Beams of a rising sun shining through the morning fog over the Kinabatangan River, the magical silence interrupted by the calls of monkeys and flapping wings of hornbills flying over. We’re sitting in a small boat, cruising down the Kinabatangan River deep in the jungle of Borneo. Despite the early hour, we’re intently observing the river banks to spot wildlife.
It’s difficult to capture this experience in words… It was magical and moved us deeply, we’ll never forget it! Definitely one of the highlights of our Malaysian travels.
In this guide, we’ll give you all the information you need to experience and plan this multiple-day and night Kinabatangan River cruise and jungle adventure yourself. How to do this on a budget, where to sleep, how to get there and so much more!
This guide is useful to anyone traveling out there. But as we were there with two small kids of 6 and 7 years old, we’ll also show you this amazing experience deep in the jungle of Borneo, is perfectly doable with young children!
Read more: Our travel diary, we discover magical Borneo
How to get to the Kinabatangan River
The Kinabatangan River is situated in Sabah, the northern province of Malaysian Borneo.
Although it isn’t really difficult to reach Kinabatangan, there is no direct public transport to Sukau or Bilit, which are the two main villages next to the Kinabatangan River where you can stay to do these cruises. You’ll have to pass one of the hubs nearby, which are Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Sepilok, or Semporna.
A lot of the hotels or resorts offering the 2D/1N or 3D/2N jungle and river experiences will include a private pickup from either Sandakan, the Sukau junction, or the Sepilok junction. Read more below to get the details. If you’re out of options, you can always contact Mr Choy, a local from Sukau who arranges private transport. His number is easy to find on Google and we’ve heard very good reviews.
First of all, you need to fly to Borneo. It is very cheap to fly from Kuala Lumpur to either Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan with Air Asia.
It depends on the rest of your Borneo itinerary which one you should choose. Sandakan is closer to Kinabatangan, but we flew to Kota Kinabalu because we wanted to spend some time there as well.
From Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan
There are two ways to get from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan
This is the cheapest option. From Kota Kinabalu, busses leave to either Sandakan or Semporna.
If you take the bus to Semporna, get off at the Sukau junction. If you take the bus to Sandakan, you can either stay on the bus till Sandakan or ask them to drop you off at the Sepilok junction.
Whichever option you take, ask your accommodation to pick you up there. Or try to find a van at the junctions and ask them to bring you to your destination.
The bus ride takes long (about 6 hours) and passes Mount Kinabalu which is the interesting part. After that, you get hours of palm tree plantations. It’s such a shame to see how much jungle has disappeared. But because we wanted to visit the orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok, we decided to take the bus to Sandakan anyway, even with two young kids.
You could go straight from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan, but it will be a very long day that way. Staying overnight in Sandakan or Sepilok could be a better option.
We highly recommend choosing Sepilok! You’ll get a more authentic jungle experience and nicer accommodation. We spent the night in the Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat. It was basic, but we had a lovely stay right in the jungle and they arranged our transport to the Sepilok center.
If you choose to stay in Sandakan anyway, try to book accommodation near the beach. We’ve heard it’s not safe everywhere, but this area is okay.
By plane and bus
Flying by plane from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan is by far the quickest option to reach the Kinabatangan River. It will be a bit more expensive than by bus, but still very affordable with Air Asia. Not as good for the environment on the other hand. Ask your hotel or resort to pick you up in Sandakan, if possible even on the same day.
If not, take the bus from Sandakan to Semporna or Lahad Datu and again, ask them to drop you off at the Sukau junction. Ask your accommodation to pick you up there or try to find a van at the junctions and ask them to bring you to your destination.
If you want to visit Sepilok before heading over to Kinabatangan, take the bus to Kota Kinabalu and ask them to drop you off at the Sepilok junction.
From Sandakan or Sepilok to Kinabatangan
First, check if your accommodation can arrange a transfer from Sandakan or Sepilok. The resort where we booked our 3D/2N stay at Kinabatangan, picked us up in our accommodation in Sepilok. Very handy, especially with kids.
If that’s not possible, from Sandakan, take the bus to Semporna or Lahad Datu and get off at the Sukau Junction. From Sepilok, wave at the bus to Lahad Datu or Semporna that is passing by at the Sepilok Junction.
Taking Grab is possible, but it will cost you a lot. Drivers often will charge double because they need to drive back with an empty car.
From Semporna to Kinabatangan
In Semporna, take the bus to Kota Kinabalu and get off at the Sukau junction. From there, take one of the vans waiting to drive you to Sukau or Bilit, or wait for your hotel/resort pickup.
Best time to visit the Kinabatangan River
Travel to Sabah is possible all year round, but the best time to visit Borneo is from March until September. Also for diving, with clearest views from April to June. If you love photography, you better choose to travel to Borneo during the dry season.
Starting from October, your chances of heavy rainfall increase significantly, and traveling in Borneo from November to February means you are right in the middle of the rain season. It’s possible but we wouldn’t recommend it, especially with kids.
Kinabatangan River on a budget
If you start to search the internet to plan a Kinabatangan River Cruise, it appears as if the only way to experience this, is to book one of the many tour packages, often organized from Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan. They are very expensive!
However, it is perfectly possible to plan everything yourself and it will be much cheaper!
We love to travel with our kids on a budget so we arranged everything without an agency and got an amazing, all-included, 3-day Borneo jungle experience for RM 1490 ($350/€330) for the whole family. We paid around $130/€120 for an adult and $65/€60 for a child, including all jungle treks and river cruises, accommodation, and food.
You could even just book a room and arrange the river cruises or jungle treks when you’re there. Most homestays charge about RM50 per person for one river cruise.
How to arrange your own Kinabatangan experience?
First, contact one of the resorts or homestays we discuss below and book your tour directly with them. Ask them if they can pick you up in Sandakan, Sepilok, or where the bus drops you.
Next, take the bus from Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Sepilok, or Semporna as we explained above, instead of flying or grabbing a private taxi. Await your pickup, call Mr Choy, or walk over to your resort. And that’s it!
Kinabatangan River with kids
We often get the question if Borneo and the Kinabatangan River are suitable for children. First of all, yes! Take your kids over there! The whole family will love it!
We absolutely believe you can travel to Borneo with kids of all ages! There are many activities, villages, cities, and cultural experiences that are great for even the smallest kids.
However, we’re not sure if babies or toddlers are ready for wildlife spotting. For example, in Bako National Park or at the Kinabatangan River, during one of the jungle treks or river cruises, you have to be silent. The guides listen to the sounds of the jungle to spot the wildlife. And as all parents know, it can be hard sometimes to get babies and toddlers quiet…
Our girls were 6 and 7 when we did this jungle experience! They loved it! It’s one of the things they still talk about. They made many drawings afterward of the wildlife they saw on the river banks. The whole experience left a deep positive impression on them and certainly sparked their love for wildlife and the rainforest!
Where to stay at Kinabatangan River – Accommodations
Almost all of the homestays and resorts offer their own river cruises and jungle treks. Most people choose the 3D/2N or 2D/1N packages, but you can also just book a room and arrange your own jungle experiences à la carte.
We did a 3D/2N package. which we can highly recommend if you have the time (especially with kids). It will take you a while to get here and if you only stay one night, you might feel rushed. The place is amazing and so relaxing, take your time to enjoy it! That way you’ll have the most chance to spot the ‘big five’ of Borneo.
Homestays are often basic, so don’t expect luxurious facilities. There are some more expensive resorts around if you would like some more luxury. And Sukau is mostly Muslim, so you’re not allowed to drink in the homestays.
Below we list some popular homestays that have great reviews. And the one we stayed in, of course!
Accommodations in Sukau
Sukau RB Lodge: Probably one of the cheapest homestays around, which is also reflected in the accommodation. It is clean but old and very basic. However, if basic is okay for you, this is your place.
Sukau Riverside Homestay: You stay with the most friendly family who will make your time here unforgettable with their delicious meals and excellent river cruises. Accommodation is basic but clean.
Osman’s Homestay: Another homestay that gets great reviews and offers affordable packages or rooms and à la carte jungle experiences.
Sukau Backpackers B&B: This homestay also offers very affordable clean rooms and has great package prices.
Sukau Greenview: One of the most popular homestays that offer very affordable 3D/2N or 2D/1N packages. Their rooms are a bit more comfortable than the budget options.
Sukau Rainforest Lodge: A National Geographic award-winning eco-lodge. They offer comfort and amazing experiences, but all sustainable and eco-friendly.
Accommodations in Bilit
Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort: this is the resort we stayed in. Their rooms are very comfortable and clean and they have amazing package deals. We paid RM 530 for an adult and RM 215 for a child. This included all meals, 4 river cruises, 2 night walks, and 1 jungle trek. We loved our stay by the river and our kids even got the opportunity to plant two fig trees. Locals are trying to recover the rainforest after the deforestation by the palm oil industry.
Kinabatangan Nature Lodge: They offer great value for money. They have both dorms and private rooms.
Wildlife Spotting at the Kinabatangan River
The Borneo Big Five
A lot of people who come to Borneo, want to see the Borneo big 5!
- Pygmy Elephant
- Proboscis Monkey
- Salt Water Crocodile
- Hornbill (8 types of hornbills live here in total)
Chances are very high you’ll see proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, and hornbills. To spot the small pygmy elephants and orangutans you need to get lucky, with the elephants being the hardest one.
These elephants roam the flanks of the river, looking for food. The guides usually know if they are anywhere around. If so, the main focus of your river cruises will be to find them. While doing that, you’ll see countless other animals.
On our first river cruise, we already saw 4 of them. Unfortunately, the Pygmy elephants never revealed themselves to us. The guides said they hadn’t been around for a few weeks.
Plenty of wildlife around Kinabatangan
Besides the Big 5, there is so much more wildlife to observe around the Kinabatangan River. Unfortunately, due to the many palm oil plantations nearby, animals are forced to live around the river, which is why it’s so easy to spot them.
Remember there is never any guarantee of how many and which animals you’ll see. Although the guides are experts in wildlife spotting and know the jungle very well, these animals are free to go wherever they want (luckily!). But trust me, you’ll see enough!
- Orangutan (if you get lucky)
- Proboscis monkey (endangered but plenty around)
- Long-tailed and short-tailed macaques (hundreds of them)
- Leaf monkeys (less common, we saw the silver leaf monkey)
- Borneo gibbon (you need to get lucky, but you might hear them)
- Owls (during the night)
Reptiles and amphibians:
- Saltwater crocodiles
- Monitor Lizard
- Frogs (mostly during the night)
- Turtles (if you are lucky)
Other amazing animals if you are lucky:
- Pygmy Elephant
- Wild Boar
- Irrawaddy Dolphin (very rare)
- Wild Deer
- Sun Bear (very rare)
What to do at Kinabatangan River
If you come over here, it’s because you want the ultimate jungle and wildlife spotting experience. You can book river cruises and jungle treks à la carte with your homestay, or you might have booked a 3D/2N or 2D/1N package with your homestay.
We booked the 3D/2N experience with our kids. Below you can find our program. Although this might seem like a lot, we were all so enthusiastic about spotting the wildlife we didn’t mind. You’re absolutely free to skip something if you’re too tired. We skipped the night walk on our second night to give our girls some more sleep.
Itinerary for a 3D/2N Kinabatangan River Experience
- 11:45 am pick up in Sandakan or 13:00 am in Sepilok
- 3:30 pm tea time
- 4:00 pm river cruise about 2 hours
- 7:00 pm dinner
- 8:00 pm night walk for about 1 hour but it’s subject to weather availability
- 10:00 pm overnight
- 6:00 am morning cruise about 1 hour
- 7:30 am breakfast
- 9:30 am Jungle trekking about 45 minutes
- 12:00 pm lunch
- 3.30 pm tea time
- 4:00 pm river cruise about 2 hours
- 7:00 pm dinner
- 8:00 pm night walk for about 1 hour but it’s subject to weather availability
- 10:00 pm overnight
- 6:00 am morning cruise about 1 hour
- 7:30 am breakfast
- 8.30 am check out – transfer to Sandakan or to one of the junctions where you want to take the bus to your next destination.
Morning Sunrise River Cruise
Be ready for an early awakening, as your morning cruise leaves at 6 a.m. sharp! Despite the very early hour, these sunrise river cruises were our favorite.
The morning fog creates a mystical atmosphere and the sun is not visible yet. It is still rather cold (so wear a jacket) and the animals are very active before the heat of the day rolls in.
The early morning is a perfect time to see crocs, as they try to catch one of the hundred birds or small monkeys sitting around the river. We saw some huge adult saltwater crocodiles and a few babies lying on the mud of the river banks.
Once the sun starts to rise and you get deeper into the jungle, you’ll see more and more monkeys wake up giving you an amazing show! We spotted macaques, proboscis monkeys (who are endangered but are commonly seen here), and even some leaf monkeys.
Day Trek Jungle Experience
After having breakfast and resting a bit, it’s time to discover the surrounding jungle. It’s amazing how the local guides spot the wildlife! They’re definitely experts!
However, I have to be honest, we saw some, but not a lot of wildlife during our walk. Mainly because the jungle directly surrounding our homestay has been severely reduced due to the palm oil industry. Locals are trying hard to recover that. Our girls even planted two new trees near our homestay.
Nevertheless, a walk through the rainforest is never boring! Our local guide, who lived here all his life, told us many interesting stories about surviving in the jungle and special trees, plants, and insects. Which leaves to use as a medicine, which branch to transform into a weapon.
Afternoon Sunset River Cruise
The afternoon cruises are great for spotting monkeys. Once the heat of the day is over, they love to rest, play, and just sit around the Kinabatangan River banks.
We got very lucky and spotted orangutans immediately on our first sunset cruise and again the day after that. An entire family (mom, dad, and baby) were hanging out high in the treetops. We’ll never forget the experience of observing the ‘man of the jungle’, as orangutan means in the local language.
Many birds hang around the river as well. We spotted hornbills flying over, a kingfisher sitting on a branch, and lizards and crocodiles resting in the sun.
Again, being on a boat in the middle of the Borneo jungle while the sun is setting is magical. After spotting many monkeys, birds, a lizard, some crocodiles, and a few others, all we could do was silently enjoy the sunset over the river while going back to our homestay.
Night Walk Jungle Experience
Make sure you don’t miss a night walk in the jungle of Borneo! Many species come out at night, some scarier than others. But no worries, your very knowledgeable guide will not only spot them for you but also reassure you there is nothing to be afraid of.
For our girls this was a very thrilling experience, walking with their flashlight through the jungle looking for wildlife. At night, the sounds of the jungle are everywhere. This is how exciting as it gets!
We saw many insects, frogs, a palm civet cat, heard the monkeys, and spotted lots of birds sleeping on branches.
Environmental and ethical issues at Kinabatangan
Unfortunately, there is a reason why the Kinabatangan River is now such an amazing experience and one of the hot spots to see wildlife. The rainforest in this area has been severely reduced by the palm oil industry, forcing all the animals to live near the river which increases the chances of seeing them.
When we came by bus from Kota Kinabalu, we were devastated to see how much of the natural habitat of the wildlife had been destroyed. We saw palm plantations for hundreds of kilometers in a row.
If you come to this area, try to support the local communities and the environment. They have lost their land to the multinationals and are trying to earn an income out of tourism.
Book your stay with homestays, run by families who work with local people and fishermen. Besides the fact you provide them with an income, this choice is better for the environment as well. They use smaller boats and cook more local food.
A lot of local people understand how important the rainforest is for their existence and preserving wildlife. They try to buy back the land of the palm oil industry and make it into the forest again. When we were here, our girls also planted a fig tree each. Small steps, but every little help counts!
Here are some organizations you can support in their efforts to recover and preserve the rainforest, wildlife, and local communities.
- Itochu Corporation: Group working together with WWF to restore the tropical rainforests and conserve Borneo’s ecosystem.
- WWF – Heart of Borneo: An ambitious transboundary conservation initiative to preserve the heart of Borneo.
- Save The Orangutan: Program to protect and recover the natural habitat of the orangutan
- World Land Trust: buying land to make into forests again.
- Borneo Nature Foundation: Saving the rainforest by habitat protection, canal blocking, fighting fires and reforestation.
- Rainforest Trust: setting up crowdfunding to protect the rainforest and buy land.
- The Borneo Project: brings international attention and support to community-led efforts to defend forests, sustainable livelihoods, and human rights.
Tips before you go
If you plan a Kinabatangan River experience, here are some useful tips to make the best out of your stay.
The reason you come here is to spot wildlife of course. But adjust your expectations. Don’t expect you’ll be able to check everything on your bucket list. These animals are wild, which means they don’t pop up every time you want them to. For example, we didn’t see the Pygmy Elephants. However, no need to worry! You’ll see plenty of wildlife!
The homestays and villages are remote. Bring cash before you come here! There aren’t any ATMs nearby. And most homestays or restaurants won’t accept paying by card.
Don’t forget to stock up on food and snacks as well. Although the local people provide excellent food in their homestays, you might want to bring some extra snacks, especially for kids. There aren’t any big supermarkets around and everything will be much more expensive.
You’ve come to the jungle to spot wildlife, experience the rainforest, and relax. There won’t be any good Wifi or 4G. Some homestays do have a connection, which will allow you to send a message or mail and maybe even upload a picture. But that’s about it. So put your phone, tablet, or computer aside and enjoy the environment!
What to bring for a Kinabatangan River Cruise
Besides the regular stuff, you would bring to any vacation in South-East Asia, here are some things we really advise you to take along when you come to the Kinabatangan River.
First of all, it rains a lot in the area! It’s called a rainforest for a reason. Which means the humidity can be very high (above 90%). Try to avoid cotton clothes, they absorb the humidity. In the morning and evening, it can be rather cold as well. So don’t forget the following essentials:
- Rain jacket for women, men, or kids. If you want to safe space, you could also choose a rain poncho.
- Dry bag as you’ll be in a boat a lot and might encounter rain. So bring a dry bag to protect your valuables such as your camera or phone.
- Longsleeve or fleece for the afternoon for women, men, or kids.
During your stay, you’ll need to do one or more jungle treks and river cruises. Some homestays will provide boots, but don’t count on it. It can get very hot as well during the day. So don’t forget the following essentials:
- Good hiking shoes for women, men or kids. Personally, we love the Merell shoes.
- Hiking socks for women, men or kids.
- Strong sunscreen, we like Banana Boat Sunscreen a lot, also for our kids.
- A hat for the sun for women, men or kids.
- Mosquito repellent: we use OFF! which works amazing. It is not as harmful as some others (especially for kids) and is perfect for the tropics.
- Leech socks: fortunately, we didn’t need them. And some homestays offer them to use. But it doesn’t hurt to bring your own leech socks.
You come here to spot wildlife. You’ll want to have a few essentials to truly enhance the experience and capture the animals.
- Binoculars for adults or kids. Our homestay offered their own binoculars, but the small and rather cheap one we brought was better. They don’t need to cost a lot to be great!
- A good camera: we love our compact and affordable Sony A6000, but with the upgraded full-frame Sony A7R IV you will have all the options. Full-frame cameras offer a lot more options to take pictures in low-light situations.
- Zoom lens: the wildlife won’t pop up right next to your boat. If you’d love to capture it, make sure to bring a zoom lens. Anything above 200mm will be great! I even used my camera as a binocular too.
- Flashlight: during the night walks, you have to take a flashlight or headlamp.
Between the jungle experiences, you have some time to relax.
And last but not least, don’t forget these other essentials.
- First-Aid Kit: we bring our first-aid kit everywhere. You can either make your own or buy a complete first-aid kit.
- Water bottle, let’s reduce plastic! We take our water bottles everywhere!
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