Monkey Business in Sabah Borneo

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Proboscis Monkey Sabah Borneo

Planning a trip around the world is harder than you’d think. Dozens of flights, hotels, car rentals, trains, buses – a myriad of details to be booked (and it helps if you book them for the right dates).

I’m often asked, “Do you ever make mistakes in your planning?” Well, folks, the answer is yes. And my flight to Borneo was a prime example.

There were no direct options for getting from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, but there were a number of cheap options with connections. After researching the options, I decided to fly Air Asia from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur and then Malaysia Airlines on to Kota Kinabalu.

All was going according to plan until I landed in Kuala Lumpur and began looking for the Malaysia Air gates for my connection.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

Turns out…Kuala Lumpur has TWO airports.

I flew into LCCT (which serves primarily Air Asia) and needed to fly OUT of KLIA. Now, usually I’m really good about checking to make sure connecting flights on various airlines are going into/out of the same airports, especially when dealing with discount airlines that often fly out of smaller airports.

I mean, I’m well aware that most major cities have more than one airport and I swear I always double-check airport codes. Somehow this one got by me.

I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur half a dozen times and always flown in/out of KLIA, it never even crossed my mind that there was another airport. Yikes!

Luckily, there was a bus that runs between the two airports and they were only about 20 minutes apart. I raced to the bus and got through security at KLIA, just in time for my flight to start boarding. Whew!! (2017 Update: Air Asia flights now go out of KLIA2 in Kuala Lumpur which is connected by airport train to the main KLIA terminal.)

Unfortunately, when I looked up at the screen for the departure gate, there was a big, fat “Canceled” listed next to my flight. Uh-oh.

I found the Malaysia Airlines service desk and forked over my boarding pass with a humbled look of defeat. Luckily, they had already re-booked me on the next flight which was leaving only an hour later. No major harm done. But the airport switcheroo certainly gave me a scare.

Here’s hoping I have my act together on the rest of my flights…perhaps an itinerary review is in order.

But on to the Borneo update! First, a little background…

Is Borneo a country?

Technically, no. The third largest island in the world, Borneo, actually has three sovereign nations with territory on it:  Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is the only island in the world divided this way. Malaysian Borneo consists of two states – Sabah and Sarawak.

The area I’ve chosen for my visit is Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah.

The Malaysian state of Sabah, which faces the South China Sea, is a sweltering tropical Eden covered with jungle, filled with rare species of wildlife and home to Asia’s 3rd highest peak, Mount Kinabalu.

As it turns out, I should have done a lot more planning for my visit to Borneo. Many of the top attractions are far from the city and require a myriad of permits and advance reservations to visit. Whoops.

But I’m here (thankfully!) and I’ll make the best of it. There has to be something I can see in three days.

Kota Kinabalu Malaysia Sabah Borneo
Overlooking Kota Kinabalu’s colorful night market by the sea

Arrival in Kota Kinabalu

I arrive at my hotel in Kota Kinabalu (or KK to the locals), Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu, just in time to catch the end of cocktail hour in the Executive Lounge. I even manage to score another suite (here’s hoping this is a trend that will continue!).

The one thing I don’t have is a plan for my two days in Borneo.

I haven’t had time to do much research on the region. But the loose itinerary I’ve been formulating in my mind calls for one day of beaches and one day of seeing the local wildlife.

Because I’m jetlagged and time is limited, I break down and do something I rarely do. I head down to the tour desk in the hotel lobby and peruse the options.

Things to do in Sabah

They have several idyllic-sounding island excursion options.

Most include pick-up at the hotel, round-trip boat to a lovely island, lunch, snorkeling and a little beach time for around $50 US. They also have a river cruise to see Borneo’s famous proboscis monkeys in their native mangrove habitat. That one also sounds interesting and is about the same price.

Check and mate.

I bite the bullet and book both, the beach for tomorrow and the monkey cruise for my last day. I’m usually no fan of group tours, but I the concierge assures me that the groups are very small, just 4-5 people. And at this point, throwing a little money at the problem seems like a winning idea.

So, with my 2-day plan set, I head back to my room to log on for the work day. By this time in Asia, it’s Monday morning back in the States. The joys of teleworking around the world!

Day One – Mamutik Island

After very little sleep, I’m not as anxious to hit the beach as I thought I would be. But once I get on the boat to Mamutik Island, I get a second wind. As the boat nears the island’s dock, I know right away I’ve made a great choice for my day.

The tiny island of Pulau Mamutik is only about a 20-minute boat ride from KK and offers some of the best snorkeling in the area. There are no hotels on the island, just tents set up in the middle to serve lunch to those on day trips.

There are hardly any other people around when I arrive (bliss!). I walk the island to take a few pictures, then pick a prime spot in the sand to settle in with a good book.

Mamutik Island Sabah Borneo
Mamutik Island, Borneo

Later, I do some snorkeling in the South China Sea and even try out my underwater camera equipment for the first time. The equipment is basically like a big Ziplock bag that seals the camera inside so you can still use the controls through the case. It works pretty well on my clunky DSLR once I get used to it. And the smaller waterproof case I bought for my phone proves handy as well.

After snorkeling, I wander over to the tent for a delicious BBQ lunch.

Back to Kota Kinabalu

Shortly after lunch, I decide to hop the boat back to town for an afternoon nap. I’m anticipating another long night of e-mails during the Tuesday workday (it’s not easy working remotely and traveling the world but it definitely beats the alternative!).

Night market Kota Kinabalu Malaysia Borneo
Night market in front of the hotel – Kota Kinabalu

I awake from my short nap just in time for cocktail hour in the Lounge. But I also want to check out the Night Market just across the street at dusk.

As any photographer can tell you, there’s a brief span of time around dusk where the sky is this spectacular color of blue and the city lights have just come on. This is what’s referred to as the “magic hour” of light and it makes for some awesome pictures.

Unfortunately, the “magic hour” for photography also coincides with the “magic hour” for free cocktails in the Lounge. I don’t think I’m being overly-dramatic here when I say it’s a dilemma reminiscent of Sophie’s Choice.

The night market

I split the difference and order a glass of wine from the Lounge to take back to my room for later. Then I grab my camera and head out to the Night Market.

The market is quite a scene. Smoke emanates from dozens of large grills along row after row of food stalls. Each stall has fresh seafood right off the boat and any kind of meat on a stick you can ever dream up. Each row is set up as its own little restaurant with dinner seating.

You just point to what you want at the end of the table. Then they make up your plate and serve it to you. How fun!

I wander the market for a while, soaking up the atmosphere and trying a few of the food items. Eventually, I call it a night and head back to the hotel.

In Search of the Proboscis Monkey

For my last full day in Borneo, I booked a cruise down the Klias River, a 2-hour drive away from KK.

There are four people in my group (all girls) including two doctors from California. They had just finished a medical mission in the Philippines and are now enjoying a little vacation time before heading home. It’s fun to have some other Americans to talk to on the 2-hour ride. Sometimes I go weeks without seeing another American on these trips.

Klias River Sabah Borneo
In search of proboscis monkeys on the Klias River in Sabah Borneo

When we arrive at the river, we don our life jackets and climb into the boat. Along with our trusty guide, we head out on the river in search of monkeys.

What’s so special about a proboscis monkey?

The proboscis monkey lives almost exclusively in mangrove forests, but can also be found in lowland rain forests.

They are known for their long nose and big bellies and depend on the mangroves near river edges for resting and sleeping. They avoid deforested areas and human settlements since one of their main predators is man.

Proboscis monkeys were once protected by their mangrove habitat, which was uninhabitable for people. Now that technology has made it possible to clear-cut the mangroves and fill them in, logging has caused the loss of the proboscis monkey’s habitat.

In 1977 it was estimated that 6,400 proboscis monkeys remained in the wild. Today, only about 2,000 remain in the province of Sabah with another 1,000 in the nearby province of Sarawak. They are listed as an endangered species and are threatened with extinction.

Since they have not survived well in captivity, the only place to see these monkeys is in their natural habitat, the rapidly disappearing mangrove forests of Borneo.

The search for monkeys begins…

And that’s where I find myself on this early January morning. In a boat, speeding through the waters of a Borneo mangrove forest looking for movement in the trees. And it doesn’t take long.

We find our first troop of monkeys almost immediately. Proboscis monkeys live in groups called “harems.” This is pretty much what it sounds like – one male with multiple females and young. Apparently, being a male proboscis monkey is good work if you can get it.

Proboscis monkey Sabah Borneo
Proboscis monkey, Sabah Borneo

Each male has his own harem and several of these harems often come together to form a troop. A little research reveals that females can transfer from one harem to another when young, but the harems are mostly stable. Since proboscis monkeys are not a territorial species, one group’s range will overlap that of many other groups.

And we spot many, many groups on our 2-hour ride down the river. It’s fascinating to see them all in the trees. Our guide helpfully points out the male, the females and the babies.

Every time we spot movement in the treetops, the boat pulls over. And we just watched them eating and swinging from the branches. Unfortunately, since they are so high in the trees, it’s difficult to get good pictures of them even with my zoom lens.

Back to the dock for dinner

After the monkey hunt is over, our boat delivers us back to the dock where dinner is waiting. On the way back we watch the sun set. Then the bats come out overhead by the dozens in search of dinner.

After a delicious meal, it’s time to get back in the boat for the final event of the night – a cruise to see the fireflies. It’s pitch black on the river by this time and it’s more than a little eerie to be cruising down this wild Borneo river in the blackness of night.

It is beautiful though, to see the trees outlined by thousands of tiny fireflies – almost as if someone hung twinkling white Christmas lights throughout every tree.

Amazing, yes, but virtually impossible to capture on film…and believe me, I tried. As we sit in the darkness our driver flashes a beam of light every few minutes to let other boats know our position (swell idea) making the whole event very Blair Witch.

Finally, we make it back to the dock and hop back in the van for the 2-hr drive back to the hotel. It was a fantastic day and I feel like I got a good look at Borneo between my two excursions.

I’d love to be able to go back someday and actually hike Mount Kinabalu or explore Sarawak. Borneo has so much to offer if you have the time to plan ahead.

Tomorrow, I’m on to Brunei!