I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked where my favorite place is. It’s an impossible question but a fun one to ponder, especially when I tighten the parameters a little bit. While I haven’t been everywhere, I have been almost everywhere in Asia. I think I know this incredible continent better than most.
Let me try to narrow it down:
Japan is very special, like my second home. The scenery, wildlife and culture are beautiful and endlessly fascinating. I know Japan like the back of my hand – and its birdlife is truly outstanding.
Sri Lanka is, in my view, an underrated destination that should be on everyone’s “must visit” list. Aside from its beautiful culture and scenic landscape, its endemic birds and wildlife are exotic yet accessible.
Then there’s the Himalayas. Whether we’re talking about India, Nepal, Bhutan or even northern Burma – promise me you will see the Himalayas! They’ll take your breath away…
I also have a long and abiding affection for Vietnam. It’s hard to say why I feel the way I do about this amazing country, my emotions towards it are complex but I find it very special.
I can’t forget Indonesia, one of the most diverse, exciting and, at times, frustrating places on the planet – and one that benefits from the friendliest, most hospitable people.
But time to get to the point – if I’m forced to pick one place as my favorite I always come back to Borneo.
The island of Borneo consists of three countries – Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Brunei is one of the wealthiest countries in the world but it is tiny and although they are doing a good job of conserving their forests, there isn’t a lot there to attract keen birders and listers. Indonesia takes up 73% of this huge island but it is a poor country with struggling tourism infrastructure. Malaysia is a happy medium — a wealthy country with an excellent infrastructure that visitors can take full advantage of and a wonderful avifauna to make it worth their while.
A great majority of Borneo’s endemic and specialty birds are concentrated in the north in the Malaysian state of Sabah. It’s easy to see why Sabah attracts so many birders – there are peat swamp forests, montane forests, coastal plains and wetlands, swamp forests and broad sweeping rivers, and most importantly some of the largest remaining stands of primary lowland rainforest in all of Asia.
So if Borneo is my favorite place to lead tours, where is my favorite place in Borneo? Without hesitation, my answer is Danum Valley, in Malaysia. Not only is it one of the most productive and exciting birding destinations in all of Asia but it features one of the region’s best ecolodges. More on that in a second.
DANUM VALLEY CONSERVATION AREA
Danum Valley is a huge area in east Sabah. The 438-square kilometer Danum Valley Conservation Area – one of the largest primary forests in Southeast Asia – is located within a 10,000-square kilometer logging concession that was granted to the Yayasan Sabah Foundation in 1966. Part of the agreement was that the Danum Valley Conservation Area, along with several other areas – notably Maliau Basin and Imbak Valley – be left untouched. No doubt, this protection contributes to the area’s sustained wildlife diversity.
Getting to Danum Valley is part of the fun. From the atmospheric former pirate town of Lahad Datu we drive two to four hours, depending on road conditions, through selectively logged forest to the edge of the conservation area. En route, exciting wildlife encounters are never unexpected – I’ve seen hornbills, raptors, elephants, and an occasional orangutan.
BORNEO RAINFOREST LODGE
After a drive through the wilderness, the recently refurbished Borneo Rainforest Lodge appears like an oasis in the forest! This remote outpost stands in one of the tallest and oldest rainforests in the world. The forest extends as far as the eye can see, and the promise of exciting discoveries follows with every step.
The floristic diversity is truly astounding and the wildlife follows suit. Over 120 species of mammal have been recorded here, including ten species of primate. Around the lodge we regularly see orangutan, Bornean gibbon, red leaf monkey, Bornean elephant, bearded pig, leopard cat, mouse deer, sambar, Bornean tarsier and, on very lucky occasions the incredible clouded leopard. Nightly drives by the lodge staff always turn up an exciting night creature– perhaps a bay cat or a Malaysian sun bear. The reptiles, amphibians, and insects are equally impressive. Borneo is famous for its gliding critters. Wallace’s flying frog, paradise tree snake, the Draco flying lizards, Kuhl’s flying gecko, red giant and Thomas’ flying squirrel and the weird colugo are all seen regularly in Danum Valley.
Around every corner, one is likely to see a new and startlingly beautiful bird. Of Borneo’s 635 bird species, over 340 have been recorded in Danum Valley. Even around the lodge itself the birdlife is plentiful – at times there’s so much going on it seems like you don’t even have to leave the veranda . When I was there recently I was amazed to see a small flock of Pygmy White-eye, a scarce endemic, fly into a small flowering tree right in front of us as we were having lunch. The flowering bushes in the gardens attract a plethora of sunbirds and fabulous spiderhunters, offering great photo opportunities. There’s also a gang of Crested Firebacks that frequently patrol the gardens, roaming about under the raised cottages and boardwalks.
An excellent network of trails radiate out from the lodge and allow us to explore microhabitats in the surrounding forest. Besides the easy-to-walk “Nature Trail” boardwalk in front of the lodge, there are several exotically named trails – the Hornbill Trail, the Sapa Bebandil Trail, the Coffin Cliff Trail, and last but not least the Jacuzzi Trail, which leads to a hidden natural swimming pool deep in the forest. All the trails are worth exploring and there’s a chance to discover something special on each.
Going off trail has rewards. Dark recesses of the forest often conceal partridges, pheasants, and pittas, including the endemic Blue-headed and Black-and-crimson Pittas. If our timing is right the jaw-dropping Great Arguses can be surprisingly confiding. We’ll also see forest kingfishers like Banded and Rufous-collared Kingfishers, and a slew of gem-like flycatchers, amongst others.
That said, the most exciting birding and wildlife viewing is to be found right along the entrance road to the lodge. This narrow dirt road, about a mile in length, undulates somewhat but the walking is easy and the viewing excellent. We encounter some really special birds here including up to eight species of hornbill – the Rhinoceros and Helmeted Hornbills are standouts in a truly fabulous group; a number of exciting woodpecker species including my favorite, the Great Slaty Woodpecker; and maybe some of the striking Malkohas – a group of fancy cuckoos similar to the squirrel-cuckoos of the New World.
If we are lucky enough to find a fruiting tree, we may be treated to a number of the magnificent barbet species including Red-crowned, Yellow-throated, Gold-whiskered and Blue-eared Barbet. In fact, the resonant calls of barbets are omnipresent soundtrack throughout the Bornean rainforest.
The lodge’s canopy walkway leads through the treetops for 300 meters allowing great views of many canopy dwellers. From here we usually have our best chance of finding one of Borneo’s most enigmatic birds, the bizarre Bornean Bristlehead.
It’s all about the wildlife. There is never a dull moment in this magical place. In my childhood I had dreams of exploring the hot, steamy jungles of the tropics and discovering amazing hidden creatures that I only knew from books. This childhood fascination is realized every time I visit Borneo! There is no limit to the personal discoveries one can make in the wilds of this amazing island.