We both liked Kota Kinabalu (KK), but we had come to Borneo for the rain forest, and we still were not in the rain forest. In order to see some wildlife we needed to get to Sandakan, a town which is used as a base camp for ventures into the jungle. One option was a 6-7 hour bus ride, which would have taken us by Kinabalu Mountain, which many visitors to Sabah climb, but since we only had 2 weeks in Borneo we opted for the quicker plane ride (45 minutes) on Air Asia. If I had planned better we could have flown straight to Sandakan and then to KK, instead of buying a round trip ticket from KK to Sandakan. Borneo is a big island, so if you are planning to visit make sure to research the distances between the places you want to see.
We were hoping to make two side trips from Sandakan- an overnight trip to Selingan (Turtle) Island and a boat safari on the Kinabatangan River. The only way to get to Turtle Island (where you can watch sea turtles come on shore to lay their eggs) is through a tour. You can either book with a regular tour agency, or straight through Crystal Quest, which is the agency that oversees all tours to the island. If you want to save a few hundred dollars then book through Cyrstal Quest because the other tour agencies will charge you a hefty premium! We learned another important lesson when we called Crystal Quest to try to book an overnight trip– for Borneo you need to book ahead! Turtle island was fully booked for a whole month, but that was because many of the spots are booked by other travel agencies who hope to sell them to tourists! You might also get lucky by calling Crystal Quest the day before as there might be some last minute cancellations. We were not so lucky and had to scratch the turtles off our list.
Most people visit Borneo with very expensive package tours. It must be part of the mystique of the place that makes people think they would not be able to visit independently. Although certain destinations do require a tour or at least a guide, it is still possible to travel to Borneo independently and seek out the best prices for specific tours/sites. Sometimes you don’t need a $100 tour at all, instead you could just take a taxi. There are also plane fights and bus tickets to the major sites, so although you’re in Borneo, it is fairly easy to get around. We are so glad we visited while we were here close, though, since even just a plane ticket from the US to Borneo would have a hefty price tag.
We ended up with a free day in Sandakan, but there is not much to do there. It was once a booming port town, but now it is pretty run down. We just hung out at our hotel (Hotel London, 55RM/nite, USD $15/nite) and used the free WiFi. We went to dinner at Hawaiian Restaurant, located on the ground floor of one of the hotels. It was good food and incredibly cheap!
So now we were in Sanadakan, but still not in the rain forest…
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