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How to Plan a Kinabatangan River Cruise & What to Expect in 2023 – (Sukau, Sabah)

How to Plan a Kinabatangan River Cruise & What to Expect in 2023 – (Sukau, Sabah)

A complete guide to planning and going on a fantastic wildlife river cruise on the Kinabatangan River near Sukau, Sabah.

Are you planning to add a Kinabatangan River Cruise to your Sabah itinerary? During our trip to Sukau, we went on several riverboat trips to see the amazing wildlife on the river. It truly was one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve had in Asia, spotting a wide range of primates, crocodiles, and tropical birds.

Therefore, to help you plan your trip, I’ve compiled this Kinabatangan River to answer the common questions and guide you through what you need to know before heading to Sukau and down the Kinabatangan River.

Kinabatangan river drone
Olly gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler & adventure photographer for 6 years with 700+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.

The Easy Option: Book an Organised Tour to the Kinabatangan River

Due to the amazing wildlife spotting experiences on offer on the Kinabatangan River, you'll want to spend at least a night here.

However, the most difficult part of arranging the river cruise is organising transport to the river, since there is no public transport available.

Luckily, tourists staying in nearby Sandakan or Sepilok (to see the Orangutan conservation area) can visit the Kinabatangan on an organized 2-day trip.

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.

Kinabatangan river cruise 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

How To Get to Kinabatangan River Independently

While getting to the Kinabatangan River isn't the most straightforward process, it is possible to do it independently if you are on a budget. If you're looking to spend a couple of days here, then the best place to stay is the small village of Sukau.

Sukau is located on the banks of the Kinabatangan River and smack-bang in the middle of the Kinabatangan Conservation Area. Since it's on location so to speak, Sukau is a great place to book a day-to-day Sukau Kinabatangan River cruise for wildlife spotting through your lodge.

There is a myriad of ways in which you can reach Sukau and the Kinabatangan River that don't require an organized tour, though they aren't that obvious without any research.

  • Buses: Buses running from Kota Kinabalu to Semporna pass by the Sukau Junction. You can get off here and hope for a van to take you down the long dirt road into Sukau. However, you need to hope that a van will be waiting at the junction. Alternatively, buses also run from Sandakan to Semporna and Lahad Datu, which you can jump on and get off at the same junction.
  • Mr Choy: The most direct and cheapest option is to get shared transport by a Sukau local man known as Mr Choy. Mr Choy does daily trips from Sandakan for 60 Ringgit and can also pick you up from Sepilok on the way. His Whatsapp number is: 019-536-1889.
  • Grab Car Easily the most expensive option. Expect to pay around 300 from Sandakan. I've been told that drivers even ask for more since they'll have to drive all the way back too.
Kinabatangan river sunset

Kinabatangan River Accommodation

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.

How to Book a Kinabatangan River Cruise from Sukau

The best thing to do in the Kinabatangan River is to take a Kinabatangan River cruise. If you're already in Sukau, these are relatively inexpensive and definitely a must-do activity. But hey, that's why you're reading this blog right?

Boats cruise down the river and deep into the Kinabatangan Conservation Area to get a rare glimpse at the unique Sabah Bornean wildlife.

River Cruise Cost: 50-100 Ringgit Per Person (depending on the lodge).

Staying on the river means that you don't need to buy a pre-booked package on check-in. All lodges and hotels in Sukau. At the lodge where I stayed, the host offered open trips where we could choose to join in on morning, afternoon, or night cruises.

Most Kinabatangan River cruises hire local fishermen to guide you down the river, which is great because you're contributing directly to local communities.

Sukau kinabatangan river cruise boat

What to Expect on a Sukau Kinabatangan River Cruise

Wondering about what to expect on the river? Here's a quick itinerary of options you have to choose from and what kind of animals you might be lucky enough to spot.

Wildlife on the Kinabtangan River

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the Kinabatangan River is one of the most biodiverse places that I've ever visited. Here's a quick summary of some of the Kinabatangan River Wildlife you might see based on how rare they are.

Common

I'm not a biologist by any means, but I've categorized these species as common based on what I was told by the guide and which species we spotted on every trip.

Common wildlife includes:

  • Long-tailed Macaque Monkeys (there are thousands)
  • Proboscis Monkeys (endangered)
  • Hornbills
  • hawk eagles
  • owls (night cruises)
  • stalks
  • Kingfishers
Long tail macaque

Less Common

Less common species are those that we were told are quite rare, but those you'll have a decent chance of seeing if you take a few Sukau Kinabatangan River cruises.

  • Leaf Monkeys (and different species variants)
  • Bornean Gibbon
  • Flying squirrels (night)
  • Saltwater Crocodiles
  • Turtles
  • Black Leaf Monkey
  • Pythons
  • Wild Boar
  • Wild Deer
  • Orangutans
  • Irrawaddy dolphins
  • Monitor Lizards
Proboscis monkey, kinabatangan river

Rare

  • Pygmy Elephant
  • Otters
  • Tarsiers (night cruise)
  • Slow loris
  • Freshwater Sharks
  • Sumatran rhino
  • Sun bears

Of course, since this is just a Kinabatangan River blog post and not a wildlife encyclopedia, it doesn't list every single animal you might encounter. For more information from actual wildlife professionals, you can check out this website.

Proboscis monkey sukau wildlife
Eagle sukau

River Sunrise Cruise

The morning cruises are my favorite. Though you might not spot as many monkeys, the light seems to penetrate the trees on the river banks revealing loads of hidden reptiles and also bird species.

We were also told that it's a higher chance to spot more birds, but I think we saw just as many in the afternoons.

Sukau river cruise
Monkey on kinabatangan river

Sunset Cruise

A Sukau Kinabatangan River cruise for sunset usually starts around 4:30 PM and is similar to the morning cruise. However, you'll have more chance of seeing different monkey species' as they make their way to the river banks in the afternoon.

Keep in mind though that the chance for rain is higher during this time. Your guide will probably drop you back just after sunset.

Night Cruise

The night cruises are the most unique trips. You'll be armed with a torch to spot nocturnal species including tarsiers, possums, squirrels, and of course, the glowing eyes of 4-meter-plus crocodiles.

Saltwater crocodile on independent sukau kinabatangan river cruise

After three days on the river, we did 5 trips to maximize our chances of spotting the rarer animals like Orangutans, rhinos, and Pygmy Elephants. Unfortunately, we didn't spot any of these. However, we saw more than our fair share of animals, many of which are incredibly rare.

Tips For Visiting The Kinabatangan River

Here are some quick tips that will serve you well on your trip to Sukau. If you have any more questions about independent Sukau Kinabatangan River cruises or anything else, you can throw down a comment below or email me. I'd be more than happy to help.

Bring Food and Snacks

The village is very remote and you won't have access to general comfort foods or snacks. Most restaurants take advantage of the lack of services and charge a hefty premium.

Budget Restaurant

There is one small restaurant located roughly 500 meters downstream from RB Lodge which serves relatively cheap local food. Here, you can avoid the hefty prices and still get a decent Nasi Goreng or Mie Goreng for 7 Ringgit.

Bring Cash

Here's where I messed up. Since Borneo had been a much more expensive destination than what I was used to, I simply didn't realize that I hardly had any cash left on me when I arrive in Sukau. I quickly found out that there are no ATMs within an hour's drive.

Luckily, Choy, our driver from Sepilok, was kind and trustworthy enough to take my debit card to the ATM on his next morning run to withdraw some cash for me. Seriously though, avoid the embarrassing situation and make sure you bring sufficient cash for your accommodation and Sukau river cruises.

Bring a Dry Bag

The Kinabatangan River is a seriously wet place. This is especially true in the wet season. I'd recommend bringing a dry bag to store your electronics in and to bring extra dry clothes since anything wet will likely remain that way.

Mosquito Repellant

You'll thank me later.

Walk the Elephant Trail to Sukau Cave

In Sukau, there is one particular trail that I believe is a must. The trail winds through the thick rainforest into a huge cave system. This one isn't on any travel guides or books and is a local gem.

Check Out the Kinabatangan River Fireflies

If you can brave the rampant mosquitos, you'll be able to spot fireflies flying around almost everywhere in Sukau at night time. If this is something that you've always wanted to see, then just pop out at night and go for a look.

Kingfisher bird sukau

More Photos From Sukau and The Kinabatangan River

Hopefully, this Kinabatangan River blog will help you discover your inner Nat Geo photographer.

After some more wildlife inspo? Here are some more snaps from the Sukau river cruise and the Kinabatangan River.

Birds on the kinabatangan river
Saltwater crocodile kinabatangan river
Wild proboscis monkey in sabah borneo

More Sabah Travel & Adventure Guides

I hope that this travel guide to visiting the Kinabatangan River and experiencing the incredible river cruise has inspired you to visit this biodiverse region of Sabah. While you're here, check out some of my other guides below for more travel & adventure inspiration for your trip to Malaysian Borneo!

Sukau kinabatangan river cruise - independant travel guide
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure travel journalist & photographer. Traveling non-stop since 2018, I've published over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. These draw on my personal experience to share unique itineraries, accommodation tips, & fun adventure guides covering hikes, viewpoints, beaches, waterfalls, & tours. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.

Your feedback & updates are crucial to keep my guides factual & current. Got new info or updates? Drop a comment below or contact me directly.

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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.

Peter

Sunday 6th of August 2023

Hi, We are a couple planning a short visit to Sabah just for the reason to spot Orangutans in wild not in rehabilitation centre. 1)Is it worth staying in Sukau and taking river cruise. If there is any other option/place please suggest. We both have knee issues however can walk distance not trek steep gradient/slippery path. 2) How do i buy in order to support your work Thanks Peter

Denise Silzer

Tuesday 25th of April 2023

Hi, love your blog! I am organizing a girls trip to Indonesia and Borneo with four other ladies. I see that you did the river cruises as a day trip but I am more interested in doing a multiday trip on the river boats that you sleep on. I am having a difficult time finding information on local guides/ boaters. The companies I find on the internet are very expensive and need to be booked ahead of time. As well, the companies are often based elsewhere and not local. I would like to book a 3-5 night cruise with a local company. We are going in November so it is not high season. Do you think we can wait until we are in Java to book? Do you know any other way to organize this without spending way more money than I have? I can not even seem to find a government tourist guide website...

Aoife Sadlier

Thursday 30th of March 2023

Hey Olly, thanks for the informative blog. I am a solo traveller visiting Sabah in May. At the moment, all I have booked is Sepilok for three nights, and I am finding it hard to organise the rest of the itinerary. I would definitely like to do a Kinabatangan river tour for 1 or 2 nights though. The main issue I am finding at the moment is that many tours online require at least 2 guests to book (unless there is a trick I am missing). Have you any suggestions about this? In general, I am finding it quite hard to arrange this Sabah trip, partly because many companies are not responding to my emails and I do not have credit to call them! Best, Aoife

Shayne

Wednesday 23rd of November 2022

Hi Olly We have a diving trip booked from Semporna around 14 days after we arrive in KK, We are thinking about a hire car and self drive to try to cover these attractions on the way to Semporna by road, what are your thoughts? Regards Shayne

Olly Gaspar

Wednesday 23rd of November 2022

Hi! Yes, driving yourself would give you a more flexible itinerary for Sabah and shouldn't be any problem.

hello

Saturday 7th of March 2020

Hello would you mind stating which blog platform you're using? I'm looking to start my own blog soon but I'm having a tough time making a decision between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I'm looking for something unique.

P.S Sorry for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

Olly Gaspar

Sunday 8th of March 2020

Hi,

It's a Wordpress site :)