Sukau in Sabah, Malaysia

Gateway to finding wildlife on the Kinabatangan River

Morning mist on Menanggol tribituary of Sungai Kinabatangan
Anders Blomqvist / Getty Images

Wild orangutans, rare proboscis monkeys, endangered birds - the rewards for nature lovers that venture to the tiny village of Sukau are great. Famous as a base for boat trips down the muddy Kinabatangan River, Sukau is located only 60 miles from Sandakan in East Sabah, Borneo.

Sungai Kinabatangan is the second longest river in Malaysia. Considered by many to be the best place for viewing wildlife in Borneo, if not the whole of Southeast Asia. The Kinabatangan River is a haven for rare animals that have lost their native habitats due to logging and palm plantations. In 2006 the Kinabatangan area was officially declared a wildlife sanctuary to prevent further loss of habitat.

Elephants, rhinoceroses, saltwater crocodiles, and a staggering variety of monkeys and birds call the floodplains of Sungai Kinabatangan home. Despite the pressure to purchase tours while in Sandakan, it is very easy to save money by exploring the river yourself.

Visiting Sukau

Peaceful little Sukau is comprised of a dusty intersection and a single paved road. Three lodges are spaced over a 40-minute walk along the riverbank. Fruit trees and hibiscus flowers line the narrow road which is usually busy with waving children and village dogs.

There is one restaurant in Sukau, but the hours are very unpredictable; plan to eat your meals at your lodge. Two simple shops in town sell water and snacks, however, it is best to bring your own supplies from Sandakan.

Mosquitoes are a real problem around the river. Coils and spray are available in both shops

River Cruises in Sukau

Cruising along a muddy, crocodile-infested river in a remote part of Borneo is an experience that you will never forget! The well-practiced boatmen have an excellent eye for spotting wildlife and will do their best to ensure that you have an interesting experience.

All three lodges in Sukau can book trips up the river. Pricing fluctuates between lodges depending on the number of passengers. The best deals on a river cruise can be found in Sukau B&B located at the end of the only road in town.

The small boats typically take up to six passengers either in the early morning, late afternoon, or at night. A cruise lasts at least two hours, but there is never a guarantee that you will see wildlife. Prices for daytime cruises are between $10 - $20; nighttime cruises cost slightly more.

Early morning or late afternoon cruises are the best for observing monkeys and birds. The night cruises are a sure way to spot saltwater crocodiles and lots of mysterious, shining eyes in the trees. The sounds coming from the darkness along the river will make your spine tingle!

Wildlife in Sukau

Sure it is enjoyable to observe orangutans at Semenggoh in Sarawak or Sepilok in Sabah, but nothing beats chancing upon them in the wild. Although the animals roam freely and are unpredictable, many groups manage to spot wild orangutans and the odd-looking proboscis monkeys - both are highly-threatened species. Only an estimated 1,000 proboscis monkeys are left in the wild.

Wildcats, crocodiles, large snakes, macaques, and other mammals make regular appearances along the Kinabatangan River. Watch out for many types of birds including eagles, kingfishers, and colorful hornbills. Extremely lucky groups may find elephants and Sumatran rhinoceroses, however, these are rare sightings. Macaque monkeys sometimes appear on the road. 

Lodging in Sukau

Three basic yet practical lodges are found along the single road through Sukau. Tour agencies can cause accommodation in Sukau to fill up unexpectedly - call ahead first. A simple breakfast is included for free; the buffet-style meals cost extra.

  • Sukau B&B: Most rustic of the three options, Sukau B&B is certainly the best value for the money. The simple lodge claims the best prices for food, accommodation, and boat cruises in Sukau. Sukau B&B is located at the very end of the only road in town. Rooms: $16; meals: $3.50; boat trips: $10. Contact: 019-583-5580 or 089-565-269.
  • Barefoot Lodge: Barefoot Lodge - the most expensive option in Sukau - has the best common area on the river for eating and relaxing. Rooms: $25; meals: $6; boat trips: $17. Contact: 089-235-525.
  • Sukau Greenview B&B: The first option that travelers see on the road in Suaku, Greenview B&B also has a pleasant common area right on the water. The rooms are very basic but comfortable. Rooms: $20; meals: $5; boat trips: $11. Contact: 013-869-6922 or 089-565-266.

How to Get to Sukau

Sukau is approximately three hours from Sandakan in the eastern part of Sabah. Nearly every hotel and hostel in Sandakan offers packaged tours which include transportation. You can save money by making your own way to Sukau via the daily minibus. One minibus a day leaves Sandakan around 1 p.m. from the minibus lot near the waterfront; the trip costs $11 one-way.

Another option is to contact Choy - a friendly driver - who makes the trip once a day. His private car is a luxurious alternative to the minibus; the price is the same. Make arrangements the day before you depart by calling 019-536-1889.

When to Go

The Kinabatangan River floods between November and March. The heavy rains open channels and dense wildlife areas to exploration that are inaccessible during the rest of the year. Unfortunately, the rain often cancels boat trips and makes photography difficult.

The driest and best season to visit is from April to October when the flowers around Sukau are in full bloom.

The elephants make periodic - and unpredictable - rounds in the area, catching them is mostly a matter of luck.

Getting Back to Sandakan

Aside from hiring a private car which can cost $80 or more, there are only two options for getting back to Sandakan from Sukau. You must ask at your lodge to be picked up in the morning by either Choy or the daily minibus - both depart at 6:30 a.m. every morning. Capacity is limited; make arrangements for transportation the night before.