Kinabatangan River Tour (Borneo on a Budget with Mr. Aji Expeditions)
If you are planning a Borneo adventure, a Kinabatangan river tour in this unique wildlife sanctuary is a must. And one of the cheaper ways to get on the river (if you are on a bit of a budget) is with Mr. Aji Expeditions.
Of all the crazy things we’ve done, drifting down the swollen, crocodile infested Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo in a little open-topped boat in the pouring rain, watching an orangutan building his nest thirty metres up in a jungle tree whilst hornbills circle above and pygmy elephants wander along the river bank has to be in our top five.
The Awesome Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary
The Kinabatangan river is the second longest river in Malaysia. It meanders its way through the diverse habitats of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah, Borneo It’s an area of thick jungle recognised for its biodiversity and known for its remarkable wildlife, including orangutan, proboscis monkeys, hornbills and pygmy elephants. It’s basically a massive jungle-filled flood plain stuffed full of gobsmacking wildlife, much of which is on the endangered list. This is a delicate area, surrounded on all sides by palm oil plantations. It’s one of the few large areas of untouched jungle left in Borneo and the plantations are closing in.
Three day Borneo wildlife spotting adventure
We visited Kinabatangan River on a year long backpacking adventure with our two kids, aged 8 and 10. Don’t let the fact that we took kids with us put you off though. This isn’t designed as a child friendly tour. These kids do everything we do. We did this tour nine months into a year of backpacking around India, Asia and Australia. The kids are pretty hardcore. I’d say it’s safe for both kids and adults though.
Introducing Mr Aji Expeditions
We booked a three day wildlife spotting expedition with Mr Aji Expeditions. Our guide Mr. Aji, a photographer and Kinabatangan wildlife expert, had been recommended to us by Michael and Alex, two other backpackers at the hostel we were staying at in Sandakan, and we weren’t disappointed. He is a man of few words who can spot an orangutan from three miles away. And he has a photograph of himself with the legendary Sir David Attenborough, a hero of mine since childhood, so I knew we’d made a good choice.
Mr. Aji runs river tours for small groups on a budget. They are certainly not luxury tours. What you get though is a proper ruffty-tuffty wildlife experience that I don’t think you could get on one of the more luxurious tours.
Mr Aji knows his stuff. He is full of info and facts about Kinabatangan, the area, the wildlife sanctuary and it’s remarkable wildlife. He takes it all very seriously and is determined to find that orangutan in that tree. If that means sitting in his open boat, quietly floating down the river in the hot Malaysian rain for four hours, then that’s what you’ll do. If you’re not into expensive, luxury travel and you’re looking for a cheap Kinabatangan river tour, we’d highly recommend him. Check out Mr Aji Expeditions on Tripadvisor for more reviews.
What we did and what to expect
Getting to Kinabatangan – no luxury coach travel here
We met up with Mr Aji in the cafe at Sepilok Oranutang Sanctuary. The four of us and Alex and Michael squeezed into Mr. Aji’s interesting car, which is covered on the inside with his wildlife photos. We had a quick stop for lunch and to buy beer and snacks for the next few days at a Malaysian supermarket. Alex bought a bottle of something liquid and dangerous-looking called Arak Wangi. Two hours later, we arrived at a small village on a dirt road next to a massive brown river. We’d arrived.
Simple, clean-ish accommodation
The accommodation is basic but clean. We got a bed each, which is a bonus for us, so we were pleased. We’d been sharing beds with the kids a lot for the past nine or so months. Four beds in a hut with a lock on the door and a bathroom with running water and a toilet. What’s not to love?
The huts were just across the road from the river and the restaurant where breakfast, lunch and dinner was served by a local family. They even let us put a few cheeky beers (and Alex’s Arak Wangi) in their fridge.
Three days of jungle, river and awesome animals
Our three days of Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary adventure consisted of hours in a boat on the river, mostly in the rain, spotting some of the most awesome and endangered wildlife in Asia, and trekking through thick elephant-infested jungle, both during the day and in the pitch black of night-time.
Adventures on the Kinabatangan river
Mr Aji takes the boat deep into some of the smaller side rivers, where other tours don’t go. This takes four hours or so, which is probably why the others don’t bother. But being away from the main river means you are more likely to see the wildlife you are searching for. We saw proboscis monkeys, orangutans, kingfishers, daytime owls, Indian elephants, pygmy elephants, long-tailed macaques and hornbills, to name just a few.
I know this makes it sound as if there is an orangutan around every corner. It’s not exactly like that. These are wild animals. This is a wildlife sanctuary penned in by palm oil plantations, not a zoo. But there was one point along the main river where we could see a troop of proboscis moneys swinging through the trees on one river bank, several long-tailed macaques playing in a tree and an orangutan building a nest on the other river bank, while four hornbills flew overhead. Really. I’m not even joking!
The wildlife spotting got off to a spectacular start on the second day as we stumbled across almost the entire local population of over one hundred Indian and pygmy elephants (look them up on Wikipedia, they really do exist, honest) having lunch by a bend in the Kinabatangan river. Even Mr Aji nearly let a bit of wee out. We floated quietly a respectful distance away for a long time, taking photos and pointing and staring a lot. These are impressive creatures. I wouldn’t want to get too close. The noise the big male make is incredible. At one point a dozen elephants swam across the river to the other bank. What a sight! Our creature spotting scorecard has been pretty well filled up during our time in Kinabatangan.
Adventures in the Kinabatangan jungle
In the afternoon, Mr Aji led us out of the village along the dirt roads and into the jungle alongside the river. I have to admit to being slightly apprehensive about taking my children under the electrified elephant barrier and past the signs saying “beware elephants”. Mr Aji’s stories of having to run out of the jungle to avoid being mauled by elephants didn’t help. But, hey, we’re here for authentic Borneo adventure so in we went. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes…
We trekked through the jungle for a few hours and, to be honest didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but I think that may be down to the noise levels of two excited children let loose in a jungle after sitting on a boat for a whole morning. Our guide pointed out lots of different trees and plants, taught us about the ways of the jungle and listened intently for marauding wild elephants. We loved it.
Adventures in the Kinabatangan jungle – at night!
But why would you go in to the jungle at night?
I’ve never really liked scuba diving at night. On night dives, all the scary, alien-like creatures with teeth and tenticles and freaky ways of moving come out. Eww. So I wasn’t too chuffed when Mr Aji announced that we were going to do the jungle trek again but in the dark.
It turns out that the jungle at night time is no different to the sea. It’s really very scary. And it’s dark. I’ve never been a fan of the dark.
Having said that, our night-time jungle walk was fascinating. We saw all manner of disgusting creatures from praying mantis to giant stick insects and even a civet cat (from whose poo the world’s most expensive coffee is made from). The boys LOVED it and giggled their way round the jungle, having a proper adventure. See gross photos of disgusting creatures in our post about our Kinabatangan jungle night walk. I loved it too but I was more than happy to be limbo’ing back under that electrified fence and heading back to the village for a well deserved cold beer.
Kinabatangan river tour – just do it!
We had an amazing time on our Kinabatangan rIver tour. The rain was warm. Our boat was unscathed by crocodiles, and we saw some of the most gob-smacking wildlife in the world, right there in the jungle. Whether you go with Mr Aji Expeditions or one of the numerous other river tours and cruises, you won’t regret it.
One of my happiest memories ever will be sitting in that boat on that brown river, watching nine year old Evan confidently comparing travelling stories with Alex, and ten year old Sam being taught how to tie knots by Michael, while Dez and I gaze out into the jungle, gently steaming in the Bornean heat as the rain subsides. Magical. Life really doesn’t get any better than this. Seeing and listening to the boys interact with people like this makes me so proud of them. They’ve gained so much confidence in the last eight adventure packed months that they’re almost unrecognisable from the children that we packed up with rucksacks and cuddly toys so long ago.
I must say that the heat and humidity of Malaysian Borneo are exhausting, but its jungle scenery and wildlife are by far the best that we’ve had the privilege of seeing. I find it astounding that somewhere like this exists, and it’s unbelievable that we have been able to come and experience it.
Our Malaysian memories are going to be some of the best of the trip and our Kinabatangan river tour is one of the highlights
Love travelling. Love Borneo. Really love air conditioning. Hate palm oil. Hate it.
Need more Borneo and Kinabatangan info?
If we’ve inspired you enough to plan a trip to Kinabatangan Wildlife Sancuary, or even just the amazing Borneo, then you’ll need to know some other stuff…
Getting to Borneo
Direct flights from the major airline hub of Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan in Sabah take less than three hours. If you’re planning a bit of a Borneo tour, there are direct flights to Kuching in Sarawak, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, amongst others. There are frequent internal flights across Borneo too.
As budget backpackers, our flight kitty was a little bare but we splashed out a bit anyway. the boys were a bit sick of long and gruelling bus journeys. We flew to Kuching (for orangutans, Baku National Park and jungle kayaking), then to Kota Kinabalu (where we failed to organise scuba diving). We took a long and gruelling bus journey to Sandakan, past the awesome Mount Kinabalu. It was a comfortable enough bus but the kids were asking why we couldn’t fly!
In Sandakan, we stayed at Borneo Sandakan Backpackers, a budget hostel in the centre of the town. The beds were uncomfortable but the staff were hugely helpful and friendly. We loved it there. They have a sitting area with a sofa and TV, and a facilities to cook yourself some toast in the mornings. What’s not to love?? Ok, so it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. There is a variety of places to stay in Sandakan, for every budget.
How to find Mr Aji
We booked our Kinabatangan tour when we got to Sandakan, but booking in advance might be a good idea to avoid disappointment.
If you are more the luxury cruise sort of traveller, or the thought of traipsing through sopping wet, beastie-infested jungle in the dark doesn’t fill you with joy, there are plenty of other options for a cruise of Kinabatangan.
Other options range from Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures, a well-established camp along the river with basic huts and shared facilities, to the proper posh eco-luxury of the award-winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge, and everything in between. One question to ask would be how many people your tour will have in each boat. We saw some packed boats out on the river.
While in Borneo…..
Don’t just go to Kinabatangan though. Dense jungle, mountains and tropical islands make Borneo a top destination for nature lovers, adventurers and scuba divers.
Discover National Parks and Conservation Centres
From Sandakan, take an excursion to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Here you can get up close to these threatened species. Catch a local minibus from the bus station in Sandakan.
You can take part in turtle conservation by spending the night on the idyllic Turtle Island, There are varying reports as to how dodgy this is, and it’s certainly very expensive, but it was definitely an experience we won’t forget.
Go climb a mountain
Climbing the iconic Mount Kinabalu is one of our most memorable experiences, for many reasons. It was hard work. Really hard work. We couldn’t walk for days afterwards, but looking back, it was worth every painful step. Read about it in this post. The boys wrote a story based on our epic hike to the top of the mountain as part of their homeschool work. If you’ve got time on your hands, you can read it here.
Experience world class scuba diving
Pulau Sipidan is a mecca for divers and boasts some of the world’s best dive sites. It is famous for huge schools of pelagic fish, tons of turtles and sharks, thousands of species of fish, unspoilt coral and massive humphead parrotfish. Since 2005, only 120 divers a day are allowed to dive Sipidan Island. Hopefully this will stop this unique area being ruined by us humans.
Dez and I have dived in fifteen different countries on our travels, but never Malaysia. It proved to be way too expensive for us budget travellers and not really practical for us on this trip. Now Sam and Evan are both qualified divers so watch out Sipidan….we will be back!
Visit Kuching in Sarawak
Kuching, in the Bornean state of Sarawak, is a bustling and historic city with a mix of modern and old colonial buildings. It’s well worth a visit and there’s plenty to do to keep you occupied, both in the town and in the surrounding areas. Go on a jungle kayaking trip for a day and visit the Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary (a different experience to the one in Sepilok). Click here to read 9 year old Evan’s take on jungle kayaking.
Spend a few nights at Bako National Park
Bako National Park is a bus ride from Kuching. We’d highly recommend spending a few nights in a damp hut being watched by bearded pigs and attacked my long tailed macaques. No, really, we would! Even though a monkey stole my bra…. Bako National Park is an awesome, gobsmacking sort of place with terrifying snakes, fat proboscis monkeys, hysterical land hermit crabs and fascinating pitcher plants, all squeezed into a rainforest surrounded by sea, beaches, cliffs and mangrove. Bloody awesome. A highlight of our Malaysia adventure.
If you’re off to Borneo for a Kinabatangan river tour, or anywhere else for that matter, we’d recommend getting a Lonely Planet guide book. Guide books are just that – a guide. Not gospel. Just someone else’s opinion. In fact, that’s what we’ve always called them – “The Book of Opinion”. They’re totally invaluable though, for researching places to visit, for ways to get from A to B, and for places to stay, for ideas.Search for the latest Lonely Planet guides here