Wanna see orangutans in Borneo?
Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to see orangutans, am I right? It’s one of the main reasons we made Kuching (aka the gateway to Sarawak) one of our stops while in Southeast Asia. The best place to see orangutans in Borneo is the Semenggoh Nature Reserve.
If you are in Kuching, or considering a visit to this city that is full of cool things to see and do, then Semenggoh is a must. It’s easy to accomplish in a single morning and one of the greatest experiences we had on our trip.
In this post we’ll share with you some information about the reserve, how we got there, and what our experience was like during our visit.
Where is the Semenggoh Nature Reserve?
If seeing the island of Borneo is on your bucket list you’ll most likely hear about Kuching, Malaysia. It’s located on the west coast and is a great base for checking out wildlife. Getting here is cheap and easy by air from several hubs in Southeast Asia including Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Bangkok.
There was a lot about this city that we enjoyed but the highlight was the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. The reserve is located about 19 km south of town which is roughly 45 minutes by car.
Not to be confused with a zoo (a type of place that doesn’t float our boat), this place is a rehabilitation facility and nature reserve all in one. You’re actually seeing these orangutans in a semi-wild setting. When we visited there where 26 of these guys that were coming and going as they pleased within the 740 hectare property.
How the Semenggoh helps orangutans in Borneo
It was started in 1975 in an effort to help rehabilitate orangutans in Borneo that had been injured, confiscated, etc.
Once brought in to the reserve they are treated and monitored by veterinarians during an initial quarantine period. At a point when they are deemed healthy enough to do so, they begin to go through a graduated system ranging from their version of kindergarten, to primary, to secondary school. Each stage preparing them for the next until they are ready to be released into the adjacent refuge area.
There they begin to fend for themselves while still having the option to be helped out with scheduled feeding times. This takes place two times a day and are the best times to see them.
When is the best time to visit the Semenggoh?
Because there is a fruiting and non fruiting season, some parts of the year have a better chance of seeing Orangutans. If you go between April and October, your chances of seeing them rises significantly. If you go between November and March, know that it’s not impossible. You’ll just need a little luck on your side.
The nature reserve is open for visitors from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Sunday including holidays. For the best chance to see the orangutans however, it’s recommended that you shoot for the morning feeding which is from 9:00 am to 10:00 am. That way if they are a no-show you can try again in the afternoon between the hours of 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm. The ranger we spoke to told us that the entry ticket is good all day so no need to pay twice.
If by chance you don’t get treated to the sight of these guys, know that you helped keep the lights on. Look at it as being able to hang in a beautiful reserve and catch glimpses of other wildlife for a low cost of admission.
Things to know before you go
It is recommended that you take mosquito repellent with you. We didn’t see any mozzies on the day we went but better to be safe than sorry.
Something else we read was not to bring food into the area and to give the orangutans a wide berth if you encounter one on a path during your visit. They look cute and cuddly but apparently can give one a decent love bite. They are also quite a bit stronger than humans so don’t try to get all “alpha male” with one either!
There are bathrooms on site at the front gate as well as near the feeding area. We read that there was a cafeteria on site but didn’t see one when there.
There is also a gallery building as well where one can learn a little more about the who, what, where, when, and why’s of the place.
Some of the other things you can find there are a crocodile enclosure, paths to garden areas, and hikes through the surrounding area to search out other forms of wildlife within the reserve. There is a lot more wildlife on site so make sure you keep your eyes open. We didn’t see much other than a couple of pygmy squirrels and a lot of birds (the name of which we don’t’ know) but we’re told that there is no shortage hanging around.
Our experience visiting the reserve
We visited the the reserve in December which as mentioned is the fruiting season. As such, we were warned that there were no guarantees we would get to see any orangutans given the time of the year. Knowing that, we kept our fingers crossed and entered the park with our eyes peeled. There’s a bit of a walk to get back to the feeding area from the front gate which takes about 20 minutes or so. We arrived there roughly a half hour before the feeding time was to begin and kept quiet hoping to see or hear them.
It wasn’t long before some larger tour groups started showing up. One thing we were told was that it was essential to be as quiet as possible or they may not make an appearance. Unfortunately, a lot of the people there didn’t get the memo and we started regretting being there on a Saturday as it seemed really busy.
Right at 9:00 am the ranger showed up and gave everyone an orientation and a reminder not to get our hopes up too high as the day before none of them showed up. After that, we were told to follow him back to the feeding platform. While heading to the platform he was speaking to another ranger over his radio who had told him there may be some showing up. We were beginning to think we may see some after all. Naomi and I were right behind him as he quickly picked up the pace and started calling out for the orangutans. When we finally got to the clearing where the platforms were located, the ranger pointed to his right and voila! About 20 feet away were two of these beauties hanging from cables installed for them to swing around on. Sweet!
We were so happy to see these guys. But they weren’t the only ones we’d see. The ranger kept calling out and before we knew it, we were seeing the tops of some tall trees swinging back and forth in the distance. There were even more of them coming to the platform! When it was all said and done, we had seen 5 of them including a mother with a one month old orangutan clinging to her. They took turns climbing into the area to grab some durian and other fruits supplied to them by the rangers. Everybody stood around and took pics and videos for about 45 minutes enjoying the scene. We left the feeding area feeling very grateful about what we experienced. What a sight!
After that, we ended up checking out other parts of the park and going to the gallery building to learn a bit more about the operation. After about an hour of perusing, we decided that it was time to head out. All in all, it was a complete success and something we’ll not soon forget. So how does someone go about getting to the reserve to experience what we got to see? There are a couple of ways.
How to visit the reserve including costs
There are two ways to visit the Semenggoh: guided tour and self guided. In our minds, there are pros and cons to each. Note that the prices listed below will be in the local currency of Malaysian Ringgit (RM) for convenience for all who are reading this so have a converter like this one open on another page if you are interested in what these prices mean to you.
Method #1 – guided tour
We didn’t do a tour but we did gather a bit of info on it. The tour price of RM80 per person was said to include getting picked up along with others in a group from your hotel and the RM10 admission per person into the reserve.
On the plus side, all of the thinking is done for you. You just have to be ready and the tour guide looks after the rest. No planning is involved other than blocking off some time and setting the alarm clock properly. You are picked up in an air-conditioned van and whisked off to the reserve in comfort. While there you are given information about the reserve and the wildlife, and are able to have any questions you may have answered.
On the downside, you are at the whim of someone else’s timetable and itinerary. Also, there’s the cost. The lowest price we found for a tour package was the aforementioned RM80 per person but we saw them for RM100 or more. Lastly, nothing makes us feel like tourists quite like being led around as if we’re on some kind of school field trip. That’s just our personal preference. To be fair, there are times when it’s clearly better to be in a tour group. For us, this just didn’t seem like one of them. To each, their own.
If you would like to go with a guided tour from Kuching it’s very easy to find. You can check out the Kuching Visitor Information Centre located a half a block north of the Plaza Merdeka (see map below) or simply ask about one at the hotel you are staying at.
method #2 self-guided
This is the way we chose and it was way easy! It meant finding our own way by public bus which cost RM8 round trip each and paying the price of admission which was RM10. Here’s how to do it using public transit.
The bus that goes to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve leaves from the bus station located on the corner of Jalan Masjid and Jalan Gartak just west of the huge Plaza Merdeka Mall. It’s referred to as a terminal but it’s really just a place from where most buses in the area leave. The one way fare was only RM4 and the trip takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.
The buses are timed to work out for the morning and afternoon feedings. For the 9:00 am to 10:00 am morning feeding, one can take bus K6 that leaves at 7:15am and make it with plenty of time to spare. Here’s a picture of what you’ll be looking for when you get to the bus station.
The afternoon feeding is between 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm so shooting for a bus at 1:00pm ought to do the trick.
A tip we were given was to show up a few minutes beforehand as there is a chance these buses leave earlier than posted. Ours left right on schedule but who knows, right? Also, don’t forget to let the driver know where you are headed. He’ll give you the heads-up if you are not sure. The picture below is what the front entrance looks like if that helps.
For the return trip we will suggest that you ask the driver about the schedule when you get dropped off. We had left the park with what we felt was a lot of time to spare (+/- a half hour) only for the bus to arrive after 5 minutes
On the plus side of doing it the self-guided way, there’s the savings. As you can see, going this route saved us RM124. In Canadian dollars for those that are keeping track, that’s just about $40! To put that in a long term travel context that’s a night or two in a hotel or 10-20 meals depending on the country we’re hanging in.
Also, we prefer the adventure of finding our own way around when traveling. We get to have a more authentic experience that you don’t get when you are led around with tourists a large groups. At the end of the day it just feels more rewarding and makes us want to plan more adventures for the fun of it.
The downside of this method is that it does take a little more planning. For example, we did have to go to the visitor information centre the day before to get info on the bus. Also, we didn’t have the luxury of being picked up and dropped off in an air-conditioned van let alone have a schedule we could count on. Like we mentioned though, the bus was easy and it also had AC if you were wondering. As well, if there was a misstep or if we missed a bus, we were going to be waiting a while. We had to go off of information we were given and hope it was right.
Lastly, we didn’t have a guide to tell us everything. Having said that, it still went well and we’ll do the same again whenever we have the chance. It was an adventure taking the bus and planning it all out. And if we wanted to make a change to our day it was ours to do so.
As for the lack of a guide, we still found enough information both in the park on signage as well as on line before and during our visit with our cheap data plans. If we had questions we couldn’t find the answers to, we just asked one of the rangers. No Problem!
If the bus isn’t your shtick, you can always take a Grab or Uber using their free app. At the time when we were looking, a Grab was RM31 one way. We don’t know exactly how much by cab but Grab would be the cheaper option. It is a bit out of town and word on the street is that Grab drivers were sometimes reluctant to go all that way so we opted for the bus.
Looking for more information?
If you are looking for more info about the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, you can visit their website at https://www.sarawakforestry.com/parks-and-reserves/semenggoh-nature-reserve/. If you want more information on how to get there, the Kuching Visitor Information Centre listed above has all the info you need as well.
Got any questions or comments about seeing orangutans in Borneo? Don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments section below or drop us a line. We’d love to help.
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Ciao for now:)
P.S. If you are in the area and are feeling adventurous, check out our post on Pontianak, West Kalimantan. It’s located a mere six hours away by bus in the Indonesian part of West Borneo and is the only city in the world sitting smack dab on the equator.