Though we had been in Malaysia before, we had never seen its wildlife. We decided to go to Sabah, on the island of Borneo, since it’s less touristic than Sarawak. The best place to watch wildlife in Sabah is along the Kinabatangan River. Exactly, this narrow strip of land along the river is home to numerous cute animals. As usual, we wanted to discover Kinabatangan River on our own and avoid any packaged tour. We did, and though it was a bit of an extra effort, it was totally worth it!
At 560 kilometres long, the Kinabatangan River is Sabah’s longest and Malaysia’s second longest. The river begins at the mountains in southwest Sabah and crosses different forests, lakes, swamps and mangroves ending in the sea near the city of Sandakan. We humans have damaged most ecosystems along the river. Yes, our addiction to palm oil has been devastating to the region. However, the few unaltered areas that remain have been grouped into wildlife sanctuaries. Different animals, such as orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, macaque monkeys, gibbons, tarsiers, slow lorises, pygmy elephants, snakes, crocodiles, sharks, dolphins and plenty of birds populate these areas.
How to avoid crowds around the Kinabatangan River
Several web pages and agencies in Kota Kinabalu offer Kinabatangan River tours of 2 or 3 days. These include so called premier accommodation, transport, food and local excursions. Not our thing. On the one hand, we reckon that the fancier the hotel the bigger the environmental footprint. Likewise, paying extra to be surrounded by people makes no sense. To us, the epitome of luxury in natural spots is privacy and space. Likewise, our hotel has to be comfortable, with the least impact possible and be part of the local community. We were able to get all that we wanted in a place called Sukau, in the middle of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
What is Sukau like?
Sukau is a tiny village of barely a dozen houses next to the Kinabatangan River. There is a small square with a mosque, a school and a cemetery. Houses, a couple of guesthouses, restaurants and small shops dot both roads (Sukau and Kampung Sukau) leading to the village. People are relaxed and nice and it seems tourism hasn’t altered life in the village. Since few cars pass through the village, the road belongs to monkeys!
How to get to Sukau
Getting there wasn’t that difficult. Malaysians speak good English and bus schedules are more or less reliable. In Sandakan we took a 2 hour bus to Lahad Datu and got off at a roundabout where the road to Sukau village is. A small van was parked there so we hopped on and in less than an hour we arrived at our destination. The trip is extremely sad and embarrassing. Palm tree plantations occupy 80 percent of all land in Borneo. Yes, the developed world had the brilliant idea of putting palm oil into almost everything, destroying paradise to make a quick buck.
Getting to Sukau by minibus
There are two ways to go directly from Sandakan to Sukau. The first one is via direct minibus. One leaves every day at 1PM from the minibus lot near Sandakan’s waterfront. The other one is to arrange a direct transfer with a man called Choy. His phone number is 019-536-1889. We advise you to check both options beforehand. Nevertheless, if unsure, take the bus to Lahad Datu and get off at the roundabout at the road to Sukau just as we did. Vans wait there for travelers.
How to get to Sandakan
Sandakan is a middle sized city well connected to Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. Several buses a day connect Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. The ride is pretty long (about 6 hours) and quite monotone, passing through endless palm tree plantations. We arrived by plane from Kota Kinabalu. Take note that Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia operate daily flights to Sandakan from both Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur.
Kinabatangan River accommodation
As mentioned before, we didn’t want to take any Kinabatangan River tour. Hence, we found decent accommodation in Sukau on our own. Of the dozen small guesthouses that operate around the village, four can be booked online:
Sukau RB Lodge is the closest to the village.
Sukau Greenview Bed & Breakfast and Sukau Backpackers B&B are a bit further away.
Mustara Homestay is the furthest away.
Where to stay in Sukau
We chose Sukau Greenview Bed & Breakfast and it proved to be exactly what we wanted. Located at the edge of Sukau it has a great chill out veranda with Wi-Fi next to the river. They offer daily meals too. Though en-suite rooms are basic, they are spotless and comfortable. Additionally we met several world travelers at the veranda, including our friend Clo, an interesting French lady who regularly visits the area.
How to organize a private Kinabatangan River Tour
Although all guesthouses offer their own excursions we decided to rent a boat with a driver directly. We toured the area both at day and night and were practically alone. In fact, the few boats we saw were big and packed with tourists from the fancy operators. We met one of our drivers at a restaurant north of the village and the other one at a store next to the mosque. Both were very professional and experienced, they took us everywhere and would stop the engine so we could hear the noise of the jungle and not disturb the animals. What a luxury!
When to visit Kinabatangan River
You can tour the Kinabatangan River throughout the year. Since the months of April to October are generally dry, when flowers and fruits bloom, it is a good time to spot wild animals. From November to March it is monsoon season, so expect plenty of heavy showers especially in the afternoons. Though December and January are the wettest months, it’s a great time to visit. While the whole area is flooded, you can reach oxbow lakes which boast the highest concentration of wildlife.
What else to do in Sukau
Another reason why it’s best to avoid the packaged tours is to visit Sukau village. We loved it! Locals lead their everyday lives pretty much ignoring tourists. We had to convince one to take us on a tour! Likewise, you can walk to any of the restaurants that line the river. Food is absolutely tasty: Malaysian rice, noodles, vegetables and meat. From our hotel we would walk along the road to the village watching monkeys and kids play. At nights, we spent hours chatting with other travelers on our veranda. Though there are a couple of caves close to the town, we decided to skip them. Sukau is the perfect place to forget about activities and become one with nature!
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
After a couple of days of complete relaxation in the jungle, we decided to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre just outside Sandakan. The center takes good care of orangutans in a pretty large area of dense rainforest. There are no words to describe the joy that seeing these lovely creatures up close gave us. Even to this day, remembering the centre brings a smile to our faces! Then we went to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which does a similar job keeping several cute sun bears safe. We saw them going up and down trees, sleeping, and just being absolutely adorable.
Where to stay in Sepilok
We came all the way to Borneo to do the Kinabatangan River tour and to see the world famous Borneo Organgutans. Initially, we considered basing ourselves in Sandakan and taking a day tour to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. A much better option is to stay in the Sepilok Jungle Resort next to the orangutan sanctuary. Though the resort is a bit dated, it’s still in decent shape. However, what makes this place so special is its outstanding garden. The garden is enormous, full of plants and trees, with a lake in the middle. What’s more, you move around the hotel via several wooden bridges admiring the garden. Our room had a private balcony where we would sit to listen to the monkeys sing. Fantastic!
With 150 000 citizens Sandakan is Sabah’s second largest city. Founded in the 15th Century during the Bruneian Empire, the city has almost no historical buildings. In fact, Sandakan was completely destroyed during Second World War, but it wasn’t rebuilt due to the high cost. Today it is a modern city with very few landmarks to visit. Nevertheless, there is an interesting Mosque, Sandakan District Mosque, a Buddhist temple, Puu Jih Shih Temple, and an Anglican church, St. Michael’s. We definitively recommend staying at the Four Points by Sheraton, a fancy tower with a pool and fantastic views.
Lessons from Borneo
Both the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre are doing the best they can to rehabilitate animals, so they can go back to nature. Unfortunately most of the orangutans and bears will never be strong enough to leave the centers and even if they were, where will they go back to? Every year more and more land is sold to palm tree plantations and the animals have literally nowhere to go.
So, before buying beauty products, cookies and chocolates check if they contain palm oil and if so, think about the poor animals before buying it. Likewise, whenever you hear any of that ‘first world’ or ‘we, the developed’ nonsense, remember what the rich blatantly do to the planet. We believe it’s pretty embarrassing.