Kinabatangan River in Sabah

Sabah Kinabatangan River
The majestic Kinabatangan River is among the most exciting nature safaris in Sandakan, Sabah Borneo.

Located just two hours out of Sandakan town, the Kinabatangan River stretches over 560 kilometres 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, which are 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. This river plain floods, quickly creating five distinct habitats to support an enormous wildlife biodiversity. 

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 endemic Borneo Orangutan, the Proboscis Monkey, Macaques, Maroon Langur, and Bornean Gibbon.

Singai Kinabatangan
The majestic Kinabatangan River in Sabah.

You can also expect Crocodiles, Monitor Lizards, Civet Cats, Hawks, Eagles, Hornbills, Kingfishers and much more.

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

In addition to the animals and birdlife, you can spot many insects, reptiles, and amphibians, including snakes, frogs, and stick insects.

In addition, the name 'Kinabatangan' was also derived from Kina (China) and Batang (a large river).

Kinabatangan River SukauOur boatman arriving to pick us up from Sukau.

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

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

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

Local 'orang Sungai homes along the banks of the river.

The boat ride was enjoyable. It only took us about ten minutes to reach our Eco-lodge, which is ideally located along the river.

Along the way, I saw the local River People (Orang Sungai) homes along the Kinabatangan River, which were spaced out very well. About six to seven lodges along the river, where they 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 is being transported out of the Kinabatangan on barges.

I saw some worker lorries transported by barges along the river, sent deep inside the Kinabatangan to the Oil Palm plantations. This large industry was 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 disembarked while the resort staff waited to help carry our luggage to the reception.

I will write other articles about what I experienced while staying here. The main attractions are generally river cruises in the morning, evening, and night.

Besides, you can 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.

No shops are around, so you are confined to your lodge and have very early nights and mornings. Some resorts may have a small convenience store.

Kinabatangan River Cruises

Cruise at Kinabatangan RiverKinabatangan River Cruise, along with one of the smaller rivers.

The Kinabatangan river cruises start in the mornings and usually last about two to three hours. After cruising the main river, the boatman explores the smaller rivers.

There is abundant wildlife to catch, and if your eyes are sharp, you can easily spot it. But do not fear—the local guide and boatmen have very sharp eyes and will point it out to you.

Monkeys at Kinabatangan RiverWildlife along the Kinabatangan River.

Among the numerous animals I encountered, the common macaques perched on the local trees along the Kinabatangan River. They usually travel in packs, with a leader or an alpha male, nine wives, and 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 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 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 central Kinabatangan River.

You can also see much wildlife at these rivers, and Oxbow Lakes is a popular spot to do so.

River Cruises at KinabatanganScene during the river cruise.

Other wildlife spotted at the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary includes two nocturnal primates, Western Tarsier and Slow Loris, and the protected and rare Sumatran rhinoceros. (There are no more Sumatran Rhino's here)

Wildlife Kinabatangan River A monitor lizard lazes on a tree along the Kinabatangan.

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

Nocturnal wildlife includes wild cattle or Tembadau, bearded pigs, and four species of deer: sambar, greater mouse deer, barking deer, and lesser mouse deer, which is also the world's smallest hoofed mammal.

Reptiles include reticulated pythons, tortoises, freshwater terrapin, monitor lizards and crocodiles, which can be seen here.

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

Other small mammals include hairy-nosed otters, oriental small-clawed otters, smooth otters, Malay civets, common palms, small-toothed palms, banded palms, and moon rats.

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

Among the 200+ species of birds in the region are 8 species of Hornbills. Bird lovers and bird photographers will find Kinabatangan a fantastic place for bird watching.

When you get there, check with your nature guide for more information on spotting these animals and birds.

During the day, on 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 are amazed by what they see.

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

Usually, the boatmen, the local 'River People,' will stop for about five to ten minutes at a spot if they spot something rare.

Tours of Kinabatangan RiverProboscis Monkeys are seen high up in the trees.

Proboscis Monkeys are commonly sighted during the river cruise at various Kinabatangan River locations.

It would be wise to bring a pair of binoculars, or a perfect zoom lens is required if you want to take pictures.

Trust me, I saw many unhappy guests whose cameras could not zoom in on the monkeys high up in 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, which was not good enough, so as you can see, most of my pictures are just average. This reminds me that I should invest in a good 18-200mm lens to spot wildlife and birds for future trips.

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

Update 2024 - Finally, I got my Canon 200-800mm lens, which I use with my Canon R7 now. I also post about birds on my new website, Birdwatching Asia.

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 huge, prominent noses and large, extended bellies, which make them look permanently pregnant.

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

The fur colours are usually orange or reddish-brown, making them stand out from the other common monkeys found there.

Proboscis at Kinabatangan River
A large male Proboscis monkey was spotted.

These unique primates are endemic to Borneo and can only be found here. They are not found anywhere else in the world.

Wikipedia has an excellent write-up on the Proboscis Monkey to read more about this unique creature found around Borneo.

Tourist at Kinabatangan RiverBoats ferrying tourists along the inner Kinabatangan River.

Bornean Gibbons at Kinabatangan River

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

There was a rare Bornean Gibbon upon 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 informed me that his last sighting was about one year ago, so it was big 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. If you are cruising this river and see yellow or red warning signs, they usually warn people about crocodiles.

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

If 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. As a Malaysian, I only knew we had a little to see and explore in our backyard.

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

It was a highly educational and excellent experience, as I learned so much about the Kinabatangan wildlife. I thank Ben, our guide and 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 happening and learn the names of what you see.

The Kinabatangan's guides are highly trained and well-versed in English. Unique language guides are available on request, so check with your tour operator when booking your Sukau adventure.

When are the best times to visit the Kinabatangan River?

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

I know that the year-end is the best time to travel, but do not 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 an excellent time to spot many birds and animals.

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

Proboscis Monkey Male
One of the alpha male Proboscis monkeys is 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 were absent.

Many local guides and villagers state that the best time to see Pygmy Elephants is around June or July. 

How To Go To Kinabatangan River?

Most visitors to this area would have signed up with a local or foreign tour company that sells wildlife and nature packages. 

I recommend that you make your booking with reputable tour operators that sell Kinabatangan tours. Cheaper tours mean something other than good.  

You can still book Kinabatangan tours in cities like Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan for last-minute decisions.

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 primary and general tips for anyone who plans to visit the Kinabatangan River;
  • Bring a poncho or umbrella as the boats are not 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.
  • An 18-200mm lens is minimal for those with DSLR cameras. You will need more than your standard lens to satisfy you.
  • A 10x, 20x or 100x zoom is required with an anti-shake function for compact digital cameras.
  • Night cruises are optional and not included in packages, so check with your guide.
  • Always stay in the boat and do not try silly heroic things, as you would not want to fall into the waters.
  • Remember that you are the guest here, and please follow the guide and boatman instructions.

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 this writing, many other lodges, homestays, and resorts have opened along the Kinabatangan River.

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


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

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

Malaysia Asia

Blogging since 2007, but writing online since 1997. I belong to the 1st generation of worldwide bloggers, which is of course old-school. Since 2008, I created Malaysia Asia and this travel, flood, gadget and lifestyle blog has won numerous physical awards from tourism boards around Malaysia. (Not those online awards). After 12 years of blogging, I have semi-retired and now blog about things I like, do product reviews and enjoy life. My work has been featured in Lonely Planet, CNN Travel, Yahoo Travel, Wall Street Journal, and many other international publications. Find out more about me and thank you.


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