After finishing our one-day hike up Mount Kinabalu we woke up the next day with very stiff legs. Unable to walk far or ascend/descend stairs very well, we were thankful that our homestay in Kinabalu (Tahubang Lodge) was immediately across from the lay-by where the bus to Sandakan stopped, directly below the Head Offices for the Kinabalu National Park. There is a rough timetable for the bus (timetable can be found in the restaurant adjoining the Tahubang Lodge), which comes from Kota Kinabalu. We were hoping to get the 9.30 am bus, which arrived about 9.50 am and took four and a half hours to reach Sandakan. The bus, operated by Bas Ekspress, was very comfortable, with ample leg room, an appropriate level of air-conditioning and a usable toilet. The bus journey from Kinabalu to Sandakan isn’t the most interesting, travelling for the majority of the time through a monoculture of Palm Oil plantations.
Upon arriving in Sandakan, there are several options for getting off the bus, the main ones being in the centre of town across from a Giant Supermarket and secondly at the official bus terminal, which unfortunately is way out of town. In fact, the Orang-utan centre is about 30 minutes out of town itself, and the bus drives past the entrance to Sipolok. If we’d have known (we blame post-Kinabalu traumatic stress disorder!), we’d have asked the driver to stop here, saving us a good hour of travel. Instead, we got off at the final stop at the bus terminal, from where there are only limited options to get into town. We ended up sharing a taxi with 2 other people, costing 5 RM each, to the local bus terminal in the centre of town. From there we took a public bus, taking about 45 minutes and costing 3 RM, which passes by the entrance to Sipolok. Finally, from the main road it is 2 km to the Rehabilitation Centre and the majority of the accommodation. Due to our very sore legs, we had no desire to walk this distance and took a ride with a taxi for 5 RM, finally arriving at the Sipolok Jungle Resort, where we decided to stay.
We stayed at the Sipolok Jungle Resort, a nice base, located only 5 minutes walk from the Sepilok Rehabiliation Centre and which has its own restaurant (slightly over-priced) and a nice pool area. We had a standard room with fan, which was reasonably priced but rather on the hot side. A note of warning: I put out my trainers and walking clothes, used in our previous day hike, outside on the communal walkway. Later when we returned, we found that they’d been chewed and thrown around by some dogs, so it’s probably best to put drying clothes high-up and tightly secured.
The following day we visited the Orang-utans. The feeding times are at 10am and 3pm, and a 30 RM ticket (plus 10 RM per camera) allows you to go and see the feeding twice, either on the same day or on subsequent days. The feeding platform is a short walk from the main entrance along a walk way through the jungle. From our experience, the morning feeding session is much busier than the afternoon session, with a couple of bus-loads of visitors.
I was really impressed by the Orang-utans. A park ranger brings out lots of bananas and then you have to wait and see who turns up. The Orang-utans are wild but have been rehabilitated at the centre after either being found orphaned or injured. This means they are used to human contact, but the hope is that ultimately they'll be able to live independently in the Bornean jungle. During our visit, we saw two mothers with baby orang-utans and several juveniles. They didn’t seem bothered by the observing humans but just came and ate their fill of bananas and left when they desired. It was amazing to see them moving through the trees and along the ropes, and you could really see their personalities as they interacted with each other, and with a Macaque money who tried to steal some bananas for himself!
The following day we wished to travel from Sipolok to Semporna ready for scuba diving at Sipadan. The bus starts in Sandakan centre but again drives straight past the entrance to Sipolok near the roundabout, so we advise getting on there. We asked at our hotel about timings and bookings, and they said there are two buses a day, passing at either 7.30am or 2pm. They strongly advised that our seats should be pre-booked as tickets can sell out. The ticket from Sandakan to Semporna cost 40 RM, but the hotel required an extra 10 RM per person for pre-booking. We went along with this as we didn’t know what else to do, but I think it’s a bit of a con. When we got on the bus, there were plenty of seats, and most people were buying their tickets then and there. The bus company this time was Dyana, and the bus wasn’t as nice as with Bas Ekspress. There was much less space and the seats were older, but it was absolutely fine. The journey took around 6 hours, and the bus stops in the Semporna bus terminal. Don’t worry about getting around Semporna, it’s small and easily walked, but obviously there are taxi drivers waiting, so avoid them if possible.
We’d read a lot about the need to pre-book the permits for diving in Sipadan months in advance (only 120 per day issued) but due to our unknown travel itinerary, we were hoping to be able to obtain last minute permits. The day before I emailed about six of the bigger dive schools and asked about permit availability. Three schools got back to me, all with permits available (we dove at the end of May). Originally, due to financial reasons, we only wanted one day of diving in Sipadan. However, to get the permit all the schools seemed to require that you dive for multiple days, one day in Sipadan and the subsequent days at adjacent islands. We felt the best deal was with Sipadan Scuba, who offered a two day, six-dive package for 919 RM, with three nights staying in a double room with balcony at the Holiday Inn for 288 RM for two people. My only worry about Sipadan Scuba was from reviews I’d read about their strict no refund policy, and that we’d lose our money if we got ill or couldn't dive for some reason (a not too unlikely scenario with some of the restaurants in Semporna!)
Anyway, with this worry aside, we had a great time with Sipadan Scuba. The divemasters, especially Yien, were friendly and patient, the boat was comfortable and speedy, and the Sipadan island rest stops were greatly appreciated. The island is very beautiful on land too, although due to the altercations with philipino pirates and kidnappings a few years back, soldiers keep a permanent post of Sipadan and tourists are limited to a stretch of beech.
We dove at the famous Barracuda Point, Hanging Gardens and Mid Reef. The diving here is spectacular and justly famous. The highlights were huge shoals of Barracuda, lots and lots of White-Tipped Reef sharks, some absolutely enormous Green Turtles, and even a couple of large Gray Reef Sharks. One of the Green Turtles was so enormous, I couldn't distinguish it from the rock it was resting on at first, until my eyes adjusted to its scale, like a magic-eye puzzle. It just sat there, resting stationary, as we sat watching it up close for as long we wanted. I wondered how old it must be to have grown to well over a metre. The whole day considered, this was one of my best diving experiences. Surprisingly for us, instead of visiting a different island for our second day of scuba, we were lucky enough to have two days at Sipadan after all, instead of going to Sibuan as expected.
Unfortunately we didn't get any pictures. The dive crew had promised to send us some, but unfortunately they lost their (very expensive) camera on one of the dives, and that was that. I guess it's time we invested in a Go-Pro or some such.
All-in-all, I’d say that both the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and diving in Sipadan rate as some of my best travelling experiences so far, and I’d recommend anyone to try both if they’re travelling through Malaysian Borneo.