Are you looking for the best places to see wild orangutans? In this guide, you will discover the best places to see orangutans in the wild and how to travel to each location.
There are only two places left in the world where orangutans can be found in the wild. These are the northern parts of Sumatra in Indonesia and throughout the island states of Malaysian Borneo.
Sadly, the deforestation of natural habitats due to palm oil harvesting has left these primates vulnerable to being orphaned and injured. Their numbers have decreased at a concerning rate, placing them on the endangered species register.
Being part of a trek and seeing orangutans in the wild is a privilege few will experience. It is a fantastic way of learning more about these forest dwellers. Similarly, seeing Borneo’s orangutans up close at Sepilok and Sarawak sanctuaries is a way of understanding their habits and interactions.
In this post, I highlight where you can see orangutans in their natural habitat. I also give information on how to travel to each destination and suggest places to stay.
If you need to arrange travel insurance, car hire or accommodation? Check out my resources page to help you plan your trip.
10 Great Orangutan Facts
The name orangutan means “person of the forest”.
Orangutans can only be found wild in Sumatra and Borneo.
Orangutans are the heaviest and the largest arboreal (tree-dwelling) mammal.
They build new “nests” every night to sleep in – some on the ground and some in the forest canopy.
From fingertip to fingertip, the arm span of an orangutan is over 7 ft.
In the wild, orangutans have a life expectancy of between 30 and 50 years.
Male orangutans generally weigh around 14 stone, double that of female orangutans.
When orangutans are agitated, they make a loud sound called a “kiss squeak”.
Although primarily frugivorous (fruit eaters), orangutans will eat flowers, leaves, bark, pith, insects, eggs, seeds and occasionally meat. They are known to eat up to 400 different foods.
Female orangutans have a gestation period of 9 months and give birth approximately every eight years, making them the slowest reproducing ape. The mother will have close contact with each juvenile until it reaches around eight years old and teach it everything it needs to know to survive in the forest.
What are the three species of orangutan?
Bornean – a dominant male Bornean orangutan has a beard and distinct cheek pads.
Sumatran – a dominant male Sumatran orangutan has a longer beard and narrower cheek pads and tends to be smaller and lighter in colour.
Tapanuli – Tapanuli orangutans can be found on the island of Sumatra and were only discovered as a separate species in 2017. The Tapanuli orangutan resembles the Sumatran but has frizzier hair and a higher-pitched call.
The seven main threats to orangutans
- Human population pressure
- Changes in land use patterns
- Forest fires
- Poor law enforcement
- Poaching/Illegal trafficking
The best time to see Orangutans
During the summer months, the island of Borneo sees less rain making it the perfect time to spot orangutans in the wild.
The climate is hot but not unbearable from March to September, so the best time to see orangutans.
The fruit trees are abundant in June and July, meaning the orangutans venture closer to the main trekking paths to claim the fallen fruits.
Is an orangutan sighting guaranteed?
No tour company can guarantee you’ll see orangutans on your trip; any animal experience depends on the animal’s mood.
If you see an orangutan in the wild, it will most likely be from a distance (make sure to bring a powerful zoom lens) and may be a fleeting glance.
Even so, to see an orangutan in a natural environment for even a moment will be a memory to treasure.
There are many other animals in Sumatra and Borneo to see, so the chance is that if you don’t see an orangutan, you will see some of the other amazing creatures that call the rainforest their home.
Map of where to see orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra
Where to see orangutans in Indonesia
Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra
Borneo is the obvious place everyone thinks of when researching where to see orangutans in the wild. However, Sumatra is the best place to see orangutans in Indonesia.
Sumatra is the largest and one of the most beautiful islands in Indonesia, offering travellers the chance to fulfil a dream and see Sumatra orangutans on an organised tour.
One of the best places for seeing orangutans in Sumatra is near Bukit Lawang in the island’s north. Because the town is challenging to reach, the Orangutan trek in Gunung Leuser National Park tends to be much quieter than the Malaysian orangutan treks in Borneo.
How to get to Bukit Lawang
The nearest airport to Bukit Lawang is 86km away in Medan, followed by a 4-hour taxi ride.
It’s an arduous journey, but the rewards are worthwhile. Bukit Lawang is near the UNESCO-listed Gunung Leuser National Park, making it the gateway to observing orangutans in their natural surroundings.
Protection in the jungle
Remember that you will be in the jungle, so dress in waterproofs and quick-drying clothes. Covering your arms and legs will protect you from leeches, mosquitos and flies.
Where to see orangutans in Borneo
Borneo is the world’s third-largest island and is divided into parts controlled by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
It is separated from West Malaysia by the South China Sea and has biodiverse rainforests and indigenous wildlife.
Tanjung Punting National Park in Kalimantan
Tanjung Punting National Park is in Kalimantan, the Indonesian-controlled part of Borneo. It is one of the best places to see orangutans in Borneo and to observe these majestic endangered creatures in their natural habitat.
The national park contains over 1000 square miles of swamplands and rivers connecting to the Java Sea and is the world’s most diverse and significant coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest. Its remarkable wildlife includes nine primate species, hundreds of birds, snakes, and crocodiles.
How to get to Tanjung Punting National Park
Even though the national park isn’t too far from Bali, getting to it is not easy as there aren’t any direct flights to Pangkalan Bun airport in Borneo. Instead, you will have to take two flights – one from Bali to Surabaya on Java taking one hour, then another 90-minute flight to Pangkalan Bun.
Once you land in Pangkalan Bun, it is a 30-minute drive to the port and then another 2 ½ hours on a Klotok, a type of floating houseboat, to reach Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge, located at the boundary of Tanjung Punting National Park, who can arrange jungle treks during your stay.
Kinabatangan River in Sabah
One of the best places to visit in Malaysia is the Malaysian Sabah region. It is one of the only remaining areas of primaeval rainforest in Borneo, making it a fantastic place to see orangutans in the wild.
Kinabatangan is the second-longest river in Malaysia, and the river banks and surrounding rainforest are home to a huge variety of Borneo wildlife.
Early morning and evening boat trips are the best time to spot wildlife in Borneo and can be booked as a day trip from the town of Sandakan or as an overnight stay.
As well as seeing orangutans, other species, including Borneo pygmy elephants (the smallest Asian elephant), proboscis monkeys, macaques, lizards, and tropical birds, can all be spotted during river and walking tours.
How to get to Kinabatangan
Flight time from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan in Sabah is two hours and 45 minutes, then 2 hours to Kinabatangan River by car or speed boat.
A good selection of available accommodations along the Kinabatangan River, including the Last Frontier Boutique Resort, where you can watch for the Borneo wildlife from your room.
Danum Valley in Sabah
At 130 million years old, Borneo’s Danum Valley rainforest is one of the oldest, as well as one of the most biologically diverse, in the world.
Organised all-inclusive wildlife tours comprise long treks through the jungle canopy, across walkways and passed waterfalls and streams. This is how you will get the best chance of catching a glimpse of orangutans, red-leaf monkeys, and birds.
Nocturnal jungle treks will also allow you to see night creatures like flying frogs and lemurs, lizards, the slow loris, and even the elusive clouded leopard if you are lucky.
There is only one place to stay inside the designated conservation area – the all-inclusive Danum Valley Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
This accommodation offers a large open-air lounge and restaurant overlooking the river and jungle. Wooden walkways from the main lodge reach each guest room with jungle or river views. Included in your accommodation are all of your guided hikes.
The Bornean wildlife in the Danum Valley is incredible and one of the absolute highlights of a trip to Malaysia.
How to get to Danum Valley
Flight time from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu is 2 hours 35 minutes, followed by a car journey or a short flight to Lahad Datu. From there, it’s a two-hour drive to the Danum Valley.
It will take two hours from Lahad Datu by car to reach your jungle accommodation.
Deramakot Forest Reserve in Sabah
Deramakot is off the tourist trail, so the only way to visit this remote reserve is with a licenced tour operator. Adventure Alternative Borneo was the first commercial outfit to bring wildlife watchers to Deramakot and can arrange bespoke packages depending on your requirements.
Sightings of rare and endangered animals include Orangutans, the Sunda Clouded Leopard, Leopard Cat, Marbled Cat, Maroon langurs, Bornean Gibbon, Pygmy Elephants, Colugos, Sun Bears, Flying squirrels, Civet Cats, White Collared Mongoose, and a great variety of beautiful birds.
How to get to the Dermakot Forest Reserve
Flight time from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu is 2 hours 35 minutes, followed by onward transfer arranged by the tour company.
Borneo Orangutan Sanctuaries
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah
Sepilok is the largest orangutan rehabilitation centre in the world, and your best chance of seeing orangutans while contributing directly to their welfare.
The centre rescues injured and orphaned orangutans to give them a safe space to continue their lives in 43km of protected rainforest. The centre sits on the edge of the Kabili forest reserve and currently houses between 60 and 80 orangutans.
A short video explains the orangutans’ lifestyle and challenges, followed by observing the orangutans at their feeding stations. You can stay nearby at Sepilok Nature Resort to catch the morning feeding and, if lucky, be visited by a curious orangutan.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is next door, where you can observe sun bears and learn about the species.
How to get to Sepilok
Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan in Sabah take two hours and 45 minutes, followed by a 20-minute taxi transfer to Sepilok.
Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary in Sarawak
If time or funds don’t allow you to participate in an orangutan jungle trek, the next best thing is to visit Semenggoh Nature Reserve in Sarawak and support its conservation work.
Semenggoh Nature Reserve is close to Kuching airport, making it an easy detour for visitors heading to the state’s capital.
Here you can watch the orangutans feed and see their antics as they scale the trees and devour the fruit.
From April to October, there’s a better chance of seeing the orangutans at the feeding stations.
How to get to Kuching
The flying time from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching is one hour and 40 minutes. Time spent sightseeing in Kuching can be combined with spending time at Sarawak Orangutan Sanctuary.
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