The Wilds of Sabah

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A trip to Sabah puts you in contact with some unusual creatures.  Chris Pritchard writes about his time among dead psychiatrists and promiscuous monkeys.

“Promiscuous monkeys – seen any?” asks the Russian tourist. He speaks confidently and quickly, even though his command of English is very limited. My puzzlement must be apparent because he elaborates: “I want to see promiscuous monkeys.”

Promiscuous monkeys? While this is an apt description of many an ape I’ve spotted, I realise he means proboscis monkeys. But he often uses the wrong word, frequently hilariously. For instance, he joins me for breakfast one morning at Kota Kinabalu’s Sutera Harbour Resort.

“Six dead psychiatrists in swimming pool this morning,” he whispers. Strange, I hadn’t heard about any medical conferences in the hotel. Nor did I encounter floating corpses during my early-morning swim. Word of mass-murder had eluded me.

“Listen – you can hear them now,” he continues. “They live underground for many years and then, all on the same day, they will come out. Too many psychiatrists in this place.”

The shrill background sound from the garden is all too familiar. Cicadas! So that’s what he’s on about. I decide it is better to make no comment.

Over the next four days I see plenty of proboscis monkeys. Perhaps they’ve been primed by the Russian because
they’re exceptionally extrovert and – there’s no delicate way to put this – hugely promiscuous. In between their
uninhibited displays of love-making, they swing through jungle trees, eat leaves and fruit – or just sit and gape at human visitors.

No, they’re not the prettiest of monkeys. Males, with protruding noses up to 17cms long and rotund “beer bellies”, are even more delightfully ugly than females (which also have big noses, though these less prominently so than
the males). Some males certainly have a nose for the opposite sex: the most impressive schnozzles attract the
largest number of females. In proboscis monkey circles, it is clear, females have a definite weakness for males with big noses. Consequently, some proboscis monkeys boast harems with 10 or more members.

Proboscis monkeys in Sabah are less skittish than those elsewhere. I have glimpsed them from afar in Brunei and Sarawak. But in Sabah it’s possible to approach to within a few yards without sending the monkeys scurrying nervously into the jungle.

Sabah’s main attraction is orang utans. Visitors from all over the world stroll the boardwalks of Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, near Sandakan. They wait for orang utans to swing from trees to a platform where rangers leave fruit.


Rehabilitation works this way: confiscated, donated or rescued orang utans are slowly reintroduced to the wild, becoming less and less dependent on back-up rations placed on the platform. These rations aren’t enough to live on – encouraging the big apes to forage in the jungle. Over time, they visit the platform less often. When an orang utan never shows up again it’s assumed to have adapted to jungle life. I join several hundred people on an observation platform. Some days only one or two orang utans appear, some days more than a dozen. Seeing them this way is far easier than trekking deep into the jungle (though tours are available to those with time).

Proboscis monkeys – pale reddish-brown in colour – have, in recent years upstaged orang utans, becoming the prime reason for many travellers to head to Sabah. An effortless way to see them is at Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, an hour’s drive from Sandakan. Like orang utans, they swing out of the jungle to platforms where food (mostly fruit) is spread.

Other wildlife shares the proboscis monkeys’ space at Labuk Bay. Commonly seen creatures include cute silver leaf monkeys, playful macaques and an array of avian life – including rhinoceros hornbills – attracting birdwatchers from far and wide.

Altogether wilder is a cruise (sold by travel agents and Sandakan hotels) up the Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s longest waterway. Boats venture along narrow tributaries where dense jungle presses in on both sides. Even without wildlife this would be a memorably exotic experience.

During a three-hour cruise I stop to observe six colonies of proboscis monkeys. Macaques, silver leaf monkeys,
birds (including hornbills), yellow-ringed cat snakes, crocodiles (basking on banks and swimming) enrich a unique wildlife experience.

My only disappointment: I don’t set eyes on Borneo pygmy elephants, the world’s most diminutive (slightly smaller than mainland Asian elephants) and most highly endangered pachyderms. They’re reputedly less aggressive than other Asian elephants from which, say some accounts, they’ve been isolated for about 300,000 years. Vigorous debate continues as to whether or not they’re an Asian elephant sub-species – or a separate variety. Human habitats and commercially valuable oil palm plantations have squeezed the elephants’ space but, in the past two decades, more emphasis has been placed on saving these animals. Nowadays, tourists sometimes spot groups of elephants on river banks.

Next morning I follow a trail of fresh elephant dung in the hope of spotting these creatures. But dung is all I get to see. Wildlife isn’t the whole story in these parts. Sandakan, a neatly-kept and well laid-out city, was Sabah’s most prosperous town in the timber industry’s heyday. It was all but destroyed in World War II and is famous as starting point for the Death March in which 2400 Australian and British captives of the Japanese died.

A memorial to the dead is among the city’s attractions – as is St Michael’s Church, one of Sandakan’s few old buildings to survive the war.

The hilltop Old English Tea House is timewarp territory and a Sandakan institution. When 1930s dance music crackles through the sound system I half-expect British-colonial planters to waltz in and ask for their usual table. Cuisine includes Malaysian favourites as well as English staples such as shepherd’s pie. Next door is Agnes Keith House, a mansion converted into a museum and honouring Agnes Keith, an American writer whose best-known works describe colonial-era Sabah lifestyles. Downtown, the city’s modern market is well worth wandering through – particularly to marvel at the diversity of species in the fresh-fish section.

From Sandakan, my flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, takes 40 minutes. I’m staying once again at the Sutera Harbour Resort. A friend suggestsnan evening at Mari Mari Cultural Village.
I’m often bored by badly-executed “cultural performances” but this one turns out to be a gem (others in Kota Kinabalu are, I’m told, less impressive). I wander along jungle-setting pathways to visit houses in the radically different styles of Sabah’s different tribal groups, attend a short concert of local dances and feast upon a delicious feast of Sabah delicacies. There’s even a blowpipe session where my repeated inability to hit targets sparks much merriment.


Later, strolling along Gaya Street I meet the Russian once again. He is smiling as he confides: “Finally I got to see those promiscuous monkeys.”


This article has been edited for 
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