Asia,  Destinations,  Malaysia,  Travel Diary

3 days on the Kinabatangan River, Borneo

One of the most-recommended things to do on Borneo is the Kinabatangan River Cruise. The reason for that: it’s one of the best ways to see wild animals!

Unlike some other river cruises, you don’t stay on a boat– rather, you stay in a lodge and then go out on tours led by a (very knowledgeable) tour guide.

Interested in visiting Borneo? Be sure to check out my Borneo backpackers guide!

There’s tons of tour providers for all price brackets, but I was recommended Sukau Backpackers Bed & Breakfast by a fellow backpacker and booked a 3 day, 2 night tour package with them in August 2023 for RM450 / ~$100 USD. The package included lodging, all meals, transit to/from Sukau and at least two guided tours a day.

This is my experience going on the Kinabatangan River Cruise with them and my recommendations for doing your own river cruise!

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and buy something, I get a small percentage of that at no extra cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

What to Pack for a Kinabatangan River Cruise

There’s a few things I recommend bringing with you for the river cruise. Most of these can be bought in Sandakan or in Kota Kinabalu before you arrive:

  • Binoculars: our tour guide only had two for us to use, so we all had to share. Having personal binoculars would’ve been handy for some instances, like orangutans in far-off tree tops.
  • Headlamp: it gets dark at night and you might want this for getting back to your lodge from the dock. You WON’T need this for night tours, as the boat will have its own lamp.
  • Leech socks (optional): these are covers that go over your socks/pants and keep leeches from getting on your ankles. One part of the tour is a hike through some woods, and leeches can be active. You might also want these for Sepilok– we were plagued with leeches on one part of our hike there!
  • Drybag: to keep things safe on the boat and if it rains. I’d also get one of those clear baggies on a leash for your phone, so you can take photos without worrying about it falling off the boat.
  • Rain coat or poncho: if it rains too hard the tour will be postponed, but if it’s drizzling then you may still go out.
  • Bug spray and bug bite zapper: lots of insects in the jungle.
  • Medicine kit, sunscreen: general precautions.
  • Water bottle: refill at the water station in the dining room
  • Sun sleeves, hat and sunglasses: the sun is very bright on the river!
  • A camera with good zoom settings: monkeys live in tree tops and it’s hard to get photos from a distance
  • Cash: to pay for the tour, bus tickets (if needed), extra snacks, etc.
Interesting house on the riverbanks, spotted during a cruise.

Getting to the Kinabatangan River (Sukau)

Basically, all tours start somewhere around Sandakan. Sandakan is on the eastern side of Borneo and has a few connections via bus or plane from nearby cities. Usually, people start from Kota Kinabalu and then come out to Sandakan.

You can either get picked up directly in the city, or go out to the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sepilok and get picked up there.

If you have enough time, it’s worth stopping by the Center for at least half a day and hiking through the park. They have some amazingly tall trees and tons of birds, and you can also stop at the nearby sunbear and orangutan reservations if you’d like.

What I did was go to Sandakan, stay the night at a hostel, then went out to Rainforest Discovery Center via the public bus. After a few hours at the Center, the tour company picked me up and we headed off to Sukau.

If you’re short on time, there’s a quicker way that’ll cut off the overnight in Sandakan:

From Kota Kinabalu, take the morning bus and tell the driver you want to get off at [Sepilok]. Note: You’ll have to buy the ticket for the whole KK-Sandakan route, but you can get off earlier.

You should arrive early enough in Sepilok that you can get picked up, taken to Sukau, and do an afternoon and/or evening cruise the same day.

Sukau Backpackers Bed & Breakfast

I booked my tour with Sukau Backpackers via Whatsapp and paid at the lodge in cash. The staff were great about keeping in touch for where pickup was, when they’d come, etc.!

For their 3 day 2 night package, you get the following:

  • Transfers
  • 2 nights accommodation
  • 4 river cruises with guide
  • Jungle Walk (a short guided hike into the rainforest)
  • Meals (2 dinners, 2 lunches, 2 breakfast)

The Lodge

Rooms are in little individual buildings connected by a wooden walkway.

Everyone gets a private room with air conditioning and ensuite bathroom. It’s a fairly basic room but good enough for a few nights. The aircon worked great!

Outside the lodge there’s quite a few dogs (owned by the staff) which keep away monkeys who might try to get into your room.

Please note there is NO wifi at the lodge, but Celcom cell service is pretty good.

The Food

All meals are provided on the tour. They’re served buffet style in the dining area/common room, which is a great way to meet other people in the lodge. There’s no air con in this room (it’s open to the elements) but they have fans and I didn’t find it too hot, personally.

Meals were a mix of local food and Western food. They can accommodate you if you’re vegetarian, too!

Here’s some of the meals we had:

There’s also free water and tea/coffee throughout the day. They didn’t have water bottles when I was there, so be sure to bring a refillable one with you. Borneo tap water is basically okay to drink, but it tastes weird if you’re not used to it. Filtered water is much better.

Kinabatangan River Cruise Experience

Our boat and driver coming to the dock to get us!

The Boats & River

We broke up into smaller groups of about 8-10 people and went on these small motorboats. Some other places nearby had huge boats– I prefer these smaller ones because a) you can get closer to the riverbanks, b) it’s less noisy, so animals are less likely to run away and c) everyone gets a chance to sit at the front of the boat and get good photos.

We all were provided with life vests and our guide had two pairs of binoculars for us to share. Each boat had an English-speaking guide and a driver. Our guide was FANTASTIC at finding animals to show us! He saw things that I’d never have picked up on, especially in the night tour.

All the tour guides from every company was very good about not crowding specific areas. They switched destinations off, so we’d maybe only see one or two other boats nearby. If we saw a special animal, our guide would let other boats know once we were headed out. And the neighboring boats would do the same for us!

The part of the river that the tour goes into is actually pretty small, so it’s important for groups to not scare away the animals or there’d be nothing to see. Overall, the balance between getting groups over to see animals but also keeping the river quiet and special was maintained very well.

The Animals

Bird spotted on a night cruise!

Feel bad for me! I was stuck with a sub-par phone camera, which took okay videos but couldn’t zoom in far enough to actually get good shots of any monkeys in trees. I saw a lot of cool things! But you wouldn’t know it from the photos I have.

However! I made a friend on the tour, a proper photographer with a great eye who took amazing photos. You can see Pablo Aira’s Borneo photos here!

If you’re okay with some wobbly iPhone videos, then I do have my some up on my Instagram here.

Anyway, here’s the animals we saw during our Kinabatangan River cruise:

  • Proboscis monkeys
  • Orangutans
  • Long-tailed macaques
  • Stump-tailed macaques
  • Saltwater crocodile (an adult AND A BABY!!!)
  • Rhinoceros hornbill
  • Crane
  • Kingfisher
  • Snake of some sort

It’s also possible to see pygmy elephants! But they’re very shy, and when I was there they were actually busy eating palm oil from a nearby tree farm.

Monkey rope bridge stretched across the river.

Leaving Sukau

After the last morning tour, we drove out in a truck out to a bus stop at a restaurant near the highway. The staff at the lodge had booked my bus ticket to Tuwau for me (as it wasn’t possible to do so online).

There were SO MANY backpackers waiting for buses! I couldn’t believe how many! And I actually ran into some backpackers that I’d met elsewhere in Borneo, which is always a fun thing. Eventually my bus for Tuwau came and I headed off to my next destination.

If you want, you can get dropped off back in Sepilok or Sandakan instead.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed my Kinabatangan River cruise experience and highly recommend it! If you only have a few days you can dedicate to Borneo, then going on a cruise (even a short one) is worth the time and effort. I saw so many amazing animals and had a great time in the forest.

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Anastasia is a former librarian turned digital nomad. She's been traveling the world full time for two years and has visited 18 countries so far! Just Gone Wandering is a travel resource for solo female travelers on a backpacker's budget-- or slightly more-- and highlights amazing places to visit as well as providing tips and tricks for traveling smart and frugal. Read more...

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