Uncle Tan: Borneo rainforest on a budget

For us (and probably for most of you) Borneo equals wildlife. One of the best areas for wildlife watching is the Lower Kinabatangan in the Malaysian state of Sabah; that’s where we headed, for a three day trip into the rainforest.

One of my life long dreams was to see the rainforest and wildlife in Borneo. Ever since we got to Malaysia, I started looking like crazy for a jungle lodge that was suitable for our (meagre) budget. Nothing. I remember hearing from my grandfather, who lived in British Malaya, that Malaysia doesn’t really want backpackers. After travelling around Malaysia for a month, I couldn’t help but agree with him. In Sabah, luxury rainforest lodges abound; but there’s hardly anything for backpackers or budget travellers. Wonder if perhaps they’d rather leave the backpackers market to neighbouring Thailand.

Uncle Tan Egrets Flying
Egrets flying over the Kinabatangan

Then, a fellow traveller recommended we checked out Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp. It was the only backpackers lodge in Sabah; the only way to experience the rainforest on a budget. A three day tour cost RM 420, about 90 euro. To give you an idea, the cheapest midrange lodge we had found asked the same amount of money for a day.

So, we travelled to Sandakan, our departure point for Uncle Tan’s. Even getting to the lodge is an adventure. We started with a bus ride to Sepilok, where Uncle Tan’s headquarters are, not far from the famous Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Then we rode on a minivan for two hours through palm oil plantation, finishing off with an hour long boat ride on the Kinabatangan river.

Uncle Tan Yellow Boat and Fisherman
Well… not actually this boat!

On the boat, we saw our first surprise. Dozens of proboscis monkeys, jumping from one tree to another. The river at sunset was spectacular, a ribbon of golden water hemmed in by forest on both sides. Hundreds of egrets glided over the water; every now and then we saw the blue flash of a kingfisher.

Uncle Tan Proboscis Monkey Jumping
A proboscis monkey jumping into adventure at Uncle Tan’s

The camp is built on stilts, as the Kinabatangan frequently floods. Wooden walkways connect the common area to the huts and bathrooms; the jungle surrounds everything. We spent two nights sleeping in open-sided huts, with four other brave souls. We had no beds, just mattresses on the floor, wrapped in mosquito nets.

Uncle tan spider on the water
Critters abound in the jungle

Some travellers woke up bleary-eyed each morning, complaining they hadn’t slept a wink. For me, it was a wonderful experience. Sure, it was no Four Seasons; but there was something about magical about falling asleep with the sounds of nature. I had wrongly assumed that the rainforest would be dead silent; but there were whooshes and whirrs, birdsong and the flutter of moths and insects. One night, on my way to the toilet, I saw a buffy fish owl perched right in front of our hut.

Uncle Tan Nocturnal Frog on Tree Branch
I couldn’t get a shot of the owl, how about this little frilly frog?

I’m so glad we ended up at Uncle Tan. The place was fabulous and excellent value. The atmosphere was happy and relaxed, with the young staff playing guitar and singing at mealtimes, it felt like a school summer camp. During our three day two night stay, we did two dawn boat rides, two night excursions (one boat and one hike), two sunset boat rides and a couple more hikes through the forest.

Uncle Tans Colourful Moth
Anyone knows the name of this little guy?

When we did get to the forest, I was disappointed.  I remember my grandfather telling me of how dense and thick the Bornean rainforest was, and of how an orangutan could cross the whole of Borneo swinging from one tree branch to another. Sadly, those times are well and truly gone.

A Greater Hornbill in flight
A Greater Hornbill flying over the treetops

When we visited, all we saw were small patches of secondary forest interspersed between palm plantations. Nothing like the majesty of Taman Negara or the Ecuadorian Amazon. However, this is the reason why the Lower Kinabatangan river is so rich with wildlife. Heavy logging has pushed all the animals into relatively small areas, making wildlife spotting easy. Something between an eco-crime and a photographer’s paradise. We didn’t need to hike and sweat for hours in the rainforest in the hope of catching a glimpse of a monkey. Twenty minutes on a boat down river and we saw proboscis monkeys, long and pig-tailed macaques, orangutans and gibbons; plus hornbills, kingfishers, the ubiquitous egrets, crocodiles and monitor lizards.

Uncle Tan Water Monitor Lizard Feeding
A monitor lizard enjoying a snack

I am fascinated by primates. Never before was I able to appreciate several species all at once, and to notice their temperament. Long-tailed macaques are ‘cheeky monkeys’, the ones who steal your food. Pig-tailed macaques are aggressive and territorial; several travellers have been bitten when venturing too close. Proboscis monkeys are playful and love to show off, whilst orangutans are shy and elusive. These apes stole my heart. Never before I had seen great apes in the wild. We saw a mother and baby, high on a tree, cuddling up and feeding.

I have loved orangutans for as long as I can remember. I had just had a wonderful experience a few days earlier in Sepilok, but seeing a mother and baby orangutan in the wild was something else. On our way back to Sandakan, I heard people complain about the uncomfortable beds, about spiders creeping through the mosquito net, of the long slog from the huts to the bathroom. All I could think of was how privileged I had been, to be able to experience an ecosystem that may soon no longer exist.

Uncle Tan Egret Take Off
An egret taking off. Will he have to find a new home?
Uncle Tan Orange Bug
One of the surprises on a night walk
Uncle Tan Green Frog
A green frog surveying the jungle
Uncle Tan Amaretto Millipede
An amaretto millipede
Uncle Tan Spider On Leaf
What to say? Even creepy crawlies can be cute!

Did this post make you want to visit the jungle? If you can’t make it to Borneo, how about Burna? Check this amazing post of jungles in Myanmar!


46 thoughts on “Uncle Tan: Borneo rainforest on a budget”

  1. It is interesting to read your account since I just spent a couple of days in the rainforests in Brunei. It sounds like it is the opposite – lots of pristine rainforest in Brunei that is just awesome, but I barely saw any wildlife!

    I disagree about backpacker facilities in Malaysia though. I didn’t backpack when I went to Sabah and Sarawak so I am not sure about Borneo Malaysia, but I found backpacker like facilities in peninsular Malaysia 🙂

    • Hey Sharon! I would love to visit Brunei and see the rainforest you mentioned… sounds amazing!
      I guess I didn’t explain myself well in regards to backpacker facilities. I meant backpacker lodges in the jungle. You’re right, there are plenty of backpacker facilities around Malaysia! thanks for reaching out!

    • Hahaha that’s right! I would love to see a komodo dragon, the monitor lizard will have to do for now! Thanks for your comment Raphael!

    • Glad you liked the pics, thanks! Happy to find somebody else that loves creepy crawlies!

  2. I love the picture of the first little frog! I love camping, but not sure if I could do it in a jungle with all those bugs… You are brave!

    • Glad you liked the pic, thanks! It was camping that I learnt to love bugs, but I understand it’s not for everyone!

  3. Wow, I’m way too accustomed to a bed (and screens) for that kind of adventure anymore but glad there are people out there doing it. You’re right, may all be gone before long…Pretty cool. I loved the Costa Rican rain forest but we slept in a hotel…:-)

    • Hey Jennifer! It was a really great experience, not for everyone though. Would love to visit Costa Rica!

    • Glad you liked the pic, thanks! The wildlife in Borneo is amazing, we loved the primates especially!

  4. I am pretty impressed at how close you got to so much incredible wildlife. Would love to know the name of that one creature, too – I’ll be checking back in case someone can identify it!

    • hey Dave! Still no idea of what type of bug that is. maybe I should join some entomology group and ask them!

  5. Wow, stunning pictures – that monkey is awesome! We visited the Amazon recently and loved it – looks like you saw a lot more wildlife than us though!

    • Hey Emily! I visited the Amazon too and didn’t see near as much wildlife, but the forest was much better. Borneo is still worth a visit though, especially if you love wildlife!

  6. You certainly capture the beauty of nature in all its splendor. Is this macro photography? I started googling to see what the “name of that little guy was.” But I didn’t know how to search for it? lol Moth with a blue horn?

    I wonder what camping in the midst of this wildnerness would be like..

    • hey rashad! Glad you liked the pics, thanks! Some of them (the close-ups) were indeed macros. The little guy’s name is still a mystery, maybe we should go back to Borneo to find out!

  7. What an interesting experience. I tend to be one of those travelers that likes to know my accommodations before getting to a destination so I admire your bravery to try something out last minute and look how great it turned out for you. Not that I wouldn’t I just prefer the pre-planning. 🙂 Your pictures are incredible. What camera do you like to use and more importantly what lens were you using for those close up shots of the insects and frogs. Love them all!

    • Hey Daidri! Glad you liked the pics, thanks! We use a Nikon D700, for these pics we used a 60mm macro and am 80-400 zoom. Weighs a ton, but it was worth it for the hornbill and monkey shots!

    • hi Brianna! Do visit SEA one day, you’re right, there are so many animals and the nature is great to explore!

  8. One of my old manager at a part time job I had at university used to tell me about her trip to Borneo and your pictures just brought back the memories of her stories. Although I dont think I could handle it with all those creatures :O

    • Hey Bianca, glad to bring back your memories. The creepy crawlies are not too bad, I almost thought they were cute after the trip. Better than the giant tarantula we saw in the Amazon!

    • Hey Jon! Thanks for the tip, I hope to visit Borneo again so will check the park in Sarawak you mentioned!

  9. What a great experience! I’ve always been fascinated with primates too, and really want to visit Borneo as well! Sounds like I need to try and get there soon if I want to experience it. Good to know you found a great place for a tour–really makes me want to go now!

    • hey Jenna, it was a really good experience. Uncle Tan was great, but definitely not for everyone. Some people freaked out when they saw the accommodation, but we loved it. Makes you feel really close to nature!

  10. Glad you liked the pics, thanks! It is a really incredible experience to be in the rainforest, hope you make it there one day!

  11. I would absolutely love to see the rainforest in Asia! Alex and I were only able to visit kl when we were in Malaysia and didn’t get a chance to explore the rest of the country. We will definitely need to visit the rainforest when we head back especially if it is disappearing!

  12. Looks like an excellent place. Fabulous bird life coupled with the monkeys and the spiders is invitation enough for me. 🙂

  13. Just got back from a trip to Borneo, went with my daughter and grand daughter , stayed at Uncle tans for two nights ,was surprised to see the room we slept in, my daughter who arranged it all had said it was basic What an experience I had , great food , lovely friendly guides If i could cope with all the insects, etc, as a nearly 70 old I am sure most people could

  14. Hi there! Great post – thanks for this info.

    We are just making our itinerary for Malaysian Borneo at the end of the month. I was wondering – how long did you spend before and after the jungle trip at Uncle Tan’s. Where did you go before and after? Any recommendations?

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Kevin! Before Uncle Tan’s we were in Sandakan and mount Kinabalu (I have posts about these two places on the blog) and afterwards we went back to Kota Kinabalu! bUt I’ve heard diving in Semporna is amazing. Thank you, hope you have a great time in Borneo!

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