By Year
By Type
By Destination
Bird Gallery
Backyard Birds
Winter Creek Birds
Left Coast Birder

Borneo - part I
October 2017

Gayana Eco Resort, Gaya Island
    Kinabatagan Jungle Camp, Kinabatagan River
    Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley
    Kinabalu Park headquarters


Borneo was on our list of place to see before it’s too late - too late for the remaining wildlife and rainforest, which might cut down and altered before our lifetime. We starting planning this trip over 6 months in advance, which may have been a late start. The hardest booking was with the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL), a private resort in the Dunam Valley, one of the last remaining spots of primary rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Demand is high for the luxury resort so trying to work with the booking agent to find a block of available nights was somewhat difficult. Once we settled on a 5-night stay in October, the rest of the trip began to take shape around the BRL booking. We planned our 2.5 week itinerary with the goal to see several different environments in the state of Sabah. While we briefly thought of going to Sarawak as well, but we decided that it was easier to center our travel around Kota Kinabalu the central hub of air travel for Malaysia Borneo. This way we would optimize our time at our destination rather than spending more time traveling.
Even armed with vaccinations, anti-malarial pills, permethrin-treated clothes and leech socks, I felt ill-prepared going to Borneo. I had never been to SE Asia, so didn’t know how well we’d be able to get around, how communication with the Malaysians would be, or if the all the transports, lodges and hotels rooms would really be there when we got there. It was a new environment and culture, both exciting and nerve-racking.
Come early October, all feelings aside, it was time to get on the plane to Borneo or rather planes to Borneo. Our first leg of the journey took us across the Pacific Ocean to Taipei - a long 13 hour red-eye flight. After a considerable layover in Taiwan, we flew to Kuala Lumpur (KL). Coming into KL, I could see green vegetation stretching for miles and miles - all palm oil plantations. Rows upon rows of meticulously evenly planted palm trees all around us. I was still clinging to hope that some wildlife remained despite this vastly altered landscape.
We had an early flight the next morning, so we stayed at the Sama-Sama Hotel, which was pretty much connected to the airport. It was a very comfortable hotel with quadruple pane windows to diminish the airplane noise to nothing. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the hotel was the open cart that whisked is passengers through the airport hallways at speeds that would have had OSHA panicking. We rode it a couple of times and laugh all the way as pedestrians dodged out of the way. The final leg of the trip to Borneo was a morning flight into Kota Kinabalu (KK). In retrospect, we should have flown into Taipei and switched carriers to fly directly into KK. This would have caused us to go through customs in Taiwan, but probably would ultimately save us half a day in travel. Surprisingly, the price of the flights all together would have cost more if we went from Taipei to KK. As direct flights from Seattle to Taipei is more expensive than from Seattle to KL via Taipei. Sounds backwards and it is.

Gayana Eco Resort
After quickly passing through customs at the KK airport, we took a taxi straight to the Jesselton Point Pier (30 RM; during our trip 4 RM equaled about 1 USD). It was a short 15 minute ride through the busy town/small city. After wandering the market and day tour boat kiosks, a helpful man pointed us in the right direction of the Gayana Eco Resort office at the end of the pier. We checked into the hotel without trouble and had a couple of hours before the first boat would leave to the resort. Deciding not to wander too far, we tried one of the small food vendors along the pier. We still aren’t exactly sure how they determined the price, but it was very cheap for a heaping plate of rice plus the cooked foods that we served ourselves from the open pans. There was a good mix of curried chicken, black bean fish, satays, pickled vegetables, stir fried noodles and some things I couldn’t identify (and after eating them still can’t identify). Between the two of us, we tried a little of everything offered. It was all good - well cooked and seasoned.
Time came to load into the boats to Gaya Island - one was headed to Gayana and the second to the sister resort Bunga Raya, which was further west on the island. We chose Gayana because the rooms/cabins are situated right over the water so we could enjoy the main highlight of the island - the water. We booked the room for 2 nights with the idea of giving us time to adjust to the time zone without the pressure of waking up early to go jungle trekking or bird watching. Surprisingly, we both slipped into the new time zone with (relative) ease.
Our boat ride over was at a leisurely pace, it wasn’t a speed boat, so it cruise slowly around the north side of the island. On the side of the island closest to KK was a colony of sea gypsies - a sort of ramshackle, yet highly functional, network of stilted shacks. There was a mosque and even a school house amongst the housings.
When we finally motored into the bay of the resort, we were warmly received with cool towels and ice cold fruit drinks before we were escorted to our cabin. We had paid for a “mangrove” villa, but were given the “ocean view” villa instead. At one point the mangrove villas were an option, but it looks as if those cabins are now used to house the staff instead. We didn’t complain, as our ocean villa gave a great view of the bay and we could swim out from our back deck. The boardwalk to the cabins was always a treat - seeing the large schools of fish, sea urchins, and coral in the shallow waters under the rooms. Pacific Reef Herons hung out under the shadows of the cabins likely getting their fill of easy prey. In the trees on the island, we would often see White-breasted Woodswallows, Asian Glossy Starlings, and occasionally an Oriental Pied Hornbill (our first hornbill of the trip).
We attempted to arrange for jungle trekking on the island, but those plans were canceled because of the wet trails the guides didn’t think were safe enough to hike. I sort of got the impression that doing any of the hikes was not something they were keen on. Maybe hiking wasn’t something commonly requested. We took the boat over to Bunga Raya one day to try to do the free canopy walk (guided). As we were cruising over to the sister resort, the rains hit us - and hard. We pulled on our ponchos as the boat without doors (at least it was enclosed) hit the deluge of pouring rain. I watched our captain try to navigate without visibility and the two “skippers” sticking their heads out of the cabin to peer through the heavy rain. The skippers would wave their arms at the captain guiding him to steer the boat. For some odd reason, the theme song to Gilligan’s Island started playing in my head. It didn’t help that the young girl of the French family who were also in the boat started screaming/crying when the captain suggested we put on life vests. But we docked just fine, a golf cart (soaking) was waiting to take us to reception. The path was flood in some areas, but easily passible in the cart. We spend the afternoon looking out of the dining area over a manmade pond full of lilies pads and water monitor lizards. A few sunbirds and munia were seen flitting around the garden and in the tall trees surrounding the resort. The canopy walk for the day was canceled due to the rain (of course). When the rain slowed enough, we ventured around the resort grounds. We boarded the boat back to Gayana - a boat loaded with resort workers either transferring to Gayana or going back to KK. The ride back was thankfully dry, and it felt much quicker than our trip through the torrent. It had rained at Gayana as well of course, and the waters around the cabin were murky with runoff and churned up sand.
When trekking through the jungle didn’t work, we spent most of our waking hours snorkeling
right off the deck of our room. The bay didn’t host what I would define as a healthy or diverse coral reef, but there were soft and hard corals, sponges, and a good range of angelfish, wrasses, travalley, parrotfish, and the occasional grouper. Since the “reef” was just off the back deck of all the cabins, a lot of it was pretty beaten up - likely from the lodge runoff, trash from the ocean, and tourists standing on the coral. Still we had a good time bobbing up and down in the shallows and feeding the tropical fish leftover food we saved from our meals. Rice noodles held up the best underwater, while rice and bread feel apart too quickly. Though scrambled eggs seemed to attract a different group of fish from the carb eaters. We had to watch out for the groupers though, who said fish bites don’t hurt!
The setting sun each evening meant it was time to get our free drink at the bar and lounge. It was a nice wind down from the day to relax while watching twilight set in over the bay. Meals options were a choice between the two resort restaurants. There was a Chinese seafood restaurant and a more traditional Malaysian restaurant. The Chinese restaurant was slight more expensive, but we did have lunch there one afternoon. It was pretty tasty, at least the two dishes that we ordered. We got a better feel for the food at the Malaysian restaurant where we ate more often - it was good, but not spectacular (actually the street food at Jesselton Point Pier was better). The best thing we ordered was the curry chicken dumplings. Breakfasts were served at the restaurant and were much better with both Western and Malaysian fare (I love Nasi Lemak). The fresh baked breads and juices were a bonus. One of the first lessons we learned about Malaysian restaurant culture is that a la cart restaurants are very slow - at least compared to American standards. We thought maybe this was just something with the resort, but we experienced this several times during our stay in Malaysia. So if you ever order at an a la carte restaurant, be prepared to wait for your food.
We had a great time at Gayana. The staff was very friendly and helpful. While we likely didn’t need the full two nights to recover from jet lag. It was a relaxing and easy way to start the trip. It definitely was not a place we would have typically gone to, but as I said to Tor, “I could see why people like this type of vacation.” We left the resort early morning to catch our flight to Sandakan to our next leg of our journey: Kinabatagun Jungle Camp.

Kinabatagan Jungle Camp (KJC)
Before dawn, we arrived at the KK airport to find a horde of people waiting in line at the Asia Air counter to check baggage. It was absolute and complete chaos. The line was long, made worse with people crushing in and turning the one line into two. At one point, someone decided to line up in the exit isle directly in front of one of the only three ticket counters. Of course, once one person started, it just got worse from there. It took a while to get our bags checked, but once we did we got through security in a breeze and even had time to grab some breakfast.
The flight into Sandakan on the eastern coast of Borneo was sadly like our arrival into KL - palm plantations spanning the entire landscape. Within the plantations, we could see white plumes of smoke streaked across the sky rising from the processing plants. Sadly they were also the main reason the Kinabatagun River is such a popular tourist destination - with palm plantations forever altering the environment, the remaining wildlife’s best chance of survival is along a narrow corridor on the Kinabatagun River - a small vestige forest in the dead monoculture sea. Sad but true: the resulting concentration of wildlife means there’s great viewing opportunity along the river.
A prearrange driver picked us up at the Sandakan airport to take us to the dock at Bilit, a town on the edge of the Kinabatagan Wildlife Sanctuary. Once we got out of Sandakan, we entered miles upon miles of palm plantations. It was disheartening to see this landscape taken over by the industry, all so we can make a cheaper oil for processed foods and shampoos. Passing through the palm plantation is a reminder of flying over the Mid-West's fields and field of wheat and corn. How is flying into palm plantations different than flying home to the impenetrable concrete and sky rises? The major difference is the loss of the unimaginable biodiversity of a rainforest that is forever gone when plowed under and terraced into precisely planted rows of palm. Talking to Malaysians, they don’t seem to view palm plantations as bad, in fact one of our guides (who made a living off showing the very wildlife that is endangered by palm plantation) said it was an important industry for the country, which looking at the numbers it is. Driving the roads from Sandakan, it’s obvious that many Malaysian people make a living working on the plantations (while I’m sure some rich Chinese investors are the ones who truly profit off the palm oil). After deforestation, the path to becoming another plantation is a short one. So I wonder what I can do… before the trip, I tried my best to eliminate palm oil from my diet and from my hair and skin products. It’s not easy and I never got rid of it completely. It’s too pervasive in all our products - it’s difficult to avoid. Even pasteurized low fat milk has palm oil from the vitamin A palmate that the government requires be added. But now looking at the endless sea of palm already planted, I think cutting out palm oil is literally a drop in the bucket of this industry. It’s not going to close down plantation and turn those rows of palm back into healthy rainforest. The best course of action is saving the remaining islands of rainforest. The old cliche of “Save the rainforest!” For me the easiest way is to donate to conservation funds like Rainforest Trust, which specialize in buying and saving acres of rainforest in not only Malaysia, but across the globe. It’ll be my way of trying to preserve something I hope will be around for generations to come. This isn’t to also that we shouldn’t be consciences about eating palm oil. I will still continue to be diligent when shopping. I have a list of my favorite palm-oil free things. Now back to the trip… (It’s difficult not to think about this when driven 2 hours through palm oil plantations).
We arrived at the Bilit dock, where we were picked up by motorboat and taken a short distance down the river to the Kinabatagan Jungle Camp. The Kinabatagan was a wide river; its waters a churning red from the clay runoff (from the palm plantations). Trees hugged the banks of river, covered heavily in vines and epiphytes. Occasionally the river banks flattened into stands of tall grass. Pathways through the grass to the water’s edge were perhaps caused by the roaming pack of elephants.
KJC was marked by a humble sign (and a private property/no trespassing sign) and a small shack for staff. After a short (but super slippery) walk down a boardwalk, we were greeted by staff and checked in to our small but comfortable room. They were definitely right to name themselves a “jungle camp” and not a resort or lodge. Though the amenities couldn’t hold a candle to Gayana, we didn’t have any complaints. Shortly after unpacking, Tor called me out to the porch to see a bearded pig sniffing around in front of the room. It seemed pretty tame to be wild, but as we learned KJC supported the local wildlife almost to the point of a petting zoo. From the open air dining hall, we watched as water monitors and bearded pigs patrolled the muddy grounds and ate the leftover kitchen scraps. Bornean pygmy squirrels scurried up along the tree trunks, flying lizards darted up and glided between trees, and several bold Prevost’s squirrels came into the dining hall to beg for fresh papaya handouts. At night a Malay and a common palm civet came into the dining hall for slices of bread.
After settling in, we met Romsy our nature guide for our stay. He was an entertaining native Malaysian who liked to laugh loudly at his own jokes. I liked him immediately. We stayed at KJC for 3 nights, one night longer than most tourist stay. Most of the time the staff outnumbered the tourists, with the most tourists at one time being nine. But it made boat tours more manageable with only a few people in the boat. There were two boat tours a day - one in the morning before breakfast and the second in the evening before dinner. There was a set destination not only with KJC, but with all neighboring lodges. In the evenings, boats traveled the main river and up
the Sangai (?) tributary. One side of the small river was remnant secondary forest and the other side was a palm plantation that was shut down and allowed to go fallow following the requisition by the Sabah government's wildlife department (which interestingly enough was only established in the late 80s). Where the palm plantations reached the banks of the river was a stark reminder of what lay behind all of the secondary forest lining the rivers. It reminded us again that the reason we could see so much wildlife on this river was because they were forced into this thinning curtain of forest. In the mornings, the tour boats motored along the Kinabatagan to an oxbow lake, which was choked off by water hyacinths at one end.
The boat tours were always wildlife filled - with many monkey troops (in order of most common to least) of long-tailed macaques, probosces monkeys, pig-tailed macaques (or Bornean baboon), silver langur and Hoses’s langur. I was surprised at how relatively desensitized the monkeys were to the motorboats, as we could get quite close to the monkeys before they showed signs of stress, if any at all. Even when the small tributary was clogged with tourist boats from various lodges, the monkeys would continue to play, eat, poop, pee, etc. Monkeys weren’t the only wildlife we saw; hornbills were a common sighting (Pied, Black, Rhinoceros and Wrinkled), especially along the tributary. Often they would be seen flying across the river or sitting in the tall trees. Blue-throated Bee Eaters and Dollarbirds hawked bugs over the water and perched in bare branches. Purple Herons, Great and Little Egrets poked along the shoreline and Stork-billed and Common Kingfishers perched over the water. Swarms of echo-locating swiftlets chirped and clicked as they skimmed the river for a drink. The river was also a great vantage point for seeing various raptors, including Crested Serpent Eagles, Brahimy Kites, Bat Hawks and Crested Goshawks.
Of couse one of the most sought after animals along the river is the orangutan, which we were fortunate to both mornings on the way to the oxbow lake. The first sighting was of a large lone male - hidden deep in the foliage of a fig tree. We couldn’t make out much detail - other than he was large and he was feasting on the fruits. Pictures were impossible. The second orangutan we saw was a smaller male high in the tree also eating fruit. Once the boat managed to angle us around all the other tourist boats, we had a good view of him munching down on the fruit. One thing I noted about both orangutans was how they were incredibly messy eating the fruit. Despite our the distant views, I could still see a long dribble of fruit juice and chewed fruit running down from their mouths onto their bulging bellies. Still I guess it’s better behavior than flinging or eating poo.
The other sought after animal was of course the Bornean pygmy elephants, which we missed at KJC by one month. All tourist lodges and guides kept close tabs on their wanderings. This herd was known to travel the large distance from the Danum Valley up to Kinabatagan River and back. It has been suggested that because of the fragmented environment these elephants have to travel greater distances (Alfred, R et. al, 2012). The nomadic life of these herds are in peril as elephants can be quite destructive to palm plantations and negative human interactions have increased. At KJC, there was an electric fence running the perimeter of the lodge. It is only turned on when the elephants are in the area - to keep the elephants for damaging the lodge and harming the people within. The fence is quite powerful as Romsey explained - enough electricity to severely injure a person.
For an additional fee, we went on a night cruise with Romsey and the captain. They used high power flashlights to search the river banks, understory and canopy for sleeping birds, nocturnal wildlife, and any other critters. Since there was an aggressive wasp with a powerful sting that was attracted to the lights, we left the searching up to our guides. They found roosting Blue-eared Kingfisher, two Buffy Fish Owls, Red-throated Sunbird, and Black and Red Broadbills along with a saltwater crocodile and a green paddy frog. It was somewhat of a slow night, but as is nature - it’s hard to predict and there’s no guarantees. Still we were happy with the evening cruise and getting to see the river in a different light.
Late one morning, Romsey guided us on jungle trek in the forest around the lodge. As we were admiring a Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher, Romsey looked at me and gave a surprised yelp, which of course isn’t a good sign. He started toward my binoculars as I looked down to see the tiger leech crawling its way toward my hand (and only a foot from my face). A little yelp escaped my mouth as well. We flicked it off my binos and on to the ground. Sneaky little bugger - a few more seconds gone unnoticed and it would have been crawling on my hand or worse - face! Yep, we were in the jungles of Borneo - land of the tiger leech and ground leech. It made me thankful for buying the overprice leech sock back in the US so we wouldn’t have to seek them out in KK. Romsey lead us through the secondary forest, past large buttresses, wickedly spiky rotang, logs choked under blankets of club moss, hanging fig roots, vines as thick as an arm, and young seedlings struggling for light. Even though Romsey claimed not to know his birds - he was able to identify by sound more than a dozen birds (including Black and Red Broadbill, Hooded Pita, and White-crowned Shama) during our short trek. It was a lot more than I would have seen without him. He pointed out the signs of the elephants - their dung and large footprints along the muddy trail. Elephant trails crisscrossed our path, making it apparent how easy it would be to get lost following the wrong path. The short trek was a great introduction to the jungles of Borneo, just a taste of what we’d hope for at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

continue onto part II or skip to part III



All material on this website copyright
Do not use without author's consent
Email: Birder AT NWBirding.com
page updated: 11/25/17