East Sabah on the island of Borneo is a nature lover's paradise. Very few places in the world provide the average visitor such easy access to rainforests, endangered species, and nature centers. Sandakan -- the second-largest city in Sabah -- serves as the perfect base for exploring East Sabah's natural delights.
Even harder to find than orangutans, the strange-looking proboscis monkeys are a must-see before leaving Borneo. Biologists estimate that less than 1,000 proboscis monkeys remain in the wild. The males' huge noses and strange antics make watching these special creatures highly entertaining. An estimated 300 monkeys live in the sanctuary at Labuk Bay. Visitors can take a river cruise and spot monkeys, crocodiles, and a huge variety of birds.
Twice a year men scramble up a rickety latticework of ladders and bamboo poles, risking their lives to harvest abandoned swiftlet nests. The nests -- some of which sell for astronomical prices -- are used to make Chinese bird's nest soup. Harvest seasons are from February to April and from July to September. Along with watching the dangerous nest harvest, visitors are treated to the sight of an estimated two million bats exiting the cave entrance each evening.
Situated an hour from Lahad Datu on the east coast of Sabah, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is the place to see some of Borneo's largest animals. Sumatran rhinos and Borneo pygmy elephants roam freely. A mud volcano provides mineral-rich mud baths for visitors who don't mind getting dirty. Hot springs attract a huge variety of animals that come to lick the salt. Accommodation is available inside the wildlife reserve.
Mention the name Sipadan in front of any scuba diver and their eyes will instantly glass over. Situated in the Indo-Pacific Basin, Sipadan provides diving in the richest marine habitat in the world. The reefs and diving around Sipadan and nearby Mabu are simply unmatched anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the secret about Sipadan is out; getting accommodation and a permit to dive take patience. If you intend to dive around Sipadan on your trip, making arrangements should be your first priority!
The Turtle Islands Park -- only one hour from Sandakan by speedboat -- is a beautiful island sanctuary for nesting sea turtles. Endangered hawksbill turtles and green turtles lay eggs on the beaches between July and October. Aside from viewing the turtles, superb snorkeling, diving, and swimming can be enjoyed in the pristine water around the islands. A Sabah Parks office, education center, and accommodation are available on the islands.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre was established in 1996 as an environmental education center. Three steel walkways are suspended above the rainforest canopy, providing visitors a chance to view birds from a dizzying 100 feet above the ground. The Discovery Centre hosts around 250 species of birds -- many of which are endangered -- as well as walking trails and a Plant Discovery Garden.
Over 350 miles long, the Kinabatangan River is a haven for wildlife driven from their homelands by logging and palm plantations. Visitors stay overnight in the tiny village of Sukau and take boat cruises up the river to view wildlife. Spotting three or more endangered species in one day is a common occurrence in this remote area! Elephants, crocodiles, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and a long list of other hard-to-find species can be observed in the wild along the banks of the muddy Sungai Kinabatangan.
One of Sabah's top attractions, SORC draws an average of 800 tourists a day to observe orangutans in their natural habitat. Considered the foremost orangutan rehabilitation center in the world, SORC doesn't only educate the orangutans to survive -- you are guaranteed to leave there with a renewed respect for animals and the world that we live in.
Accommodation for all budgets is available just outside of the rehabilitation center.