Kinabatangan River Cruise: Best Tours And Everything You Need To Know

Published Categorized as Sabah
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Heading to Sabah and looking for amazing experiences? Fantastic! A Kinabatangan river cruise is a great way to explore and appreciate this part of the world.

A Kinabatangan cruise takes you along the Kinabatangan River (or Sungai Kinabatangan in Malay). This river is Sabah’s longest at 560 kilometres and starts in Borneo’s interior before snaking its way to the sea. Its chocolate coloured water is surrounded by forest which wildlife call home.

Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River

Sadly, the stretches of forest that line the river are getting smaller and smaller as palm oil plantations grow and grow. However, the upside of this is that it makes it easier to spot wildlife along this river than in most other places.

There are lodges scattered along the river and many Kinabatangan river tours to choose from as a cruise here is a popular option. And for good reason. It’s a great way to see wildlife in their natural habitat in a very easy and accessible way. Plus, there’s some great lodges! This is one of my personal favourite Sabah experiences!

However, there is a lot of choice which can make it confusing. Below, I walk you through everything you need to know to have your perfect Kinabatangan river tour whether you are looking for a Kinabatangan river cruise day trip or a multi-night option. You can easily compare all the options and make up your own mind.

I also share a video walk through from my personal experience of a two day/one night Kinabatangan package which shows you what to expect on your river cruises.

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Why Book A Kinabatangan River Cruise?

As mentioned above, the banks of the Kinabatangan River and the river itself is home to a lot of wildlife. This makes a Kinabatangan tour perfect for any nature lover or anyone who wants to see everything Sabah has to offer.

It’s the one place in Sabah where you can see ten primates including orangutans, Bornean gibbon, macaques, proboscis monkeys and tarsiers. There’s also monitor lizards, crocodiles, wild boars and Borneo pygmy elephants. It’s amazing.

Kinabatangan River Cruise Orangutan spotting
Orangutan spotting

Small groups of mammals can be seen year round and it’s also a fantastic place for bird watchers. You can see all varieties of Borneo’s hornbills, pittas, kingfishers and more.

The good news is that this is all reasonably accessible too. It’s a couple of hours drive from Sandakan or Sepilok to the lodges where your river cruise Kinabatangan will start. I found everything well organised and easy (plus, very enjoyable!).

However, this isn’t an activity where you can just show up. For one, it’s impossible to get to one of the Sungai Kinabatangan river cruise options by public transport. You can take a private taxi, but it’s easier and cheaper to join a tour that will take you there.

You’ll also want to already be booked on a boat before you arrive which is why booking one of the Kinabatangan tours is your only real option.

Compare All The Best Kinabatangan River Tours

Here’s a quick comparison of all of your Kinabatangan river cruise Borneo options.

Tour NameBest For…DaysPriceBook Now
Borneo Kinabatangan River Cruise Day TripPeople who only have time for a day trip1RM310Click
Private Full Day Gomantong Cave and Kinabatangan River Cruise People who only have time for a day trip and would like to see Gomantong Cave as well1RM390Click
Borneo Wildlife Tour 2 Days 1 NightRiver cruises at three times of day in a more remote location2RM850Click
2D1N Tour with Kinabatangan River CruiseAfternoon river cruise plus Gomantong Cave and some Sandakan area sightseeing2RM775Click
2D1N Package with Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit ResortAfternoon and morning river cruises plus night walk. Option of budget dorm stay2RM470Click
3D2N Discover Kinabatangan River Twice daily cruises and hikes included with a great amount of time for exploring the area3RM790Click
3D2N Package with Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit ResortAfternoon and morning river cruises plus night walk. Option of budget dorm stay3RM960Click
4D3N Sepilok Wildlife Tour with Kinabatangan River CruisePeople who want to explore Sepilok and Kinabatangan River with overnight stops at both4RM1282Click
Note that the Kinabatangan river cruise price is correct at time of publishing and usually requires a minimum of two people or there may be an extra charge. Clicking on “click” above will take you to the current prices

You can read more about each of these options below. All details are correct at time of publishing but may change before you visit so check before booking that your preferred option has everything you want.

What You Need To Know About A Kinabatangan River Tour

The cruises leave twice a day in the early morning and late afternoon as these are the best wildlife spotting times. There are also night options. When I visited, I had a morning cruise at 6am – my favourite as the air was so still and relatively cool – and 4pm.

At different times of the day, you’re likely to see different animals, so ideally, you want to do all of them. This is why booking at least one night at a lodge to go at these different times is worthwhile if you can spare the time.

Crocodile at Kinabatangan River
Crocodile at Kinabatangan River

Longer is even better. The more days you are there, the more wildlife and better variety you’ll be able to spot.

Otherwise, it is possible to do a Kinabatangan river cruise day trip from Sandakan. I only recommend this if you really can’t spare any longer.

Cruises don’t necessarily stay just on the Kinabatangan River, you may visit its tributaries as well.

Lodges should include the twice-daily river cruises in their prices. Everyone knows you are here to do these cruises. Night cruises, walks and other activities may be extra or they may be included so make sure you read any details carefully.

Take binoculars, a great camera, a poncho or rain jacket and a torch or headlamp for night exploration. Good hiking shoes, a hat, sunscreen and mosquito repellent are essential too.

If you are staying overnight, bring cash (there are no ATMs). It can also be cool in the evenings so a longer shirt is a good idea. I recommend taking some snacks as well as this is a remote area, and there are limited options for food. Don’t expect good wifi or for your phone to work, although my phone worked with Digi at the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort.

This area can flood in the rainy season (October to March) which can stop tours from lodges affected. Otherwise, river tours run year round.

You can also book a Kinabatangan river cruise package that includes other activities, like exploring Sepilok.

If you want to know more about what to expect when visiting Kinabatangan River, find our full guide here.

Proboscis monkey spotted during a Kinabatangan river cruise
Proboscis monkey spotted during a Kinabatangan river cruise

Kinabatangan River Cruise Day Trip

Day trips visit Kinabatangan River for just one cruise which limits your chances to see a range of wildlife. If possible, I recommend you stay overnight. However, if you are short on time, here are your best Kinabatangan river cruise 1 day options…

Borneo Kinabatangan River Cruise Day Trip

If you simply want to get to Kinabatangan River and do a cruise and then return to the Sandakan/Sepilok area, this is your tour!

You’ll be picked up from your hotel from 12 – 1:15pm and driven to Kinabatangan River for your 4pm cruise. On arrival at the river, you’ll have a refreshment as you wait for the cruise to start with your local guide.

The cruises goes for about two hours and then you’ll have dinner (included) before you make the 2-3 hour drive back to your hotel in the Sandakan area.

Click here to see the latest prices and availability.

Time for a boat cruise! Jetty at Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort
Time for a boat cruise! Jetty at Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

Private Full Day Gomantong Cave and Kinabatangan River Cruise

On this private tour, you’ll be picked up around 11am and taken to a local restaurant for an included lunch.

On the way to Kinabatangan River, you’ll visit Gomantong Cave. This is about an hour and a half from Sandakan. Gomantong Cave is famous for its edible bird’s nests which are used in Chinese cooking. It’s also home to many bats. Thanks to dwindling bird populations, entry to this cave is now restricted so it’s not always possible to visit.

After exploring Gomantong Cave, you venture on the Kinabatangan River for the 4pm cruise to spot wildlife and enjoy your surrounds. After it finishes around 6pm, you can buy dinner at the lodge before the 2-3 hour journey back to Sandakan.

Click here to see the latest prices and availability.

Kinabatangan River Cruise 2D1N Options

An overnight option is the best way to get to see the river at different times of day, and I recommend you do one of these packages if possible.

Borneo Wildlife Tour 2 Days 1 Night

This Kinabatangan river tour package is perfect for exploring what this area has to offer in a small-group and remote setting.

You’ll stay at Tanjung Bulat Jungle Camp which is owned and operated by the local tribe and proceeds help support local community projects. It’s in a more remote location so you are unlikely to be around other river boats when you go on your tour. This is helped by the fact that only 12 people can stay here at any one time.

This package includes transfers from the Sandakan area, dinner, breakfast and morning, afternoon and night cruises meaning you’ll get the best chance to spot different types of wildlife.

Pick up time is on day one around 12pm. You’ll have lunch on the way at a local restaurant (your cost) and will arrive at the lodge in time for the 4:30pm river cruise. This cruise goes for an hour and a half.

Dinner is included at 7pm before a one hour night cruise at 8pm. The generator for this accommodation is only on from 6pm – 10pm.

The next morning, you’ll be up early for the 6:30am one hour cruise before the included breakfast at 8am. At 9am, you’ll say goodbye and head back to the Sandakan area.

Click here to see the latest prices and availability.

They also have a 3 night option which you can find here.

Sunrise at Kinabatangan River
Sunrise at Kinabatangan River

2D1N Tour with Kinabatangan River Cruise

This is a similar overnight option with stays at either Nature Lodge Kinabatangan or Sukau BackPackers B&B depending on whether you want your own room or budget dorm accommodation.

While not as remote as Tanjung Bulat Jungle Camp, you’ll still feel like you have got away from it all. No matter which accommodation option you pick, your Kinabatangan river tour price includes transfers, a river cruise, and a breakfast, lunch and dinner. You also get to visit some attractions in the Sepilok/Sandakan area.

You’ll be picked up around 8am from the airport or your hotel. The first stop is at the famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where you’ll get to view and learn more about orangutans.

You’ll then have an included lunch at a local restaurant before driving on to your Kinabatangan lodge.

At 4pm, it’s time for your river cruise to spot wildlife before the included dinner.

Gomangton Cave Sandakan Borneo
Gomangton Cave

On the second day, you’ll have your included breakfast then depart Kinabatangan for Gomantong Cave (if it’s open). After exploring this huge cave, which is home to swiftlets and bats, it’s back to Sandakan for a city tour visiting historic buildings like St Michaels Church, a Buddhist temple and Sim-Sim Water Village.

Lunch is included at English Tea House that overlooks the Sulu Sea.

You’ll be dropped off at the airport or your hotel.

The big drawback of this tour is that it only includes one river tour. Unless you are short on time so need to use these two days to also visit Sepilok and Sandakan, I would pick the tour above instead so you get the three cruises.

Click here to see the latest prices and availability.

2D1N Package with Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort Balcony in my deluxe room
Balcony in my deluxe room at Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

This option allows you to book your tour direct with the accommodation, Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort. The great part about doing it this way is you can stay as many nights as you like.

Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort has many room options so you can save money by staying in a dorm or have the ultimate experience of staying in one of these fabulous deluxe rooms as pictured above.

The resort is well organised with set packages depending on how long you stay. Meals are included and food is good and filling.

In just one night, you can do both an afternoon and morning cruise as well as a night walk.

Transfers from the Sandakan area are also included.

Click here to see the latest options and prices.

Kinabatangan River Cruise 3D2N Options

A longer Kinabatangan tour package is perfect for when you have the time, and you want to spot as much wildlife as possible. The cruises are the same as the one night options, but you get more opportunities over multiple days to see varied wildlife.

3D2N Discover Kinabatangan River 

This tour package includes two nights at the Bilit Adventure Lodge, all meals and river tours twice a day, two hikes and transfers to and from the Sandakan area.

Bilit Adventure Lodge is one of the better lodges in the area, and you’ll have a well presented room that’s comfortable in a scenic location.

You’ll depart Sandakan around 10:30am with a pick-up from the airport or your hotel. Along the way, you’ll stop at a local restaurant for lunch. On arrival at Bilit Adventure Lodge, you’ll have a quick briefing by a nature guide and afternoon tea before your 4pm river cruise.

After the cruise, the included dinner is served and then you’ll have a night walk.

The next morning, you’ll be up early for your morning cruise. Today, you’ll have all three meals and afternoon tea included at your lodge as well as a guided jungle walk about the vegetation in this area and your afternoon cruise.

Kinabatangan River cruise

The final morning, you’ll have breakfast before your transfer back to the Sandakan area.

This is a great option for exploring Kinabatangan River.

Click here to see the latest prices and availability.

3D2N Package with Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort restaurant area
Restaurant area at Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

As above, this option allows you to book your tour direct with the accommodation, Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort. You can read my full review of this resort here.

There are many room options so you can save money by staying in a dorm or stay in a villa by the water.

The resort is well organised with set packages depending on how long you stay.

Packages include morning and afternoon cruises, walks and all meals. You can choose how long you stay and enjoy this area.

Transfers from the Sandakan area are also included.

Click here to see the latest options and prices.

4D3N Sepilok Wildlife Tour with Kinabatangan River Cruise

This is a perfect package if you want to explore Kinabatangan River and Sepilok with everything included. It’s all nice and easy!

On this package, your tour starts with a pick up around 8:30am at your hotel in the Sandakan area or the airport. You’ll visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center before checking in at the Sepilok Jungle Resort and having lunch.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Next up is a guided walk at the Rainforest Discovery Center before dinner.

The next day, you’ll have breakfast and then a free morning until lunch. After lunch, you leave for Bilit Adventure Lodge, one of the best accommodation options around Kinabatangan.

You’ll have a short introduction by a nature guide before afternoon refreshments. This afternoon, you’ll do your first river cruise. It’s then dinner time. You can choose to do a night walk for an extra RM10 which can be arranged locally. You can also choose to do a tree planting activity for RM10 per tree.

The next day, it’s a 5:30am start for your morning cruise before returning for breakfast. You’ll have a guided walk to learn about the vegetation of the area before lunch. Your afternoon will be relaxing until your afternoon river cruise. Dinner is served and then you can choose to do a night walk for an extra fee.

On day four, you’ll have breakfast before checking out and being driven back to the Sandakan area. You can be dropped off at your hotel or the airport.

Click here to see the latest prices and availability.

Kinabatangan River 2D1N Video Walk Through

To get an even better idea of what you’ll do and what to expect at the Kinabatangan River, watch our full video walk through below of a typical 2 day/1 night stay.

It shows you everything from the journey here to inside a resort to the animals we saw on the cruises.

It was filmed at the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort. You can find our full review of this resort here.

Final Words

I hope you have found this guide to Kinabatangan River cruises useful and you now know whether a cruise here is right for you, what to expect and are ready to book your perfect experience.

I very much enjoyed my Kinabatangan experience. I can’t recommend enough that you stay for two or three nights and experience cruises at different times of the day and have the best chance of spotting wildlife like the pygmy elephants. Experiences like this are exactly why you come to Borneo!

Want more help planning your trip? Find our full guide to Kinabatangan River here and full travel guide to Sandakan here, all the top Sandakan tours here and all our guides to more remote Sabah experiences here.

Have any questions? Join our Malaysia Travel Planning Facebook group here now! It’s the perfect place to ask any questions and to be inspired.

By Sharon Gourlay

Sharon is a certified Malaysia travel expert and can't get enough of travelling and talking about Malaysia since she first visited 21 years ago. She travels around Malaysia multiple times a year both alone and with her kids. She used to call Penang home and especially loves this food paradise. Sharon also has a Bachelor of Arts in Asian Studies, a Certificate III in International Travel Sales and has been certified by Tourism Malaysia as a Malaysia Travel Expert. Through this site, she'll help you have the perfect trip to this amazing destination.