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):
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Borneo River Cruise: Most accommodations will include 3 daily cruises up and down the river in smaller boats. It depends on the price how crowded the boat is although we stayed at a small boutique hotel. This meant that it was only us and our knowledgeable guides for the majority of our trip. The river cruise is the essential experience on a holiday in Borneo. There’s something magical about watching the sunrise with wild monkeys swinging from the trees above you.
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 incredible 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:
Hornbills. These beautiful birds are truly unique and beautiful. Out of our entire trip, I have to say that the Kinabatangan river was best place for birdwatching that we visited. There are 8 distinct varieties in this region although the Rhinoceros Hornbill is the most iconic. We saw five varieties in the wild in total over three days. Hornbills are magnificent birds that are pretty easy to spot, even for an amateur (like myself).
Primates/Monkeys. Despite going all around the Malaysian and Bruneian parts of Borneo, the Kinabatangan area was the best area for seeing wild monkeys. This is one of the few areas in Malaysia where you can see wild Orangutans. You need to get lucky, however there is a national reserve with quite a few wild orangutans close to Sukau.
You’ll need to listen to strange sounds as well as breaking of nearby twigs. There is nothing as incredible as hearing nothing besides the cicadas, the breaking of the branches, before seeing an entire family of monkeys come into view.
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.
The red leaf monkey & the maroon leaf monkey look quite similar although the difference is in the darkness of the coat. I fell in love with the shy silver leaf monkey. The baby has an orange coat prior to it changing color into the distinctive silver color as an adult.
We also saw many macaques. Just a note: Macaques are FEARLESS and the short-tailed variety is the type of monkey most likely to bite people. If you see one getting close to you, do not make eye contact and give it space by backing up. They can be VERY protective of their babies.
I did not see the Gibbons monkey, but I heard one. For the slow loris/tarsier, you need to do night trekking through the jungle.
Elephants. The Kinabatangan river is where to see wild elephants in Malaysia! That said, pygmy elephants move in small herds and you need to get VERY lucky as sightings of the wild Borneo Pygmy Elephant is typically 2-3 times a year. Elephants do not return to the same spot after grazing there, so even if a pack was seen two days earlier, it’s likely they’ll move on.
Creepy crawlies: Snakes & Spiders & Leeches... No explanation needed. A leech decided to befriend me on our jungle trek. I survived.
Where to stay in Kinabatangan
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.
I stayed at theBorneo Nature Lodge, which was built in an eco-friendly way. They have comfortable private rooms with AC during the day and fans at night. There’s even a platform for enjoying the view and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot the Gibbons monkeys and the civets that live on the property. The staff was really helpful and knowledgable about the animals. Similarly, 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).
The experience at Borneo Nature Lodge meant that we had a private tour most of the time. Compared to many of the other cheaper operators who had 10+ guests in their boats, we had our own personal tour guide assigned to us. Our guide Vincent was resourceful in asking other guides about sightings, bringing us to new locations, and always pointing out a new bird/monkey no matter how hard it was for me to spot it. It was a magical experience that felt surreal and it was so relaxing. (Note: This review was 100% independent, unsolicited, and unpaid. All opinions are my own.)
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.
Is Borneo on your bucket list?
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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