When people would ask me where in the world we planned to be for the holidays, my best guess was usually Thailand or Vietnam. As the holidays drew nearer, I did some quick flight searches on Air Asia, and was stunned at how low the airfare was to fly all over Southeast Asia. I began to realize what a unique opportunity we had in front of us: we could go anywhere in Asia we wanted for Christmas. I think I repeated this phrase to Al (but more for myself) about 20 times before it finally started to sink in. It wasn’t long before the familiar stirring of travel planning euphoria started to kick in, that feeling of excited anticipation that comes right before booking a new trip.
As an added bonus, planning something special for Christmas was a helpful diversion to dealing with being away from our families over the holidays. We tossed around a few different destinations, and spent time thinking about the type of experience we wanted to have. Al and I have a shared love for the environment and animals, so we knew that we wanted to incorporate both into our holiday. It also needed to be a unique experience in a place that was new for both of us, but also somewhere where we knew our money could make a positive impact. Once we identified what we wanted, the answer was pretty obvious.
This magical island checked all of the boxes on our wish-list. Some basic facts that I find really interesting about Borneo:
- Borneo is not a country, but is split into three sections controlled by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. We visited the Malaysian side of the country.
- The rainforest in Borneo is believed to be over 130 million years old – the oldest in the world.
- Borneo is the last place on earth where wild elephants, tigers, rhinos, jungle cats, crocodiles, and orangutans exist together
- Borneo is one of only two places on earth where wild orangutans exist (the other is Sumatra).
- It is estimated that Borneo has lost over 70% of its rainforest (or an area equalling the size of Germany) in the past 50 years due to logging and palm oil plantations. It is disappearing at a rate that doubles all the other rainforests in the world, and is estimated to be nearly gone by 2025.
- The last wild orangutans in Borneo are likely to be extinct within the next 10 years in relation to this deforestation (as well as animal trafficking in the area).
These facts are all really depressing, and unfortunately are not exaggerated, as we saw the effects of every single one of them firsthand when we arrived to Borneo. Once we got to Sepilok, we drove for nearly three straight hours and saw nothing but Palm Oil plantations (meaning it was formerly rainforest that was burned down to make way for the plantation) or just miles of scorched earth.
We visited the Sepilok Orangutan and Sun Bear Rehabilitation Center, both of which do amazing work in conservation in Borneo, but we were confused when we heard the cries of elephants coming from somewhere in the center that was blocked off.
Shortly after, we happened to run into the owner of the Sun Bear center and used the opportunity to ask him everything we could. He did not sugarcoat the situation for us, and when I asked about the elephants I was hearing, he said simply, ‘We get elephants who are orphaned. They’ve lost their herd or their homes or both, usually after their habitat has been burned down. Sometimes they’re shot at by the plantation security while they search for food and are brought here riddled with bullets. We don’t allow the public to see them because the elephants are so traumatized.” He told us that just this year, they had to take in 16 Pygmy elephants from the wild due to deforestation. This may not sound like a big number, but it is when you realize there are only 1,500 Pygmy elephants left in the world.
I asked him if they are ever released back into the wild, and he said “We try our best, but no. They usually die because they are too damaged, or cannot survive without their mothers. Sometimes I get so depressed when I see these animals and what is happening to them.” Even though this man has dedicated his life to saving these animals, he still felt like it wasn’t enough. I wish I had been able to find the words in that moment to tell him how meaningful his work is, and how thankful I am for what he does.
In coming to Borneo, we wanted to see this beautiful rainforest, or what is left of it, before it is erased from the world for good. As horrible as it all sounds, I left Borneo feeling some hope. The owner told us that the remaining rainforest is slowly becoming more legally protected, and that there has been an increase in tourism in the centers, which helps fund the protection of the wildlife. It is reassuring to know there are good people doing everything they can on the ground to help the situation, and to see with my own eyes that some of these animals are still out there surviving in spite of our best efforts to extinguish them. And as small as the area now is, I was thankful to see that this ancient rainforest still exists in some capacity.
We split our time in Borneo between 3 destinations: Our first stop was the busy capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu. Afterwards, we flew to Sepilok, the location of the famous Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sun Bear Rehabilitation Center, and the Rainforest Discovery Center; all dedicated to maintaining the rainforest and wildlife of Borneo. We ended our time by going deeper into the jungle in search of wildlife, where the last remaining acres of true rainforest still live.
Al and I had a string of bad luck in Kota Kinabalu (KK). We didn’t get into our hotel until after midnight, and once we arrived, the very first thing I did was accidentally rip the door handle to our hotel room out of the door. It wasn’t a very good omen for what was to come over the next few days.
Right away, I didn’t feel a big connection with KK. It also didn’t help that there was a KFC and a Pizza Hut around every single corner. Not exactly the Borneo jungle experience we were after.
We decided to rent a motorbike on our second day to get out of the city and drive to Mount Kinabalu, which is the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. Halfway to our destination, in the middle of nowhere, our motorbike just gave up on us. We had no choice but to leave our bike and walk a few miles to the nearest town, while attempting to wave down cars as they passed. Fortunately, luck was on our side here, and we got picked up by the nicest man in the world who drove us all the way back to KK, where we got reamed out by the bike rental company for our attempt to ride the bike up a mountain. After that, we decided it was time to put our motorbiking adventures to rest for the remainder of the trip.
The next day, we hoped to redeem our experience and hopped on a speedboat to visit the nearby island of Mamutik. Unfortunately, the water wasn’t swimmable, so we passed the time lazily swinging on a hammock and playing ‘Heads Up’ on Al’s phone.
We tried to make the best of the few days we had in KK, but both of us were more than ready to move on by the end. It was nothing personal, but sometimes you just do not connect with a place, and Kota Kinabalu was that place for me.
Our Borneo experience turned around once we got to Sepilok. We did 3 things while we were here: hiked through the Rainforest Discovery Center on Christmas Eve, the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on Christmas Day, and the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Center on our final day.
Christmas Day at the Orangutan Rehab Center was the highlight of our time in Borneo. We woke up Christmas morning planning to go straight to the Orangutan center at 8:45am, so we would be there in time for the morning feeding. The center absolutely does not guarantee orangutan sightings, as the orangutans are semi-wild, and on their way to being released back into the wild. They are fed twice a day at 9am and 3pm, and if they choose to show up, you can view them from a distant platform.
When we woke up, it was pouring rain, which meant that we wouldn’t be able to see the orangutans, since they tend to stay deeper into the forest during heavy rains. Luckily, the rain stopped in the afternoon, so we decided to try our luck for the 3pm feeding. Around 1:30pm, we walked over to the center, only to find it crawling with families and children. We had completely forgotten that it would be a holiday for everyone in Malaysia. Walking up to the center, I had the unmistakeable feeling of lining up to go to the zoo, and I forced myself to lower my expectations for how the rest of the experience was going to be.
Once we got to the platform, and I had my first glimpse of the orangutans, I completely forgot about my annoyance towards the loud, pushy crowds. As time went on, the crowds eventually became restless and bored, and it was only me and Al left alone to observe the orangutans. We were in heaven. The orangutans moved with such a calm grace, that I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude just being in their presence. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.
Warning: You are about to see more orangutan pictures than you ever thought you’d see in one sitting:
Our final stop was a river adventure along the Kinabatangan. This river is the second largest in Malaysia, and a popular destination for spotting wildlife in Borneo. My ultimate hope (like most people who come) was to see Pygmy elephants, but we were told the herd had already moved far from our spot on the river.
Regardless, it was an amazing experience. Each day we would jump on our little speed boat at 6am and cruise down the river, filled with anticipation at what new natural wonder we would see next. We were lucky enough to see crocodiles, proboscus and silver monkies, hornbill birds, and capping it all off with the most stunningly beautiful male orangutan.
When I look back on this Christmas, I will always remember standing with Al, watching a family of orangutans effortlessly glide into the jungle one by one as heavy rains began to fall. Afterwards, Al and I began the walk back to our dorm, huddled under a single small umbrella, unable to wipe the smiles off our faces. We were still riding the high of our experience, and could not stop talking about everything we had seen. Although we never planned to spend Christmas in Borneo, there was so much of this trip that we left open to possibility, and it has led us to some of the most wonderful and unexpected places on this beautiful planet.