Ahh, Borneo! The land of sweltering rainforests, soaring Mount Kinabalu, hairy orangutans, horny rhinos, and priapic proboscis monkeys.
Actually, it is a green sea of ever-expanding palm oil plantations, which threatens the existence of all the above except the high mountains. And, it wouldn’t surprise us if in 15 years Mount Kinabalu is covered in oil palm trees too! Thankfully, small pockets of primary forest still exist. And the well-heeled traveler, or backpacker wishing to bust her budget, can still visit areas of tropical rainforest that have not changed in millions of years.
Once such place is the Danum Valley Field Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It is primarily a research institution, but provides facilities for visitors.
There are three ways to visit the Danum Valley. The money-is-no-object types and bug loving honeymooners book into the luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge at $800 a night. The wanna-look-like-a-backpacker-but-want-stuff-sorted-in-advance types on short holidays book a tour with a travel agency such as Sticky Rice Tours. They still slum it with the cheapo backpackers in the DVFC accommodation, though. Which brings us to our category: the facultative flashpackers. We tend to do things on the cheap where we can but splurge when there is no other option or we prefer a bit more comfort. Danum Valley is a splurge. Even the “cheap” option that we took was over our budget, but absolutely worthwhile.
We have written this blog for the benefit of those wishing to visit independently, without a guided tour, keeping costs as low as possible. It is a little heavy on practical details but hopefully there is enough inspirational material for those thinking of going in the future.
We really wanted to visit the Danum Valley, but we really didn’t want to pay through the nose. It has been possible to visit independently for some time, but getting the hard information to book in advance proved to be tricky. We found contact information for the DVFC office in Kota Kinabalu in a Tripadvisor review. We were in contact with them and thought we had confirmed our stay. When we turned up at the at the Field Office in Lahad Datu there was no record of us coming. Thankfully, there was still room and Suzan, the very friendly and efficient lady at the office, organized our visit in a few minutes.
So, how do you go about organizing your ‘cheap’ Danum Valley trip?
You should email your prospective itinerary to Suzan Kilin, firstname.lastname@example.org, at the Danum Valley Field Centre office in Lahad Datu. Her phone number is +60 0138846968. Don’t assume you are confirmed for beds or transport unless you have an email specifically telling you so. Pester the office for confirmation if this is not forthcoming.
The address for the Field Center Office in Lahad Datu is Block 3, MDLD 3286, ground floor, Fajar Centre, Lahad Datu.
The DVFC office in Lahad Datu is very close to the airport, near the Shell station, in an area of town called the Fajar Center. It doesn’t appear on Google Maps, but is next door to the location marked “Borneo Nature Tours SDN BHD” on Google Maps. Here is the location.
Transportation to the Danum Valley
The Field Centre bus goes to and from Danum Valley on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday only. The transfer costs 65myr per person in each direction. The bus leaves the valley at 8.30am and returns from the Lahad Datu Office at 3pm. The journey takes around 2 hours. Most people elect to stay for two nights, which gives you one full day plus one evening and early morning in the forest.
You pay for accommodation, meals, shuttle transfer, conservation fee, and camera fees in advance at the Lahad Datu office. If you need to pick up some cash there is an ATM at the CIMB Bank approximately 150m from the office.
Accommodation: 91myr per person per night (dorms)
We opted for the single-sex hostels. There are 48 beds for men and 48 for women. The hostel cost 91myr per person per night. There are 12 private rooms known as Rest Houses and these cost 286myr per room. These sleep two people. The hostels are arranged in curtained off sections of 4 bunk beds. The showers are cold. There are Western style and Asian squat style toilets. Note that in the hostel there is nowhere secure to store your belongings.
Conservation Fee: 50myr per person
Shuttle to the DVFC from Lahad Datu: 65myr per person each way
Camera Fee: 10myr
Tell the office you have a cell phone only. No-one will check in the forest. Fee is 10myr for a cell phone or small camera camera or 100myr for a DSLR.
Full board costs 111myr per person per day. Dinner is 46myr, lunch is 36myr, and breakfast is 29myr. You can opt to pay separately for meals but this only makes sense if you opt out of or don’t need one of the meals. We opted out of breakfast and brought our own instant oatmeal, apples, and peanut butter. Vegetarian options are available, so be sure to tell them when you book and pay. Coffee and tea is free all day. Apparently, this is for full-board plan only but no-one at the Center checks. There is filtered hot and cold water available 24/7.
Dinner consisted of heaps of rice, two meat options, and two vegetable dishes. There was a separate plate of protein (tofu curry) set aside for the veggies. Lunch was one meat option, rice, and two vegetable dishes. Again, a separate dish (omelette) was set aside for the veggies. The food is served buffet style and you can eat as much as you like. Dessert was slices of watermelon.
You eat in the communal dining area. This is next to the resthouse accommodation. The hostels are a 10-15 minute walk away.
We prepared our own breakfast, but there seemed to be noodles, sausages, eggs and a couple of other dishes available each day.
Tins of beer were available at 10myr. Soft drinks cost 3myr.
Self catering all of our meals would have been easier than we thought and would have shaved off a few dollars a day. There are kitchens available in both dorms and a refrigerator in the dining room. There were plenty of small minimarts near the office in Lahad Datu so that you can stock up on noodles, fresh produce, cookies, and booze. The price lists in the DVFC office listed a 20MYR fee for renting utensils. This prompted us to make a mad dash around Lahad Datu to find cheap plastic bowls and spoons before hopping on the van. It turned out there are plates and utensils available at the field centre kitchen and nobody was interested in charging us to use them.
Activities in the Danum Valley
There are a number of tours available at the Conservation area. You pay for this in the Valley, since they are all weather dependent.
The sunrise tour costs 160myr for the car and guide. This is for a maximum of four people. We were out of luck the day we visited so we had to pay for a car between 2 of us. You wake up at 4.45am for a 5am start. The guide drives you the 8km to the observation deck.
Sunset tours cost the same and have the same itinerary except in the afternoon instead of the morning. It rained for sunset on both evenings we were there, so we didn’t see the point in going up in the afternoon.
There are night safaris for the same price. We didn’t do this but plenty of guests raved about them. This is your best bet for seeing wildlife.
There is a self-guided short trek of approximately 500m. This takes in a small stretch of jungle and passes by two observation decks, which you can climb for better views.
There are a range of guided jungle treks. We opted for the 6km Rhino Pool trek. The guide fee is 20myr per hour. This took 3 hours. For the longest trek, two guides are mandatory.
The more expensive treks with Sticky Rice are no more or less likely to spot wildlife than the local Park Rangers. Their English language skills might be better but if you want to see elephants, orangutans, and hornbills you just have to hope your luck is in.
Our visit to the Danum Valley
Tropical trees and vines, and sunrise over the jungle.
It was pretty awesome aside from the leeches. You can buy leech socks at the field centre reception desk for MYR17.50 a pair. You will need them.
When we got to the Lahad Datu office, there was the obligatory confusion caused by the Kota Kinabalu office not communicating our booking to the Lahad Datu office. Thankfully, there were seats available in the shuttle. If the shuttle is full, the only other option is a 350MYR private car.
Once we got out of the palm plantations, the drive was quite beautiful. The road is unsealed for most of the way but not too bumpy. About thirty minutes before arriving at the Danum Valley Field Center we saw our first signs of exciting animal life. Huge mounds of elephant poo on the road! Borneo Pygmy Elephants are increasingly rare and seeing them would be quite a wildlife spotter’s coup.
On the whole though, you are here for the forest. And, what a magnificent sight it is. If you want to know what much of the world looked like before humanity took over, then come to Danum Valley. It is a dense sea of every kind of green, wrapped around gnarly trees big and small. It is the sort of place where you can quite feasibly be lost forever and yet be only 200 meters from the Center.
In the evening, we saw a huge female bearded pig and her cute little piglet. They were curious beasties and were easily tempted to check out the humans in the hostel area. We saw a few deer around the Center too.
We jumped into our 4WD vehicle for a short drive to the observation deck. On the way we had our first wildlife sighting. Two adult and one baby Pygmy Elephant. They had made clear their views on human encroachment on to their turf. They had well and truly flattened a road sign!
The observation deck is perched on top of a small hill 8km from the Center. You get a magnificent 360 view from the top. It is quite awe-inspiring. The morning mist clings the trees. And, the dawn chorus of tens of species of birds rings out all around you. The sights and sounds make you realize what a tremendous mess humans have made of the world. We have traded this for fuck ugly palm plantations and dismal service towns. We have cut and burned huge areas of immense biodiversity and replaced it with fields of stuff that clogs your arteries and makes you fat.
Makes me glad we ain’t having kids. I hate the thought of them backpacking through the palm oil plantations, soya bean megafarms, and chicken factories of the world in 2036.
We saw some more elephants on the way back. We heard one of them trumpeting, which, weirdly, seem to make the experience feel more real. The ranger told us that the elephants move between the DVFC and other parts of the rainforest. They will spend a few months around the Centre, then leave for several months or more. We were lucky to see them.
We weren’t there in orangutan season. The receptionist told us that you can see orangutans near the field centre during fruiting season, which is typically February-March.
Trekking to Rhino Pool
Our guide, a Danum Valley park ranger of 8 years, had never seen a rhino in the valley. The population of rhinos in Sabah is so small that they are all but extinct. They have inbred for so long they rarely reproduce and one imagines that they ain’t that smart either! Rhinos will soon be extinct so that humans can have hardwood furniture, clogged arteries, and, according to Chinese medicine, hard dicks. Now, does that make sense to anyone out there?
Rhino Pool was a sad murky little pond. Thankfully, the surrounding jungle is rather splendid.
Our guide told us that he decided to become a ranger since his only other option is to work on a Palm Oil plantation. Well, you don’t get a more stark dividing line than that. You destroy our biodiversity. Or, you protect it. Maybe we should all consider ourselves on one side or other of that very same divide. We either destroy or we protect. If we choose not to protect, then I can show you your future. Monoculture. Artery clogged people. No animals. No trees. Does that sound pleasant to you?
The trek was fiercely hot and humid. We saw no wildlife. During the heat of the day, they do the sensible thing and hunker down in shady spots. We saw some cool bugs though!
And, we saw leeches. Hundreds of them. Like wriggly little dog dicks looking for a new home. They drop from the trees above. Crawl up from the forest floor. Or, attach on to you from the nearest plant. They are persistence little shits too. Trying to remove them from clothes, hands, and shoes takes some effort. You can flick ‘em, pick ‘em or kick ‘em and they still cling on. Gross little beasties. We got one sucker each back at the Center. All the others we fought off but these two snuck up on us when we had dropped our guard. They inject an anti-coagulant into the bite. So, even though the bite mark is tiny you bleed profusely. Looks like the bugger has gone at you with an axe! I flattened mine with my shoe and dark red blood splattered everywhere. Astonishing to think Western doctors in the past thought they were a cure for many an ailment.
The jungle is a place to endure. It is a difficult to genuinely enjoy. Glad we visited but I won’t be returning anytime soon.
I wasn’t in a hurry to return but Laura wanted to walk the self-guided trail near the Center. It is 500m long and has two observation towers en route so that you can get in among the tree tops.
We headed out around 3pm. It looked dark overhead and had started to rain a little. Ah, what the hell you expect to get a bit damp in a rainforest, right?
Two hundred meters in the heavens opened. Two hundred and fifty meters in hell opened too!! We got caught in the mother of all downpours. It was the most insane rainfall I had ever seen. The rain was so dense you could barely see 5 meters ahead. Even though the trail was clear, the rain and noise was a little disorienting. Leeches be loving this! We ran back to the Center before the leech army massed its ranks!
So, now I fully understand the rain and the forest elements of the word, rainforest.
Danum Valley: Final Thoughts
I have no stomach for leeches. Nor hands, feet, nose, and neck for that matter. Shame the leeches don’t see it that way. I think the rainforest sits squarely in the box ‘glad it exists, wish there was more of it, stay well out of’. It’s hot, humid, and the wildlife delights in hiding away. Apart from the aforementioned leeches, who really really want to find you.
However, I heartily recommend you visit the Danum Valley. It will be a stark lesson in the beauty of the truly natural world and the ugliness of a natural world utterly manipulated by humans. And, when you are disappointed by seeing almost no animals, hopefully next time you see ‘palm oil’ in food ingredients you really know why you should return it to the shelf. Better still, lobby the grocery store or food company to boycott palm oil. Because the options are clear. Stuff to fry your food in and no orangutans. Or, orangutans and steamed vegetables.
The Danum Valley is expensive to visit. But, good work is going on there. I would rather drop $350 on helping the good people of Danum Valley than on a Condé Nast recommended chalet with private jacuzzi and infinity pool. Mind you, when you are there the Condé Nast place will feel really really tempting!