kinabatangan river safari

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.

Yours truly on the Kinabatangan River

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.

kinabatangan river safari sabah
The vegetation near the river mouth


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.

things to do in sandakan sabah
The Central Market in Sandakan

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.

where to stay in sepilok
Sepilok Nature Resort chalets

Search for hotels in Sandakan (

Gomantong Caves

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.

gomantong caves sabah
Gomantong caves

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!

where to stay kinabatangan river
Borneo Nature Lodge

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!

best lodge kinabatangan river
One lodge I recommend is the Sukau Rainforest Lodge
where david attenborough stayed sabah malaysia
The villa I stayed at (where David Attenborough also stayed)
The ‘David Attenborough’ villa I stayed at.
best accommodation kinabatangan river
The lovely bar/restaurant

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.

animals to see in borneo
The Borneo Big Five: crocodile, orangutan, pygmy elephant, rhinoceros hornbill and proboscis monkey

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.

The hornbill

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!

what to see kinabatangan river
Cruising along one of the tributaries

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!

A Dutchman?
best wildlife tours in malaysia
Proboscis monkeys in the trees

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.

This one can grow to about 2 meters.

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:

what are the borneo big five
A crocodile, one of the Borneo Big Five

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:

A kingfisher
malaysia jungle tour
And another…
birdlife kinabatangan river sabah
This gorgeous kingfisher was an amazing sight!
what birds to see kinabatangan river
We found these two kingfishers on a low branch

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.

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Morning mist
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The Kinabatangan River at dawn
borneo top wildlife tours
Bird-spotting at the Oxbow lake

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!

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This orangutan casually swung by as I sat on the deck of my villa!
malaysia nature tour
An incredible wildlife encounter right at the lodge!

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!

Read other posts on Sabah


30 Responses

  • What an incredible journey!! Those lodges look amazing too and all individual cabins…love it. That snake must have been a frightful adventure for all those onboard. I wouldn’t even want to imagine. LOL.

  • What an incredible experience! I’ve been considering a trip to Borneo and this has tipped me over the edge. Thanks for sharing!

  • […] the accompanying post: ‘The Kinabatangan River Safari‘. Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 Asia TAGS: Malaysia, […]

  • Cool! I’m sure you’ll have an awesome time there. Will keep a look-out for your Sabah posts. Enjoy!


  • Very much looking forward to doing this very trip at the end of June. Keep an eye out for our reviews from all over Sabah. Thanks for helping me prepare!

  • […] maps to my posts (either as a pop-up or an […]

  • Keith, what a beautifull adventure, and again beautifully (and funny) told!
    .. Orang Belanda …mmm..maybe I’ll change my nationality.., does my nose look this big?

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  • Hi Mindy,
    I was there for only one night (unfortunately). Yes, we did see quite a few monitor lizards – have a picture of one of them on a branch. Some people who left comments here said they saw wild orangutans too. Pretty awesome.

    Thanks for your comment!


  • Hey, Keith, how long was this safari? How many nights did you stay at the lodge at Bukit Melapi? Sounds great — I have been boat-riding on the Kinabatangan and also never did see a single crocodile.

    One thing we saw that you did not mention: big monitor lizards! First we saw them running on the riverbank. Then they jumped in and went swimming, parallel to the bank. Very impressive.

    We also saw a trashed clearing where the dwarf elephants had recently had a romp. That got our hopes up for seeing the elephants, but there was no other sign of them.

  • Hi Kathryn,
    Yup, you can see all of them in Sabah. It’s an amazing corner of Borneo & I highly recommend a visit.
    Glad you’re loving my Sabah posts. πŸ™‚


  • First orangutans and now proboscis monkeys?!? Wow – if I wasn’t before, I’m now OFFICIALLY jealous! Thanks for the fantastic stories and photos. I’m enjoying living vicariously through your adventures.


  • Thanks Deb. Think I would have freaked out if that spider landed on me! You’re so lucky to have seen the orangutan in the wild.

    Cheers, Keith

  • Your safari lodge looks way nicer than our rustic lodge with Uncle Tans:) But we loved our time at Kinabatangan. I can’t believe that people jumped into the water. But when panic strikes, all rational thoughts go out the window.
    We were even lucky enough to see an orangutan in the wild at Kinabatangan. I think that we saw almost everything that you could see in Borneo while on safari there. Except for the Rhino.
    One great tip we learned on the night safari was to hold your flashlight up to your nose while you look into the jungle. The light will catch the animals eyes and you will be able to spot them quite easily. We learned all the different colours of each type of animal too. I can’t quite remember the rules anymore, but I think it was red eyes for mammals, green eyes for amphibians. Very cool!
    During our night jungle walk, huge spider fell on a girl in our group and we all freaked out, (maybe we would have jumped out of the boat if we were in it) Then our guide said it wasn’t poisonous as he casually took it off her back and let it crawl on a few brave souls. Dave was one of them of course:-)

  • Oh WOW….looks like another destination for the ‘Bucket List’. I love finding out about new places I never knew existed!

  • Thanks Marilyn. The whole place felt like I was leafing through a Nat Geo mag, well apart from the Karaoke in the Jungle. πŸ˜‰ I guess my sensible side prevailed – I knew I had to get up at 5:30am the next day and once you get me going on stage… you never know what’ll happen next. LOL! πŸ™‚ Thrilled you love the pics!


  • wow! and the birds don’t get scared off? lovely close-up portraits of kingfishers!

  • Thanks for your comment Nancie. Seeing an orangutan in the wild must’ve been an awesome experience – that’s so rare.


  • Hi Keith,

    I toured the Kinabatangan with Uncle Tan’s two years ago. It was a fantastic adventure. The highlight for me was seeing a orangutan in the wild.

    Thank you for bring back from great memories.

  • Haha, that’s probably true. Great story to tell though. πŸ™‚
    Thanks for your comment.


  • Keith, great write on this. Funny too cause my guide told me the same story about the snake falling on to the boat during my river safari there in Dec. Probably it’s a guide story for everyone πŸ™‚

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