Sarah would tell you the highlight of our trip to Indonesia was seeing orangutans in Borneo. We got engaged in Indonesia, but still—orangutans in Borneo.
In Indonesia, we visited Borobudur, Mount Bromo, and Komodo Island. None compare to mythical Borneo. More specifically, Tanjung Puting National Park—possibly the coolest place in the world to see orangutans.
Visitors access the park via two-story live-aboard boats called klotoks. While it requires some planning, the pay-off is a life-affirming experience. This guide will tell you what you need to know about planning a trip to Tanjung Puting and what to expect once you arrive!
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About Tanjung Puting National Park → When to visit → Book your klotok early → How do I get there? → How many days and how much? → Cruising the black water → Tell us about the animals! → Sleeping on the klotok → Eating on the klotok → The klotok crew → The klotok crew ladder → Tipping the crew → Keeping the bugs off → What to wear
About Tanjung Puting National Park
Tanjung Puting is 1600 square miles of swampy forest on Borneo’s southern coast. Wildlife viewing focuses around Camp Leakey and three small research stations along the Sekonyer River. Birutė Galdikas, one of the famous “Leakey’s Angels,” founded Camp Leakey in 1971 as a research and rehabilitation center for orangutans.
When to visit
In Tanjung Puting, June through September is the dry season, making it the optimal time to visit for two reasons: 1) nobody wants to be rained on (duh); and 2) the orangutans and other wildlife are more likely to visit the park’s feeding stations when food is scarcer during the dry season.
Book your klotok early
Everybody wants to visit in the dry season, so klotoks get booked up. Kumai, the launch point for Tanjung Puting, is a small fishing village and there are only so many boats available. We started inquiring a month in advance for dates in August and most operators were already completely full. After contacting five or six operators, we found one boat available leaving on a workable date. Local Guides allows online booking, but mostly you need to inquire about availability via email or telephone.
How do I get there?
Almost everyone flies in and out of Pangkalan Bun. Flights are limited, but we flew in from Semarang on Trigana Air and flew out to Surabaya on Kalstar. If you fly in during the morning, your operator will pick you up and take you straight to the departure point in Kumai. On the final day, our guide dropped us off at a hotel in Pangkalan Bun and scheduled an airport taxi for us in the morning.
How many days and how much?
We spent three days and two nights on the boat. That felt perfect for the amount of distance you need to cover without feeling rushed. If you are interested in hiking, you could stay longer. For two of us, it cost Rp 6,000,000 (about $445 in 2015). Tips added another Rp 1,500,000 (see tipping advice below). We paid a 30 percent deposit via PayPal and the rest in cash on arrival.
Cruising the black water
As you travel up the Sekonyer River, the brackish water gives way to inky glass. Tannins from jungle leaves fall to the floor and dye the water jet black, reflecting the trees above.
Tell us about the animals!
Obviously you come to Tanjung Puting for the orangutans. Seeing the “man of the forest” travel through the trees is Gorillas-in-the-Mist amazing. There are also macaques, wild boar, crocodiles, and tons of proboscis monkeys (also called Dutch monkeys—an Indonesian reference to their former colonizers). The jungle features many animals that are a little harder to spot, but fun to look for. The gibbon (pictured below stealing bananas) is a stone-cold badass.
Whether on the boat, sitting at a feeding station, or walking the trail, there are tons of animals to see. Your guide will point you in the right direction.
Sleeping on the klotok
Klotoks come in various sizes. Larger ones have guest cabins. Ours was one of the smaller ones, with mattresses set up on the top deck under an awning. Each night, the crew set up our beds, complete with mosquito nets. We saw one cockroach, but we were surprised how few bugs there were on the whole trip. The Permethrin probably helped. Our Malaria pills were likely unnecessary.
Eating on the klotok
The price of the booking includes meals and drinks. We ate banana pancakes, fresh fish, and mie goreng (fried noodles), among other Indonesian dishes. Tea and coffee were always available. This was especially nice to sip while cruising down the river in the afternoon.
The klotok crew
Our crew consisted of a guide, ship captain, captain’s assistant, and cook. Our guide, Mr. Dodi, went above and beyond to answer our million questions and make us comfortable. The rest of the crew always seemed to know when we were hungry or thirsty, and delivered us to the various camps with as much stopping to view wildlife as we desired. Our tour operator, Ali Mashuri, was pleasant when we met briefly in Kumai and responsive to our emails. His website is here: https://www.orangutantourstanjungputing.com/. We highly recommend them.
The klotok crew ladder
Mr. Dodi explained to us the progression of crew members. Typically, the cook is an entry level position. Then you progress to boat captain assistant, then boat captain, and finally to guide. The speed you move up depends partially on how quickly you can learn other languages. Our guide, having never left Borneo, spoke English, French, and Spanish in addition to his local language and Indonesian. He was working on German and Italian. He learned all of this while working on a klotok listening to guides and foreigners.
Tipping the crew
Given the time commitment from the guide and crew, you will want to tip at the end. Researching etiquette gives varied results. One tour operator says “Tipping your guide and your team is necessary and is an important part of their job satisfaction and financial reward. It is customary to tip them around 15 – 20 % of your journey price, depending on your satisfaction of their services. Our best suggestion on this is for you to share the amount according to the level of their duties.” Another tour operator says tipping is “not compulsory, or expected, so it’s completely up to you.” The operator gives examples of Rp 50-150k for the cook and boat captain and 150-500k for the guide. Our opinion: Your tips will mean a lot to the crew and create an incentive to preserve Tanjung Puting, so err on the side of generosity. We decided on 10 percent for the guide and 5 percent for each crew member.
Keeping the bugs off
Before traveling to Indonesia, we sprayed our clothes with Permethrin and it worked amazingly well. For Sarah, who is insanely attracted to bug bites, we were especially worried about malaria. Whether it was the Permethrin or a general lack of bugs in the dry season, we barely noticed any bugs on the whole trip. We purchased this particular Permethrin bottle from Amazon which was enough for each of us to saturate a couple sets of clothes we designated for buggy areas.
What to wear
The climate is warm/hot and can get humid when walking in the jungle. Bring a hat and sunscreen to avoid a sun burn. The nights get a little cooler, but we were more than comfortable with light hiking pants and long sleeve shirts. Sarah wore yoga gloves soaked in Permethrin.
Anything else you want to know about seeing orangutans in Tanjung Puting? Let us know in the comments.
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