So your heading to Borneo and want to have a true jungle experience on backpacker budget? Well after 4 days in the remote rainforest I can recommend you look no further than Uncle Tan’s on the Kinabatangan River, a few hours from Sandakan! It is absolutely mind blowing, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that will leave you desperate for more! In our short stay we managed to see 77 species of WILD animals including 26 species of birds, 6 primates, lizards, giant crocodiles (4-5m) and a ridiculous amount of bugs…. The biggest highlight for me was seeing Orang-utans on three separate occasions which for me fulfilled a childhood dream! I mean really, how incredible!
Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp is on a piece of Native Land near the Lokan River, a tributary of the Kinabatangan which is the second longest river in Malaysia and renown for its wildlife and fascinating habitats. As with many plots of Native Land in the Kinabatangan their site remains uncleared of its jungle though meant for cultivation of palm plantation. The native owner who leased the land to them has agreed not to clear the land for palm plantation so by staying here by staying here you are helping to preserve this sanctuary for future generations! The location is a little bit more “remote” than most other options I looked up and is the only realistic option on a backpacker option – Not that I think the wildlife really cares how much you pay, and being located between a Forest Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary means there is plenty of opportunity to see, well pretty much everything!
It is possible to stay only one night (2D/1N) at the Camp although to get the best experience, I would recommend at-least two or three night’s stay. With a night’s stay, you will still get to do one night safari as well as one morning safari but you won’t have enough time to do the guided trek in the jungle the next day as you would be leaving the Camp… As I discussed with the head guide, the longer you stay the more chance’s you have to see different wildlife and we opted for a 3D/2N package [371 RM from their base in Sepilok) and extended our stay for a very reasonable 127 RM per night which includes all river Safaris, jungle treks, accommodation in camp huts, 3 meals a day (B,L,D), coffee/tea available all day plus some tea time snacks and biscuits. I wished we could have extended further as with most things it takes a few days to get into the swing of things, and the guides focus at the beginning on making sure you see the ‘iconic’ species such as proboscis monkeys, orang-utans, crocs and hornbills. When we extended we went on searches further a field and were lucky enough to see more uncommon species such a flocks of rhinoceros hornbills and silver leaf monkeys!
Actually on our last night on the jungle safari we were incredibly blessed to see the rare Tarsier, a crazy primate which jumps from tree to tree, is entirely carnivorous, can swivel its head 180 degrees in either direction like owls and have eyes as big as their brain. They actually have the largest eyes relative to body size of any mammal. Our guide had never seen while the camp leader said one hadn’t been seen in nearly two years! You know you have found something special when the guide runs back to camp and all the other guides wake up to come out and get a photo. Such a special moment!
I have been to the Amazon before (#FUNFACT: its actually antipodal to Borneo) but really the experience offered here was far more intimate and big animals easier to spot. Well I’m not quite sure if big is the right word, as everything in Borneo seems to be ‘Pygmy’ even the people as one of our guides cheeky pointed out!
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Uncle Tan’s has been operating for over 20 years and has cultivated such a professional team of highly qualified and enthusiastic guides going above and beyond at every turn. The head guide, Lan, had been them for 18 years and inspired us with stories of how the original Uncle Tan picked him up when he had nothing else and had given him a great opportunity, he now has the top rating for tourist guiding in Malaysia, is a wildlife officer, works with local NGO’s to protect the forest and helps train the new generation of guides in english. Most guides are from the local village so this camp is helping not only to educate but to provide an additional source of income instead of palm oil and operates as a non-profit – all the proceeds from Uncle Tan go to a fund for the local village to use for conservation, education and sports. It really was inspiring to see the passion of all of their guides and how excited they were in their job everyday – You just couldn’t fake it and its great to know that your tourist dollar is really making a difference!
At Camp, accommodation is in the form of raised huts. There is only one type of accommodation at Camp. All huts are on sharing basis. They are very basic but sufficient as long as you keep the mosquito net closed! You will learn how to do a bug check at night, and to keep you food in a provided plastic container. You will also learn to love the bucket showers they have – There really is something refreshing about showering in river water and leaves your skin feeling amazing. A insider tip is take as many as possible and one before bed really helps to combat any ‘stickyness’. Daily you will go on four activites lasting between 1 – 3 hours, such as river excursions and jungle trekking depending on conditions and recent sightings. When your not out immersed in pristine nature the camp has a laid back vibe, great food, amazing hammocks and staff which are eager to help you identify bugs and other animals you may have seen!
Their are also plenty of bugs and birds to watch, cute pygmy squirrels – the worlds smallest squirrel, the occasional naught macaque monkey troupe a.k.a. the jungle mafia to keep you entertained if you should ever get bored. There is no WiFi, which is a blessing as everyone sits about and chats creating a great vibe, but their is power during times of the day if you need to charge cameras or other devices. The only things not included that you may want to purchase from their staff co-operative could be beer (10 RM), bottled water (3 RM) and soft drinks (3 RM). Rubber boots are also available for rent to protect against fire ants at night for 3 RM. Income earned by the staff co-operative goes to the staff. Uncle Tans takes no commission or percentage from the co-operative. The co-operative is the staff’s little business that the company allows them to conduct, which I think is great – and would suggest they expand into nuts and other snacks for a treat during the day!
Also on the day before or after you leave Uncle Tan’s (roughly leave at midday and return at midday) make sure you take advantage of being in Sepilok and their free shuttle to see the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre … Both deserve a good half day and so maybe one before or after? Try to be at each for feeding time and stay at the Sun Bears for a few hours, they can be a bit shy but when they come our are a complete highlight, the world’s smallest bear and not really possible to view in the wild due to their shyness. Great work being done at both of these places in terms of rehabilitation and conservation! I really can’t recommend staying at Uncle Tans B&B in Sepilok however – its a bit of a dump – and would recommend Paganakan Dii, a great retreat nearby with cheaper prices, free breakfast and shuttle drop-offs and pick ups in the local area.
I really could’t recommend Uncle Tan’s any higher, working hard to improve the local community, passionate about saving the Bornean Rainforest (which needs all the help it can get) and providing tourists with a unique experience and chance to immerse themselves in nature – After all isn’t that what we all came for! If you do nothing else in Borneo – please come here, you will not regret it! Thank you Uncle Tan…. I am already missing our boat air-con, hammock naps, gecko calls and bucket showers and will be back in future to try spot slow loris, gibbons and river otters (if anyone else see’s them, please don’t tell me – not sure I can handle it!)