A detailed travel guide on how to get to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo.
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!
- Where is the Kinabatangan River?
- How to Get to the Kinabatangan River
- Where to Stay on the Kinabatangan River
- More Sabah Travel & Adventure Guides
Where is the Kinabatangan River?
The Kinabatangan River, known as Sungai Kinabatangan in Malay, is the longest river in Sabah, and the second-longest in Malaysia with a total length of 560 km.
The river 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.
The Kinabatangan River is known for its incredible biodiversity and for being a sanctuary for endangered species including Proboscis Monkeys and Orangutans.
How to Get to the Kinabatangan River
Getting to the Kinabatangan River and Sukau involves taking a bus or private transport from the main tourist hubs in Sabah. These include Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Sepilok, and Semporna.However, the most difficult part of arranging the river cruise is organizing transport to the river, since there is no reliable public transport available.
It's still a little tricky for independent travelers since there aren't many large hubs or cities within a reasonable distance. The below options should cover you and answer your question about how to get to the Kinabatangan River, no matter where you start from.
Below I'll detail the most cost-effective and convenient options for reaching the Kinabatangan River. Note that it's a good idea to spend at least a night in Sukau once you arrive if you are traveling indepently. Skip to the accommodation section below for tips on the best lodges that organize Kinabatangan River cruises.
The Best Option: Organised Tour to 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.
More Options for Getting to Sukau (Kinabtangan River) from Sandakan
There are two other options for getting to Kinabatangan River from Sandakan. 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 other option is to contact Mr Choy.
Mr. Choy Sandakan
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 email@example.com.
The best part is, you won't need to change buses or vans, Mr. Choy will take you from 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. Super trustworthy guy.
Sepilok to Kinabatangan River (Sukau)
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. Read on further for information on how to get to Kinabatangan River from Sandakan.
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
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.
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, proboscis monkeys, to name a few. Here are some great accommodation picks.
- 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 - Affordable but comfortable lodges on the doorstep of the Kinabatangan.
- Sukau Backpackers B&B - 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.