The Kinabatangan river is an area with tropical lowland rainforest vegetation and unique ecosystems. It’s a popular place to spot wildlife. Do you have plans to visit this lush green region during your Borneo trip? A Kinabatangan river cruise is a once in a lifetime experience. In this article, we share the best time to visit the Kinabatangan river, how to get there, some excellent all-inclusive Kinabatangan river lodges and what it is like to spend a day in the jungle.
Some years back we spent some great days in the tropical rainforest of Peru. We love rural experiences that bring us closer to nature (as long as we still have some basic comfort). That’s why we had been looking forward to our stay along the Kinabatangan river during our Borneo trip.
Best time to visit the Kinabatangan river
The Kinabatangan river in Borneo can be visited almost all year round.
March to early September are the driest months. This is a great time to see wildlife near the Kinabatangan river. From April to October is a good period for bird lovers as it is the flowering and birding season.
We went in July and we had nice weather with blue skies and we saw a lot of wildlife including orangutans and pygmy elephants.
The wettest months are November to March. This season has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that you can enter deeper into the river channels and you will have more chances of spotting wildlife. The disadvantage is that it will rain a lot and sometimes the river and channels are flooded. Especially during the monsoon season in December and January.
We recommend you to avoid the monsoon season.
How to get to the Kinabatangan river in Borneo
The most popular way to get here is to fly to Sandakan. That’s also how we got here. Most Kinabatangan river lodges include transportation to and from Sandakan airport in their bookings. If you are not sure if it’s included, you should check this with your lodge.
The journey involved a long drive in a minibus and then just a few more minutes over the Kinabatangan river. This will be the case for most Kinabatangan river accommodations as most of them are located close to the pier at the main road.
Kinabatangan riverside lodges
The price of your Kinabatangan river cruise package depends on many elements. The level of comfort of the accommodation will make a difference but there will also be differences in what’s included in your package. Some Kinabatangan river lodges offer all-inclusive packages (typically including all meals and 2 daily Kinabatangan River Cruises) but some only include your accommodation.
We advise taking an all-inclusive package. You will have nothing to worry about because your tours and your meals will be included. As you are in the jungle there are no other restaurants around.
If you are just like us a big nature fan, opt for a 4 days/3 nights package so you can enjoy 3 full days in the Malaysian wilderness. You will have more chances to see the orangutans and pygmy elephants. We saw different animals on each river cruise.
There’re many Kinabatangan river accommodations. Remember that you are in the jungle and that these river accommodations may not offer all the amenities that you are used to.
Here we share 3 comfortable hotels with air conditioning that offers all-inclusive packages.
Borneo Nature Lodge
We stayed in the Borneo Nature Lodge one of the more comfortable Kinabatangan riverside lodges. It’s the only lodge in Kinabatangan rated 2 stars. The manager took really good care of us and we were treated with delicious meals after every river safari. We comfortably enjoyed the pleasures of the jungle :-).
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan
The Nature Lodge Kinabatangan offers basic clean rooms with air conditioning. Incredible friendly staff. The tours are good and the group sizes are considerably smaller than other tours.
Bilit rainforest Lodge
The Bilit Rainforest lodge offers spacious rooms with air conditioning. They offer a reasonable selection of well-prepared food, Very friendly and helpful staff. The river safaris are excellent and the guides are good at spotting wildlife.
Jungle days with Kinabatangan river safaris
A typical day in the jungle takes an early start mostly around 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. A small snack and some coffee will be waiting to help you wake up before you head to the boats to do a Kinabatangan river safari at sunrise. 2 hours later you will get back to your lodge where you will enjoy breakfast.
After breakfast, you have time to read that good book that you wanted to read for so long. You could take a nap or if you’re like me you could unwind by just listening to the sounds of nature. You will be amazed at how quickly it is time for lunch…
Most packages will include all meals and morning- and evening river safaris
After lunch, you have time until 4 PM to do more of the same. At 4 PM it is time for another Kinabatangan river cruise. Your sunset cruise typically lasts 2 hours and returns to the lodge after dark. Dinner will be waiting for you when you get back to the lodge.
Most Kinabatangan river accommodations offer all-inclusive packages with all meals (no drinks) and morning and evening cruises included. You can choose to add some extra excursions like a night walk, a night cruise or an excursion to a nearby village.
The forest is alive day and night and a night excursion is particularly interesting if you want to see the nocturnal animals. (think, among other things, of big hairy spiders) You can also approach birds more easily to take some really good close-up pictures.
We were hoping to see the Pygmy elephants but when we inquired as to their location upon arrival our hopes were quickly scuttled. The main group of elephants had moved to a location that was too far away, out of reach for our boat safaris. We had set our hopes for elephants but the orangutans, birds, and snakes we saw on the first day generously made up for failing to see any elephants.
If you love nature this is definitely a place you should go to.
Things only got better from there. You can imagine how excited we were when we encountered some elephants during our evening cruise on the second day. We became even luckier the third day when we got to see some elephants swimming. At the end of our 3 days we had spotted orangutans, snakes many proboscis and macaques and lots of birds (kingfishers, raptors, eagles, owls, …)
If you love nature this is definitely a place you should go to.
Some of the lodges include optional tours upon arrival and departure.
We opted to include these tours when we booked our package at the Borneo Nature Lodge and visited the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation center on our way to the lodge and the Gomatong cave upon departure. Very often a Borneo orangutan tour is included, a tour where you visit an orangutan rehabilitation center, but other lodges may offer different tours.
The Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation center
Since earlier on we visited the Semenggoh rehabilitation center we can make a good comparison of both and I think Sepilok beats Semenggoh. Not that we didn’t like Semenggoh, as animal lovers I would visit each center if I could, but if you have to choose between the two my first choice would be Sepilok. They have a professional and very informational visitor center where you learn a lot about these interesting animals. The presentation and the video in the center make your visit somewhat more worthwhile.
If you only have time for one Borneo orangutan tour our advice would be to visit the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation center.
The creepy Gomatong caves on our way back
On our last day we got to sleep late, actually just a normal hour but if you have to get up at 5 for the morning cruise it’s a treat to sleep until 7 for once. After breakfast, we headed to the Gomatong cave. One part of the cave is open to the public and here you can witness the conditions in which twice yearly the edible bird’s nests are harvested. These swallow nests are a delicacy in China and they pay big money for it. But not only swallows are living in the cave… A population of bats lives in the cave and their pile of guano has attracted millions of cockroaches and centipedes. As soon as you stopped walking those little creatures started walking across your feet which means I haven’t taken any pictures and share some pictures taken by other braver visitors. (credit in the picture’s caption) I do respect the guards that live in the cave day and night to protect the bird’s nests
I think I could say our visit was disgusting but interesting at the same time. We witnessed an ecosystem here as we had never seen one before. The Gomatong cave is situated in a wildlife protected area and as you make your way along the walkway towards the cave you should keep your eyes open for orangutans. We did see 2 of them. Other people reported that they had also seen lemurs and colorful kingfishers.
Nature enthusiast should definitely put a nature lodge stay along the Kinabatangan river on their bucket list. You adopt the pace of nature and in just a few days you will leave recharged with some great memories. Staying in a comfortable lodge in the middle of the jungle has something magical. We did it in Peru and we repeated it here in Kinabatangan and both times it was one of the best memories of our trip.
Don’t forget your binoculars!
A torch can come in handy to use during your night walk (usually torches are provided). You might also need it as some hotels don’t have 24/7 electricity.
As soon as the sun sets the mosquitos come out. Make sure to bring mosquito repellent to avoid becoming a mosquito buffet.
One day seems too short to visit this vast region but if that’s all you have you should have a look at this one-day Kinabatangan excursion.
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