Thursday, May 31, 2007


I first heard about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Malaysian Borneo, from an episode of the television program “Globe Trekker,” a British production in which affable hosts journey to exotic locations. They show is geared toward adventurous travelers, the ones with backpacks who don’t mind public transportation and a little dirt on their dungarees. (i.e., budget) travelers. The episode included a trip to Sepilok and the host, serious Justine Shapiro, was treated to a one-on-one encounter with a young orangutan. As part of the paying public, my visit was much less personal and ultimately disappointing.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

At one time, visitors to the center were allowed to interact with the orangutans. With outbreaks of SARS and the Asian Bird Flu in recent years, the apes and humans are kept apart; visitors can now only observe the apes from a short distance during twice-daily feedings.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is a stop on the tour bus circuit. You’ll know you’ve reached a tour bus destination when large groups of people are speaking the same language and are wearing clean, light-colored clothes. Also look out for a lot of sandals and compact cameras.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with tours (I spent a few weeks in Australia as part of organized tours and found it an affordable and convenient way to see the country. I even considered joining a tour of Borneo, but opted to remain independent). There are few surprises, delays or “what the?” moments. But there is also a lower probability of leaving the crowds behind, of discovering that you’ve arrived in somewhere outside your comfort zone, that time and place that makes the challenges of independent travel rewarding.

In my last post, I wrote about my visit to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. There were about a dozen visitors at the morning feeding, certainly more monkeys than humans. Why are people passing up the proboscis monkeys and traveling in droves to see the orangutans? Proboscis monkeys aren’t as sexy as orangutans, nor as popular in the imagination. The proboscis sanctuary is also difficult to get to – 15 kilometers on an unpaved road – and there is no public transportation to the front door. Lastly, the entrance fee is twice that of the orangutan center. The bottom line, however, is that orangutans are popular creatures, gentle, endearing and easy to love. So I was not surprised to find tour buses and a crowd of more than 100 people at the orangutan center.

The morning feeding delivered exactly what it promised: orangutans, up-close and personal. About half a dozen creatures showed up to munch on bananas. They used hands and feet to traverse a rope to a feeding platform; they climbed pillars; they scowled, screeched, hooted and bared their teeth. One young ape hung from the rope, bucking up and down before launching himself into the foliage below. This last bit of apery elicited a great roar of approval from the crowd. The show lasted about 15 minutes before the apes withdrew into the forest.

So why did I feel the visit was a disappointment? Was it the sideshow atmosphere? The sight of intelligent and interesting animals on display? Did I expect something more personal, more serene or less orchestrated? It was a little of everything. I’m glad I went, elated that I got to see orangutans from a few feet away; I just wish it had been less of a circus and more of an education.

The orangutans were fascinating, however, and deserve a few photos. Enjoy!

What Are You Lookin' At?

Hanging Around

Old Lady Orangutan

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Blogger Irene said...

Love your photos on Malaysia! :)

5:14 PM  

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