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Tabin, the Sanctuary of Borneo Wildlife

Pig-tailed macaque

Located in east coast of Sabah, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is one of the best kept lowland rainforest of Borneo. I don’t want to hide the fact that most lowland of Sabah is now blanketed by oil palm. Tabin is surrounded by sea of oil palm, making it an oasis of the ecology desert (oil palm). In fact, this 112,000-hectare protected forest reserve harbors some of the rarest and endangered Bornean animals such as Pygmy Elephant, Sumatran Rhinoceros and Orangutan.

morning rays in rainforest
Last month I visited Tabin for 3 days. Though large part of Tabin is secondary rainforest being logged in the past, the forest regenerates really well over the decades. Tabin also has 9,000 hectares undisturbed primary forest known as the Core Area. Do you know that there are nearly 1,000 tree species in 50-hectare area of Borneo rainforest (Temperate Forest is up to 100 species only)?


Guess what was the first animal I saw in Tabin. Can you recognise the “aliens” below?

butt of macaques
Pic: “Aliens” in Tabin

LOL they are actually the butt of pig-tailed macaques, a common but cheeky monkey. At the left is a male with its testicles, the sexy red butt at the right belongs to a female ready to mate.

pig-tailed macaques
In late afternoon, you would see dozens of macaques gathering on the ground feeding, socializing and grooming one another. Tabin Resort doesn’t feed them so they keep a distance from human. But you better lock the door and leave nothing outside your room, because these monkey know how to open door and ransack your stuffs.

macaque gathering
I was surprised to see a long-tailed macaque among a herd of pig-tailed macaques as if it’s one of the members. Wonder if both species speak the same language.

Bornean Gibbon
Pic: Bornean Gibbon foraging on a fruit tree. You can always hear their “whoop-whoop” loud and long call early in the morning at Tabin.

There are 9 primate species in Tabin, but gorilla isn’t on the list (though the movie says King Kong is from Borneo). The most famous primate here is Orangutan. Tabin is one of the releasing spots for rehabilitated orphan orangutan from Sepilok. To ensure they can survive in the wild, rangers will track and evaluate the new comers for 2 weeks.

Tabin Wildlife Resort

Tabin Wildlife Resort is the only accommodation and tour operator in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. To visit Tabin, you can book a full board tour package with them (Accommodation, meals, transport, activities and guide services are included). They also offer special tours such as bird-watching and frog camp. Please note walk-in tourist might not be entertained.

River Lodge of Tabin Wildlife Resort
Pic: River Lodge of Tabin Resort

After an hour of bumpy ride on 44-Kilometres of unsealed road from Lahad Datu town, I checked-in to River Lodge of Tabin Resort around noon. River Lodge is just next to Lipad River and you would see foraging animals at the river bank sometimes.

room of Riverside Lodge
The chalet looks small from outside, but the room is really spacious and completed with attached bathroom/toilet, private balcony, air conditioner, ceiling fan and hot water shower. The accommodation is comfortable and electricity supply is available 24×7. I’m happy.

Hill Lodge of Tabin Wildlife Resort
Pic: Hill Lodge of Tabin Resort

For honeymooners, Hill Lodge offers more luxurious and private space, so nobody can hear what you both busy doing in your room. I think it’s great for family too.

Sunbird Cafe of Tabin Wildlife Resort
Pic: Sunbird Cafe of Tabin Resort

Sunbird Cafe is where I have my buffet meals (and free flow of coffee) and it is the gathering point for all activities. The cafe has Wifi so you can check your Facebook, but the line would be slow if too many guests are sharing the connection.

Dusk Drive & Night Safari

Compared to my jungle trips in other places of Sabah, the activities at Tabin are really leisure, nothing made me gasping for air there. But I sweated a lot, as rainforest is warm and humid, when the dense trees trap the heat and moisture under their canopy during daytime.

dusk drive at Tabin forest
We started our Dusk Drive at 5pm. Unlike Africa, where you can see hundred of animals on open grassland. In Borneo, you need to look quite hard for the animals hiding among the dense wood. Luckily, the guide does the job for us. A napping monitor lizard high on a tree set off the excitement.

oriental-pied hornbill in flight
As the habitat of about 260 lowland bird species (FYI, oil palm estate only hosts 9 to 12 species), Tabin is a favorite destination of bird-watchers. Out of 8 hornbill species in Tabin, I saw 4 of them (Oriental Pied Hornbill, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Wrinkled Hornbill and Bushy-crested Hornbill) during my stay. If you are a hardcore birder, they will bring you to Core Area (virgin forest) to look for Blue-headed Pitta and Blue-Banded Pitta, which are endemic to Borneo.

crested serpent eagle
Pic: Crested-serpent eagle is the most common eagle here. We also spotted Wallace’s Hawk-eagle and Changeable Hawk-eagle.

Bornean Falconet
Pic: Bornean Falconet

The highlight is Bornean Falconet (a.k.a. White-fronted Falconet), which is endemic to Sabah and the smallest raptor in the world (about the size of a palm). There was a group of three perching on a tree very far away from us. Fortunately, our guide let us to have a better look with his high-power telescope. I tried to photograph them through the scope but the photo was blur, well. 🙁

pygmy elephants
Then we heard a loud roar from the elephants deep in the forest beside us. “It was a mother calling its calf”, our guide said. Though there are 200 to 300 elephants in Tabin, sighting of them is not guaranteed. We waited there for over 15 minutes but no sign of them coming near. When I almost gave up, two Bornean pygmy elephants emerged from the wood behind our truck! After wandering on the gravel road for a while, both of them headed to a neighboring plantation for juicy young shots of oil palm. Somehow this smart mammal figures out the time when electrical fence is being turned off lol.

common palm civet
The daylight was out soon and lot of fireflies flickering on the trees, but we didn’t stop the fun drive. On the way back to resort, our guide turned on the spotlight and here we went for a night safari. Besides a pair of sleeping Rhinoceros Hornbill on the tree, we saw other nocturnal animals such as Common Palm Civet and Leopard Cats. We were also watching a red giant flying squirrel took off from a branch, it could glide 100 Metres from tree to tree, we were told.

Buffy fish owl
Pic: a Buffy Fish Owl. A Brown Wood Owl was nearby too.

Night Walk

Dusk drive is cool but it would be more thrilling to walk around and search for other forest dwellers in the dark. After dinner, everyone grabbed a flashlight and explored deep in the jungle. We pointed our light to the shrubs, tree top, forest ground, tree bark, etc. and came across something interesting.

Crematogaster inflata
Pic: Crematogaster inflata, these ants look like carrying a “gold” knapsack, which is the enlarged metapleural gland that can secrete whitish defensive fluid and their bites are very itchy. Thank you Arthur Chung for the ID.

A single tree of Borneo can house 1,000 insect species. There are at least 50,000 insect species in Tabin, which is enough for you to explore for a lifetime.

mushroom on elephant dung
Pic: mushroom growing on an elephant dung. Everything in rainforest is recycled and exist for a reason.

Pic: a small snake waiting quietly for its prey.

giant river toad
Pic: a giant river toad covered with irregular bumps. The big glands behind its eyes secrete poisonous fluid so don’t touch it!

Lipad Mud Volcano

The next morning we went to the Lipad Mud Volcano, something that makes Tabin special. The jungle trail to the mud volcano is 700 Metres and requires only 20 minutes trekking. We saw some fresh and old elephant dungs along the way, an evidence that elephants frequent this area. Anyway, I only found a tiny mouse deer and a few forest leeches.

jungle trekking in Tabin forest

coral fungus
Pic: a coral fungus

Lipad Mud Volcano
Pic: the Lipad Mud Volcano is as big as a football field and it is still growing. This might be the largest mud volcano of Borneo. Can you spot the tiny people in the photo?

animal tracks at mud volcano
Pic: elephant tracks at mud volcano

Animals love mud volcano as it is rich in sodium and calcium, the vital minerals that are not readily available in their normal diet. That’s why this is a good spot for wildlife sighting, as animals come here regularly for “salt lick” in late afternoon.

collecting mud
We love mud volcano too, not for salt lick but for skin care. Some says the mud is really good for skin so we collect some for facial SPA later.

face SPA with volcano mud
Some prefers to enjoy the muddy face mask on the spot.

walking in mud volcano
However, the outer ring of mud volcano is dry mud mixed with coarse sand. To collect the finest and silky wet mud, you have to go to the sources located in the centre, where you can see fresh mud burping and bubbling up from the ground. The mud in centre is deep and soft, so your shoes would be trapped in it. Some even lost their pant here (yes, that happened before).

Observatory Tower at Lipad Mud Volcano
Pic: the 5-storey observation tower next to the mud volcano. You can overnight there for more animal sighting.

mud volcano certiticate
Pic: making handprint certificate with volcano mud.

Lipad Waterfall

After getting ourselves dirty in mud volcano, we got on our truck and moved to Lipad Waterfall. The nature trail to the waterfall is only 400 Metres but we needed to cross a river as deep as our waist level.

Lipad Waterfall
Because of the heavy rain the night before, the water looked a bit murky, but it was clean and cooling. We washed away our mud at the river and took a dip in the waterfall pool.

Lipad Waterfall pool
Pic: Lipad Waterfall, pristine and unpolluted.

Other Activities

There are more things to do in Tabin. Just to list a few here.

You may check out the exhibition in Trogon Hall gallery, where they display some photographs and information of Borneo bio-diversity.

exhibition in

elephant skull
Pic: elephant skull in the Gallery

After a long day of trekking, it’s time to relax your tired feet by trying out the Rainforest Foot Soak at Eagle’s Nest. Various traditional tropical herb and plants (e.g. Kaffir lime leaf, Aloe Vera, Lemongrass, Betel Leaf, Pandanus Leaf, Galangal, Tumeric) are put in the hot water, and you can rub your feet against the smooth pebbles at bottom.

Rainforest Foot Soak

foot SPA at Tabin

So that’s my Tabin trip. You can see that our rainforest is an eco-treasure worths protecting and preserving. The good news is – Sabah government and NGOs are working together to connect all the isolated forest of Sabah, so wildlife can migrate freely among them for food and mates. In future, Tabin forest reserve will be part of the Heart of Borneo.

More Photos

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Photos taken in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Pulau Tiga, the Survivor Island of Borneo

Mud volcano

Funny, though I’m from Sabah, I learned about Pulau Tiga Island in a foreign TV game show named “Survivor” in year 2000. In this reality game series by CBS network, 16 Americans were competing with one another on Pulau Tiga and the sole survivor took away $1 million. The Survivor TV series is so famous that it gives Pulau Tiga a new nickname “Survivor Island“. The game is long over but not my desire to visit this wild tropical island.

map of Pulau Tiga Park

Pulau Tiga means “Island of Three” in Malay language. In 1978, Pulau Tiga is gazetted as a Marine Park, which covers an area of 158 square KM (96% is sea rich with coral reefs). The Park consists of 3 islands, namely, Pulau Tiga (Survivor Island) being the main island, Pulau Kalampunian Besar (Sands Spit Island) and Pulau Kalampunian Damit (Snake Island). To visit Pulau Tiga, just drive 2.5 hours, about 114 KM from Kota Kinabalu city (KK) to Kuala Penyu town, then take a 20-minute boat ride to reach the island 15 KM away.

office of Pulau Tiga Resort in Kuala Penyu
Pic: the jetty and office of Pulau Tiga Resort in Kuala Penyu
You can follow the boat of Pulau Tiga Resort, but please note that you need to book the island tour package in advance. They also provide land transport from KK to Kuala Penyu for a fee. Since I went with my own transport, I just parked my car in front of their office.

layout map of Pulau Tiga Island
Of the 3 islands, only Pulau Tiga Island has accommodation, the other two islands are uninhabited. I was staying in Pulau Tiga Resort for 3 days 2 nights. You can look at the layout map of Pulau Tiga above to see what are on the main island.

Pulau Tiga, Survivor Island
Pic: Pulau Tiga, a.k.a. Survivor Island
The main island, Pulau Tiga is the biggest island of Pulau Tiga Park. It is formed by eruption of several mud volcanoes hundred year ago. Pulau Tiga is relatively flat, with the highest point reaching 100 Meters only. You only need 6 hours to walk one round of the island.

Pulau Kalampunian Damit (Snake Island)
Pic: the famous Snake Island (Pulau Ular or Pulau Kalampunian Damit)

Pulau Kalampunian Besar (Sand Pit Island)
Pic: Sands Spit Island (Pulau Kalampunian Besar)

jetty of Pulau Tiga Resort
Pic: the jetty of Pulau Tiga Resort on Pulau Tiga Island
The weather was good and the sea was calm, so it was a smooth ride.

beach of Pulau Tiga Island

sea of Pulau Tiga, Survivor Island
As seen in TV, the sea of Pulau Tiga is crystal clear.

entrance to Survivor Island
Pic: Survivor Island welcoming me.

sculpture of Survivor TV reality show
Pic: the sculpture left behind by the “Survivor” TV reality show

hammock in Pulau Tiga
After registration and getting my room key, the resort gives me a short briefing on what they have and what we can do on the island. I just can’t wait to enjoy the sun and the sea!

Pulau Tiga Resort
There are many tall trees in the resort area. Pulau Tiga is a national park, so nobody is allowed to cut any tree. Most of Pulau Tiga is densely forested. Pulau Tiga is one of my favorite islands, due to its undisturbed lush forest and rich flora. Most Sabah islands have beach but no forest.

Mud Volcano

Another geology feature not found in other Sabah islands is the Mud Volcano. There are 3 mud volcanoes on Pulau Tiga. According to the guide, two of them are dry up. The active and largest mud volcano is in the center of Pulau Tiga. You can look at the trail map for its location.

mud volcano trail of Pulau Tiga
The 1,100-Meter jungle trail to the mud volcano is just behind the Pulau Tiga Resort.

mud people
Beware of “Mud Monsters”! LOL. On the way, you will see muddy tourists returning from mud volcano bath. A visit to Pulau Tiga is incomplete without getting yourselves covered in mud. Some says the mud possesses medicinal and therapeutic properties which are good for skin, but most get dirty just to have fun.

Mud volcano area
The trail is mostly flat and easy to walk. You will reach the mud volcano in 20 minutes. If you are lucky, you will see red-faced megapods galloping into the wood. There are about 10 of such wild fowls living in Pulau Tiga, and hundreds of forest skinks foraging on forest floor.

shelter of mud volcano
The mud volcano is just next to the shelter. More mud people appear.

mud volcano pools of Pulau Tiga, Survivor Island
The mud volcano pool of Pulau Tiga. I can smell mild odor like rotten egg in the air.

natural gas from mud volcano
The mud volcano is still active. You can see gas seeps in the mud, sometimes coming with loud burping sound. About 86% of the gas released from mud volcano is methane. The activity emits gas and new mud rich of minerals to the surface, so the mud pool is always “fresh”.

soaking in mud volcano of Survivor Island
There are two mud pools at this mud volcano area. The smaller one (see photo above) can take less than 10 people. This mud pool is very shallow but a few times stickier than another pool behind it.

kid have fun in mud volcano
Kid also enjoys the mud. I remember when I was a kid, if I was covered in mud like this, my mom would beat the crap out of me.

enjoying mud volcano bath in Pulau Tiga
The bigger mud pool is more “watery” and deeper (about 4 feet). There are two ropes that help you to balance in the deep mud. Mud volcano is not quick sand pit. Instead of sinking, you will float on the mud, due to the buoyant force of dense mud. Therefore, it is perfectly safe even if you can’t swim. But little kids are better accompanied by adult.

mud volcano pool
Seeing so many people have fun wallowing in mud like buffalo, I also join the party. The mud is cooling and sticky. Though the mud is mainly fine particles, it mixes with coarse substances such as dry leaves fragment and grainy stones. I relax myself and without any effort, my body just floats on the mud surface, cool… There are a lot of mosquito, so I apply mud all over my face and body to stop them, haha.

family in mud volcano

muddy tourists at mud volcano
More people come. They were scared at first, then they laughed at one another and even started mud wrestling. The mud is sticky so you better take off your shoes and jewelry before entering. A small boy even lost his pant. I advise you not to wear your favorite cloth too, as the mud stains can be hard to wash away.

small mud volcano

make up area of mud volcano
Pic: a small mud pool for facial mask

mud volcano fun
After the mud bath, you can walk to the beach to clean yourselves in sea water. My flip-flop is so slippery with mud that I almost trip over it a few times. You better don’t wear flip-flop with open end, or it’ll be very hard to walk. My body is also so heavy with the mud.

water tank near mud volcano
There is a water tank nearby, but the water volume is too small.

You can watch people have fun in Mud Volcano in the 2.5-min video below:

Click Here to see wider video

Another new video of Mud Volcano bath:

Click Here to see wider video

Pagong-Pagong Beach

Near to the Mud Volcano area is a junction to Pagong-Pagong Beach about 800 Meters away. Very few tourists walk this trail so it is not maintained properly.

jungle trail to Pagong-Pagong Beach
When I was approaching the beach, I saw hundreds of hermit crabs on the trail and on the shrubs.

Pagong-Pagong Beach of Survivor Island
After a long walk and moving around a few fallen trees, I reached Pagong-Pagong Beach at the north side of Pulau Tiga. The beach is wide and covered with yellow sand. I can see Snake Island and Sands Pit Island from there. Nothing really impressive but the good thing is – there is nobody around so the whole beach is yours and you are free to do anything. 😉

Pagong-Pagong Beach of Pulau Tiga
This beach is one of the main filming sites for the “Survivor” reality show. The 16 contestants were divided into two groups, one group was based in Pagong-Pagong Beach, another at Tagi Beach.

Larai-Larai Beach

Another nice beach that I explore next day is Larai-Larai Beach at west side of Pulau Tiga Island. If it is low tide, you can walk on the beach from Pulau Tiga Resort to Larai-Larai Beach and reach there in 45 minutes.

Larai-Larai Beach of Survivor Island
I go to Larai-Larai Beach because it’s the best spot to photograph sunset. And they tell me there is an interesting rock that looks like bird (Batu Burung). Please be informed that there are a lot of sandflies at this remote beach in late afternoon. I don’t recommend you to go there without applying insect repellent with DEET formula, unless you want to go home with dozens of itchy bites that last for week.

Larai-Larai Beach of Pulau Tiga
When I arrive the western end of the island, I see large area of rocky shore. There are pockets of sea water trapped among the rubble during low tide, and you can find goby fishes, anemones, shrimps, seashells, etc. in these tide pools. Quite fun to look at.

Bird Rock (Batu Burung)
Pic: the “Bird Rock” (Batu Burung)

Bird Rock (Batu Burung) of Pulau Tiga Island
The sunset view is really magnificent at Larai-Larai Beach. I took many great shots. However, high tide hit the beach after dusk, so I have to walk 3 KM in the dark forest of Larai-Larai Trail back to the resort. Again, I want to remind you that such activity is for those who are adventurous. Don’t bring your city girlfriend there for sunset. It won’t be romantic.

More Photos

You may check out my photo album on Pulau Tiga Island if you would like to see more nice pictures:
photo album of Pulau Tiga Park

Related Posts
Snake Island of Pulau Tiga Park
Sands Spit Island
Accommodation on Pulau Tiga

Photos taken in Kuala Penyu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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