Danum Valley Field Centre Trip Report September 2012
A note to my normal blog readers: This probably won't interest you. It's purely information for people searching for help relating to this destination.
I've posted this on the Lonely Planet forums & Trip Advisor forums as well. It's all a bit scrappy and not written very well but I just got it all down and it's too long to go over thoroughly, so I hope it reads okay.
My girlfriend and I got the 07:30 express bus from Sandakan to Lahad Datu (the closest town to Danum Valley) – to be more precise we left from Uncle Tan’s place in Sepilok – It was the bus for Semporna but it goes to Lahad Datu on the way. The cost was 25MYR and we arrived around lunch time. We just waited for it on the street at the location advised by the staff at Tan’s and we paid on the bus.
(You can get buses direct from Kota Kinabalu. There are a number of bus stations and bus companies in KK so your best bet is to ask at your accommodation for the details on which station to go to etc. I booked my bus from KK to Sepilok on the day of departure.)
----All the info is based purely on what we have seen, so parts may be missing details or be incorrect… but the important stuff should be correct ----
Lahad Datu is kind of split into two main sections; one, which I’ll call uptown, has the airport and express bus drop off point. There are shops, petrol station and banks (with ATMs) and the buildings are mostly low (i.e. we didn’t see any big hotels, but don’t quote me on that – look for yourself online maybe).
To get a rough idea of my uptown/downtown you can zoom in to Lahad Datu on Google Maps and see the two main areas of action. I’m naming them based purely on the fact that my uptown is north of downtown.
Downtown seemed to have more hotels and shops. There was even a KFC with free wifi for anyone needing a Western fix. Hotels of note would be Silam Dynasty, Royal Palms (I stayed there – cheap option), Asia Hotel. There were more but I forget. There were markets for cheap clothes (we picked up some second hand rain jackets for a couple of £ and just threw them away after). Also things like supermarkets, pharmacies, fashion shops, bakeries and a whole manner of market stalls for food etc. it was a lot more built up than we thought it would be.
The DVFC Office in Lahad Datu is ‘uptown’, and very close to the airport and express bus drop off point – 5 min or less walking from either – taxi drivers should know the address by just saying the Danum Valley Field Centre Office so try to ask one of them and walk it if you are going straight from your bus/plane. There are fake taxi drivers (with just a car) who will charge a lot and just drive around a bit to get you somewhere to justify the price) I’d already booked a hotel in downtown not knowing the areas but if you could possibly find a hotel in this uptown area you could save some money, albeit not much as downtown it isn’t far anyway.
If you are staying in downtown, a taxi from the bus drop off/airport should not cost more than 10MYR (we got offered 5myr once from an official taxi without even haggling). If you get the express bus into LD you may get hounded by ‘taxi’ drivers as soon as you step off. They aren’t real taxi drivers and they will try to charge 25MYR, we got it down to 15; and only realised the next day how much more we could have gone down.
I’d read a lot of negative things about Lahad Datu on hotel reviews etc.; i.e. not worth staying, horrible, dirty… but to be honest we had a great feeling about the place. Parts of it do smell, but no more than a lot of towns in this part of the world. Everybody, and I mean everybody, was so friendly and nice. Whether it was an old man or a young girl, they all smile and say ‘hello friend’. People were more than happy to help us with directions or advice. I don’t think they get too many tourists here as many people would stop and say ‘’woah’’ at the sight of us… and not just my blonde girlfriend, but me too; they were amazed to see us and just wanted a wave or a hello. (If you are out of your hotel and need some help, the people in KFC spoke the best English we came across).
So we arrived in LD by bus early on, got a taxi to the Royal Palms Hotel, explored the town, stayed over one night, got a taxi to DVFC office… then the shuttle to Danum Valley.
Your only two options for seeing Danum Valley are the Rainforest lodge which can cost a fortune. The other option is the Field Centre. I met people who just turned up and were allowed to go to the valley. I didn’t want to risk this however and after trying and trying for weeks I managed to contact them. I had to pay a 10% deposit via Western Union to confirm the booking.
Officially they say you have to be part of a research institute, or nature organisation. So basically, you must be part of a university or nature club. For example I was studying Biology and a member of a bird watching club. Typing it in an email was sufficient proof.
Unless they have a huge booking reservation, there will be space at the Field Centre. There are around 100 dorm beds and multiple private rooms and houses. It’s your call whether you risk not booking ahead. If you do just turn up, I’d arrive a day early (before the bus departures of Mon-Wed-Fri) and book a day before and stay a night in LD. Otherwise you may risk the bus being full or not running due to low demand. This will result in you paying 350MYR for a private vehicle. Departure time is 15:00.
They return to LD on the same days leaving the Centre at around 8:30am. Try to book any flights/transport with these times in consideration; a girl I met at the Centre had booked a flight leaving Lahad Datu early in the morning, so she had to leave at 6am stumping up the 350myr by herself. The journey is mostly on a bumpy road and takes around 2 hours.
The current Centre prices are:
Minibus transfer between the DVFC office in Lahad Datu and the Field Centre: RM65 one-way
Entry fee to Danum Valley Conservation Area: RM50 (one time payment).
The Education / Nature Gallery entrance fee:RM10.00/pp/entry.
Hostel dorm bed per night: RM91
Dinner: RM46. Lunch: RM36. Breakfast: RM29
Camera fee: RM10
Ranger fee: RM20 per hour
Standard room – 286myr per night
Full board food per day: 111myr
You pay everything up front at the office in LD. There are atms in the area; I used one close by.
Now honestly, the food was not worth the price. It was very hit and miss. One day our breakfast was so minimal it included cornflakes with no milk. There were hardly any other guests there (three in total booked for meals). You may be lucky and get some good food but our experience wasn’t great.
There is an option to take your own food and cook it there in a kitchen. The kitchen is near the dorms – which are a 10 minute walk from the private rooms, so do consider if you want walks in the dark to cook – I didn’t do this myself but another couple did. There was an issue with needing another gas bottle at one point, I’m not certain whether they had to pay for that.. But it would still be a lot cheaper than the provided meals. On the other hand, you may be very tired from walking in the insanely hot jungle all day, so consider if you really want to be cooking a meal after a very long day.
There is free hot & cold water whenever you want (with coffees etc.) About the only good “service” thing they offer.
The rooms themselves are fine, overpriced obviously, but fine. The dorms are separated by sex and are huge. 48 beds in each, separated into blocks of 4 beds. There are lots of fans and lights. The rest house we stayed in for our last couple of nights was also good; obviously it provides more comfort. It had twin beds, storage space and a bathroom.
The dorms are a 10 minute walk to the main cafeteria. The rest houses are right next to them. The reception building is in the middle of the dorms and rest houses.
Dorms/kitchen >>> reception >>> rest houses/cafeteria/library etc.
Walks and tours:
The centre says there are only two walks that you can do alone without a guide. Any others need require a guide costing 20myr an hour. One walk requires two guides, and is meant to last 7-8 hours.
We tried the two “free” walks to test ourselves and realised we had no chance of spotting any wildlife. We considered using a guide but in the end we didn’t for a few reasons. One was that we spoke to a few that were hanging around and they all spoke zero to little English. Two, we heard that they aren’t any better at spotting the wildlife. This was confirmed when on our second to last day, a group of five other tourists came, and they all hired a guide for a 5 hour walk – they saw nothing.
The issue is that in this kind of dense jungle, it is so hard, for anyone, to see wildlife. The jungle is absolutely amazing, for what it is; a rainforest. I’d recommend doing multiple walks (alone would be fine as long as you stick to the trail) but just enjoy them for the forest itself. If you see any wildlife, then that’s a bonus, but don’t go in expecting to because you may be disappointed.
If spotting an orangutan, is high on your list of priorities, then (kind of annoyingly) your best bet is to sit around either the cafeteria, reception area, and dorm area. We were continually told this and it was indeed right. The guides know of the close areas, ask them where the spots are, and check them out every day. The orang-utans love figs so find the fig trees and check them at the best times of day.
There is a great observation tower not far from the main centre; a 15 minute walk on one of the trails. It’s really high; ladder climb up a towering tree. We got up there for sunrise to witness all the birds waking up. One other couple saw some red leaf monkeys up there but all we, and several others, saw were birds (amazing ones though).
There are tours offered for 160myr, which can be split among several people. There is a night drive to try and spot wildlife. We passed on this as we had recently done some night walks and river cruises in Sepilok. The kind of things you will spot here are the obvious nocturnal animals; civets, owls etc... do a bit of Googling to see if it’s worth your money.
We did a morning sunrise drive to a high vantage point up and it was spectacular. We shared the trip with a bunch of people that arrived at the end of our stay so we paid a good price. We got some great views across the valley.
As a whole it was a great experience and I would do it again and recommend others to go. Just don’t expect any decent service and do expect to pay over the odds. If you are mentally prepared for this then they can only exceed your expectations service-wise.
The rainforest and walks were as amazing as we’d hoped. We would have liked to be able to see more wildlife, ‘in the wild’ rather than near the buildings, but it’s so hard in the dense jungle.
I had a lot of complaints about the Centre but in the end, they don’t officially allow tourists, and it’s an amazingly great experience regardless. I think I was just unprepared for what I got.
Here is the actual review I left on Trip Advisor which discusses my split opinions on the Field Centre a bit more:
If there’s anything I’ve left out please say so and I’ll try to help out. It is annoying how difficult it can be to see the Danum Valley so I hope I help others.
With regards to any email addresses that I managed to contact them on… I do hope that by giving them out it doesn’t make them regret letting tourists in. I hope they don’t get swamped and decide to deter people even more. The facilities there are so underused but it just seems like the staff don’t care… and if they received a landslide of enquiries, they seem like the kind of staff to get annoyed and change email addresses etc.
Sigh, I hope it doesn’t backfire… Here they are: