Kinabatangan River Tour, the Best Way to See Orangutans in the Wild

Kinabatangan River Tour, the Best Way to See Orangutans in the Wild

As I sit on a wooden sun deck overlooking the Kinabatangan River I come to an incredible realization: the only sounds I hear are chirping birds and whooping orangutans.

It’s wonderful.

We’re on a Kinabatangan River tour package, which allows us three river cruises, a jungle walk, all meals, a night walk, and accommodations at a jungle resort. My resort, like a handful of others on the banks of the chocolate river, is surrounded by jungle trees and only accessible by boat. We don’t get internet, there are no Grabs or restaurants (or even roads) to visit, and we can’t escape the wildlife- everything from monkeys to mosquitoes- which try and join us.

This is not the sort of vacation you plan if you’re looking for upmarket comfort. But peace and quiet? Definitely.


kinabatangan river tour sandakan malaysia

Kinabatangan River Tour

The biggest draw for tourists to this jungle region in East Malaysia is one thing: the opportunity to see rare wildlife on a Kinabatangan River tour.

Borneo is one of only two places in the world which orangutans call home, it’s the only place you’ll find Proboscis monkeys and Pygmy elephants, and it’s also home to a wide variety of jungle birds and river life. The Kinabatang River is the second longest river in Borneo, and where these incredible creatures live.

Past deforestation led the government to pronounce the 20 meters inland from either side of the river bank as protected zones, and reforestation efforts are now being made to re-introduce diverse plant and animal life to sections of river banks previously left baron.

Our tour package gave us three opportunities to travel different sections of the Kinabatangan River at different times of day to see as much wildlife as possible.



proboscis monkey kinabatangan river tour sandakan malaysia

Proboscis, Macaques, and Orangutans

Our first river tour, held at 4:00 p.m. precisely, was timed around when the local primates get ready for bed. Our speedboat sailed effortlessly through the water as our captain and a local guide expertly spotted and rode us right up to family after family of Long-tailed Macaques and Proboscis monkeys.

We were told the monkeys stay further inland from the water during the peak sunshine hours of the day, and return to the water at night. Together as families, they find trees with young branches to perch on. They face the forest to stay alert from their main predators -clouded leopards and poisonous snakes- at night, and the young branches allow them to feel any slight movement on the trees so they can quickly seek shelter in the water below.

I didn’t realize how smart these little thieves are.

Our guide excitedly led us toward an orangutan calmly eating fruit right on the banks of the river. He told us it’s considered rare and lucky to see these apes so easily, and was shocked that this one- a teenage male, he guessed- was so willing to sit still as we approached.

We were treated to a triple treat: another passenger soon spotted a mother and baby orangutan hanging out in the next tree over. We had spent that morning at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center 2 hours away in Sepilok, and it was incredible to compare the behavior of these orange apes in the center to their lives in the wild. What a special treat!

Hornbills, Eagles, and Kingfisher

I’ve never cared much about birds, but that was the majority of our view on our early morning river tour the next day. I have to admit, though, that I got pretty into the excitement of trying to spot a colorful flying object and the tension of inching closer to it in hope it wouldn’t flee. There are many species of hornbills and eagles, Kingfishers, herons, woodpeckers, and more to be seen on the Kinabatangan River. My favorite was the Asian Hornbill. The male Asian Hornbill features a second bill above it’s yellow beak and a sleek, black body and white wing tips. The image of an Asian Hornbill flying across the river in a single wing stroke was stunning. The other bird that caught my surprise was the Kingfisher. A member of our group bragged that she’d seen a Kingfisher the previous day, and I just thought, “Ok… bully for you.” But wow! One was pointed out to me as it flew threw the air and it really is beautiful!

preparing for a kinabatangan river tour sandakan malaysia

Preparing for your Kinabatangan River Tour:

  • Understand that you are in the rain forest, and it could get wet while you’re in town. Tour operators will do their best to arrange trips when it’s dry and safe, but you may end up on a wet tour. It happens, and no one can control it.
  • Animal sightings aren’t guaranteed, but tour guides have great experience catching viewing opportunities as many as possible.
  • There are multiple tour boats out at the same time. On our 4:00 pm tour we saw 4 other speedboats, but only 1 other on our early morning tour.
  • Bring binoculars. Exotic monkeys and birds tend to hang out in the tree tops! It’s definitely possible to see them without binoculars, but you’ll have a much better experience if you come prepared.
  • Bring a telephoto lens. If you plan on capturing rare animal sightings don’t expect your smart phone to do the experience any justice. If possible, bring a telephoto lens to really remember the magic.
  • Bring a rain jacket or poncho, as it’s possible you’ll be on a wet tour

 bilit adventure lodge kinabatangan river tour sandakan malaysia

Bilit Adventure Lodge

We were the victims of rain for about half of our visit to Kinabatangan. One of our three river tours was delayed a bit, another was spent with heads down in the rain. But, honestly, it was great to be forced into some downtime.

Bilit Adventure Lodge is an all-inclusive resort, but not the kind you’re used to. Rooms, meals, and activities are included, but here the sundeck overlooks a river. And your room won’t have a TV. The resort (and entire area) doesn’t get internet. But you know what they do have? Colorful chalets to sleep in. The best Malaysian food we’ve had. Attentive staff who care about your needs. Resident Long-tail Macaques who watch you eat lunch.

We had a great time relaxing and laughing at Bilit in-between jungle activities, and I’m thrilled with our choice to stay there.

If you want to book a Kinabatangan River Tour package from Bilit Adventure Lodge here is what you will get: 

  • Transfer van to the lodge from Sandakan
  • Speedboat transfer from van to lodge
  • Breakfast, Lunch, tea time snack, and dinner each day
  • Air conditioned room with hot water shower
  • Multiple river tours at different times of day
  • Morning jungle walk
  • Optional night walk to see nocturnal animals
  • Optional tree planting to help with reforestation (comes with tree naming rights!)

If you’re interested in booking your Kinabatangan River Tour through Bilit Adventure Lodge visit their website here



*Our Kinabatangan River tour was provided by Bilit Adventure Lodge and Sabah Tourism Board. All opinions are my own.*