Kinabatangan River – Everything You Need to Know! 🚤

Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia 2

“They’re coming!” Our guide called from the back of the boat. 

Following his pointed finger, I looked to the treetops to see six stunning rhinoceros hornbills taking flight. The majestic birds swept overhead and disappeared into the trees.  

“Welcome to Kinabatangan River,” he said with a grin.

And what a welcome it was! 

The Kinabatangan River in Borneo is Malaysia’s second-longest watercourse. A vast array of rare and endangered wildlife calls this place home, much of which can be seen on a multi-day trip. 

Cruising the Kinabatangan River is meant to be one of the best things to do in Borneo, so before choosing my trip, I trawled company websites, spoke to everyone I met and studied reviews for hours. If you’re also looking to visit, I’ll share everything I learnt with you below! 

Hornbill, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
A rhinoceros hornbill flying over Kinabatangan!

Visiting Kinabatangan River – What You Need to Know 🌳

Kinabatangan River Map and Resources

MORE INFO: (opens in a new tab)


How to Visit the Kinabatangan River 🚤

Stretching from the Crocker Mountains to the Sulu Sea, the Kinabatangan River, Borneo, is best visited on a multi-day tour. Many companies offer all-inclusive tour packages which include pick-up from Sandakan or Sepilok. You can also arrange tours and transport from Kota Kinabalu but prepare to pay a bit more for these. 

“[It’s] a common misconception that you will DEFINITELY see crocs, orangutans & pygmy elephants. We were led to believe it was almost a guarantee but we did not see any of these in the wild. On our river cruises, we saw only proboscis monkeys, snakes, macaques and hornbills.  On our night walk, we only saw creepy crawlies BUT a girl we met a couple of days earlier HAD seen them all so it is just luck of the draw.”

Gemma, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

When choosing your Kinabatangan multi-day tour, you’ll find prices ranging from 300-3000+MYR (approx. $60-630+USD) depending on your length of stay, accommodation and the tour company you opt for. On the cheaper end, expect to be sharing a dorm room and relying on mosquito nets to keep the biting blighters away at night. Your meals will all be local food, often served buffet style. 

If money is no issue, you can stay in beautiful private bungalows in the jungle. Food will be a mix of local and western buffets but with more than enough to go back for seconds or even thirds! 

Half-Day Tours

Multi-day tours are the most popular way to visit Kinabatangan for good reason. They give you a chance to really experience the wonderful jungle setting. But if you’re short on time or money, half-day tours are available. You’ll join a group already staying on the river for an afternoon cruise before heading back to Sandakan or Sepilok. Half-day tours tend to cost less than 100MYR (approx. $20USD) per person. Just remember that there are no guarantees of seeing wild animals. On a single cruise, you might see nothing but a few monkeys, or you could see crocodiles, elephants and orangutans. The longer you spend on the river, the better the chance of seeing wildlife! 

Can I Visit the Kinabatangan River Independently?

While it’s possible to get close to the river without a tour, you’ll be hard-pressed to get out on a Kinabatangan River cruise without staying at one of the many lodges offering this service. If you are staying at a lodge, then transport can usually be arranged from at least Sandakan and Sepilok, if not from further afield. 

If you insist that you want to make your way to the river without using the provided tour transport, it is possible. And it’s a bit of an adventure! 

Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
Kinabatangan River in the afternoon!

Aim for Sakau, a small community surrounded by jungle lodges. To get to Sakau from Sandakan, you’ll need to get a bus from the main terminal located outside town. Getting there is simple enough using Grab or other Malaysian ride-hailing apps. You can also arrange a traditional taxi. Head to the desk offering tickets to Lahad Datu and ask for Sakau. The bus will drop you off at the Sakau junction where you’ll need to get a minibus or car to Sakau itself. This can be a bit of a gamble as there aren’t always cars and vans waiting. 

Another option is to go with the local legend, Mr Choy. Although we’ve never personally used Mr Choy’s services, other travellers rave about this kind Malay man who will take you from Sandakan directly to Sakau for a small fee of 60MYR (approx. $12USD). If you’re lucky, he may even drop you at your Kinabatangan riverside lodge of choice! You’ll find his up-to-date contact details plastered all over the internet. 

From Sepilok, you can pick up the same bus that runs from Sandakan and follow the above instructions. Alternatively, arrange for Mr Choy to pick you up from your accommodation. 

In all honesty, it’s easier to arrange your transport directly with your jungle lodge or book a Kinabatangan River cruise tour. Nearly all trips and packages include return transport as standard. 


What a Visit to the Kinabatangan River Looks Like: 

Jungle lodges along the Kinabatangan River vary in comfort and quality depending on how much you spend. However, the itineraries are very similar no matter where you stay. Schedules may vary slightly depending on the lodge. 

Common Kinabatangan River Cruise Itinerary

  • 06:00 – Early morning river cruise 
  • 08:30 – Breakfast
  • 11:30 – Jungle walk during the day or free time
  • 13:00 – Lunch
  • 16:00 – Afternoon river cruise 
  • 18:00 – Evening meal
  • 21:00 – Night cruise (usually optional with additional fee) or jungle night walk

There are generally a few hours of downtime every day when you’re free to relax and enjoy the jungle setting. 

Sunset on Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
It’s not a bad place to relax and enjoy the view!

While the jungle walks are interesting, the highlight of any trip to Kinabatangan River is the cruises themselves. You’ll climb aboard a small speedboat and head along the river while your guide looks for animals. You don’t get out of the boat at any point, so sit back, prepare your camera and keep your eyes peeled! 

I was amazed at how good these guides are at spotting wildlife from a distance. They expertly manoeuvre the boat to provide a clear view without disturbing the animals. As there is a continuous human presence here, the animals are used to the boats and happy to go about their business while under observation.

Borneo’s Big 5 🦧

The true highlight of any Kinatangan River cruise is the opportunity to spot all of Borneo’s ‘Big 5’.

– Pygmy elephants
– Orangutans
– Proboscis monkeys
– Rhinoceros hornbills
– Saltwater crocodiles

As with all wildlife tours, sightings are not guaranteed but if you don’t spot at least three of the five, it’s considered a slow day! I saw all but the pygmy elephants during my 3-day visit! 

Kinabatangan River Guides

All guides working on the Kinabatangan River are excellent. They’re very well-versed in spotting animals and have a good knowledge of the local flora and fauna. 

Another fantastic thing is that all the guides work together, no matter which lodge they’re associated with. They’re in communication via walkie-talkie and let each other know if there have been any exciting sightings. Owing to guide cooperation and communication, all guests staying on the river at any one time have an equal chance of spotting the most exciting wildlife! This is why Kinabatangan is one of the best places to see orangutans in Borneo!

“Cruising Kinabatangan River [was the] best experience of my life and a truly unique experience in terms of scenery and wildlife! I’d do it again any day!!!”

Louis, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Best Time to Visit Kinabatangan River 🌤️

April to September is the best time to visit the Kinabatangan River. This is dry season in Borneo, meaning there’s less chance of rain and animals will be closer to the water’s edge. But it can rain any time of year in the jungle, so no matter when you visit, take a waterproof coat! 

Sunset 2, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
In good weather, Kinabatanga is unbeatable!

Unless the area is experiencing some extreme deluges, you can visit Kinabatangan any time of year. Visits to Kinabatangan in July and August may incur an additional high season surcharge of around 300MYR (approx. $60USD). 

“I visited Kinabatangan in February and we had amazing weather for the whole three days. It only rained at night, so although the jungle trails were wet and muddy, our days on the boat were rain-free!”

Sheree Hooker, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker

How Long Should You Spend at Kinabatangan River? ⏰

Kinabatangan River tours vary in length from half a day to the most popular three days, two nights. You can also arrange longer tours but the itinerary doesn’t change, so you’ll be doing the same activities each day. Despite this, no two cruises are the same because it is impossible to predict the wildlife! 

Orangutan, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
The longer you stay, the better your chances of seeing rare animals!

“It wasn’t until the final cruise of our trip that we got to see orangutans. I had given up hope of seeing these amazing primates in the wild, so finally getting to witness them in the trees was a real treat!” 

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker 

What to Bring to the Kinabatangan River 🧢 

The Kinabatangan River cuts right through the rainforest, so pack for the jungle. 

  • Long-sleeved tops (for protection against the sun and biting insects)
  • Long-sleeved trousers or leggings
  • Shorts
  • T-shirts
  • Insect repellent (Deet, Picaridin and Permethrin are best)
  • Head torch
  • Entertainment (for downtime)
  • Cash (many lodges don’t accept card)
  • Closed toe shoes
  • Sun protection (hat, sunglasses, sun cream)
  • Rain protection (coat, waterproof trousers, poncho)
  • Camera
  • Binoculars (can often be rented from your lodge)
  • Dry bag
  • Water bottle
  • Leech socks (optional)
  • Hiking poles (optional)

How To Choose A Kinabatangan River Cruise 🤔 

When choosing how to visit the Kinabatangan River, there are several things to consider!

Budget 💵

Arguably, the most important factor to consider is how much money you want to spend. Kinabatangan River tours vary wildly from a few hundred to a few thousand Ringgit. Your chance of seeing wildlife isn’t increased with a bigger budget. But the quality of accommodation and overall service is linked to how much you spend. 

Accommodation 🛏️

If you’re happy in a rickety wooden hut, relying on a mosquito net to keep you from becoming a feeding ground and don’t mind the odd creepy crawly, you won’t need to spend too much on your accommodation near the Kinabatangan River. There are plenty of budget offerings that will fit the bill! 

But if you want more luxury, you can find that too. Some lodges offer top-notch bungalows, with ultra-comfortable beds, air conditioning, huge windows, big balconies and amazing views! 

River Junkies Lodge, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
Kinabatangan River lodges range from budget to luxury!

Often, lodges have a range of rooms. Dorms and privates are offered by most and many, but not all, have ensuite facilities. The comfort and cleanliness of the rooms have more to do with the overall quality of the lodge, rather than the type of room. A dorm bed in a top-rated lodge will likely be much nicer than a private room at a budget option! 

Time 📆

Another important factor to consider is how much time you want to spend at the Kinabatangan River. While most tours are two or three days, some lodges can cater for other durations. Enquire at a few to ensure you can stay as long as you want! 

Food 🍜

If you have dietary requirements, make sure you enquire about these before booking. You may find more budget-friendly lodges can’t cater to specific requirements as easily as the pricier options. 

Transport 🚌

Decide whether you want to be picked up or whether you’re happy to try and make your own way to the river. Only the cheapest lodges won’t include pick-up, or at least be able to arrange something for you, so make sure you account for this when making your decision! 


Ethics of a Kinabatangan River Tour

As with all wildlife tourism, ethics is an important consideration. On the one hand, Kinabatangan River cruises are about as ethical as wildlife tours get. There is no feeding, touching or harassing of the animals. The guides seem to really care about this stretch of jungle and the creatures that live within it. And the lodges themselves appear to be relatively low impact – with some even replanting native tree and plant species! 

However, when I was there, a few things came to mind which made me question the ethics of visiting the Kinabatangan River. Initially, they were just unconnected thoughts but as time progressed they became more cohesive. To be clear, I would visit Kinabatangan River again but to not include these thoughts and feelings on the issue of ethics would be disingenuous.

You can’t ask whether Kinabatangan is ethical without asking if visiting Borneo is ethical. Kinabatangan is a microcosm of the problems facing the whole island. It’s no secret that Borneo’s once pristine rainforest is in mortal danger. Officially, Malaysian Borneo has 48% forest cover left. But this number is misleading. It counts all woodland, including plantations and commercial pulpwood forests. Huge swatches of virgin rainforest have been lost to palm oil plantations and the logging industry. Orangutans have lost 90% of their habitat to deforestation and while laws to prevent more deforestation are on the books in Borneo, they are often ignored.

Palm Oil Plantation, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
Acres of jungle have been cleared for plantations in Borneo!

As I see it, the most egregious part of this isn’t the damage to the natural world or the huge profits made from its destruction, but the way the palm oil giants in Malaysian Borneo have managed to paint themselves as heroes. Posters, leaflets and tour guides across the states of Sabah and Sarawak constantly tell you that conservation efforts in Borneo would be impossible without funding from palm oil companies. We’re relying on those most guilty of destroying the rainforests to help save a tiny percentage of it – because it’s good PR. 

“If you manage to get friendly with a guide and spend some time earning their trust, they may tell you in hushed tones their true thoughts about the palm oil industry but in the open, they have nothing but good things to say about the companies that help fund wildlife conservation and have made Malaysia the economically prosperous nation it is today.” 

Tim Ashdown, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker

So, with that in mind, surely this unspoiled slice of jungle along the Kinabatangan River should be seen as an amazing feat of conservation and naturalism – it’s certainly advertised as so. But look through the trees from your boat and you’ll notice that the jungle stretches barely 50 metres from the riverbank before it becomes palm oil plantations. This is one of the reasons wildlife is so abundant – the animals have nowhere else to go. 

Monkey, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
You’ll see plenty of wildlife because they have nowhere else to go!

Animals along the Kinabatangan River are wild. They fend for themselves and have little to no help from humans, but they’re not truly living in the wild. Kinabatangan River is a well-managed game reserve, penned in on all sides by plantations. 

The people who work in tourism and conservation there are doing a fantastic job. They’re providing a haven for species that would otherwise be much closer to extinction. They’re helping to create an environment that allows tourists to see all manner of majestic creatures and they instil a sense of love and wonder for the natural world. They may well be creating the next generation of conservationists.

But they’re hamstrung by illegal logging, a world addicted to palm oil and a lack of government oversight. There’s a balance to be found between profit and nature. We haven’t found it yet. But maybe Borneo will be the place where balance is born. 

But You’re A Judgey Westener!

I know it’s easy for me as a Western tourist to sit and decry the deforestation and loss of habitat in Borneo. I’m aware that in the West, we’ve already pillaged our landscapes for profit and most of us consume palm oil daily – it’s in so many products! I don’t expect people in Borneo to give up a valuable source of income, so I can see the pristine nature that no longer exists at home. But if I don’t raise my thoughts on this issue, then I’m not writing genuinely. And if I’m not writing genuinely, there’s no point in writing this Kinabatangan River guide at all. 


My Experience on a Kinbatangan River Cruise 🐊 

My girlfriend and I opted for a three-day, two-night tour package to Kinabatangan River which, we were told, would give us ample opportunity to hopefully spot Borneo’s Big Five! It was a bucket list activity for us and we couldn’t wait to get started.

After being picked up in Sandakan and arriving at the lodge, we were given a briefing by the local staff. They explained how the lodge ran, what we’d be doing each day and, most importantly, when meals were served and where we could buy beer! The lodge also rented out binoculars, so we grabbed a pair of those before everyone else arrived. The lodge was made up of one large communal dining area and a bunch of bungalows delicately balanced on the hillside. We were sharing a four-bed dorm room with another couple whom we’d linked up with earlier in the day. 

We met our guide and the rest of the passengers on our boat at the arranged time and headed down to the jetty, full of excitement for the cruise ahead. The boat was a small 12-seater, powered by a small 40bhp outboard motor. 

Boat on Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
The boats on Kinabatangan are all very similar!

We weren’t long into our first river cruise when our guide started making the strangest noises, which had half the group laughing and half of us concerned he might be having a breakdown. 

“I’m calling to the hornbills,” he said, “now we wait.”

Sceptical but mildly amused by his cries, we waited. 

Lo and behold, six hornbills soared overhead no more than 60 seconds later, coming to rest not far from our boat. 

Hornbill Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
A hornbill settling in next to the Kinabatangan River!

“Welcome to Kinabatangan,” he said with a grin.

Dr. Doolittle went on to reproduce the calls of various animals during our visit, none of which brought quite the same level of success, or any noticeable success at all, but it was an impressive introduction to the river all the same. 

We spent some time appreciating the rhinoceros and oriental hornbills before moving further upstream. During that one cruise, we spotted proboscis monkeys, silver langurs and saltwater crocodiles, as well as a range of other birds such as kingfishers and bee-eaters.  That was three of the big five checked off already!

Kingfisher, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
Kingfishers are some of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen!

Before we knew it, we’d been out for a couple of hours and it was time to return to the lodge for dinner, after which we were heading out for a night walk through the jungle. 

Dinner was a delicious buffet with six different local dishes, plus dessert and fruit. As a vegetarian, I was well catered for (often a hard ask in Borneo). The meal offered a great opportunity to try local food I hadn’t come across yet too. Following dinner, we relaxed for an hour before entering the jungle. 

I was glad I’d accepted the offer of rubber boots from the lodge but even these weren’t enough for some unfortunate members of the hiking party. In places, the mud was so deep, it poured in over the top of the boots and in others, it was so sticky it sucked the boots right off your feet. I was thankful that I’d decided to pack hiking poles for this trip – using one made a massive difference when fighting my way across the boggy ground! 

Lizard at Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
This lizard found itself on top of our roommate’s head!

While battling along the trail, the guides pointed out an array of insects, sleeping birds and tracks from larger animals along the way. The night walk was around an hour and it was a relief to get back to solid ground after the quagmire. As I was pulling off my boots, I found a leech wriggling around inside them. Thankful that I’d tucked my trousers into my socks, I flicked the slimy creature away and headed off for a shower and full-body leech check.

Misty Tree, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
A misty morning on the Kinabatangan River!

I slept soundly and awoke just in time to hear the world come alive. There’s an amazing moment in the jungle when an invisible force hits the switch and every insect roars into life at once – if I hadn’t been awake for it, it would’ve acted as my alarm! 

An eerie mist hung in the air as we cruised upstream, obscuring all but the closest trees – and even those were mere silhouettes. I didn’t know how we were going to spot anything but just like the previous day, our eagle-eyed guide pointed out monkeys, birds and even crocodiles. 

Crocodile and bird on Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
This big saltwater crocodile wasn’t bothered by our presence at all!

The day continued in much the same vein. Cruise, food, relax, food, cruise, relax, food. Then it was time for our night cruise. Going along the river at night is an entirely different experience. Without illumination from the guide’s torches, inky blackness consumes everything. You can just make out the tops of the trees against the backdrop of stars but the dividing line between the water and jungle is obscured. 

We got lucky on our night cruise and spotted a huge python swimming along the edge of the water. It was at least four times the length of our boat and swam surprisingly fast. I was glad not to be in the water! We also saw birds, sleeping monkeys and an incredible buffy fish owl, midway through its latest meal, blood dripping from its beak and onto its chest. 

The night cruise was shorter than the daytime ones but no less magical. Losing my sight heightened my other senses, so I could hear and smell more of the jungle. I felt safe on the boat with our guide but would not want to be alone in that environment after dark! 

On our final morning, we got up early for the last sunrise cruise. While we’d seen three of Borneo’s big five, we hadn’t yet witnessed orangutans or pygmy elephants. We’d given up hope of seeing them, instead vowing to just enjoy our final time on the river, no matter what we saw. 

Monkey 2, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
An inquisitive macaque eyeing up our boat!

Then our guide got the call – orangutans had been spotted by the river! We raced downstream and there they were, three graceful beauties spread across two trees. The orangutans were a little way back but we could see them clear enough. With binoculars or a zoom lens, you could even make out their facial expressions! It was a bucket-list experience I will never forget. 

Orangutan, Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
The orangutans waited until our last day to make an appearance!

Sadly, we never got to see pygmy elephants but spotting four of the big five was good enough for me. It was a truly magical experience.

Once the final cruise was done, we headed back to the lodge, in awe of the natural world but terrified that we might be the last generation of people to enjoy these final stretches of wilderness. Kinabatangan is an absolute marvel – go now, before any more of it is lost. 


Contributors:

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

🙏 Sheree Hooker | Editor at South East Asia Backpacker
🙏 Louis |
South East Asia Backpacker Community Member
🙏 Gemma |
South East Asia Backpacker Community Member
🙏 Kinabatangan River Guides without whom these tours would be impossible!

Tim Ashdown | Gear Specialist

After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since then, he has travelled Southeast Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and backpacked South America. His first book, From Paralysis to Santiago, chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident and will be released later this year.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Basket
Scroll to Top