Sabah: Observing Orangutans at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre


(and an incredible package offer for the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort for you – see the end of this post for details)

Indulge me. I know I obsess about food, and that is why you mainly come here, but today, I want to talk about orangutans. On my recent trip to Sabah, I was swept away not just by the food, but also monkeys, apes, monitor lizards, crocodiles and inquisitive owls. 

Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, is a well known honeymoon destination. It has the pristine beaches, luxury hotels and resorts, glorious sunsets, blue skies and crystal seas dotted with islands, that top most honeymoon wish lists. Sabah has wonderful Malaysian food, lots of fresh fish, aroma, heat and spice, but also curiosities like crocodile (I tried a kind of crocodile bacon at one point!). There are great street food markets (sambal stingray, you tasty thing you), lots of local restaurants, the people of Malaysia are passionate about their food and they eat very well. 

I was expecting to love exploring the food and to be enthralled by the views but I wasn’t expecting to become completely obsessed with primates. It is one thing to know that primates are similar to us – 98% genetically in some cases – and to see them in a zoo. It is another to see young orphaned toddler orangutans find their way around the tree branches, cheeky and enchanting, utterly gorgeous. To see curious proboscis monkeys in the wild with their huge noses, strapping multicolour thighs, tiny babies clinging on and feeding, in large groups in the trees, sitting peacefully. Wandering to breakfast past macaques, the cheekiest and least fearful of the lot, always hovering by kitchens waiting for an opportunity to steal and smash some eggs, or any other food that they can get their mitts on. 

Going to visit an Orangutan Sanctuary in Sabah is a special experience. Every day at feeding time, it is possible to go see the orangutans as they feed on a platform in the rainforest in the Nature Reserve at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort (which rehabilitates baby and toddler orangutans) and the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, deeper into the rainforest near Sandakan, where the toddlers move to be further rehabilitated and to learn essential skills like nest building and other essential skills that there mothers would have taught them for the first 8 years of their lives, before reintroducing them to the wild.

Standing under the rainforest canopy at the sanctuary at the Rasa Ria, it is striking to imagine that that just 5 minutes away is the five star Shangri-La resort and the beach. Amongst the whistles, and the hoots, and the myriad of rainforest noises from the rich wildlife within it, are toddler orangutans, playfully swinging around. Every day at 10am, it is possible to view the orangutans while they eat. These little orangutan toddlers are so gorgeous with their orange spiky hair and large innocent eyes. They are only babies, lost but now found, and it is heartbreaking to think about what must have happened them so that they ended up here, often as a result of logging and the illegal pet trade. This is a good home, and the rangers are terrific with them, teaching them essential skills so that they can learn to survive as independent adults in the rainforest. It is incredible to observe an orangutan going through the terrible twos, being cheeky and then being scolded gently by their ranger, and noticing just how like us they are in so many ways.

Further into the Sabah rainforest in Sepilok, 60 to 80 orangutans live free, supported by the center until they are ready to return to the wild. The orangutans are older here, the two that I saw were both approximately 7 years old. I stood and waited, watching for any small movement that might indicate their arrival. Slowly, one came, already large, but not as big as he would become, all red hair standing alert and surprised. They swung and played gently, with sweet potatoes held in their feet, and hands, eating, and watching before heading off for a stretch and a swing. They looked so thoughtful and calm (orangutans are known to reason and think, they are some of our closest relatives). I fell in love immediately, and felt shame for what we are doing to their population, and their native environments. 

It is important that we acknowledge this and work to save these populations, not just orangutans, many primate populations are compromised, and endangered. It is good news that the Rasa Ria resort have not been receiving orphans recently, as this means that there are not as many being orphaned. We need to support them, and to ensure that we are not inadvertently supporting practices that are threatening the orangutan and other primate populations. Check sources of palm oil, should you use it, and ensure that it is from a sustainable source. Support the efforts of rehabilitation centres through donations and visiting. In the UK, there is Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, which seems an amazing and inspiring place. 

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is approximately 25km from Sandakan, which can be accessed via a short flight from Kota Kinabulu. 

Photos from my stay at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort

I visited Sabah & Brunei with the #LoveSabah and #TasteofBrunei campaigns, brought to you by iambassador in partnership with Sabah Tourism and Royal Brunei Airlines. As always, I maintain full editorial control. 



Written by Niamh
Cooking and travelling, and sharing it all with you.