The Kinabatangan River is Malaysia’s second longest river (at 560 kilometers). Located in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo (map), the Kinabatangan has its origins in the mountains of southwest Sabah and carves its way through some of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world to its mouth in the Sulu Sea. A great way to see the abundance of unique flora and fauna is to go on a Kinabatangan River safari, one of the top wildlife tours in Malaysia.
How to get to the Kinabatangan River
There are two ways to get to the Kinabatangan River from Sandakan, both of which have roughly the same journey time of 2-3 hours: overland, with the last stretch by boat; and direct by boat from the Sandakan pier. I’ve travelled both ways and they each have their advantages. Travelling overland means you get to see the Sabah countryside and make a stop at the Gomantong caves. The direct trip by boat from Sandakan offers more opportunities to spot wildlife, and you get to see the mangrove forests at the mouth of the river and how it changes to thick rainforest inland. Most of the riverside lodges are located near the village of Sukau. Whichever route you choose, I recommend booking at least a two-night stay at the Kinabatangan River.
As many of the Kinabatangan wildlife tours leave Sandakan in the morning, I recommend staying a night in Sandakan prior to the tour departure. Sandakan town has several attractions such as the Agnes Keith House, Central Market and the Sim Sim water village to keep visitors occupied for several hours.
If you prefer to dive into Sabah’s wildlife right away, I recommend staying in the Sepilok area which is home to the world famous Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, the Rainforest Discovery Centre and Sun Bear Sanctuary. Sepilok is about a 20-minute drive from Sandakan Airport. One accommodation I loved is the Sepilok Nature Resort, a magical place at the edge of the Sepilok forest.
Search for hotels in Sandakan (Booking.com).
If you choose the overland route to the Kinabatangan River from Sandakan to Sukau, you have the option to stop at the Gomantong Caves along the way. What makes these caves unique are the edible birds’ nests high in the crevices of the cave’s ceiling, more than 30 meters above the cave floor. The nests have been harvested for centuries and sold to the Chinese who consider it a delicacy. It’s said that the Chinese Emperors only ate birds nests from this cave.
Where to stay at the Kinabatangan River
Borneo Nature Lodge
I’ve stayed at two different lodges, both of which were excellent. On my first trip, I stayed at the wonderful Borneo Nature Lodge. The resort consists of individual lodges near the river. The lodges looked rather simple from the outside but when I opened the door, I found a lovely, clean room with comfy beds. The staff, including the guides, were absolutely wonderful!
Sukau Rainforest Lodge
During my second visit, I chose the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. This award-winning lodge has more luxurious villas, two plunge pools and a wonderful riverside restaurant/bar. The villa I stayed at was special: David Attenborough himself stayed in this villa!
The lodges offer similar boat tours: early-morning, late-afternoon/sundowner and night tours. These tours, including accommodation, meals and transfers, can be booked as a package at most lodges.
Kinabatangan River safari experiences
During my first visit, my guide gave me a rundown of the wildlife I could expect to see along the banks of the Kinabatangan River: the elusive proboscis monkey, pygmy elephants, orangutans, crocodiles, macaques and a large variety of birds, insects and snakes. His aim was to track down the Borneo Big Five for his guests.
I’ve been on many guided treks and safaris, and each time, it truly amazes me how much the guides know about the flora and fauna (I guess it’s their job to know these things but it still amazes me nevertheless) and how they’re able to spot animals that are often beautifully camouflaged. The first animals we spotted were some macaques at the riverbank.
A few moments later, we spotted a magnificent hornbill in a tree.
We turned off the main river and cruised along one of the many tributaries. We were constantly accompanied by the sounds of the jungle: thousands of crickets, the hoots of different birds and the howls of monkeys. In certain parts, the sounds were almost deafening!
Spotting the Proboscis monkey
Not much later, we found a family of Proboscis monkeys. It was a stunning sight. The Proboscis monkey is an endangered species and can only be found in certain parts of Borneo. They were high up in the trees but the male’s ‘beer belly’, orange fur coat, reddish face and long nose were unmistakable. These monkeys are called ‘orang belanda’ or ‘Dutchman’ by the locals, a reference to the Dutch traders who lived along the coast in the 19th century. The locals quip that when the Dutch, with their long noses, got drunk, their faces turned red and resembled the Proboscis monkey!
The Proboscis monkeys have a fascinating social life. The dominant male in the group heads a harem of up to 20+ wives and always sits on the highest branches, while his harem and offspring reside on the lower branches. Females are attracted to the males with the biggest, um.., nose!
A snake story
We soon spotted some snakes, all curled up in the trees or on low-hanging branches.
My guide had a great story to tell. During one of his river safari cruises, the visitors asked the boatman to get closer to a tree so they could take a good picture of a snake. There were three boats crowded around that tree and one of the boats accidentally bumped the tree and the snake fell into the boat. The visitors panicked and scrambled to get into the other boats. Some of them jumped into the river. Within moments, they realised that there were crocodiles lurking around. They tried desperately to clamber back into the boat, horror written all over their faces. While all this was happening, the boatman casually picked up the snake and threw it back into the tree. The lesson here: keep your distance and don’t jump into the water!
I didn’t spot any crocodiles on that first trip but I saw many during my second, including this giant that was at least 3 meters long:
Kinabatangan night safari
Night safaris offer visitors the opportunity to get close to the animals, especially the birdlife, as they sleep. Equipped with nothing more than a few torchlights, we cruised silently along the serene river banks. The atmosphere was completely different compared to the daytime – the jungle was asleep. The guides are true experts. With a single sweep of the torch’s ray along the river bank, they could tell if there was anything worth checking out. As the guide shone his torch across the surface of the river, a dozen little diamond-like objects lit up. Crocodile eyes, the guide explained.
We spotted many birds, including numerous colourful kingfishers:
The night river safari was a truly enthralling experience. The boats typically return to the lodge at about 11pm.
Kinabatangan morning river safari
I loved the morning safaris, which typically started at 6am. The best times to see wildlife in the rainforest are in the early-mornings and late-afternoons. It’s cool in the mornings and an absolutely magical experience to see and hear the jungle slowly come to life as the sun rises.
The birdlife stole our attention again. Gorgeous cormorants, hornbills, kingfishers and eagles. We also spotted more Proboscis monkeys in the trees. The pygmy elephants stayed out of sight… unfortunately.
An unforgettable orangutan encounter
I had the most extraordinary encounter during my second visit, while I was staying at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. One afternoon, as I sat on the deck of my villa, I heard some branches cracking. I peered into the distance and soon spotted an orangutan. To my delight, it seemed to be heading in my direction. I stood absolutely still as it slowly made its way towards my deck before climbing onto the roof of the villa. This was definitely one of my favourite Kinabatangan River wildlife experiences!
I was simply awestruck by the wildlife along the Kinabatangan River. It’s definitely one of the top places to visit in Sabah, especially for nature lovers!