Malaysian Borneo might not seem like an obvious option, however, for adventure-seeking families, the area offers safety and comfort along with its abundant remote waterways, tribal villages, and rainforests to explore. It is very easy to get around, with various transportation options available including short domestic flights, 4×4’s, cars, and boat rides to give you plenty of variety to choose from.
You will discover that all of the practical facilities that you need are offered by the hotels and plenty of space to explore in as well. The best news of all is you won’t be standing around very much. Borneo continuously tempts you into one adventure after another, whether it is your older children making their way across jungle ropeways or your little ones pointing out spotted Proboscis monkeys.
Visit the Wildlife Sanctuaries in Sepilok
The thickly covered rainforest of Borneo isn’t conducive to road travel, however, there is a network of affordable domestic flights that offer a hassle-free, alternative way to get around. To explore Sabah, the eastern state, just fly directly into Sandakan Airport (direct flights are available from Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabalu).
Sepilok is a half-hour drive away from Sandakan, and spending a few days there will give you a great appreciation of the wildlife of Borneo before you set out into the wild. Sepilok is renowned for its orangutan sanctuary. There are about 70 orangutans sheltered at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. They are rehabilitated gradually to be released into the wild once again.
The success of the sanctuary has led to the Sun Bear Reserve and Rainforest Discovery Centre being developed.
New arrivals are looked after by a large nursery. They are usually either confiscated pets or babies who have lost their parents. To protect them against human illnesses they are separated by glass windows. You can watch the orangutans swinging from ropes or playing on tyres.
At Sepilok Nature Resort you can stay at a nice-sized chalet and being within walking distance of the various sanctuaries.
Spotting Wildlife Along the Kinabatangan River
Starting from Sepilok, travelling along the Kinabatangan River takes you deeper into the jungle. You can stay at one of the riverside lodges. Two-night stays are offered by most lodges, which includes a full schedule of activities and food. The lodges are comfortable yet simple, with individual wooden chalets providing plenty of space for your kids to run around in. Activities take place in small groups. They tend to average about eight to ten individuals, so most likely you will be joined by only one other family.
From Sandakan, you will travel by boat to your lodge. After you settle in, you can heat out on a boat safari at dusk. Floating down the quieter tributaries of the Kinabatangan, the naturalist guides are in search of wildlife. You will see Proboscis monkeys dangling from trees and you might see a hornbill’s distinctive silhouette on the horizon at times. You will be on the river until after dark if you are staying at the Abai Jungle Lodge when fireflies starting lighting foliage just like Christmas tree lights.
The next day, you will go on the dawn and dusk Klias river cruise. Those are the times when the animals are most active. This is an especially hassle-free way of enjoying wildlife for families who have younger children. The boats lie in the water very low, which makes it easy to look over the side to search for creepy-crawlies and lizards along the banks of the river while looking and monkeys and birds through your binoculars.
End Your Journey on One of the Beaches in Borneo
After you have fully explored the island, you can head over to the coast. There is a small airstrip in Lahad Datu that offers domestic flights over to Kota Kinabalu, which is on the north coast of Borneo.
If you are searching for a classic beach hotel, the Shangri La Rasa Ria Resort & Spa in Shangri-La works well and from the airport is just a 20-minute drive. Set across a 3 km (1.8 miles) private beach, there is a children’s pool with slides, horse-riding school, putting green, and children’s club. Behind the resort, there is a ridge of forest that is a protected reserve that offers guided walks on a daily basis and is full of walking trails.
For families who have older kids, I recommend Gaya Island Resort. It is only a short boat ride away from Kota Kinabalu and is one of a few islands making up Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. This hotel is situated on its own bay and surrounded by thick jungle. When you step out onto the tiny jetty of the property, you will spot wooden villas peeking out of the jungle. There are daily snorkelling trips to the coral garden, with experienced biologists available to help with identifying various creatures.