I loved the National Geographic movies about the ecosystems of the world as a child, so I always dreamed of visiting Borneo. However, Borneo is a huge island composed of three countries, so you need to decide where you’re going to go. I chose the amazing Malaysian province of Sabah due to its accessibility by budget airlines (AirAsia) and the Kinabatangan river for its amazing wildlife.
A square inch of land in Borneo is supposed to be more biodiverse than ANY other place on the planet. This Borneo travel guide covers my experience visiting the beautiful Kinabatangan river, advice about the Kinabatangan river packages you’ll find, the Borneo ecotour that I chose, and information about the animals you’ll see in Borneo!</
What to do in Borneo (Kinabatangan River Valley):
Jungle Trekking. This isn’t for everyone, but for adventure travelers, you need to try out once to see if you love it (or hate it). You’ll be sweating bullets, but there is something raw about experiencing the jungle by hiking it. Oxbow Lake is one of the main short trekking sites in this area, however it is possible to have longer treks in the area. Beware of leeches and wear long pants, please.
Gomantong Cave. This cave is the home of thousands of bats and swiftlets. It’s beautiful and disgusting at the same time due to the many cockroaches and bat feces. (Don’t wear open toed shoes.) Swiftlets create their nests high up in the cave and these nests are harvested in a sustainable way for consumption by some Chinese people.
The cave itself is incredibly impressive and it is one of the best places to spot orangutans according to our guide Vincent. We were able to spot two red leaf monkeys as well as a pygmy squirrel just outside of the caves.
Some of the Wildlife you’ll see in Borneo:
The proboscis monkey is an endangered species although I saw many of them in this region. This different looking monkey can be fascinating to watch due to their large leaps and distinctive look. They travel in two different types of groups: the harem group and bachelor group.
It’s easy to distinguish the males from the females due to the large distinctive nose of the male (shown above). Although it is possible to see them elsewhere in Borneo, you will see plenty of them if you do river cruises up/down the Kinabatangan river. There is no need to go to a sanctuary.
Red leaf monkey
Adult silver leaf
Where to stay in Borneo: Kinabatangan River
Considering you’re going to see the nature, I encourage you to consider one of the sustainable eco-friendly lodges in Sukau. It does cost more, however if you’re coming all this way to see the wildlife, you need to keep in mind that deforestation is an issue in Borneo.
Even along the Kinabatangan river, you will see many palm plantations where jungle used to be and reclaimed palm farms that the Malaysian government is trying to repopulate with jungle.
The recent growth of ecotourism / sustainable tourism has encouraged the government to further invest in protecting this amazing environment. It’s not that much more in euros/dollars and you’ll feel really good about choosing an eco-friendly resort afterwards.
The staff was really helpful and knowledgeable about the animals. They have some cute kittens that live on the property to cuddle. The food was tasty and everything was very clean/well organized. You just need to lock your doors due to the monkeys…
We did the 3 day Sukau Kinabatangan & Ox-Bow Lake with an additional stop at the Gomantong Cave. For both of us, it was about $500. This included all transit, food, a jungle trek, admission to the caves, a private guide, and river cruises.
You can stay at cheap accommodations in Kinabatangan, but some do not include air conditioning, drinking water, or anything besides a basic tour and a bed. There are also five star resorts, but I felt this was a fair price for three days (coming from the US/Europe).
For those seeking a luxury experience, I recommend looking into the Sukau Rainforest Lodge for a 5* experience. We heard a lot about it while we were there although it was out of budget. It’s a winner of sustainable tourism awards and they’ve partnered with National Geographic.
How to pick a Kinabatangan river tour
I found researching the river tours a bit difficult as the websites didn’t always spell out what was included and how much each tour was without contacting them, however Tripadvisor was a great resource alongside Lonely Planet Borneo.
I recommend getting a feel for what things are included and what you want. There are many tours in this area and after comparing the prices/offerings, I ended up with Borneo Nature Lodge because I wanted a more personal experience with fewer people, knowledgeable guides, a sustainable accommodation, and everything included in the price.
Some things to consider: Do you need A/C to sleep in the humidity? Do you want a full service resort? Are you happy with just a bunk? Is unlimited drinking water included? Do you prefer an inclusive package or you pay as you need things?
How many days to spend in Borneo: You could spend weeks and still want to explore more. However, for the Kinabatangan River, three days is perfect since that allows you do three river cruises a day (on full days). So, even if you don’t see a species you really want to see, it’s likely you’ll spot it on another day (unless it’s an elephant where you need to get lucky).
How to get to Kinabatangan from Sandakan: Getting to Sandakan was a bit tricky from Amsterdam, but you can fly direct with AirAsia/Malaysian Airways from Kuala Lumpur as well as Kota Kinabalu. I paid $20 USD for my AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan. From there, it’s about 2.5 hours to one of the best places to see wildlife in Sabah: Sukau.
Most Kinabatangan river tour packages for 3 days/2 nights will include transportation to/from the Sandakan airport, so check if transit is included as it often isn’t with cheaper accommodations. This area is not public transit friendly although it’s POSSIBLE to do it without private transit.