Once upon a time, there was a long river muddy. Along the bank of the river lived the mama elephant Lily. On the top of a Jamun tree lived a monkey very funky with a very long nosey. A shrewd crocodile waited beneath the tree to see the monkey fall loosey.
A talkative hornbill nested in the tree. While her friend the orange orangutang visited her often for tea. The village children played on the riverbank every day, while their mothers shouted to call them home, come, come, otherwise the monkey will take you away.
If you hadn’t guessed, this is a story inspired by real characters. I wrote it when I went on the Kinabatangan river tour in Sabah, Borneo.
Also read: Your best reasons to visit Malaysia
Kinabatangan is a long river along which lives the big five of Malaysian wildlife– pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, orangutang, crocodile, and Asian hornbill.
Did you know that the Kinabatangan River is the only place where you can find proboscis monkeys and orangutans and pygmy elephants?
The Kinabatangan river is inhabited, and many villages thrive on the river banks for a long time.
I chose Sukau, a village 80 km upriver from the coast, as my base for the Kinabatangan river cruise. I went to Sukau when another traveler told me that I should go to the Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary (which is the entire Kinabatangan river) if I wanted to see Malaysian wildlife from a boat.
I messaged Maria, the lady who runs a homestay in Sukau village, over WhatsApp, and she promptly told me that I could visit her as she had one empty room.
Just on word of mouth, Maria accepted my booking without any prepayment and said that her brother would pick me up the next day to take me from Sandakan to Kinabatangan River.
I was more than happy to leave the concrete city of Sandakan, a district in Borneo’s Sabah state.
Another Must Read: If you love wildlife – Travel to the Indian Sloth Bear Sanctuary Daroji, near Hampi, Karnataka, India
When I asked Maria later that why didn’t she put up her Sukau village homestay on Booking or Airbnb, she told me that the internet was unreliable in Sukau, and she didn’t want to drive to Sandakan every other day to check emails. Who wants that headache when I can get customers without an online presence? She explained.
I liked Maria instantly. She had a round face and a zeal to explain everything. Her long explanations about the hornbills that come to her garden trees to nest, the leopard she had seen on a night tour, and the Islamic culture of Malaysia helped me understand the life in Kinabatangan.
On those late nights at her riverside Sukau homestay, without the internet or any other distraction, we both sat in her wooden porch-cum-kitchen that overlooks the Kinabatangan river and talked liked we knew each other for a long time.
Maria told me that many international tourists visit her homestay every year, that the deforestation of palm oil is disrupting orangutans’ life, and that Kinabatangan has around 150 elephants out of which Lily the matriarch heads the biggest group of about 60 young and old elephants.
I saw Lily one afternoon on our Kinabatangan river day trip. She was with a huge group of elephants with many little one grazing around on the crisp riverside grass. At least twenty boats crowded in the river near Lily to show pigmy elephants to their tourists from close by.
Maria said that Lily doesn’t cross the big river for the little ones can’t swim such a big distance.
Maria arranged about 2-3 such Kinabatangan river safaris every day. We also went on night safaris.
Though now the Kinabatangan riverside was dense with wildlife, we were informed that the deforestation in the past left the river banks completely inhabitable. But then the Malaysian government implemented a rule under which 20 meters inland from either side of the river bank was declared as a protected zone.
Proboscis monkeys jumped around on trees near the lush riverbank. Big groups of pygmy elephants trumpeted near the bank to eat. Sometimes you could also see the elephants swim and cross the shallower inland water streams coming out of Kinabatangan.
Crocodiles watched us suspiciously from their mud pools. Asian Hornbills, Eagles, Kingfishers, and woodpeckers flew about. Orangutans were harder to spot but we kept looking on to the palm trees to see if they had come out to eat the young palm shoots.
Once, we saw a mother orangutan and her baby hanging close to the river bank. When the mother saw our boat, she hid behind the leaves.
I even ran into an orangutan’s territory while hiking in the jungle with Maria’s brother and nephews. The boys were running downhill even though there weren’t any marked trails or they were all covered with leaves and monsoon grass.
Suddenly, Maria’s brother shushed his son and whispered to me that there was an orangutan about 50 meters away from us. As an excited monkey, I looked around but couldn’t see anything.
The orangutan was hidden behind the thick branches and leaves high up the tree. Then the brother ran down the hill and urged me to not miss the opportunity to see an orangutan so close by.
Instead of thinking about falling, I ran downwards and spotted the golden brown orangutan sitting at the top of a tree right above us. He was just hanging in there.
Then the orangutan started shouting at us. The scared ape thought we were threatening his territory and tried to scare us by throwing branches at us.
Maria’s brother said he was a young male, who must be living in his 2 km territory. We were trespassing.
I was guilty, but because I didn’t plan to cause any harm, I just quietly stayed there for a few minutes and saw the majestic being. And then we left him in peace.
You must know that Borneo is one of the two places (other is Indonesia) where you can see orangutans in the wild. But orangutangs are decreasing and are now endangered because palm trees, the main food of orangutang, are being cut and deforested for palm oil.
To be frank, if I hadn’t even seen all the big five on my Sabah trip, I would have been happy because of Maria’s stories. She sat on the porch on full moon nights. I also joined her. When the silver light of the full moon carpeted her home, we talked.
You should see the moon reflect in the river Kinabatangan. The milky light of the moon shimmered on the glistening water exactly like we used to draw the moon reflections in our school drawings.
But when the days dawned, actually much before the day dawned, we would be on a boat heading into the Kinabatangan. The sun was still rising on the horizon. On some clouded days, we only saw a white ghost of the sun hidden deep behind thick clouds.
Then it would rain and we covered ourselves in raincoats while Maria or her brother turned the boat around.
The river was full of tourists from western countries. But some of Maria’s stories made me feel as if I was in India.
Maria said that she didn’t get married until 35 for she was busy bringing guests in and out from Sandakan. Dating isn’t a trend in Malaysia, and she met her husband through a common friend.
The marriage culture and the reserved household took me back to my school times when two of my best friends were Muslim girls.
I used to visit their house for birthday parties and to prepare for our school dance competitions. Though their homes weren’t that orthodox, I could draw similarities between their homes and Maria’s house. But now it seems a bit naive to think that way. People have different cultures around the world, and religion is only one small way to understand people’s priorities or their lifestyle.
Also Read: eVisa for Malaysia – For Indians
My two-three days at Maria’s home were spent either on a river safari. Or I was at home eating and talking to Maria. Or I was fishing with the net. Or I just laid in the hammock in the garden and watched the chickens and the chicks and the ducks and the cats and the kittens turn into an army whenever Maria brought out food.
At times I was even the guard watching out for monitor lizards who come running into the garden from the Kinabatangan jungle and would take a chick in one moment of unawareness. And when I went back to reading after sending the lizard away and calming down Ochenten, Maria’s nephew, I was often disturbed by the harsh songs of the pied hornbills that flew onto the mango tree in the garden to build a nest. If I went closer to look, the shy hornbill flew to a coconut tree and played hide and seek from behind its leaf. Then there were the occasional visits by the orange and black squirrels who ran across the garden nibbling onto berries.
Should I also tell you about the red kingfishers that I saw in the garden and the group of long-tail macaques that hung on the bridge over the river? Or the red leaf monkey that I spotted on the backside of Maria’s house?
A total circus, I tell you.
Also read and see: Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Mysore: A Collection of Indian birds in photos and poetry
But such a circus pleasured me more than anything else in the world.
And when the sun set over the river, the amber river shined like gold. An orange and red hue spread over the sky.
I would watch the molten-red sunset with a cup of tea in my hand, clicking the scene with my eyes without bothering to take a picture with my phone. Those moments were too precious to be lost behind a camera screen.
Living next to the magnificent and wildlife-rich Kinabatangan river, you wouldn’t notice how quickly the day will go by. But it wouldn’t be less than a Disney tale, I promise.
What is the best time to visit Borneo?
Best time to travel to Borneo and Sabah is March to September.
Though some Borneo travel blogs say that Borneo stays warm and dry until October, I disagree with them. I was in Borneo in October and rain poured down almost every day.
If you are traveling to Borneo for diving, then also summer is the best season with April, May, and June being the best months for good visibility.
During October to January/February Borneo, and Malaysia in general, receives heavy rainfall. You can avoid traveling to Borneo during these months so that you don’t get stuck in rain.
How to reach the Kinabatangan River, Borneo?
First, you have to fly to Borneo island. Get a flight from Kuala Lumpur or Penang to Sandakan in Sabah, Borneo. Stay in the city for only a day or two. Get accommodation in the center of Sandakan (near the beach). I stayed in an area away from the Sandakan center which wasn’t that safe at night. Even the hotel girls warned me against stepping out after dark.
You can find a decent hotel in Sandakan on Booking here.
Like other cities of Malaysia, the Grab taxi works in Sandakan, too. Though I used the local van-like shared taxis to commute.
You can book a stay in the Sukau village of Kinabatangan beforehand. Though Sukau river homestay isn’t available on Booking or any other website, you can just WhatsApp Maria to check for availability and reserve your Kinabatangan accommodation with her. Maria’s Contact is: +60 13-870 0908.
Read the TripAdvisor reviews about Maria and the river safaris she offers here.
Here is a list of some other homestays and hostels in Sukau on Booking.
If you have a booking with Maria or with some other Sukau guesthouse, your guesthouse will pick you up from Sandakan. No public transport goes until Sukau, Kinabatangan.
What to carry on your Kinabatangan river trip?
Bring along these below items to have a safe and comfortable Kinabatangan cruise
- a rain jacket
- Good hiking shoes for women and good hiking shoes for men – Though the cruise on Kinabatangan doesn’t include much hiking, you can ask your family or guesthouse to take you on marked trails around their homes. You would need good shoes if you go on those walks.
- Flip flops
- Warm jackets for men and for women – you would definitely need a jacket while going on an early morning river cruise.
- Essential toiletries
- Strong sunscreen
- A hat for the sun .
- Flashlight – You would a flashlight on night safaris.
- Bring a mosquito repellent.
- Yoga pants for women and for men – Best for hiking around.
- Hiking socks for women and for men.
- Bring binoculars. Sometimes the orangutans are too far away to see with the naked eye.
- A good camera – Nikon D3400 is a very good choice for the price. I use Nikon for all my photography now (the pictures in the article though has been clicked with my phone for I have been using Nikon only for the past nine months). This camera comes with two lenses, and the one with the higher resolution is perfect for bird photography if you are interested.
- A first-aid kit – Always carry one while traveling. Carry essential medicines as you would not find any medicine shops in the area.
- Some lovely books to read, but remember that the wildlife will constantly distract you.
- Some snacks. You will get good meals in the homestay, but if you get hungry in between there aren’t many shops in the Kinabatangan area.
This list tells the most important things you need to bring to Sukau to have a comfortable experience. Of course, bring your regular clothes and other basic items you need, too.
Where to stay in Sukau, Kinabatangan?
Sukau river homestay, as I said above.
Sukau accommodations are basic and are mostly run by families.
So please be aware that you wouldn’t get resort-like facilities. Also, most of the families in the village are Muslim. So you can’t drink there.
But please confirm with your Sukau village homestay for their particular rules.
How many days do you need for the Kinabatangan river cruise?
I booked a two day and two nights trip with Maria. But I ended up staying in Sukau for one more day.
Most of the Sukau guesthouses arrange 2-3 river safaris every day. The 2-hour-long safaris are around dawn, afternoon, and at night. The homestays or the lodge that you choose will also arrange night walks (depending on the weather).
Two days are enough to see the wildlife in Kinabatangan, depending on the weather and your luck. But as Kinabatangan riverside is gorgeous and peaceful, you might get tempted to stay for a bit longer. So plan accordingly.
What is the Kinabatangan river cruise price?
The two-days trip at Sukau river homestay costs 450 ringgits or 110 USD per person and includes the return transfer from Sandakan, room with a shared toilet, meals, coffee, tea, and water, and river safaris and jungle walk with an English speaking guide (sometimes Maria and other times her brother).
You will need to pay in cash so please withdraw in Sandakan.
Also, please check with Maria for her updated prices (these were back in 2018).
You can also check out these Get Your guide Tours to the Kinabatangan river and Sepilok Rehabilitation center and Kinabatangan river cruise. Though these are slightly more expensive, both the tours will pick you up from your hotel in Sandakan, drive you to the river, take you on a river cruise, show you the orangutans in the Sepilok Orangutan conservation park (if included in the tour), and bring you back to Sandakan.
Though I suggest you stay in Sukay village for at least a night, these tours are good options if you are short on time.
That’s it for now.
Would you love to go on one of these Kinabatangan river tours?
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