Kinabatangan River Safari Cruise

River Cruise Kinabatangan
The unique Kinabatangan river safari cruises are the main highlights of a stay at the Sukau-Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah, Borneo.

At these river cruises, bird watchers and nature lovers will experience the rare Bornean birds and unique wildlife in this region.

If you have been following my other Kinabatangan articles, this was my most exciting trip on a river cruise while exploring Sabah Borneo.

Kinabatangan River Cruise

Kinabatangan River in the morningKinabatangan River in the morning.

The Kinabatangan morning river cruise had us wake up extra early for breakfast, and after that, we were already at the jetty at about 7.00 am with our guide, Ben.

Another couple had joined us with their nature guide, and they were equally ecstatic about the morning river cruise. One of the highlights was seeing the Borneo Pygmy Elephants.

River Cruise at KinabatanganKinabatangan River Morning Safari Cruise.

In no time, our trusted local boatman had arrived with his little 15-horse-powered engine boat, and everyone got on board, checking our safety life vests and ponchos in case it did rain.

The tip here is to be careful when boarding the boats as it can get slippery at this time of the morning.

Video of the Kinabatangan River in the morning

Birds at KinabatanganBirds in the morning.

With a slow start on our morning river cruise, we first saw the local Borneo birds. Many were stationed on top of trees along the river.

Our bird spotters also had a bird guidebook with them, and every bird we saw had a clearer picture in the book.

Photo of Kinabatangan River CruiseKinabatangan River Cruise.

Cruising along the Kinabatangan early also saw many other nature enthusiasts and bird watchers heading out to various locations to spot the different types of birds.

I was also informed that the Sandakan area in Sabah is hosting the third Borneo Bird Fest around the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sepilok, Sandakan.

Hornbill in Kinabatangan River A Hornbill flies above our boat.

The birds spotted during the safari were hornbills, which often flew around the river area and were usually relatively high up.

During our morning river safari through the Kinabatangan River, we spotted three of the eight Hornbill species there.

Egret at Kinabatangan RiverBirds are easily seen in the mornings here.

Hornbills were spotted on some trees.

Raptor at Kinabatangan RiverA Hawk is seen from a distance.

Kinabatangan River Birds.

Video of Kinabatangan River Boat Ride

Cruise Kinabatangan A boat cruises along the river.

As we cruised the river, more boats were seen ferrying nature lovers armed with binoculars and cameras, hoping to spot some exciting wildlife.

To my surprise, almost 98% of the guests were Caucasians and seeing Asians there was a rare sight, too. If you see any, they are primarily Singaporean, Japanese, Korean or from China.

Video of our boat along the smaller Kinabatangan River

Wildlife at Kinabatangan RiverMonitor Lizard.

One of the critters that impressed me was the local Monitor Lizard (Biawak in Malay). This reptile is usually seen lazying on tree barks or shrubs, looking asleep.

Their sizes range from one meter (3 feet) to about 5 meters (15 feet).

Gibbons at Kinabatangan RiverGibbon at the Kinabatangan River.

Arriving at one of the inner rivers here, we encountered a rare glimpse of the Bornean Gibbon, which is challenging to spot at close range.

According to my guide and the boatman, the last sighting was over six months back, and it was a rare chance to see them.

Video of one of the smaller rivers of the Kinabatangan

Proboscis Kinabatangan RiverProboscis monkeys are high up on a tree.

The usual Proboscis Monkeys were seen at various locations along the main Kinabatangan River and inner rivers. This is, without fail, the most common sighting while you do the river cruises here.

Proboscis monkeys along the river.

The Proboscis Monkeys are commonly known to travel in groups of five to twenty or more. During that morning safari along the Kinabatangan River, we must have seen at least six groups.

Orangutan photo Kinabatangan RiverOrangutan sighted!

The highlight of this river safari was witnessing the Borneo Orangutan in the wild. We saw two orangutans in total on this one river cruise.

The first sighting was in one of the inner rivers where we saw the Bornean Gibbon, and the second was the more enormous male Orangutan on our way back to the Melapi Lodge.

Kinabatangan River Wild OrangutanMale Orangutan at the Kinabatangan River.

Sadly, the first sighting did not stand out as the Orangutan was relatively high on one of the trees, and the leaves blocked the view.

However, the second sighting was terrific as it was just five minutes from the lodge where we were staying and much closer to the river and us.

Kinabatangan River Orang Utan PhotoOrangutan feasting on local figs.

Orangutan Video at Kinabatangan River

The reasonably sizeable male Orangutan was casually sitting on one of the local fig trees, feasting away while our boat approached the river banks.

Looking non-frightened, we were amazed at how the Orangutan moved around picking the figs. I have seen many orangutans, but not in a natural condition like this.

Orangutan Photo KinabatanganOrangutan in the wild.

A real wild Orangutan in the Kinabatangan was new as I had never encountered one so close.

As I mentioned, I have seen orangutans in the zoos, at the Bukit Merah Orangutan Island and at the Sepilok Orangutan Conservation Center. However, this has to be one of the best encounters in my life.

Kinabatangan River Orangutan SpottingOrangutan looking at us.

The male Orangutan often moved around the fig tree with similar human-like movements. From a distance, one would think that a human was up there. We must have spent 15 minutes observing this before another boat joined us.

Kinabatangan River Proboscis LodgeMelapi Lodge along Kinabatangan River.

After a much-satisfied river cruise along the Kinabatangan River, seeing the various animals, reptiles, and birds, we returned to the Proboscis Lodge at Bukit Melapi.

Again, I will say it—this was one of the most exciting nature trips I have taken in my life, and I will do it again if given the chance.

I have to thank Uncle Ben, our excellent nature guide, and Sabah Tourism for making this experience memorable, even though we missed the Borneo Pygmy Elephants by a few kilometres.

My conclusion to the Morning River Safari

When you arrive at the Kinabatangan and stay at any of the lodges, the river safaris are included in your package. However, this does not include the night river cruises.

This place is an incredible experience if you love wildlife or birds. Highly educational if you have children and a trip you will never forget and relate to friends and family.

Kinabatangan River is also suitable for solo travellers, couples, or families with young kids. It is not disabled-friendly, but certain operators can arrange special arrangements.

Finally, to fully enjoy your experience here, spend at least two nights in Kinabatangan.

Best times to visit Kinabatangan:
  • The Kinabatangan region can be visited all year round, though it is often flooded in December and January, the wettest months of the year.
  • The main flowering and fruiting season, from April to October, is generally relatively dry and a good time to spot many birds and animals.
  • The best time to see Pygmy Elephants is around June but check with the lodge or tour operator about this, as it changes occasionally. 
Getting to Kinabatangan:
  • AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines fly to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur and, from there, engage a tour company for your river cruise safari.
  • A car, bus or taxi is available from all towns in Sabah, and prices vary according to distances.
  • You can also rent a car and self-drive to Kinabatangan.
  • Various tour operators around Sabah offer complete 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.
  • A 150-600mm lens is minimal for those with DSLR cameras. You will need more than your standard lens to satisfy you.
  • For compact digital cameras, a 10x to 20x zoom is required with an anti-shake function or go for a Nikon P900 Camera.
  • 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.


For those seeking and adventure to remember, it is here in Sabah Borneo that you get the best out of nature. You can experience wildlife and nature in many places, so it is best to go with a good tour company.

Prices are not cheap, but you can see some of the most amazing things in the wild. One of the trips I recommend is the Kinabatangan River safari cruise, which is the best wildlife experience in this part of the world.

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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