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How To Get To Kinabatangan River and Where to Stay

How To Get To Kinabatangan River and Where to Stay

Olly Gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler for 6 years. I visit every place I write about & share real tips, photos, & advice from my trips.

Getting to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo involves organising transport to the small village of Sukau– here’s how.

Wondering how to get to the Kinabatangan River? After going through the process of organizing transport myself, I’ve prepared this detailed guide to help you reach Sukau either by independent travel or on a multi-day organized trip from Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Semporna, or Sepilok.

As you may well know, independent travel in Sabah Borneo isn’t always the easiest or the cheapest. Luckily, however, getting to the Kinabatangan River to see the last remaining glimpses of Borneo’s once-flourishing biodiversity can be done independently– and on a backpacker’s budget!

Sukau kinabatangan river cruise boat
Once you arrive you can go on incredible river cruises to spot wildlife!

Where is the Kinabatangan River?

The Kinabatangan River, known as Sungai Kinabatangan in Malay, is located in the Sandakan Division in northeastern Sabah and runs from the interior Sabahan mountains to the saltwater mangrove wetlands on the shores of the Sulu Sea.

It's the longest river in Sabah and the second-longest in Malaysia with a total length of 560 km.

So, when asking where it is, travelers usually need to know that the best access is via the village of Sukau.

Tip: The Kinabatangan River is known for its incredible biodiversity and for being a sanctuary for endangered species including Proboscis Monkeys and Orangutans.

Kinabatangan river drone photo

How to Get to the Kinabatangan River

Based on my experience, the best way to get to the Kinabatangan River and Sukau begins by taking a bus or private transport from the main tourist hubs in Sabah to nearby Sandakan.

These include Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Sepilok, and Semporna and I'll explain the best options for each below. However, the most difficult part of arranging the river cruise is organizing transport to the actual river in Sukau, since there is no reliable public transport available for this last stretch.

Here's a summary:

  • Tour from Sepilok or Sandakan - there are a few tour operators running trips (overnight and day trips) to the river. You can book these online in advance.
  • Bus to Sandakan then transport to Sukau - once you arrive in Sandakan, you can take a public bus or private transport to Lahad Datu. From here, I recommend booking transport with Mr. Choy (details below).

Update: Transport is still a little tricky for independent travelers since there aren't many large hubs or cities within a reasonable distance from Sukau. That said, the below options will cover you and answer your question about how to get to the Kinabatangan River, no matter where you start.

Note that it's a good idea to spend at least a night in Sukau once you arrive if you are traveling independently. Skip to the accommodation section below for tips on the best lodges that organize Kinabatangan River cruises.

Wild proboscis monkey in sabah borneo
A proboscis monkey on the Kinabatangan River

Book a Tour the Kinabatangan River from Sandakan or Sepilok

If you're planning a longer travel itinerary of Sabah, then the best way to reach the river is by booking an organized 2-day trip from Sandakan or Sepilok. This is a convenient and popular option since you'll likely want to visit the Orangutan conservation area there regardless.

This trip includes your river cruises with a guide and a stay at the riverside Nature Lodge. But, more importantly, also includes transport in and out of the river area, which is the most difficult thing to arrange.

Proboscis monkey in sukau

How to Get from Sandakan to Sukau

Once you arrive in Sandakan, you have two options for getting to Kinabatangan River (Sukau).

The first option is to take a public bus leaving from the long-distance bus terminal (Stesen Bas Sandakan on Google Maps) towards Lahad Datu and then hopping off at the Sukau junction and hoping that a car or van will be there to take you to Sukau (not reliable but possible).

This first option is a bit annoying, firstly because the long-distance terminal is a bit out of town, and secondly, because you'll need to rely on a way to get to Sukau from the junction since it's a 45 km stretch of dirt road to the actual village.

The better choice and the option that I took is to get a direct transfer with a local legend: "Mr Choy". Choy lives in Sukau and does daily transfers in his minivan from Sandakan for 60 Ringgit per person. You can contact him on WhatsApp; 019-536-1889 or by email: at choysukau80@gmail.com.

The best part is, you won't need to change buses or vans, Mr. Choy will take you from your accommodation in Sandakan or Sepilok to your accommodation in Sukau or vice versa.

Choy is such a great guy. After screwing up and not bringing enough money to Sukau (there aren't any ATMs for over an hour), he took my Debit Card on his next daily run and got money out for me in Sandakan, even though I'd only met him the day prior. Honestly, he's a super trustworthy guy and I still stay in touch with him today from time to time!

Kinabtangan river cruise

How to Get from Sepilok to Kinabatangan River

To get to Kinabatangan River from Sepilok, you could either wave down a bus going to Lahad Datu at the Sepilok junction and follow the same plan as above– or you could message Choy on WhatsApp.

Since Sepilok is on the way, Choy will also pick you up from your accommodation in Sepilok.

How to Get From Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan River

The fastest way to get from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan River is to take a flight from KK airport to Sandakan.

From here, you'll need to take an overland bus detailed below, or a private transfer to Sukau.

Kinabatangan river boat in sabah

Alternative: 2-Day Organised Trip - KK to Kinabatangan

If you'd like to save time & energy with public transport, book this 2D1N Trip to Sandakan. This includes transport & a guide to Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, a Kinabatangan river cruise, and a visit to Gomantong Caves

Taking the Bus From Kota Kinabalu to Kinabatangan River

To get to Kinabatangan River from Kota Kinabalu by bus, you will need to go to the northern bus terminal (Inanam). There are several buses here going to Sandakan, and two buses daily going to Semporna (7:30 am and 7:30 pm).

You can tell the ticket vendors that you want to go to Sukau, or Kinabatangan River. They will recommend that you take the bus going to Semporna, and get off at the junction to Sukau, where you can find cars and vans parked waiting to take tourists down the dirt road to the lodges.

The trip from Kota Kinabalu to the Sukau junction takes roughly 6 hours by bus and follows the highway to Semporna.

Travel Tip: For those looking to fly within Sabah, the closest airport to the Kinabatangan River is in Sandakan. If you're not a fan of bumpy overland options, Air Asia also has cheap flights starting at $50 per person from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan Airport. If you're looking to get to bypass KK and fly straight into Sandakan, then you can also find many flights, most of which connect through Kuala Lumpur. I usually compare flight options on Skyscanner to get the latest deals.

How to Get from Semporna to Kinabatangan River

Those in Semporna and wondering how to get to Kinabatangan River from Semporna will have similar options. By now, you'll realize that there aren't any direct public transport services to Sukau on the Kinabatangan River.

From Semporna, it's best to take a morning bus to Kota Kinabalu at the bus station near the harbor. This bus will follow the same standard bus route as the reverse trip from Kota Kinabalu and you will have to get off at the Sukau Junction just the same.

From here, hope to take a van waiting on the road to Sukau.

Sukau village in sandakan sabah, borneo
Sukau lodging on the edge of the kinabatangan river

Where to Stay on the Kinabatangan River

While it's possible to stay in Sandakan and take tours into the Kinabatangan, staying on the Kinabatangan River is in my opinion, a must-do on any Sabah itinerary!

This region is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for wild orangutans, Bornean pygmy elephants, probosci's monkeys, to name a few. Here are some great accommodation picks.

Room at borneo natural sukau bilit resort

1. Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

An amazing eco-jungle resort surrounded by lush greenery. Spot monkeys swinging from the vines from your own balcony overlooking the river.

Kinabatangan wildlife lodge

2. Kinabatangan Wildlife Lodge Mid-Range

Affordable but comfortable lodges on the doorstep of the Kinabatangan.

Outdoor garden view at sukau backpackers b&b

3. Sukau Backpackers B&B Budget

Cheap rooms right on the edge of the Kinabatangan River. The real-deal raw jungle experience and run by guys who organize cheap river cruises.

More Sabah Travel & Adventure Guides

I hope that you've enjoyed this updated guide on how to get to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo. While you're here, make sure to check out some of my other guides below for more travel tips and inspiration for your journey.

How to get to kinabatangan river and where to stay
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure traveler from Australia. I’ve spent the last six years traveling the world full-time, sharing my first-hand experiences & photography in over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. I visit every destination I write about to bring you unique travel itineraries, epic hiking routes, fun tour ideas, travel & photography gear ideas, & interesting places to stay.

I only make genuine, worthwhile recommendations based on my experience, expertise, & research. If you buy through my links, I may get a commission, supporting this website at no extra cost to you. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.

Jess

Tuesday 11th of July 2023

Hi Olly,

Wanted to thank you for sharing great tips and providing Mr. Choy information ! We just booked our pick up with him for end of July 2023.

Thanks a lot and have fun Jess

Dani

Friday 21st of April 2023

Just booked Mr Choy to drive us from Sandakan to Kinabantangan. There didn’t seem to be any buses from Sandakan to Tawau or Lahad Datu. Thanks for the tip! We would have been completely stuck otherwise

Hayley

Saturday 3rd of September 2022

Hi there, Your travel site is awesome! Do you know the best way to travel from the Kinabatangen river cruise (staying a night in sukau) to travel on to Semporna? We want to go to the Sipadan Dive Resort 😁

Alessia

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Your Blog is AMAZING!!!! I found it after two mounths of research. So, Mr Choy is a super skill! I have read many blogs, travel stories, forums, etc ... and what stands out the most is that the prices have increased in the last 4 years. internal flights included ... trying to organize my trip in the last 10 days, I assumed that I would get away with a low budget, and instead I noticed high prices, especially in Borneo ... and that you have to book in advance, so also choosing the stops before being there (even if I have 3 fixed weeks, with return to work), makes you lose that semblance of adventure that between South America and South East Asia, I had in my previous travels. Anyway thanks, I'll use your stories !!! And let the adventure begin

Carol

Sunday 12th of June 2022

Thanks for the info, hoping to head there in July, Did you have the contact for Mr Choy? Also did you have any problem finding a way to go on river cruises (we are interested in birds and wildlife) and what was the cost of those. We were thinking we had to do a ridiculous package but now sounding much more hopeful of something a little cheaper. Thanks

Olly Gaspar

Sunday 12th of June 2022

Hi Carol,

Choy's number and email contact is stated on this blog post. You can also read more about how to go on a river cruise on a backpackers budget on this post: https://www.weseektravel.com/sukau-kinabatangan-river-cruise/ Enjoy your adventures in Sabah!