How to See the World in a Lifetime: Asia for Tweens and Teens

Dispatches from the Laman family’s wild summer vacations in Borneo. | By Cheryl Knott and Jessica & Russell Laman
orangutans in Borneo
Sighting a baby orangutan is a thrill even for experienced researchers such as Cheryl Knott. Young orangutans depend on their mom for some six years, learning how to survive in the rainforest. Visit for more info. Photo: Tim Laman

“My friends are probably at home playing video games, and I’m pulling a canoe upriver in Borneo!” shouted our son, Russell, eight years old at the time, as we made our way to my research station deep in the rainforests of Indonesia’s Gunung Palung National Park, one of the last strongholds of the endangered Bornean orangutan. The real world always beats electronics. That’s the essence of why my husband, Tim Laman, and I have brought Russell and our daughter, Jessica, to this isolated rainforest camp annually, as I check in on my long-term project studying wild orangutans, and Tim takes photographs for National Geographic Magazine.

Travelling with children in tow may seem like a challenge, but with a bit of planning it’s doable, even to the most obscure places. If you start when they’re babies, they (and you) will soon be experts. Involve your kids in planning the trip so they’ll feel invested in it. And always carry a big book to relieve the tedium of inevitable travel delays. Last year I read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings out loud to the whole family, which ended up being a memorable shared experience. We’ve been lucky enough to have these opportunities to travel to wild places with our children, but the thrill of nature can be as close as your own backyard. Whether kayaking on your local pond or camping in a rainforest in Southeast Asia, there’s nothing that surpasses seeing nature again for the first time in the eyes of your child.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

the Laman kids cross a river

Jessica and Russell Laman help their parents track orangutans in Borneo. Photo: Tim Laman

Jessica, 12

BANG! Crunch! A heavy fruit falls from the high canopy and lands on the tin roof of our hut, waking me. I sit up, engulfed in the ruckus of the Borneo rainforest. I pull on my boots and set off along the trail toward the main camp. Our rustic jungle hut consists of a single room with three wooden walls and one half wall, elevated above the rainforest floor and sheltered by a tin roof. Since the age of five I have travelled to my mom’s remote orangutan research station in Gunung Palung as part of my summer vacation. Seven years later it only amazes me more. I take a big gulp of the fresh air. The rainforest abounds with life. Even if I may not be able to see all those tiny whirring insects or songbirds hidden high in the canopy, that sense of life flows through me, filling me with energy.

Russell, 15

My sister and I join my dad and other members of the research team in tracking a big male orangutan who is swinging through the rainforest canopy, spectacular-looking with his giant cheek pads. We follow him on his journey to find food, spending a few minutes in one tree before moving on to the next. Of all the animals and plants in the Bornean rainforest, the orangutan is the ultimate find. Its effortless motion through the treetops, paired with its human-like interactions, makes it an extraordinary sight. Although orangutans do not usually travel in groups, each moment they do interact is a touching reminder of how similar they are to us. We watch him until he settles down for the night. Then we don our headlamps and get out our compasses and maps. Predictably, Dad says, “Okay, kids, you lead us back to camp.” And we do just that.

the photographer, his wife and their kids

Photographer Tim Laman, his wife, researcher Cheryl Knott, and their kids get a break from bushwhacking through the Borneo rainforest when the orangutan they are following stops to eat. Photo: Trevor Frost

3 Picks for Borneo Wildlife Watching

Borneo includes regions of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. The Malaysian side has ecotourism options and national parks that are more developed. Borneo Adventure can organize itineraries (; 8-day, 7-night Malaysian Borneo tour MYR4040/₹68,425 per person).

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary

A 260-square-kilometre protected floodplain is home to proboscis monkeys, and pygmy elephants. Check in at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World (; 3-day, 2-night packages from MYR1,495/₹25,600 per person on a doubles package).

Danum Valley Conservation Area

In this 438-square-kilometre lowland forest, stay at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Thirty chalets with outdoor tubs offer prime forest views. Borneo Nature Tours has excellent guides (; 3-day, 2-night from MYR3,158/₹54,150, per person on a doubles package).

Gunung Mulu National Park

No orangutans here, but many other species roam this UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its limestone pinnacles and network of caves, including the largest known cave chamber in the world (; entry adults MYR30/₹515; visitors between 7-18 years MYR10/₹170, children below 6 free).

Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Asia for Tweens and Teens”.

For other stories in our collection of Journeys for a Lifetime, go here.

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