still finding their feet but most never come back. When we were there we were lucky to see two Orangutans and their babies. Mainly they just ate and fed their young and once done swing back in to the greenery obstructed by leaves watching us as we watch them. Although this sounds dull, in fact there wasn’t much else to do, it was incredible to see them wild. I would have hated to see them in a zoo or locked up in a sanctuary for us tourists to poke at them and get up close with our cameras. The distance between us and them was not great but enough for us to be separate and to appreciate the greatness of our long-armed cousins. To see them free and rehabilitated is simply incredible particularly as they usually find themselves at the sanctuary as a direct result of human action (deforestation, palm-oil plantations, their mother’s death, or poachers).

A far more interactive and lively place to see another set of monkeys is the Proboscus monkey sanctuary in Labuk Bay, not too far from Sepilok. We arrive to a viewing platform, again this sanctuary is open and if the monkeys decide to ingratiate you with their presence then they do so at their own accord. Ornately coloured Proboscus monkeys step closer and closer to the viewing platform wary of the tens of eyes observing their every move. They come close. They size me up and I sit at their level on the ground watching me swing my zoom lens over them. They chew and stare and when they have had enough of me they turn their back and stare in to the distance. The way they sit is most striking, human like. They stretch one leg out and the other bent, they curve their back forward and lean one arm on the bent knee, and in this position they sit and scrutinize their surroundings; sitting like old men watching a newer and unfamiliar world pass them by.

As I sit on the floor watching them watch me I hear a call behind me and see a man with his hand to his mouth howling in to the direction of the forest. The proboscus monkeys eye him lazily and return to their eating. I see nothing and I hear no reaction to this peculiar behaviour that is until a black hairy something the size of a cat tramples over my legs to get to the man. As I turn my head in shock I see a number of similar shaped hairy things making towards me at speed. Black and silver monkeys stream towards the watching group and in amazement we stand transfixed as these unafraid monkeys clamber up the stairs, the fence, on to the platforms we are on. They touch us as they rush past eager to get to a stringy plant in the mans hands, they greedily grab at it until it comes lose then they run off to their own quite area and chew. They allow us to get close enough to stroke them and appear unperturbed by us as if the attention is a price they are willing to pay in exchange for their treat. They see me but ignore me. So full of confidence they take me in but couldn’t care less if I was there or not. They clearly see me as no threat. The entire time I watch them and the Proboscus monkeys but at no time do they interact with each other. They go along doing their own thing and as they each tire they make their way with stomachs full back in to the rainforest.

After having immersed myself with various cultures for so long it’s been great to watch something different and far more natural. Just as I like to sit and watch women with colourful hijab’s, sari’s or holy robed men I realise I love to watch nature even more. I have been to safari’s and zoo’s and it’s great that I can see animals from around the world it’s very unnatural. It’s heartbreaking to see the God-like silver backs melancholy, the baboons lazy and the elephants unmoving but beautiful to see them in their natural state, free and wild able to come and go as they so wish. I envy them.

Additional photos below
Photos: 33, Displayed: 30


9th January 2012

Colours and charms of beautiful monkeys in a magic place...and thank you for correcting the Guide Books.
9th January 2012

You are right on about the books.
Often the information is out dating by time they go to print and I feel for all of those who have lost money because backpackers use it as the bible. Too much power in too few hands. Bravo for writing this excellent blog and loved the photos. This is a good reminder to all of us.
9th January 2012

We so agree about 'The Book'
Too many times we see people wandering around, their heads buried in 'The Book'. We sometimes refer to it as 'The Bible' as some people seem to be incapable of research or decision-making if it deviates from what the Lonely Planet says! You are right about some of the authors, they don't actually visit the countries they write about that often and rely on readers to update them on changes. Glad you had a good experience at Sepilok Jungle Resort, we stayed there and it was ok...we just had to wait for ages for our room to be ready, although we aren't sure why we were kept waiting - the staff just seemed a bit dizzy to be honest! Fantastic photos of the wildlife, they are really great.
10th January 2012

Maybe they read the review and decided to up their game? I don't believe this is the case at all but as I get older I'm trying to be less cynical.... [:)] I find with Lying Planet et al, that it does all depend on the Author. I've read some and the author is clearly someone who's on my wavlength, the writing is witty and informative and every suggestion leaves me smiling. Others, literally leave me stunned by how crap they are, making it only useful for lobbing at wailing cats that keep us up at night! We loved the proboscis monkey sanctuary. Was there an otter there? They'd rescued it and it was super friendly, although the little shit kept trying to bite my socks off! [:)]
10th January 2012

i know what you mean
I know what you mean....there are different writers in each one and they cleary do different places within a country - some are spot-on others are just a waste of space. No otter i'm afraid. I did love it there though...
10th January 2012

Good point well made
When the last LP Vietnam came out, we looked at a copy to see what they said about Haiphong, the city we had been living in. The recommended hotel had been knocked down at least 6 months before, before that it had rats. None of the places that foreigners hang out in had made it in. It didn't appear that the writer had been recently. The problem, I guess, is that information in printed media is old before it goes to press. Plus, recommended places end up full of tourists and can rapidly go downhill if they can't cope with the popularity. 'The Bible' is good for finding information, but you need to use the 'inter-web' too. Glad to hear Sepilok Jungle Resort is still lovely. We went a few years ago and it was great. Under water with all the rain, but great!

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