Orangutans of Bukit Merah, Malaysia

We finally bit the bullet!  After 6 months of public transportation, we rented a car for the day.  Twenty four hours of unadulterated freedom.  Dinner at the yummiest Indian restaurant in Penang (possibly all of Malaysia), shopping, sightseeing and, best of all, a trip to Orangutan Island!

Let me back up just a minute and explain that not long ago we were torn about where to travel to after Malaysia. For quite some time there was talk in the family of heading to Borneo.  Aside from all the amazing beauty available in Borneo the one thing that stuck out and quickly became a must visit was the Orangutan Rescue Center.

Then the unthinkable happened...we changed our minds and decided on Cambodia, which has approximately NO orangutans!  So when we learned that there were orangutans near Penang, we decided this was our chance.  After all the research we did and excitement that was mustered up in the kids over Borneo's orangutans, there really was no other choice of what to do on our car freedom day!

We set off at 8am, 915am from Batu Ferringhi in Penang.  This may have been better than the previously discussed time because we had no traffic at all in reaching the bridge to the mainland in Georgetown.  After driving in other cars on the "wrong" side of the road, I was quick to pick it up and within a few minutes felt comfortable driving.  Over the bridge we went towards KL.  A half-hour later we were at our exit for Bukit Merah and making our way without incident to the entrance of Laketown Resort where the Bukit Merah Orangutan sanctuary is housed.

On our way!
We reached the pier at 10:45am and had just missed a boat.  The Orangutans are housed on their own island so the boat ride is necessary.  The trip takes all of 10 minutes across a beautiful lake with mountain vistas, but it only goes every 45 minutes.  We paid $40 for the 4 of us, which included the boat trip there and back, and a guided tour of the facility with an English-speaking guide.  There is also an ecopark, ski lift, and water park that can be explored for an added cost.  We deferred though as we wanted to make better use of our car time!

Immediately upon arriving on Orangutan Island we realized that this would be a very different experience from your typical zoo.  We were greeted by our guide, and you could see the joy on her face at talking about the facility and the animals.  I always feel this is a good indicator about the facility on the whole.  She explained how they re-release the orangutans after a series of stages to be sure they are prepared for life in the wild.  They showed us all the birth certificates with pride, and then proceeded to start the tour.

Inside our cage!
Right away we sensed that this really is the orangutan's island.  As we walked on from the pier my son said, "Mom, look WE are the ones in a cage here."  He was right, it was us in the cages!  First stop was the adolescent primates, who were free to roam the majority of the island, kept separate only from a mother with a small baby.  The adolescents were between 4 and 8 years old, and remarkably quite small still.  At 8-10 years of age the orangutans hit a puberty of sorts and are moved to a separate island where they have minimal human interaction in order to prepare them for their release in the wilds of Borneo.  Visitors do not visit the adult island.

These orangutans were hysterical! In the 30 minutes or so that we observed them, talked to them, fed them, and took photos, we all felt we had gotten to know them a bit.  All with their own personalities which were easy to pick up on and enjoy. They seemed to enjoy observing us just as much as we enjoyed watching them.

Adam, our first viewer:)

Look at those faces!

The visitor

Sweet girl
They rolled around, played with each other, and interacted with some local macaque monkeys also vying for their fruit.  Some deferred and gave up their fruit, the alpha actually struck the smaller monkeys, while others made hand gestures and threatened but in the end left the small monkeys alone.  It was a rainy day, and we got there mid-day, so we had the place basically to ourselves and were given the freedom to stay as long we liked watching.  So we obliged and stayed quite a while.

But we were all anxious to get over to the "baby" area, and see these creatures in all their cuteness, so we moved on.  Sadly, there were no newborns but rather a pair of 1-year-olds.  They were still quite small as the babies are born much smaller then the average human newborn.  Adorable is an extreme understatement!

After removing his diaper every 10 seconds:)
Picking off the crust
We watched them playing with one another, playing with their nurses, and we could immediately see the personality differences in the two.  One was content to relax and cuddle, while the other was naughty, naughty, naughty.  Tearing of his diapers, playing roughly with his nurse, flirting with us, trying to escape, and throwing his food around the room.  It was hard not to see the similarities between this curious little guy and a certain curious little guy that resides with us :)  He even picked the crust off his bread like so many human children tend to do, in my home anyway.  These two cuties were hard to leave, but we pressed on.

Next was the kindergarten area where the babies go after the nursery, at around 2 years old, until 4 years old when they are moved to the adolescent area.   Here they learn to swing, climb, and care for themselves, the second stage of their release.  There were also two orangutans in this area and we were able to interact with one by passing a twig back and forth between a crack in the glass.  It was a once in a lifetime experience and one I know we will all hold onto.

Mama and baby, the other 2 were orphans

The stick in the crack game

If only that glass wasn't there:(
Orangutans have the sweetest eyes that can just melt your heart.  They share 97 % of our DNA (primary difference is their inability to speak -- and longer body hair) and when observing them so closely it becomes clear how vital it is to save these creatures and invest what it takes to protect their habitat and increase their numbers.

As we boarded the boat to head back over the lake we all sat in silence, until my little guy, 4 years old, came over to me with a big hug and said, "Mom, I love those monkeys!"  Not quite monkeys, but the exact sentiment we all shared;  love and gratitude for living this life, experiencing animals all over the world, and having an opportunity to share our experiences with others to try and make a difference!

You can feel good about supporting the facility at Bukit Merah, as they use the money to care for the animals as well as conduct research, and breeding in order to increase their population in the wild.  The staff all interacted in such a sweet manner that it was easy to tell these primates were well cared for and very happy.  We never felt rushed at all and the guide knew the answers to all our questions, and we asked tons!

Put the Orangutan Island on your itinerary if you are in the Penang area.  It also would make a great pit stop if driving from Penang or Thailand down to Kuala Lumpur.  We highly recommend it!

Stay tuned to see what else we did on our freedom car day......

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  1. I’ve been to Malaysia. I saw Petronas, Keil tower and had fun at theme parks, I have seen Orangutans at the Adelaide zoo. I haven’t been to a Orangutans rescue center. These photos are brilliant.