Kinabatangan River: The Best Place to See Wildlife in Southeast Asia
Explore the "Amazon of Asia"
Closest Airport: Sandakan, Malaysia (Sabah)
Number of Days: 2/3 Days
Nestled in the northeastern part of the island of Borneo, Kinabatangan stands as a natural wonder and a testament to the beauty of Malaysia's Sabah region. It's a nature lover's paradise, renowned for its breathtaking biodiversity and pristine landscapes, offering a captivating journey into the heart of the wild.
At its heart lies the Kinabatangan River, the lifeline of this enchanting region, meandering gracefully through lush rainforests and wetlands, etching its serpentine course amidst towering trees and vibrant foliage. This remarkable river, often celebrated as the longest in Sabah, houses an astonishing array of life and a variety of flora and fauna, earning Kinabatangan its reputation as the "Amazon of Asia."
1. Why Go
Kinabatangan River is Southeast Asia's best place to spot wildlife! So if you're a wildlife lover, coming here for a wildlife safari is a must.
Towering trees pierce the canopy, providing shelter for an assortment of birds, including the vibrant hornbills and rare species such as the elusive Storm's stork. Mammals like orangutans, pygmy elephants, and proboscis monkeys call the treetops home, while the riverbanks offer sanctuary to crocodiles, otters, and an abundance of birdlife.
2. Getting There
The closest international airport to Kinabatangan is Sandakan Airport. There are no direct international flights to Sandakan though, so you’d have to hop on a flight to Kota Kinabalu airport and take a domestic flight into Sandakan.
From there, the Kinabatangan River is approximately a 2 hour drive depending on weather conditions. If you book a Kinabatangan package, most accommodation providers will include the transport from Sandakan to Kinabatangan.
For recommendations on our best lodges that arrange Kinabatangan River cruises, head straight to the accommodation section below.
Top Tip: Some people only plan a day trip to Kinabatangan but it’s advisable to plan for at least one night in Sukau or Bilit (near Kinabatangan River).
3. How to Explore Kinabatangan River
Taking a cruise along the river in the early morning or evening is your top chance to check out the wildlife.
You could even see Bornean pygmy elephants munching on the riverbank, catch the Proboscis monkeys doing their tree-to-tree acrobatics, or spot a wild orangutan. Saltwater crocodiles often hang around the riverbanks, so you might catch a glimpse of them, or for an extra thrill, spot their eyes peeking out from the water (just remember to keep your distance!).
Top Tip: There’s a 2D1N and 3D2N stays available, but we recommend the 3D2N stay for a higher chance of spotting more wildlife! It includes an extra jungle trek that the 2D1N stay doesn’t include.
*Depending on your tour operator, additional tours such as night walks or night cruises can be arranged as well to spot crocodiles, birds and nocturnal animals.
4. Where To Stay
Although it is an option to stay in Sandakan and embark on tours to Kinabatangan, we highly recommend staying directly on the Kinabatangan River – it is an essential experience on any Sabah travel plan.
The lodges here aren't fancy but it's really lovely to be staying by the river, near all the wildlife.
Here are our top picks:
- Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort - A fantastic eco-friendly jungle retreat enveloped by vibrant foliage. Watch monkeys swinging from tree to tree from your private balcony with river views.
- Nasalis Larvatus - Budget-friendly and cozy accommodations conveniently located at the entrance to the Kinabatangan, providing a comfortable and affordable stay amidst the natural beauty of the region.
- Sukau Greenview - Affordable accommodations situated directly along the Kinabatangan River's banks. Offering an authentic jungle experience, managed by individuals who arrange budget-friendly river cruises.
5. Other Activities nearby
Want to see the smallest and cutest bears in the world? Check out this sanctuary for rescued sun bears previously kept in captivity. Its mission is to assist these bears in acquiring essential skills such as climbing, nest-building, foraging, and socializing, with the ultimate goal of reintroducing them to their natural habitat in the wild.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
The RDC is an exceptional educational and conservation facility nestled in the heart of the Sepilok Forest Reserve, just a stone's throw away from the other conservation centres here! It promises an immersive experience that allows visitors to delve deep into the captivating world of rainforest life.
With over 400 species of animals, plants, and reptiles living in this lush environment, you’re sure to find something interesting!
If we were to pick one wildlife reserve around Sandakan, we prefer the Sun Bear Conservation Centre as it feels like a more sustainable experience to us. However, if you would like to see Orangutans at a wildlife reserve, you may also like to consider the nearby Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Note that while we have some doubts on whether Sepilok is as sustainable as we would've liked, and it's certainly more touristy than we would've liked, we have not experienced any unethical behaviour at Sepilok.
6. Conservation of Kinabatangan
Kinabatangan's incredible turnaround from an environmental crisis to a conservation success story is an inspiring tale, highlighting how tourism played a crucial role in saving one of our planet's natural wonders.
Only 30 years ago, Kinabatangan was in deep trouble. Big companies were turning its beautiful landscapes into palm oil plantations, which we all know aren't good for the environment. Day by day, the lush forests were disappearing, and the future looked gloomy.
Only a tiny strip along the river was left, where the wildlife could wander. Travellers soon discovered that that area around the river was one of the best places in asia to spot endangered wildlife. They started going there and tourism dollars started streaming in.
With more tourists came more money, and it wasn't just good for the local people; it kickstarted conservation efforts too. Even the government had a change of heart. They realized that preserving Kinabatangan's natural beauty would bring in more money in the long run than chopping down trees and logging. This was a turning point.
Today, Kinabatangan stands as proof that tourism can be a shield for our most beautiful places. It shows us how mindful travel can not only protect but also enhance our natural world. The government's commitment to expanding the forested areas is a proactive step toward making sure Kinabatangan's stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife continue to thrive.
Kinabatangan is an inspiration, reminding us of the incredible impact we can have when we take care of our planet's most breathtaking spots. It's a testament to what we can achieve when travelers, local communities, and governments work together to protect and preserve the Earth's ecological wonders for future generations to enjoy.
Inspired to go? Plan your trip to Kinabatangan here!
Best timings to go: You can visit Sabah at any time of the year, but the best dry season is from March through September.
What to wear: Put on your best outdoor gear and definitely put on some mosquito repellent