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Gems in the jungle

The resort offers many quiet nooks like this gazebo by the water.

Publication Date : 04-10-2012


The rainforests of Malaysia are a precious gift from God, and few people appreciate this fact more than John Lim of Sandakan, Sabah.

A former timber tycoon, now resort founder and senior manager, Lim has converted his dream of a luxurious jungle resort into a reality called the Sepilok Jungle Resort. Nearby tourist attractions, like the Sepilok Orangutan Centre and Rainforest Discovery Centre, make this resort a frequent first choice stay for visitors.

Set in more than 12 hectares of tropical rainforest, the resort began as a dream of Lim’s as early as 1992. He commissioned three large ponds to be dug and turned them into ornamental lakes; around them, he eventually built chalets, rooms and a dining area.

Long boardwalks link the various parts of the resort and overhanging fig trees dip their graceful branches into the water. A large part of the grounds has been left in its natural state, and this attracts wildlife to visit, like monkeys, tarsiers, wild boars, squirrels and birds, much to the fascination of guests.

Over the next 20 years, he added other facilities, including swimming pools, a gym, camping sites, function/seminar rooms, garden pavilions, and a spacious and airy dining-kitchen area that is manned by six cooks and a bevy of waiters.

The resort can accommodate a full capacity of 200 people and offers a wide range of rooms to suit the budgets of the gamut of guests, from school children and backpackers to those who require a touch of luxury.

Lim, 70, is blessed with a strong support team to maintain the high standard he has set himself: not only does he have a staff of 100, he also has the full participation of his whole family, which comprises his wife and three grown children, qualified in various relevant fields, and their spouses. Little wonder then that coaches full of foreign and local visitors disgorge their passengers on his doorstep daily.

In the wall-less dining hall there are frequently groups of scientists and researchers working on their iPads or in deep discussions about subjects ranging from caves and bats to jungle plants and animals. The birdwatchers are busy training their binoculars, scopes and long-lensed cameras at interesting sights on the nearby lake. And then there are the lively, cannot-sit-still children with their parents, enjoying dinner in a tropical setting so different from their suburban environment.

If you take a tour of the sprawling grounds you will notice trees of commercial value. It is as if Lim yearns to re-create the jungles he used to log in his younger days. So you will see tree species like teak, mahogany, meranti, ironwood, jelutong and other tropical hardwoods standing tall among the more common herbaceous bushes and even on the well-kept lawns.

The grounds are best explored on foot; staff members will give useful tips on where and how to explore the trails and nearby attractions, like the orangutan centre, just five minutes away, and the Rainforest Discovery Centre, another gem in the jungle.

I am so proud of the latter, a well-maintained park and environmental education centre; I am proud to tell foreign visitors that I am Malaysian and we have the Rainforest Discovery Centre for them to explore nature in safe and informative surroundings.

Situated just a 10-minute drive away from the Sepilok Jungle Resort, the Discovery Centre is a well-planned and -constructed educational and research centre located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. It evolved into a major tourist attraction when its doors were opened to the public in 2006.

Its best experience is the metal canopy walkway 10m above ground, which connects seven towers, some of which are still under construction. At the time of our recent visit, only the Bristlehead and Trogon Towers were connected by 300m of the canopy walkway. The Hornbill Tower has been built and by year end will be linked to the rest, adding another 80m. The existing walkway is, however, sufficient for visitors to experience looking over the crowns of tall rainforest trees and surveying jungle life at the canopy level.

We joined a group of seven nature lovers from Perak, Selangor and Chiangmai (Thailand) and climbed to the top of the Trogon Tower late one evening and were rewarded with the sight of a giant red flying squirrel napping in a wooden hornbill box installed high in a tall tree.

It popped its head out several times to allow the excited photographers among us who were equipped with long lenses to photograph its cute face – and those big, limpid eyes! Then a big flock of about 10 bushy-crested hornbills flew into view. And to cap a wonderful experience above the rainforest, there was a rare sighting of a pair of bristleheads!

In my opinion, the Discovery Centre is the most birder-friendly location in the whole country because of its many helpful facilities, among them the numerous colour-coded posters giving information about bird sightings, identification and locations. Jungle trails are generally dry, well-maintained and sealed with small granite stones.

An example is the Kingfisher Trail, an easy walk with signboards tantalising us with bird names such as ruddy, rufous collared and banded kingfisher. The Pitta Path is a 1.83km uphill circuit that is a little more demanding and that leads to the Sepilok giant tree. There are three sections of ascending steps, reinforced with wooden planks and surfaced with small stones, making the long climb easier. The rare black-headed pitta has been sighted here several times.

The Keruing Cafe within the centre serves a buffet or set breakfast and lunch from 8am daily. Toilets are clean and tiled and there is a Lepak Lounge beside the cafe for tired visitors to relax and even take a snooze!

Other attractions are the Plant Discovery Garden behind the Visitors Building, the Exhibition Hall, suspension bridge, the ginger collection, and the lakeside pavilion.

Neither of these jungle gems is difficult to get to, as they are only about 32km from Sandakan Airport, which receives daily flights from the peninsula. There are also many other places to visit and experience (see Other attractions for a brief sample). Why then is the ratio of foreign to local visitors a lopsided 10 to one? Why are we so blase about our 130 million-year-old rainforests, this natural heritage entrusted to us for safe keeping and appreciation?

Other attractions

AirAsia has two daily return flights between Kuala Lumpur and Sandakan, Sabah’s second largest city. Indeed, all of Sabah has much to offer – it is known as the Land Below the Wind the world over and is a popular exotic vacation destination.

Within easy travel distance of Sandakan are a plethora of other attractions, such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Gomantong Caves, Kinabatangan Stay and Cruise, Agnes Keith House, and Memorial Cemetery.

As for culinary options, sumptuous seafood meals and fresh seafood for sale can be found in Sim Sim Village, including bak kut teh meat-cum-seafood dinners and special fish noodles.


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