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You know a place is special when not even the possibility of being attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes in one of the oldest rainforests in the world will stop you from visiting it (spoiler alert: still alive! The mosquitos were not such a big deal!). With so much excitement you could burst, and binoculars at hand, embark on a journey down the heart of Borneo, the Kinabatangan River.

Kinabatangan River Ultimate Guide

The Kinabatangan River is the best place to see orangutans in Borneo. Wild orangutans! They share center stage with the Big 5 of Borneo, such as the cute proboscis monkey with its wiggly nose and the pygmy elephants, which are not as small as the name suggests. Pick a Kinabatangan riverside lodge where to relax while admiring the hornbills flying high and the cheeky long-tailed monkeys trying to steal that last cookie of yours.

Let us show you where to stay in Kinabatangan, how to get there, what to pack, and when to visit, so you make the most out of your time in Sabah, Borneo.

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How to get to Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River flows through the heart of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. Known for its remarkable biodiversity, it stretches over 560 kilometers (it’s the second longest river in Malaysia) and it is your gateway to exploring the beauty of Borneo’s rainforest.

Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo, seen from a bird's eye view, with the jungle lush green

First things first: you need to fly to Borneo.

The island of Borneo is the third-largest island in the world, and it is divided among three countries: Indonesia (Kalimantan), Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), and Brunei. The Kinabatangan River is located in Sabah, Malaysia.

The closest airport in Borneo to the Kinabatangan River is the Sandakan Airport (SDK), which you can easily fly to directly from Kuala Lumpur. Nevertheless, many people start their journey at Kota Kinabalu International Airport (BKI), which has several daily flights to Sandakan. You can also travel from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan by bus, which is a 7 hour journey.

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Man by a graffiti wall that showcases a bird figure in Kota Kinabalu, the city with the main airport of Borneo.

If you start your journey in Kota Kinabalu or Semporna and want to go straight to Kinabatangan in the most budget-friendly way possible, a bus is the way to go. The bus that connects Kota Kinabalu with Semporna or Lahad Datu passes by Kinabatangan. Ask the driver to drop you off at Sukau Junction. These tickets cannot be purchased online.

From Sandakan to Kinabatangan River

Upon arriving in Sandakan, you can either go straight to the Kinabatangan river or make a stop first in Sepilok, where you can visit two of the main animal rescue centers of Borneo: the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Baby orangutan playing in the ropes of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, one of the most famous Sabah attractions.
Orangutan with baby holding on, during feeding time at Sepilok Orangutan Rescue Centre, in Borneo.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is one of the best places to see orangutans in Borneo. These beautiful creatures are endangered, so even if you plan your trip around the best time to go to Borneo to see orangutans, you might not be able to see them in the wild. This centre is the next best thing, as they have been rehabilitating orangutans for over 60 years.

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Most Kinabatangan tour packages and riverside lodges offer a pickup from Sandakan city center or Sandakan airport, which is about a 2-hour journey. Depending on the package selected, this might be included in the total price, or it can be charged as extra (expect it to be up to 55€ per person). If you are backpacking Borneo, or if that price sounds too high for you and you want to get there by yourself, there is also a way.

Man in one of the main attractions in Borneo, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, in Sabah.

How to Get to Kinabatangan River Independently

If you have fully turned on your adventure mode and want to travel from Sandakan to Kinabatangan River solo, the small village of Sukau is where you want to go. Located on the banks of the river and right in the center of the Kinabatangan Conservation Area, this is a great place to get a budget river cruise day trip or enjoy a peaceful Kinabatangan homestay experience.

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A Kinabatangan River Cruise scenario, of lush greenery.

From Sandakan to Kinabatangan River by Bus

Catch one of the buses that connect Sandakan to Semporna or Lahad Datu. These can drop you off (upon request) at the non-official bus stop at Sukau Junction. This should cost you 20-30MYR (4-6€). Make sure someone from your homestay in Kinabatangan is waiting for you there, as Sukau village is still 42 km away, and there isn’t always a transportation alternative to take you there. Not to mention, you will need a boat to reach some accommodations.

The bus from Sandakan to Kinabatangan river, which stops near Sukau.

From Sandakan to Kinabatangan River with Shared Transportation

Get a shared minivan from Sandakan to Sukau with Mr. Choy, who makes daily trips between both locations (he can also stop at Sepilok). The trip costs 60 MYR (12€) per person, and you can contact him via whatsapp at +6019-536-1889.

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From Sandakan to Kinabatangan River by Car

You can explore Sabah with a rental car, but you can also get from Sandakan to Kinabatangan easily by Grab. However, the latter will be the most expensive of these options, being around 270 MYR (54€).

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A long tailed monkey eating on a tree. Some of the most common Kinabatangan wildlife.

Kinabatangan River Cruise Day Trip or Overnight Stay

Visiting the Kinabatangan River is one of the best things to do in Borneo and should be included in every Sabah itinerary. You can join one of the many Kinabatangan tours available, departing from Sandakan and Sepilok, or spend a couple of nights in a wonderful riverside lodge.

View from a day trip cruise of one of a Kinabatangan riverside lodge at sunrise.

Kinabatangan River Cruise Day Trip

The Kinabatangan River cruise day trip will give you a glimpse of the rich biodiversity of this rainforest ecosystem. However, between picking up travelers, arriving at the river, and the time needed to return, the tour will seem short. Also, bear in mind that there is no control over which animals you will get to see, so it will be a game of chance. Nevertheless, if you are on a tight schedule and this is the only option for you, this is the most complete Kinabatangan River cruise day trip*.

Eagle observed from a Kinabatangan river tour, one of the top things to do in Sabah, Borneo.
Proboscis monkey observed from a Kinabatangan tour, during the best time to travel to Borneo.

When looking for the best Kinabatangan River cruise, consider the comfort of the transfer, if the guide speaks English, and the number of people per boat rather than the cruise itself. Most guides communicate via message throughout the day to inform each other of the animals' locations, so chances are most boats will head in the same direction when an orangutan or elephant is spotted.

Kinabatangan River Overnight Stay

For us, an overnight stay at a Kinabatangan riverside lodge is a must during your Sabah itinerary. Waking up to the sound of hornbills in nearby trees, long-tailed monkeys swinging from branches, and, if like us, you have a moment of luck, you might witness elephants passing by your accommodation like it is no big deal.

Man smiling on a boat during one of the many Kinabatagan river tours available from Sandakan, Sabah.
Bird on top of a tree, observed during a morning tour of a Kinabatangan homestay.

Most people opt for a 3D/2N stay, which significantly increases your chances of spotting the Big 5 of Borneo. Online, you will see a variety of Kinabatangan tour packages that include accommodation, return transfers, full board, and river cruises. But the truth is, unless you want a longer tour that includes other attractions in Borneo, most Kinabatangan riverside lodges already include all of this, or at least most of it. So you always get a better deal by booking the accommodation yourself, without a third party tour operator.

Our Kinabatangan accommodation* was modest but perfect for a 3 night stay. The price included all meals, two river cruises and one jungle walk a day, and return transfers. The team was wonderful, there were not that many people, and we had a great time.

A group of elephants eating by the Kinabatangan river, some of the most fantastic animals in the Borneo rainforest.

A normal full day at a Kinabatangan river lodge:

6:15am - Coffee
6:30am - Morning River Cruise
8:30am - Breakfast
9:30am - Jungle Walk
12:30pm - Lunch
4:00pm - Sunset River Cruise
7:00pm - Dinner
8:30pm - Night River Cruise

The times and activities depend on the accommodations, but overall, the timetable structure is the same. The gaps without activities are personal time to relax, read a book, enjoy nature, or mingle with other travelers. The group of people we met was wonderful, so we never had a dull moment.

Monkey sitting on the roof of a Kinabatangan River Lodge, in Sabah.
Man smiling next to the name of the Kinabatangan resort where he is staying.

Kinabatangan River Cruise & Jungle Walk

When visiting the Kinabatangan River on a day trip, you will join an afternoon/sunset cruise. If you choose to stay overnight, there will be plenty of opportunities for you to explore both the river and the rainforest jungle. Since most Kinabatangan accommodations don’t include all the available tours, here is a breakdown to help you decide which ones are for you:

Kinabatangan River Tours

Sunrise & Sunset Cruise:

The sunrise and sunset Kinabatangan river cruises are quite similar in terms of the species you can find and usually last around 2 hours. These cruises offer a great opportunity to spot some of the most amazing animals in the Borneo rainforest, such as orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, long-tailed macaque, eagles, kingfishers, pygmy elephants, and more.

A baby elephant observed during one of the best Borneo wildlife tours.
Couple sitting on a Kinabatangan cruise, one of the best things to do in Borneo Malaysia.
Colorful kingfisher, one of the common species observed during the Kinabatangan river Tours in Sabah.

Night Cruise:

The nighttime Kinabatangan river tour is usually not included in the main accommodation package, but instead, they are open tours you can pay to join while there. The night river cruise price is typically around 80-100 MYR (16-20€ per person). These tours allow you to explore a different side of the river. With binoculars and a spotlight in hand, you will be able to witness nocturnal animals like crocodiles, owls, and if you are very lucky, the cute slow loris and civets.

Silhouette of a proboscis monkey, one of the Big 5 Borneo animals.
Bird with blue beak observed during the best Kinabatangan river cruise.
Monitor Lizard, a common animal to be spotted during the Kinabatangan tours at nighttime.

Kinabatangan Jungle Treks

The jungle walks are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they are a great way to spot unique flora and fauna and enjoy the charm of the jungle atmosphere. Don’t expect to see orangutans up close (though it may happen), nor elephants, as for safety reasons, if the guides know they are nearby, they will not conduct a jungle trek that day. Chances are you will mainly see birds, unique insects, arachnids, and some cheeky monkeys that are pretty much everywhere.

Colorful insect on a tree, spotted during a jungle trekking, part of the Kinabatangan tour package.
Monkey eating on top of a tree in Sabah, Borneo.

For the jungle treks, use boots and long pants to protect your legs from leeches, and shower in gallons of repellent with the highest DEET on the market. Mosquitos are everywhere, and at night they seem to be on acid.

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Where to Stay at Kinabatangan River

Prepare for an authentic jungle experience at one of the eco-lodges or homestays the riverside has to offer. If you are looking for the ultimate “Kinabatangan resort” you might have to adjust your expectations to basic amenities in a stunning location. But, don’t get us wrong, you can find very comfortable options with plenty of privacy, delicious food, unlimited tea, coffee, and filtered water throughout the day, and experienced guides who speak good english.

Man smiling from the porch of his Kinabatangan riverside lodge.
An area from a homestay in Kinabatangan, where travelers can plant trees in the Sabah rainforest.

If you are looking for the best Kinabatangan riverside lodge for you, with full board, and great location, here are our top suggestions:

Bungalow of Borneo Jungle Adventure accommodation, one of the best places where to stay inKinabatangan river.
Outside of the Kinabatangan resort, The Last Frontier Boutique Resort. A recommended Kinabatangan accommodation.
Orange bungalow at Bilit Adventure Lodge, one of the top Kinabatangan riverside lodge.

Make sure to bring cash with you in case you want to rent binoculars, have a beer, or purchase extra services/tours. Most accommodations in Kinabatangan don’t accept card payments, and there is no nearby ATM.

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View of the Kinabatangan river from a boat during the dry season, the best time to visit Borneo.

Big 5 of Borneo - Kinabatangan Wildlife

Visiting the best place to see wild orangutans in Borneo without creating expectations is tricky (at least it was for us). While we can’t say we saw dozens of them, we were able to tick them off our list, having the luck of scoring a 100% success rate on the Big 5 Borneo must-see animals list. Nevertheless, it is important you go with an open mind and embrace the experience as a whole, because it is one of a kind, no matter which species you get to see.

Close up of a pygmy elephant, one of the Big 5 Borneo species.
Proboscis monkey looking surprised looking up. One of the most impressive species of Borneo’s wildlife.
Baby crocodile resting at the riverside of Kinabatangan, one of the best places to visit in Borneo.

The Borneo Big 5 are composed of the Orangutans, Pygmy Elephants, Proboscis Monkeys, Rhinoceros Hornbill and Estuarine Crocodile. But the rainforest has plenty of long-tailed macaques, eagles, kingfishers, monitor lizards, and more that will ensure you keep your eyes peeled during your stay.

Orangutan hanging from a tree by its legs, at the Kinabatangan river, Sabah. The best place to see wild orangutans in Borneo.
Hornbill flying on a blue sky in Sabah, Borneo.

Orangutans are increasingly endangered, largely due to the reduction of their natural habitat, which is being taken over by the expansion of palm oil plantations. The number of plantations struck us quite hard, but so did the lack of residual management of the area.

Best Time to Visit Borneo

Are you really looking for the best time to visit Borneo as a whole, or what you want to know is when is the best time to go to Borneo to see orangutans?🤭 Not judging! We also wanted both!

A playful orangutan swinging from a tree in Sabah’s rainforest, during the dry season, the best time to go to borneo to see orangutans

The Kinabatangan River can be visited year-round, but the prime time is during the dry season, from March to September. Lower water levels, less rain, and fewer mosquitos (so they say…), make observing the Kinabatangan wildlife easier and more enjoyable. However, if getting a chance of spotting the jungle stars is your top priority, the best time to go to Borneo to see orangutans is between June and September.

A pygmy elephant crossing the Kinabatangan River, observed during the best time of year to visit borneo, the dry season.

What to Pack for a Kinabatangan Tour

Ready to pack for your Sabah adventure? Go over this list to make sure you are not forgetting any of the essentials:

  • Lightweight, breathable clothes – long sleeves, pants, and tall socks for leech and insect protection.

  • A light raincoat.

  • Sturdy hiking shoes.

  • Flip flops (we used them during the river cruises on rainy days – easier to dry out).

  • Sunscreen and hat.

  • Considerable amount of super powerful insect repellent (DEET recommended).

  • Binoculars (usually the guides have them available to rent).

  • Dry bag (better to be safe than sorry during the river cruises).

  • Cash (for any extras you might need).

Be prepared for limited electricity and internet access, which is not that bad. Disconnect and embrace the experience fully.

Group of elephants eating by the river spotted from a Kinabatangan river cruise day trip.

Planning Time

If you are ready to start planning your next trip, here you have all the usefull links you need to make it happen! By using them you are supporting our work as we might get a small fee from it. But hey! You pay the same (or might even get a discount), so is a win-win situation!

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