A River Safari on the Kinabatangan River | Malaysia Borneo

Our trip to Borneo was focused on doing as many outdoor wildlife adventures as we could fit in (and afford!). So when we heard about the Kinabatangan River, we didn’t hesitate to book our trip. We spent a couple of nights along the river searching the jungle and riverside for jumping monkeys, beautiful birds, and even a few crocodiles!

Kinabatangan River

Although this is a popular tourist destination in Borneo, we were visiting during the off-season and Borneo itself is not as popular as many surrounding countries (Indonesia, mainland Malaysia, and all of SE Asia). Borneo is often skipped on a trip to Malaysia so although this destination is “popular” it doesn’t compare to the surrounding region.

Views from the boat on the Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River is located in the north of the state of Sabah in Malaysia Borneo. It is the second-longest river in Malaysia and home to some of the most incredible wildlife. The river and surrounding area is known as one of the top destinations for watching wildlife in South East Asia.

The river and surrounding jungle is home to a variety of mammals including pygmy elephants, orangutans, and proboscis monkeys, as well as 8 other primate species. You might remember the Proboscis Monkeys from our blog about Bako National Park. You can also try to spot mammals including civets, slow lorises, and cloud leopards up in the trees (although the last two are rarer)!

Fun Fact: Have you ever heard of Kopi Luwak? If not, it’s a fancy (overpriced) coffee that has unique origins. Basically, there’s a specific type of civet (similar to a ferret) found in this region that eats coffee beans. When the civet poops them out…yes poops them back out, it is said to give the coffee an extra special taste. It comes from Indonesia mostly but is pretty famous in the coffee world and is literally overpriced ferret poop. The more you know right? Anyways, we saw one of them while at the lodge on the Kinabatangan but no, we didn’t try the coffee from its poop.

The Kinabatangan River is also a known birder destination for sightings of brightly colored kingfishers, soaring hornbills, and rarer birds like the Greater Adjutant (similar to a stork). We saw (4-5) of the 8 hornbill species that call this region home during our river safari on the Kinabatangan and plenty of other beautiful bird species.

You can also see crocodiles on the edge of the river’s bank, river monitors resting on branches (pictured below), and some of the largest creepy crawlies scurrying across the jungle floor.

The protected area is known as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and is managed by the Sabah government. It’s surrounded by fruit and palm plantations that threaten the habitat of these indigenous animals. Other conservation issues include pollution since many villages dump trash into the river, illegal hunting/capturing, and more.

Land monitor resting in a tree

Our Adventure on the Kinabatangan

The previous day, we had taken a 7-8 hour bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. Sandakan is more of a pitstop between tourist destinations and there was not much going on. We were picked up by bus and made our way to Sepilok where we stopped for lunch. After lunch, our group of 12 got on the bus and headed to the river.

Arriving at the dock, we took a small boat across the river to our lodge. When we arrived, we were given a briefing on our schedule and the keys to our room. Trying to stick to low costs, we chose the dorm room and were paired with a Spanish couple who were very nice!

It’s so interesting meeting people while traveling because often where you’re from and where you’ve been is the first conversation, then recommendations, and then names. I have realized that we don’t get people’s names until the end of our conversation if ever (on accident but it happens).

What’s the Plan

Our schedule for the next couple of days looked something like this:

  • 4 pm: River Cruise
  • 7 pm: Dinner
  • 9 pm: Night Hike
  • 6 am: River Cruise
  • 7:30 am: Breakfast
  • 9 am: Day Hike
  • 12:30 pm Lunch
  • 4 pm: River Cruise
  • 7 pm: Dinner
  • 8:30 pm: Night Hike

Kinabatangan Nature Lodge

The nature lodge is made of some rustic dorms with communal bathrooms, a few private cabins, an activity center, an outdoor restaurant, and a boat jetty. It reminded us of the eco-lodge we stayed at in Sri Lanka for our yoga retreat. There are cement paths that lead to everything, hammocks to lounge in during free time, and stunning nature all around. 


Each of our meals were served buffet style and were delicious! The breakfast buffet included toast and jam, fried vegetable noodles, eggs, and fruit. There were also some hot dog looking sausages and beans for the Brits who eat beans on toast (like baked beans). 

Lunch and dinner included two types of vegetables in a tasty curry sauce, rice, chicken, fish, fruit, and juice. However, for vegetarians, they also offered a mock meat dish (veg chicken, shrimp, etc.).

Night Hikes

On both nights of the tour, we ventured into the jungle after dark. We all had to wear long sleeve shirts and pants to keep covered from the leeches. We also had to rent mud boots ($2.50) because the mud was sometimes ankle DEEP. Luckily we found a pair to fit us both because if not, there were plenty of times our feet would have stepped right out of the boot. 

It was pitch black out, but luckily, we had the flashlights we bought for Fairy Cave because we needed them to see where we were going. Ty and I were right behind the guide for both hikes, staying quiet, and listening to the noise of the jungle.

We saw a few frogs, some BIG insects, some sleeping birds (so cool), and way up high in the tree we saw a Slow Loris. Slow Lorises are a mammal that is very small with big eyes and moves like a sloth. I didn’t bring my camera with me the first night, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture it anyways. We were only able to spot it because its eyes reflected in the flashlight and then we could see it move slightly up the tree. 

Below are some of the sleeping birds we saw on our second night hike and some of the giant spiders!

Elephants in the Jungle

Before one of our hikes, we were talking to one of the staff and he told us about the elephants that live in the jungle. He said just recently they had some cross the river right in front of the boats! Sam joked about seeing one on the night hike and he said that they know there aren’t any around right now because not only would we hear them moving and making noise but he can also SMELL them if they are close by! Plus, if we were to come across them in the jungle, we might be chased which could be VERY dangerous. So I guess it’s better not to accidentally run into any elephants at night in the pitch black jungle…

River Cruises

For each of our 4 river cruises, we were in the same boat that brought us to the lodge and with our guide, Ramzam. While cruising the river, Ramzam, pointed out various animals and shared their names and some facts about them.

First Boat Ride on the River

On our first river cruise, we chose to sit in the front of the boat. We saw 4 types of monkeys, 2 types of kingfishers, and a whole bunch of other animals. It was so exciting! It even started raining during this ride, but luckily we had our rain jackets. Honestly, we didn’t mind the rain at all because it had been so hot, it felt good to cool off. It didn’t rain too long, and eventually, we found more monkeys, another crocodile, and some birds. 

Early Morning Cruise

The morning boat rides always came too early as our alarms went off at 5:30 am. The first morning we woke up even earlier to get a cup of coffee but on the second morning, we decided the few extra minutes of sleep were more important. The morning rides were much cooler than the afternoon rides. We decided after the first boat ride to sit in the back near the guide so we could ask questions and learn more!

Searching for Wildlife

Our guide took us down a smaller river off the Kinabatangan. Connecting the two sides of the river were a series of ropes from the trees. Because of all the deforestation and habitat loss, the forestry department put the ropes up to allow animals like orangutans to cross the river. Because they cannot swim and they have lost so much of their home, these ropes allow them to reach parts of the jungle, they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. Although it’s heartwarming that they have been helped, it definitely hurts to know that this was necessary because of all the land loss. 

While on this side river, we didn’t spot any orangutans (sadly) but there were a few monkeys making their way across and some just hanging out on the rope. We saw long-tailed macaques, pig-tailed macaques, and many proboscis monkeys again. We even saw a pair of Asian Pied Hornbills far up in the trees. 

Last Ride on the River

Our last boat ride of the tour departed at 6 am on the second morning and we had our fingers crossed for some exciting last wildlife sightings. It was super foggy at the beginning, giving the ride an eerie feel. Sadly, we were not lucky enough to see any elephants during our last ride but we did see a few more kingfishers, monkeys, and right at the end, we saw a large crocodile and the Rhinoceros Hornbill! It was HUGE compared to the other hornbills we saw. The picture isn’t the best quality because it is zoomed and cropped a lot but we wanted to show the picture we did get of the large hornbill!

Farewell to Kinabatangan River

Before leaving, we talked to the staff a bit more about programs the lodge has offered before. We learned that pre-pandemic they offered eco programs including river clean-ups and tree planting. They also provided some cultural programs including dances and cooking workshops. Currently, they do not have the staff for those programs but as they have more visitors they will be able to resume them eventually. Just another reason to come back one day, to partake in the programs AND have another shot at spotting some elephants in the river. 

We said our farewells and got on our bus to our next destination. We had such an amazing time on the Kinabatangan River. Although some guests were disappointed because we missed out on elephants, we both left feeling so happy with our experience. We loved the remoteness of the lodge and how much time we were able to spend on the river and immersed in nature! 

Upon arrival at our next accommodation, we ran into some people who had been on a tour with another company. They WERE lucky enough to see the elephants and an orangutan. DRATS. We will definitely be back!