Kinabatangan River in Sabah Borneo

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.

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.

Sabah Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River in Sabah Borneo
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 bird life 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 my recent trip to Kinabatangan in December 2009, I was totally amazed on how there was so much interesting wildlife available in just one small area. With the support from Sabah Tourism, I made my way to Kinabatangan with my knowledgeable nature guide Ben and upon arrival 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. Along the way, you see the 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 lodge by the river here

Finally after reaching the Bukit Melapi Proboscis Lodge, we disembark while the resort staff are awaiting 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. Other than that, you can just enjoy the natural rainforest atmosphere at your resort or Eco-lodge. There are no shops around so you are pretty much confined to your lodge with very early nights and mornings.

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

The Kinabatangan River Cruises start in the mornings and usually last for about two to three hours and after cruising the main river, the boat man 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.

Monkeys at Kinabatangan RiverWildlife along the Kinabatangan River

Among the numerous animals I came across, there were the common macaques perched up of certain trees along the Kinabatangan river. The usually travel in packs and most of the time with a leader, 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 a regular sighting along 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 are 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 which are mainly active at night include 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.

Proboscis Monkey Male A Proboscis monkey relaxing on a tree

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 species of birds found in the region are 8 species of Hornbills. Bird lovers or Birders will find the Kinabatangan an amazing place for this. For more information on how to spot these animals and birds, you need to check with your nature guide when you get there.

Boats observing something on a tree

During the day cruises along the Kinabatangan River, you are bound to see other boats doing river safaris or cruises. At 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 RiverProboscis Monkeys are seen high up on the trees

Most of the times at the river cruise, Proboscis Monkeys are commonly sighted at various places. 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 end of article for my camera tips.

photos of proboscis monkeys at kinabatanganProboscis Monkeys relaxing on some branches

I had a 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.

Proboscis Monkeys at Kinabatangan
Highlights of the cruise was 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 colours are usually orange or reddish brown and this makes them stand out from the other common monkeys found there.

Proboscis at Kinabatangan River
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

At one point of our river cruise, we chanced upon a rare sighting according to the boatman and also our guide Ben. There was a rare Borneon 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 8 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 do live in the rivers here but are generally harmless. I saw a sign in local Malay warning that crocodiles are in the waters. This is to inform locals and those fishing in the area to be extra careful.

To have a 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 seeing it on the second day. Plus you can then take your time and relax while here.

Kinabatangan River SabahView along the Kinabatangan River

My conclusion on visiting the Kinabatangan River: It was an 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 an 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.

Best times to visit Kinabatangan:
  • 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.
  • The main flowering and fruiting season, from April to October is generally fairly dry and a good time to spot many birds and animals.
  • Best time to see Pygmy Elephants are around June.
Getting to Kinabatangan:
  • Airasia or Malaysia Airlines flies to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur and from there, engage a tour company for your river safari.
  • 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.
General Tips for Kinabatangan:
  • Bring a poncho as the boats are non covered if it rains.
  • Bring water and snacks as cruises can last 2-3 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 to 20x zoom is needed with anti-shake function.
  • 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 in the waters.
Information of Kinabatangan River on Wikipedia

And always remember to practice Responsible Tourism wherever you are.


Lodges and Tour Operators for Kinabatangan River Cruises (in no order):
Map to Kinabatangan River in Sukau

View Kinabatangan River Cruise in a larger map
~ David Jr

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

This article was done for anyone interested in visiting or doing the Kinabatangan River in Sabah Borneo. 

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