Beloved by naturalists the world over, Borneo is teeming with exotic flora and fauna. But travelling in the wilderness is now much easier - and more comfortable - than ever before.
Despite David Attenborough’s shocking observations about the colossal loss of habitat to palm oil plantations, people are still drawn here by the lure of species found nowhere else on the planet.
The Mount Kinabalu national park is home to half of Borneo’s bird life and is the most researched region in Southeast Asia, due mainly to the number or rare orchids and pitcher plants found here. During my visit, a TV crew are filming in the botanical gardens; their focus is a Rothschild’s slipper orchid, which I’m told can fetch 40,000 US dollars on the black market.
But despite the many natural riches on offer, locals are more interested in the nearby Kampung Luanti fish spa, where toothless, foot-long fish suck dry skin from any body part they can slap their slimy chops around.
It’s so popular, visitors are restricted to 15-minute slots, making this the Bornean equivalent of an express pedicure.
In many ways, locals are starting to realise they’re sitting on a gold mine.
A key ingredient in bird’s nest soup, swifts’ nests, found high up in the limestone Gomantong Cave on the other side of Sabah in Sandakan, sell to the Chinese market for up to 6000 ringgits (£1,150) a kilo.
Clusters of squealing bats flit overhead, as I enter the dark caves, filled with mounds of droppings, slithering and hissing with cockroaches and poisonous centipedes.
Struggling not to slip in the muck, and almost choking on the toxic smell of ammonia, I’m astonished workers can spend up to 12 hours at a time in here, guarding the precious nests.
The caves, famously visited by David Attenborough in one of his early documentaries, are also close to the Kinabatangan River, one of the best places to view wildlife.
We stay at the simple two-star Borneo Nature Lodge, where guests can peddle bikes to help power generators.
During trips along the river, we see baby-faced pygmy elephants playing in the water, and watch a 100kg alpha-male orang-utan, his cheeks swollen to the size of two giant saucers, building a nest in a tree.
“Males can build up to five or six nests in a day,” our guide tells us, “for sleeping or just for comfort.”
Although there are 10,000 wild orang-utans living in Sabah, for a guaranteed sighting tourists head to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan.
Home to 45 rescued animals, who will eventually be released back into the wild, the site is most popular at the 10am and 3pm feeding times.
Slowly, orang-utans gather at the platform. To tourists’ delight, a six-year-old male called Ceria performs a roly-poly along the timber walkway.
But it’s after leaving Sepilok to explore the neighbouring Rainforest Discovery Centre that I have my closest encounter with an orang-utan in the wild.
We’re watching red-leaf monkeys from an observation tower, when a female’s pendulous arms swing into view.
There is nothing between us but fear and caution, so we keep a respectable distance.