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Kinabatangan River in Sabah

Sabah Kinabatangan River
The majestic Kinabatangan River is one of the most interesting nature safaris available in Sandakan, Sabah Borneo.

Located just two hours out of Sandakan town, the Kinabatangan River stretches over 560 kilometers and is the second longest river in Malaysia and the longest in Sabah.

Kinabatangan is also well known for its remarkable wildlife and fascinating habitats found throughout the sanctuary.

Kinabatangan River in Sabah

The Kinabatangan River Wildlife Sanctuary spreads across 26,000 hectares (260 sq km) along the lower Kinabatangan river in Sabah and this river plain floods easily creating five distinct habitats to support an enormous bio-diversity of wildlife. 

The World Wildlife Fund states that the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo, is one of only two known places on Earth where 10 primate species can be found.

This includes the Borneo Orangutan, the Proboscis Monkey, Macaques, Maroon Langur and Bornean Gibbon, most of which are endemic to Borneo.

Singai Kinabatangan
The majestic Kinabatangan River in Sabah
You can also expect to see Crocodiles, Monitor Lizards, Civet Cats, Hawks, Eagles, Hornbills, Kingfishers and much more.

If you are very lucky you can encounter the Borneon Pygmy Elephant feeding on the edge of the Kinabatangan River.

As well as the animals and birdlife you can also spot many insects, reptiles and amphibians including snakes, frogs and stick insects.

For knowledge purposes, the origin of the name 'Kinabatangan' was derived from Kina (China) and Batang (large river).

Kinabatangan River SukauOur boatman arriving to pick us from Sukau

On one of my trips to Kinabatangan in December 2009, I was totally amazed at how there was so much interesting wildlife available in just one small area.

With support from Sabah Tourism, I made my inaugural way to the Kinabatangan River with my knowledgeable nature guide Ben.

Upon arriving at the local village jetty in Sukau, our boat had arrived to ferry us to our resort - Bukit Melapi Proboscis Lodge which is located along the banks of the Kinabatangan River.

Local 'orang sungai' homes along the banks of the river

The boat ride was enjoyable as it only took us about ten minutes to reach our Eco-lodge, which was perfectly located along the river here.

Along the way, I got to see the local River People (Orang Sungai) homes along the Kinabatangan River and they are spaced out very well.

There are about six to seven lodges along the river where they too are quite a distance from one another.

Eco Lodge at Kinabatangan RiverOne of the Eco-Lodges along the Kinabatangan River

Barge at Kinabatangan RiverPalm Oil being transported out of the Kinabatangan on barges

I saw some worker lorries being transported by barges along the river as they were sent deep inside the Kinabatangan to the Oil Palm plantations which is a large industry here and is quite alarming to the wildlife.

Lodges at Kinabatangan River Another nature lodge by the river here

Finally, after reaching the Bukit Melapi Proboscis Lodge, we disembark while the resort staff is waiting to help carry our luggage to the reception.

I will be writing other articles on what I experienced while staying here. Generally, there are river cruises in the morning, evening and at night, which are the main attractions.

Other than that, you can simply enjoy the natural rainforest atmosphere at your resort or Eco-lodge while doing nothing. But most people will choose at least one of the nature experiences here.

There are no shops around so you are pretty much confined to your lodge with very early nights and mornings.

Kinabatangan River Cruises

Cruise at Kinabatangan RiverKinabatangan River Cruise along one of the smaller rivers

The Kinabatangan river cruises start in the mornings and usually lasts for about two to three hours and after cruising the main river, the boatman will go into the smaller rivers to further explore.

There is abundant wildlife to catch and if your eyes are sharp, you would easily spot them. but not to fear as the local guide and boatmen have very sharp eyes and will point them out to you.

Monkeys at Kinabatangan RiverWildlife along the Kinabatangan River

Among the numerous animals I came across, there were the common macaques perched up on the local trees along the Kinabatangan river.

The usually travel in packs and most of the time with a leader or the alpha male, his nine wives and like 20 kids.

Snake at Kinabatangan RiverYellow Ring Snake

The Yellow Ring Snake or Ringneck Snake which is mildly venomous are also a regular sighting during the river cruises.

They are mostly partially hidden amongst the tree branches and it takes a sharp eye to spot them. Luckily for our experienced boatman, he must have spotted about four of them at various locations.

Photo of Kinabatangan RiverKinabatangan inner rivers during the cruise

Parts of the river cruise will take you into the smaller inner rivers that connect to the major Kinabatangan River.

It is at these rivers that you also get to see much of the wildlife and one of the popular spots to see them is at the Ox-bow Lakes.

River Cruises at KinabatanganScene during the river cruise

Other wildlife that can be spotted at the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary include two nocturnal primates namely Western Tarsier and Slow Loris and also the very protected and rare Sumatran rhinoceros.

Wildlife Kinabatangan River A monitor lizard lazying on a tree along the Kinabatangan

Hoofed mammals that are mainly active at night, which are usually separate tours that are either night river cruises or trekking via land.

The nocturnal wildlife includes wild cattle or Tembadau, bearded pig and four species of deer namely sambar, greater mouse-deer, barking deer and lesser mouse-deer which is also the world's smallest hoofed mammal.

Reptiles include reticulated python, tortoise, freshwater terrapin, monitor lizard and crocodiles which can be seen here.

Carnivores include the smallest bear in the world which is the Malayan sun bear, four species of wild cats which are the clouded leopard, which is the largest wild cat in Borneo, the leopard cat, marbled cat, and flat-headed cat.

Other small mammals include hairy-nosed otter, oriental small-clawed otter, smooth otter, Malay civet, common palm, small-toothed palm, banded palm, and moon rat.

Kinabatangan River Birdwatching A Kite sitting on a branch along the Kinabatangan

Among the 200 plus species of birds found in the region are 8 species of Hornbills. Bird lovers or Birders will find the Kinabatangan an amazing place for bird watching.

For more information on how to spot these animals and birds, you need to check with your nature guide when you get there.

During the day cruises along the Kinabatangan River, you are bound to see other boats doing river safaris or cruises as this is truly one of the best places to spot wildlife in Sabah.

At any one time, I must have seen at least six boats in one area gawking at the high trees observing some primates in action.

Tours Kinabatangan RiverTourists amazed by what they see

Occasionally you will see boats parked side by side and when everyone is looking up, it is a sign that something interesting is to be viewed.

Usually, the boatmen who are the local 'River People' will make a stop for about five to ten minutes at a spot if something rare is sighted.

Tours of Kinabatangan RiverProbosci's Monkeys are seen high up on the trees

Most of the time during the river cruise, Proboscis Monkeys are commonly sighted at various locations along the Kinabatangan river.

So it would be wise to bring a pair of binoculars or if you want to take pictures, a really good zoom lens is required.

Trust me, I saw many unhappy guests as their cameras could not zoom to the monkeys high up on the trees. See the end of the article for my camera tips.

photos of proboscis monkeys at kinabatanganProboscis Monkeys relaxing on some branches

I had an 18-105mm lens and that was not good enough so as you can see, most of my pictures are just average.

This reminds me over and over that, I should invest in a good 18-200mm lens for my future trips in spotting wildlife and birds.

Update 2019 - I managed to get the 200mm, and the 300mm lens. Eventually, I upgraded to a 150-600mm Tamron telephoto lens.

Proboscis Monkeys at Kinabatangan River

Proboscis Monkeys at Kinabatangan
Proboscis monkeys sitting high up on a tree
Highlights of the cruise were the Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis Larvatus) or as some call them 'Dutchman Monkey' or Monyet Belanda in Malay.

Proboscis Monkeys have very large prominent noses and large extended bellies which make them look like permanently pregnant.

Adults have larger noses than females and one interesting fact about them is that the noses will turn red and swell when they get angry or excited.

The fur colors are usually orange or reddish brown and this makes them stand out from the other common monkeys found there.

Proboscis at Kinabatangan River
A large male Proboscis monkey spotted
Just so you know, these unique primates are endemic to Borneo and can only be found here. There are not found anywhere else in the world.

To read up more about this unique creature found around Borneo, Wikipedia has a great writeup on the Proboscis Monkey.

Tourist at Kinabatangan RiverBoats ferrying tourists along the inner Kinabatangan river

Bornean Gibbons at Kinabatangan River

At one point during my river cruise, we chanced upon a rare sighting according to the boatman and also our guide Ben.

There was a rare Bornean Gibbon up on a tree and as we stopped to observe the gibbon, more boats came to join in the fun. There must have been at least eight boats there.

Ben had informed me that the last sighting he saw was about one year ago so it was a big thing for him and the boatman.

Crocodile Kinabatangan RiverCrocodile warning sign in Malay

Crocodiles at Kinabatangan River

Crocodiles do live in the rivers here but are generally harmless. I saw a sign in the local Malay language warning that crocodiles are in the waters.

This is to inform locals and those fishing in the area to be extra careful, so if you are cruising this river and see yellow or red warning signs, they are usually to warn people about the crocodiles.

To have an excellent experience at the Kinabatangan Wildlife Cruise, I would recommend guests stay a minimum of two nights at the lodges here.

Just in case you don't get a chance to see something on the first day, you have a better chance of seeing it on the second day. Plus you can then take your time and relax while here.

Kinabatangan River SabahView along the Kinabatangan River

The verdict? The Kinabatangan River Safari experience was a total eye-opener for me. As a Malaysian, I never knew that we had so much to see and explore in our own backyard.

You must be a nature lover to fully appreciate this visit and children are best brought here to expose them to the wildlife of Borneo.

Highly educational and excellent experience as I had learned so much about the Kinabatangan wildlife and my thanks goes to Ben - Our guide and also STB for making this visit possible.

Boats are relatively safe as life vests are a must on each trip and the boatmen are all local guys who know the rivers by the back of their hands.

Each boat can seat up to 10 persons and runs on a small 15cc motor engine. Your guide will always be with you on your river cruises so you will know what is going on and also learn the names of the things you see.

Guides at the Kinabatangan are highly trained and well versed in English. Special language guides are available on request so check with your tour operator when booking your Sukau adventure.

When are the best times to visit Kinabatangan River?

The Kinabatangan region can be visited all year round, though it is often flooded during the wettest part of the year in December and January. 

I know that the year end is the best time to travel, but I would stress not to book tours during December and January as if it floods, you will be disappointed, and possibly even stuck there. 

The main flowering and fruiting seasons are from April to October, and it is also generally dry and a good time to spot many birds and animals.

Therefore, the best time to visit Kinabatangan River would be in April or May, just after the rainy season.

Proboscis Monkey Male
One of the alpha male Proboscis monkeys are spotted
When is the Best Time to see the Pygmy Elephants in Sabah?

To be honest, I have been to the Kinabatangan numerous times since my first inaugural trip, and every time, luck is not on my end. Either I missed them by a few hours or they are just not there.

Asking around, many of the local guides and villagers state that the best time to see Pygmy Elephants are around June or July. 

How To Go To Kinabatangan River?

Overall, most visitors coming here would have signed up with a local or foreign tour company that sells the many wildlife and nature packages. 

I would also recommend that you make your booking with reputable tour operators that sell Kinabatangan tours. Cheaper tours do not necessarily mean good.  

For list minute decisions, you can still book Kinabatangan tours in cities like Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan.

Below are some of the best ways to get to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah;
  • AirAsia or Malaysia Airlines flies to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur and from there, engage a tour company for your river safari cruise.
  • A car, bus or taxi is available from all towns in Sabah and prices vary according to distances.
  • Various tour operators around Sabah offer full board packages to Kinabatangan.
Visitors on a river cruise spotting wildlife
General Tips for Kinabatangan

Below are some basic and general tips for anyone who plans to visit the Kinabatangan River;
  • Bring a poncho or umbrella as the boats are non covered if it rains.
  • Bring water and snacks as cruises can last 2 to 3 hours.
  • Binoculars are a must to see the animals and birds at a distance.
  • For those with DSLR cameras, an 18-200mm lens is minimal. Your standard lens will not satisfy you.
  • For those with compact digital cameras, a 10x, 20x or 100x zoom is needed with an anti-shake function.
  • Night cruises are optional and not included in packages so check with your guide on this.
  • Always stay in the boat and do not try silly heroic things as you would not want to fall in the waters.
  • Remember that you are the guest here, and please follow the guide and boatman instructions.

And always remember to practice Responsible Tourism wherever you are.

Map to Kinabatangan River in Sukau

*Pictures were all taken with a Nikon D60, Lens: 18-105mm

Please Note: Since the time of this writing, there have been many other lodges, homestays, and resorts opening up along the Kinabatangan River. 

This has provided more choices for accommodations for anyone wanting to visit this incredible place. 

Final Thoughts to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah

Overall, I have to say that this is one of the best natural experiences to spot wildlife here in Sabah Borneo, and it is not even expensive.

This article was done purely for anyone interested in visiting or experiencing some of the wildlife and nature along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah Borneo. 


Anonymous said...

This was one of the best travel experience I had last year. I wanted to see more but had to leave after a 1 night stay. Should have booked an additional day for the river cruise.

I give this cruise a thumbs up for anyone visiting Sandakan.

Malaysia Asia said...

Carmen, it is nice and just pure nature at its best. Please do visit when you can.

Mei, nice to know you visited Kinabatangan and yes, should have put another night there. Did you try the night cruise?


Luray va accommodations said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Borneo Falcon said...

First time I see barge been used to transport oil palm. In my place, barge usually used to carry logs and even containers nowadays

Malaysia Asia said...

Luray, nice! I hope your climb was excellent and not too expensive.

Borneo Falcon, I was equally surprised to see what they were carrying. I must have seen about 3 barges that same day taking out Palm Oil.


maria said...

Cruising is an interesting concept and is popularity among people throughout the world.To travel in a boat on a river is very exciting and adventures.asia cruise

Malaysia Asia said...

Thank you Maria :)

Henry Lee said...

i might not be a river type of person but if i have a chance i will sure go for this kinabatangan river cruise...

shloke said...

What?? A macaque with 9 wives and 20 offsprings? That is a serious case of polygamy! LOL!

WOW! A proboscis banana monkey! I LOVE them! I would love to squeeze their nostril! Just joking :)


Malaysia Asia said...

Henry, This just makes the other river cruises seem like nothing and YES, this is one of the rare river cruises where you get to see real wildlife up close and personal. Well worth it so go if you have the chance!

Mylo, hahah... I kid you not. This is what my guide Ben told me. You should hear what else he had to say.


superwilson said...

I read it on the newspaper. A historical event. It's really great reading ur blog about Sabah. REally enjoyed it!

Anonymous said...

great information for my trip to Sandakan this month 2011.