Orangutan watching tips

Guaranteed sightings

Daniel Waters, from our adventure specialists Wild Frontiers, shares his orangutan watching tips: “A lot of tourists go to Sepilok to do their orangutan viewing, as it’s the only place you’re pretty much guaranteed to see orangutans. They are semi-wild there, but there will be a lot of tourists with you, so you might be with 50 or 60 other people. So it’s not really the most personal experience, or the most genuine. So I was a little disappointed with the experience – although having said that I wouldn’t have seen them otherwise.“

Tips on sanctuary visits

Nicki Hollamby, from our partner Audley Travel, shares her orangutan watching tips:
“There are misunderstandings about Sepilok – people think the animals are let out of their cages in the morning to feed, but it’s not like that at all. It’s a whole open area. The newly rescued adults and the babies are in cages in a protected area while they are in the rehabilitation programme, but they do eventually get released into the area, and the hope is that eventually they will stop coming back to the platforms for food as they learn to fend for themselves. It is very open and very wild, so although they get food twice a day if they want, they are basically living in the wild. You’re going out to Borneo to see orangutans and you would be massively disappointed if you didn’t. So although you can’t guarantee seeing them in the wild, Sepilok is a very open environment and without places like it and the tourism funding, they places wouldn’t run and the orangutans would become extinct. So there are all those things to consider."

Health & safety


Several vaccinations are advised before traveling to Southeast Asia; consult your travel clinic six to eight weeks before departure to ensure you have time to complete all the series of injections. Malaria is present here, so you will need to bring anti-malarial medication. Wearing long sleeves and trousers is also advised, as well as insect repellent. This also protects against dengue fever. Remember, malaria can develop up to a year after exposure, so keep an eye on any symptoms. Citronella is the favoured repellent for many travelers. However, this should be avoided as it attracts hornets – giant wasps with an extraordinarily painful sting. Tap water is unsafe to drink – also be wary of ice in drinks and unpeeled fruit and vegetables. Don't eat bushmeat such as monkeys or bats as these are often carriers of diseases – as well as being inadvisable for environmental reasons. Leeches are present in the lowland jungles. These are more unpleasant than dangerous, but you can buy “leech socks” which are effective at stopping them, and keep trousers tucked into socks or boots. Borneo and Sumatra are incredibly hot and humid, so keep well hydrated. Bring a basic first aid kit and medication for sickness and diarrhoea if planning to visit remote regions. If you need to be hospitalised, travel to the mainland may be necessary, so be sure you have comprehensive travel insurance which covers medical evacuation, along with any other activities you may be doing, such as high-altitude hikes, windsurfing or diving. Forest fires in Western Sumatra and Kalimantan cause serious, dangerous air pollution. 2015 was the worst year so far, and the fires were described as a "crime against humanity". While they eased off a little due to heave rains in 2016, 2017 was badly hit again. Travelers with respiratory problems should exercise precautions, and all travelers are advised to check with their vacation company on the severity of the smog in the region they are traveling to - pollution also spreads into Sabah and Sarawak. You should ask if face masks are available when in the worst affected areas.


Malaysian Borneo in general is a safe destination with relatively low crime rates and no large cities. Tourists should exercise the usual precautions – not walking alone at night, not leaving valuables such as cameras and smart phones on display, and using registered taxis. In recent years there have been a few kidnappings of tourists and locals around the east coast of Sabah. Thanks to its proximity to the Philippines, this area is at a higher risk of this kind of activity. Travel to this area is largely trouble-free, but stay up to date with government travel advice on the FCO website to be sure. If you are traveling independently in this region – and particularly from the airport at Lahad Datu to your accommodation – you should be sure you are using transport organised by reputable companies. There is an increased risk of terrorist attacks or kidnappings around vacation periods including Christmas, Easter and Independence Day on 17th August, particularly in northern Sumatra and Jakarta. Follow advice on the FCO website Keep an eye on natural disasters in Indonesia, such as flooding from October to April, and volcanic eruptions. Traffic accidents are not uncommon. Choose your driver wisely, and always wear a helmet if traveling by motorbike or moped. Malaysia and Indonesia are largely conservative, Muslim countries, and you should dress modestly, particularly in rural areas, to avoid causing offence. This is even more important in Indonesia. Homosexuality is not widely accepted (homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia), so same-sex couples are advised to act discretely in public.

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Vacation reviews from our travelers

At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travelers are often... other travelers. They always return from our tours with packing tips, weather reports, ideas about what to do - and opinions about what not to.

We have selected some of the most useful orangutan watching tips our travelers have provided over the years to help you make the very most of your vacation - and the space inside your suitcase.
Take binoculars! We didn't take any and wish we had.
– Nik Landy
“I love my bed but we had to leave at 5am to get our return flight, the sunrise on the river and the birds were wonderful. If I had realised I would have got up this early on other days!” - Sue Shickle

“Pack leech socks. - Alison Robb

“You are a guest in the home of a variety of wild animals - be prepared to be amazed.” - Fiona Trolley

“Fit in an extra visit to the orangutan sanctuary by yourselves. You can hang around longer and we saw the orangutans playing in the wild rather than just at the feeding station.” - Andrea Gauntlett

“In the rainforest, many animals are high up and difficult to see. We knew what sort of area we were going to and thought the experience was unbelievable, but we came across people who hadn't expected this and were disappointed.” - Gillian Slater
I have really enjoyed the whole adventure but living with all the insects is not some people's idea of a vacation so be prepared.
– Morag Ormiston
“The weather and conditions will change, so have a range of footwear and clothing to suit whatever might happen.” - Jonathan Reed-Lethbridge

“Don't use flash photography on the wildlife, it is cruel and frightens off the creatures for other people to see!” - Alicia Jane Taylor

“Don't be put off going in the rainy season. We didn't get too much rain and the national parks and other attractions were very quiet.” - Kathryn White

“With a good supply of bug spray, and if you stick to the shade and drink lots of water, you'll be set to have a brilliant time.” - Katie Beckwith, volunteering trip

“Be prepared to work physically hard, get sweaty and dirty. The rewards far outweigh any short time discomfort.” - Julie Marshman, volunteering trip
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: DUPAN PANDU] [Guaranteed sightings: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas] [Tips on sanctuary visits: Ilya Yakubovich] [Health & Safety: Christopher Michel] [Nik Landy quote: Andy Wright] [Morag Ormiston quote: gailhampshire]