Visit Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) Without Travel Agency

I often heard people talking about Danum Valley in Sabah as one the very best example of pristine primary rainforest, with full range of Bornean wildlife and a great trail-system.

It’s located about 2h30 from Lahad Datu. The place is fairly isolated as there is only one road passing through logged forest going there and no village nearby.

It’s a great place to visit, probably the place I enjoyed the most in Sabah with Kinabatangan.

Wildlife in Danum Valley

All the report is based on a visit to the Danum Valley Field Center in August 2022. Weather was great, almost no rain and not many leeches.

Primates

A large ficus tree was fruiting maybe 1 kilometers away from the center and attracted orangutans. On one night a male orangutan made its nest in a tree right next to the badmington field (so directly within the premises of the center).

From what I understood from the guides, spotting orangutan can be difficult if the fruiting trees are far away in the forest.

Gibbons were seen every day in the forest not far from the center. Their ability to swing themselves from one branch to another is fascinating :

I saw groups of maroon langurs once crossing the road in front of Pondok Rimba and feeding on a tree directly in front of the common dining room.

Night walk / night drive

I did one night drive but we didn’t got very lucky. It got better on other nights according to other guests (they saw a mouse deer and 3 flying lemurs / colugo) :

I did also one night walk which was very interesting :

Reptiles

I was mostly focused on primates in Danum but some great reptiles can be found there.

Birds

Danum is supposed to be a fantastic birding spot, but I’m a very poor birder.

I was surprised to hear or see very little hornbills though.

The rainforest

Danum Valley is the land of gigantic trees. Truly marvelous.

Several longer trails exists (Rhino Pool Trail, Tembeling Trail …) but all the guests I met told me they didn’t saw much wildlife there.

Organize your trip independently

You have 2 options to visit Danum Valley. They are not located at the same place but the wildlife you can see if the same.

  • The Borneo Rainforest Lodge is an upscale resort that is … expensive. As of December 2022, the cheapest 4D3N package costs 12’490 RM (about 2’655€/$) for 2 people or 6’810 RM for a single traveler (about 1’500€/$)
  • Danum Valley Field Center is more simple. You stay either in rooms or in a big 50 person dorm. As of December 2022 public price for 4D3N package in the cheapest kind of rooms (not dorm) costs 7’180 RM (about 1526 €/$ ) for 2 people or 4’690 RM (about 1000€/$) for a single traveler.

By staying at the dorm (and asking for a few other modifications in the package) I ended up paying 2’899 RM all included (about 616 €/$) for a 5D4N stay.

Step 1 : get in touch with Yayasan Sabah to book your trip at the DVFC

When I visited Danum Valley at the DVFC I was the only independent visitors. All the others booked through a travel agency.

DVFC nonetheless takes without any problem independent bookings (but they don’t really promote this way of visiting otherwise they would make finding their email much more obvious !).

So you need to contact them by email. Don’t be surprised if you get personal email, this is very common in Malaysia (I had Malaysian accountants at work replying to me with their @yahoo email).

  • Through Tripadvisors comments I found 2 emails to contact : (sck_72@yahoo.com & roserlie2507@gmail.com).
  • Long story short, the first email is not active / wrong and the second one is Ms. Rosnita who changed position since then but very kindly forwarded my request to the new reservation officer.
  • As of 2022 the reservation officer for DVFC is Ms. Hafeona (hafeona.camd@gmail.com)
  • After a few days I got a very kind response of Rosnita informing that she had changed position at Yayasan Sabah and that I should contact
  • Overall it took me 1 full month to have to booking fully sorted out so anticipate.

Step 2 : chose and adjust your package

The reservation officer will propose you packages including transfer from Lahad Datu / permits / accommodation / food and activities.

A few comments to help you choose :

  • When they say for instance 3D2N package you are actually picked up in Lahad Datu on Day 1 (mid-afternoon if you take the normal shuttle) and you return to Lahad Datu on the morning of the 3rd day. So you actually spend only one full day in the park.
  • It’s possible to request private transfers but for an extra 350 RM (max 4 people) or 650 RM (max 9 people)
  • Rooms are located right next to the dinning area. Dorms (one for male and one for female) are a 10 minutes walk away.
  • I chose to exclude all activities from the initial package to book only transfer / dorm / food / permits. You can book activities and rangers directly on site at the office (more details below).
  • Without a ranger you will have to stay around the DVFC or on the short self-guided trails.
  • If you book a package with activities, you are allocated one guide for all your stay.
  • Virtually all visitors book through a travel agency so they arrive with their guide allocated. The DVFC doesn’t allow independent visitors to just join an existing group even though they agree. So you will either have to hire a guide on the spot or stay in the vicinity of the center.

Once you agreed on a quotation you must transfer the money to Yayasan Sabah. I did that through Transferwise.

Budget

Here are the rates I was given by the reservation officer valid from April 2022 to December 2023 :

Activities

  • Night Drives (6 people seats in the back of a pickup and drive in the evening the main road with a spotter looking for wildlife) are charged 160 RM divided by the number of participants. Always extra even if you take a package.
  • You can hire a guide from the reception for 200 RM full day or 100 RM half day. It’s not clear if the 200RM includes a night walk or not. I don’t think so but I’m not sure.
  • You can go watch the sunrise / the sunset from an observation tower located maybe 5km away from the center. You pay 160RM per car (max 4 passengers) and you divide the price among you.

I asked the reservation officer to quote package with and without activities. If sleeping at dorm, for a single traveler (remember than 3D2N is actually only 1 day in DVFC, 2 for 4D3N, 3 for 5D4N) :

  • 3D2N : 1’366 RM / 946 RM. So 420 RM per day for activities (vs 200 + 160 = 360 RM for morning, afternoon and night walk).
  • 4D3N : 1’950 RM / 1’320 RM. So 530 RM for 2 days of activities (set program).
  • 5D4N : 2’511 RM / 1’692 RM. So 819 RM for 4 days of activities (set program) vs 1’080 RM for 3 days of rangers (2 day-walk + 1 night-walk).

I chose to exclude activities first because the price seemed quite high to me. It is because they automatically allocate you a private guide even if you are solo.

If you travel with 2 people or more make sure the daily rate is lower than what is above because you share the guiding fees (according to their own rates it should be max 360 RM per day for the full group).

DVFC without a guide

I thought I could just join an existing group to share guides but turned out it’s not allowed.

You can see cool stuff around the center (like maroon langurs), on the self-guided trails or on the main road.

I saw the keel-pit viper or the Wallace Tree Frog alone for instance.

But every time I got tipped by other guests after they found something with the guides or by guides themselves (they were all staying at the dorm with me !).

I was also lucky that a fruiting ficus tree was quite near the center and attracted orangutan. It was off the self-guided trails but not very far and I visited it by myself a few times as well as other guests (while their guide was resting in the afternoon for instance).

On one night, a friendly guide took me for free with his group on a night walk took.

I hired a guide through the reception once for one half day. But at 10:30AM he told me he had other guests to guide so he had to go back, I told him I knew the way back and I returned to the center by myself.

I never ventured far away on the longer trails out of respect for the rules.

Return of experience

If I was to go back with a 5D4N package I would do the following :

  • Book the dorm / food / transfer as I did for 2’511 RM.
  • Tell them to add a guide D2, D3, D4 for a morning walk, an afternoon walk and a night walk (keep in mind that all these expenses are shared among your group !)
  • On D1 you can just venture around the center, the self-guided trails and do a night drive at night.
  • The sunrise is a bit disappointing as the observation tower is not right in the middle of the canopy.

I ended up paying :

  • 160/7 = 23 RM for a night drive.
  • 100 RM for half day with a guide.
  • 160/3 = 53 RM = for a sunrise trip.
  • Got a night walk for free.

If you absolutely want to save some money there is a large kitchen near the dorm that you could use to bypass the rather good but overpriced common restaurant.

Cost wrap-up

  • 5D4N package (actually 3 full days in Danum Valley) including dorm accommodation, food, scheduled transfer from Lahad Datu and permits : 1’692 RM
  • Activities on site : 177 RM
  • Total : 1’869 RM

If I was to do it again I would hire a guide at least 2 days : 360 * 2 = 720 RM and probably do an extra night drive on day 1 for 27 RM (assuming the car is full).

So my returning budget would be 2’439 RM.

It’s definitely a destination that is worth to visit in group (ideally 2 to 4 people).

Also having to walk 10 minutes to your room each way is annoying. And I was lucky because we had very little rain !

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