Whether you want to meet orangutans, cruise the Kinabatangan River, or hike through Borneo’s pristine rainforest, these are Sabah's most wild and wonderful places to stay...
Best for... seeing orangutans
Want to see Borneo’s famous orangutans up-close? Head to Sepilok’s Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at feeding time (10am and 3pm): this fantastic organisation looks after orphaned apes before releasing them back into the wild, and its forest enclosure is open to visitors. Next door you’ll also find the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which champions the smallest (and arguably cutest) bear in the world. Incidentally, the centre was part-funded by tour guide Kevin Albin, Bronze award-winner in the 2011 Wanderlust World Guide Awards: he donated his entire bursary to the cause.
There are lots of hotels in the area, but none is as quirky or eco-minded as Paganakan Dii, on the edge of Sepilok. Built from reclaimed wood and woven palm fronds, the handful of chalets and dormitories blends right into the jungle – and the restaurant has a front-row view of the forest. Some chalets have open-air bathrooms, so you can shower to the sounds of the dawn chorus while flying squirrels leap through the trees. There’s a free bus shuttle between the hotel and the wildlife centres, too.
Best for… Kinabatangan wildlife
The devastating effect of the palm oil plantations in Borneo is well-documented, with animals hemmed into ‘wildlife corridors’ – slim slices of jungle – between endless acres of cash crops. The Kinabatangan River is one of these corridors, providing a safe haven for wildlife such as proboscis monkeys, orangutans and pygmy elephants. You’re more likely to have a ‘wild’ animal encounter here than you are in most places in Borneo – but only because the animals simply have nowhere else to go.
Still, you should visit: it is an enchanting landscape, and your presence here encourages local conservation efforts – which have gathered momentum in recent years. Borneo Nature Lodge has been leading the way since 2009. Designed to be as low-impact on the environment as possible, with rainwater harvesting, solar panels, and bike-powered generators, this eco lodge is in harmony with its beautiful surroundings – and has the local animals’ welfare at its heart.
Best for... family-friendly wilderness
Shangri-La Rasa Ria has a wild card up its sleeve: its very own nature reserve. If the kids are gagging for a wildlife adventure but you’re not quite ready to unleash them in the jungle yet, this resort is ideal – and it’s just an hour’s drive from Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu. With overgrown hiking trails winding deep into the reserve, it feels like a real rainforest escape – complete with bearcats, samba deer, and even tarsiers and pangolins.
The reserve has great wildlife guides and lots of fun family-friendly activities – such as a treetop canopy walk and night-vision goggle trekking to see the creepy crawlies that come out after dark (a terrific adventure, unless you’re arachnophobic). The ‘Rasa Ria Ranger Day’ sees little ones pitching in with the reserve staff: helping to feed the animals, monitoring the forest, and planting a fruit tree. Great fun – with a hot shower and kids’ menu never too far away.
Best for… rainforest relaxation
Surrounded by a wild and wonderful tangle of pristine jungle, Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a little bubble of luxury. The primary rainforest of the Danum Valley is a vast (438km2) area of protected land, allowing the wildlife to flourish away from the threat of development – and while most local accommodation is rustic (think hammocks and compost loos), Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a stunner.
Take your pick from its clutch of private chalets and villas – all with private terraces overlooking the forest and river. Some even have hot tubs and glass-walled lounges, for bird watching in serious comfort. But this isn’t your average five-star hotel: the lodge is squeaky clean when it comes to recycling, responsible waste management, and organic planting – and it supports orangutan conservation projects too.
Best for… island adventures
With their cheeky antics, treetop acrobatics, and brilliantly rude-looking noses, it’s impossible not to fall head over heels for Borneo’s proboscis monkeys – and Gaya Island is one of the best places to see them in the wild. The isle is home to lots of proboscis clans, and its wildlife centre – which was established by the only hotel on the island, Gaya Island Resort – works closely with wildlife charities to conserve this funny-faced monkey.
The resort itself is gorgeous: all sleek sea-view villas, romantic restaurants and a host of wildlife-inspired activities – such as kayaking trips through the island mangroves, snorkelling, coral reef restoration programmes, and craft workshops led by local women. You’re only a short boat trip from the city of Kota Kinabalu, but this is a really wild and rejuvenating getaway.