This detailed guide is aimed at helping travelers who are wondering how to get to Kinabatangan River. These guide lists options from main hubs including Sandakan, Semporna and Kota Kinabalu.
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?
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.
Where to Stay on the Kinabatangan River
For jungle river cruises and access to the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, the best place to stay on the river is in a small town known as Sukau. There are a few accommodation options here and many river guides live in this town.
BUDGET RAINFOREST LODGING: RB LODGE
The cheapest Kinabatangan River accommodation you’ll find in Sukau. This is where I stayed. The rooms are a bungalow style and located right on the edge of the river. Breakfast is included and a double room costs less than $14 USD per night.
BACKPACKER VIBE: SUKAU BACKPACKER’S B&B
Located a few hundred meters from the RB Lodge, this B&B costs a few extra dollars but has more comfortable and cleaner rooms. The breakfast is also a buffet style.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SUKAU RAINFOREST LODGE
The Sukau Rainforest Lodge has to be the coolest place to stay on the Kinabatangan River. The lodge is located on the banks of the river is the first ecotourism company in the area. The lodge owners are built on conservation and facilities include communal halls, lounge, restaurant, boardwalks, a pool, and a bar. They’ve also won several tourism and sustainability awards.
You can also compare all Sukau and Kinabatangan River accommodation options on Booking.com.
DON’T MISS THE SUKAU CAVE HIKE: READ THE GUIDE
How to Get to 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, 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 of how to get to the Kinabatangan River, no matter where you start from.
Flying in Sabah, Borneo
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 $30 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.COMPARE FLIGHTS TO KOTA KINABALU AND SANDAKAN ON SKY SCANNER OR MOMONDO
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 private transfer to Sukau. Read on further for information on how to get to Kinabatangan River from Sandakan.
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.
Sukau Junction Map
How to Get from Sandakan to Kinabatangan River
There are two main 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.
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 45KM stretch of dirt road to the actual village.
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 50 Ringgit per person. You can contact him on WhatsApp; 019-536-1889 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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 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, again take a van waiting on the road to Sukau.