A Kinabatangan river cruise is one of the most typical activities in a Borneo trip, one of the few remaining real opportunities to experience the jungle and its wildlife. The most common way to do it, and at first glance the only one, is to join an organized tour from Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan. But we were coming from Semporna (from our diving and island hoping adventure), and we prefer to travel independently… and as cheap as possible. The basic 2 day / 1 night tour to Kinabatangan goes for over MYR 1,000 (over $300) per person! There had to be a better way.
We found a public bus that would take us from Semporna to Sukau junction in about 4 hours for MYR 40. At the junction, we joined a local jeep that ran as a taxi, charging MYR 15 per spot. It dropped us off at the center of Sukau, a little village with a bunch of hostels and homestays along the main road and the river. We wandered around asking for prices, and ended up settling at Greenview B&B for MYR 120 (double room with AC, private bathroom and breakfast). It was lunch time, but there weren’t a lot of places to eat, since most travelers come to Sukau in all-inclusive tours. We eventually stumbled upon the school and asked at the cafeteria. They served us delicious and copious noodles for MYR 5 🙂 . On the way back to our B&B, we got trapped in a monsoon-like storm, and had to find refuge in a local’s toolshed. The way the weather changes in these countries never ceases to amaze me!
In the afternoon, we joined the river tour of our B&B (MYR 50, first asking price MYR 60, best to bargain during the room negotiation). We had about 10 people in a small wooden motorboat, including the guide / boatman and a naturalist that happened to be collaborating with our lodge that season. We made the most out of the tour by seating in the front of the boat and befriending the naturalist to borrow her binoculars. The boat cruised down the brown waters of the Kinabatangan, slowing down and getting close to the thick jungle every once in a while, when the guide would spot some movement. We saw a few macaques, some beautiful birds, a hint of crocodiles… and eventually, lots of the famous long-nosed proboscis monkeys. Such funny animals 😉
With a bit of imagination, I could say we saw an orangutan… but it was really just the back of one, in the distance, hidden by thick foliage. It’s quite rare to see orangutans in these tours, and if anything, it’s a bit sad: they are being pushed to the riverside by the destruction of the forest in favor of oil palm plantations. Some travelers have also seen the highly sought after pygmy elephants, but it’s even more rare. Lodges now offer longer, more expensive tours to track them down.
All in all, the Kinabatangan experience was a bit disappointing. I’d say it’s more of a transit day than an actual destination in a Malaysia trip, and probably worth it only if done on your own for just MYR 250. That was our total spend, for all the above, plus basic dinner at our B&B for MYR 10 (which was the same food as their MYR 25 default offer just without the buffet), the van that took us to Sepilok the next morning for MYR 45 (there was supposed to be a public bus at 6am from the village center, but it was pouring again), and the entrance fee to the Sepilok Oranguntan Rehabilitation Center… but that’s another story, the highlight of our time in Borneo was about to come.