Kinabatangan River: Everything You Need To Know

Published Categorized as Sabah
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Considering visiting the Kinabatangan River? Great choice! This area is fantastic for wildlife spotting and is an easily accessible and good priced Sabah jungle experience.

The Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia (and longest in Sabah). It’s 560 kilometres long and starts in Borneo’s interior before making its way to the sea. It’s a chocolate colour and surrounded by rainforest which is home to much wildlife.

Kinabatangan River Cruise
Kinabatangan River

This is a great place to spot wildlife although for a sad reason. The forest that lines the river is getting smaller and smaller as palm oil plantations grow. This means that the wildlife is more concentrated making them easier to spot.

It’s easy to explore this area thanks to the lodges that line the river and can take you on cruises and treks to help you appreciate this area.

Of course, when you haven’t been here before, it can be confusing to work out what you need to do, and if it’s even worth your precious vacation time to take a Kinabatangan River trip in the first place.

Below, I walk you through it all with everything you need to know to make the decision to go including how to book your Kinabatangan River Borneo trip. I also share all my experiences from visiting here myself in this Kinabatangan River blog as well as a full video walk through of the experience of visiting the Kinabatangan River.

If you already know you want to go and simply want to book a tour to the Kinabatangan River, you can find my guide to the best Kinabatangan River day trip and longer trip options here.

Planning a trip to Malaysia? 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!

Why Visit The Kinabatangan River?

Kinabatangan River cruise
Spot the animals!

Exploring the Kinabatangan River and its banks is a fantastic choice for nature lovers and anyone wanting to experience the diverse wildlife of Sabah.

It is the only place in the region where visitors can observe ten different primates, including the iconic orangutan, Bornean gibbon, macaques, proboscis monkeys and tarsiers. The area is also home to other fascinating creatures, such as monitor lizards, crocodiles, wild boars and Borneo pygmy elephants, providing a remarkable experience for those interested in wildlife observation.

The Kinabatangan River is a haven for birdwatchers, with various Bornean hornbill species, pittas, kingfishers, and many other birds to spot.

Accessing the area is relatively easy as it is only a couple of hours’ drive from Sandakan or Sepilok to the lodges where river cruises along the Kinabatangan begin.

However, planning ahead is necessary as it is not possible to reach here via public transportation. Booking a tour in advance is the best and most feasible way to visit here.

Where Is Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia?

The Kinabatangan River is south of Sandakan. The lodges are located between the main AH150 highway pictured below and the coast.

Here is a Kinabatangan River map.

kinabatangan river
Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan River Wildlife

There are lots of Kinabatangan River animals that you have a chance to spot.

The main ones are:

  • Pygmy elephants
  • Sun bears
  • Orangutans
  • Bornean gibbon
  • Long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques
  • Proboscis monkeys
  • Silver-lead and maroon langurs
  • Tarsiers
  • Monitor lizards
  • Crocodiles
  • Wild boars
Crocodile at Kinabatangan River
Crocodile at Kinabatangan River

Also, keep a look out for birds. You can see all varieties of Borneo’s hornbills, pittas, kingfishers, storm’s stalk, white-fronted falconet, oriental darter and more.

Of course, this isn’t a zoo and nothing is guaranteed. You would be unlucky not to spot at least a few of these animals though.

For the best chance of spotting wildlife, stay as long as you can and do as many cruises as you can especially at different times of the day.

Kinabatangan River Cruises

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

The main Kinabatangan activity is taking river cruises. This is a must-do activity.

All Kinabatangan River cruise overnight packages include a cruise in the early morning and late afternoon. I recommend you do as many of these as you can. Night cruises are also often available, usually at an extra charge.

Early morning and late afternoon are considered the best times for wildlife spotting, but each time of day or night has a chance of spotting different animals. So I recommend you go on at least one cruise at each time option.

The early morning cruise is best for birds and orangutans, afternoon for proboscis monkeys and evening for crocodiles and nocturnal birds.

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

On my cruises, I saw a range of monkeys, birds and crocodiles. I especially loved the morning cruise. It was so peaceful and calm.

This is why I don’t recommend a day trip to Kinabatangan River if you can avoid it. Day trips only go on a late afternoon cruise. This is better than not visiting the Kinabatangan River at all though.

Cruises may not only cover the Kinabatangan River, but also its tributaries.

The cruises themselves are on small boats with a guide and driver. There are usually 10-16 people per cruise on small seats with full views of the surrounding area. Cruises last 1 – 2.5 hours.

Trekking At Kinabatangan River

In addition to cruises, you can also go trekking along the Borneo Kinabatangan River. Most lodges offer some time of trekking, with night treks being particularly popular to see insects, frogs, sleeping birds and nocturnal wildlife.

I did a night trek at the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort. This involved trekking through the mud (they supplied rubber boots) and looking out for creatures such as insects, frogs, sleeping birds and nocturnal animals.

If you do a multi-night package, there is usually trekking on the middle day during the daytime as well.

Sunrise at Kinabatangan River
Sunrise at Kinabatangan River

How To Get To Kinabatangan River

As mentioned before, there isn’t public transport to the Kinabatangan River Malaysia lodges. However, package tours or day trip to Kinabatangan River will just about always include transfers from the Sepilok/Sandakan region.

This means it makes the most sense to get to the Sandakan area and then travel from Sandakan to Kinabatangan. You could also get a taxi here or hire a car and drive yourself.

If you are travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Kinabatangan River or from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan River, you can first fly to Sandakan and then travel onwards as stated. Flights are usually great value (check here). There are also buses from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan here.

Because I wanted to travel on to Lahad Datu after I visited the Kinabatangan River, I arranged a taxi through my lodge. It was pricey though, so if you are looking to save money, you best option is to go back to Sandakan afterwards and travel onwards from there.

Kinabatangan River cruise crocodile
Baby crocodile

Kinabatangan River Accommodation

There are a few lodge choices along the Kinabatangan River. Here are some options.

Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

This is a beautiful resorted located right by the river with fabulous views. The whole resort is built from local wood on stilts and there are boardwalks between the villas and the main resort area. It helps the resort buildings fade into the surrounding rainforest.

It has a chill-out vibe and is a great place to hang out between activities with comfortable beds for night time.

There a range of room types. All are heavily constructed in wood and have decor hand-crafted by local tradesmen.

Dorm rooms are available for budget travellers with three bunk beds. There are also cottage and deluxe villas with twin beds, fans, desks and clothes racks. There is also a triple room with a queen and a single bed.

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

I stayed in a deluxe villa here which was just amazing. It had a great balcony looking out over a lake area (pictured above).

All rooms have their own bathrooms, a balcony and air-conditioning.

There is a restaurant and seating area on-site with great views over the river. The meals and staff are great and I had a fantastic time at this resort.

Packages here include early morning and late afternoon cruises, evening night walks, meals and transfers to and from Sandakan.

Click here to see the latest package prices or see my full review here.

Bilit Adventure Lodge

This fabulous riverside lodge offers similar packages to the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort above with morning and afternoon river cruises, transfers, jungle hikes and all meals.

For rooms, you can choose between air-conditioned rooms and cheaper rooms with fan only. All have private bathrooms with the air-conditioned rooms also offering hot showers and tea and coffee making facilities.

There is a restaurant on-site and great views,

Click here to see the latest prices. You can also find their three day/two night package tour here.

Tanjung Bulat Jungle Camp 

To really get away from it all, consider the Tanjung Bulat Jungle Camp. This is owned and operated by a local tribe with proceeds supporting local community projects.

It’s in a more remote location so you are more likely to have your river cruises free of other boats. They also only allow 12 guests maximum at any one time so you can definitely have a more intimate experience at this place.

Stays are by package tour only. They include all meals as well as morning, afternoon and night cruises giving you a great chance of spotting lots of different wildlife.

Click here to see their latest 2 day/1 night package prices or here for their 3 day/2 night package price.

How To Visit The Kinabatangan River

The best (and easiest) way to visit the Kinabatangan River is with a package tour purchased before visiting.

As mentioned above, this is the best way to get to the area and you’ll want a deal which includes river cruises and accommodation (if you’re starting overnight) anyway.

River lodges are also spread out so it’s not really a place to just show up and then try to find your accommodation.

Luckily for you, it is very easy to book beforehand.

Here are some more details or you can find our full write-up of travel package and day tour options here.

Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River

Day Trips

You can day tour to Kinabatangan River but note that these will only include an afternoon boat ride.

Here are your options:

Tour NameBest For…PriceBook Now
Borneo Kinabatangan River Cruise Day TripPeople who only want to visit Kinabatangan River and are short on timeRM310Click
Private Full Day Gomantong Cave and Kinabatangan River Cruise People who would also like to visit Gomantong Cave (read more about it here)RM390Click
Note that the Kinabatangan river cruise price is correct at time of publishing and requires a minimum of two people or there may be an extra charge. Clicking on “click” above will take you to the current prices

Overnight Trips

Staying by the Kinabatangan River is definitely the way to go if you have the budget and time. This will give you more opportunities to spot wildlife and it’s just a great place to chill and hang out.

Here are your options:

Tour NameBest For…DaysLodgePriceBook Now
Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit ResortGreat place to stay plus dorm options for budget travellers2-3Borneo Natural Sakau Bilit ResortRM405+Click
Borneo Wildlife Tour 2 Days 1 NightRiver cruises at three times of day in a more remote location2Tanjung Bulat Jungle CampRM900Click
Borneo Wildlife Tour 3 Days 2 NightsRiver cruises at three times of day in a more remote location3Tanjung Bulat Jungle CampRM1100Click
3D2N Discover Kinabatangan River Twice daily cruises and hikes included with a great amount of time for exploring the area3Bilit Adventure LodgeRM790Click
4D3N Sepilok Wildlife Tour with Kinabatangan River CruisePeople who want to explore Sepilok and Kinabatangan River with overnight stops at both4Bilit Adventure LodgeRM1282Click
Note that the Kinabatangan river cruise price is correct at time of publishing and requires a minimum of two people or there may be an extra charge. Clicking on “click” above will take you to the current prices

How To Book Your Trip To The Kinabatangan River

Work out which lodge you want, how many nights and then you can simply click on the links in the tables above to book your trip to Kinabatangan River. They all include everything you need.

If you book elsewhere, it’s important to ensure that the twice-daily river cruises are included in the price. While night cruises, walks and other activities may require an additional fee, be sure to read the details carefully. After all, the river cruises are the main attraction.

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

When To Visit The Kinabatangan River

You can visit year round, although note that the area can flood in the rainy season (October to March) which can stop tours if your lodge is affected. Heavy rain can also stop river cruises and trekking.

The upside is that there is more area to explore with more rain as there are more tributaries.

Wildlife spotting is usually best from March to September with bird spotting best April to October (when it’s flowering).

What To Take To The Borneo River Kinabatangan

I recommend you take the following to Kinabatangan River:

  • Any cash you need (there are no ATMs)
  • Binoculars
  • Camera
  • Poncho or rain jacket
  • Torch or headlamp for night walks
  • Hiking shoes
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito Repellent
  • Long shirt and pants
  • Long socks (or leech socks)
  • Snacks
Kinabatangan River Cruise, Sandakan, Borneo
Kinabatangan River Cruise

Kinabatangan River Video Walk Through

To get an even better idea of what you’ll do and what to expect at Kinabatangan River, watch our full video walk through below.

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

Final Words

I absolutely loved visiting the Kinabatangan River, and I’m sure you will too. The wildlife spotting is superb and it’s hard to get an easier way to see wildlife in their natural habitat than from sitting in a boat.

The lodges can also be great. I particularly loved staying at the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort.

I hope you have enjoyed this full guide to Kinabatangan River. It’s a fabulous experience that should be on all itineraries to Sabah.

It can seem a little complicated when you first look into visiting here, but all you need to do is book a package tour and you’ll be all set to go.

You can find all the best Kinabatangan river cruise packages and tours here or all our guides to Sabah here.

Planning a trip to Malaysia? 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.