Image of young boy on a small boat pointing at a large crocodile on the river edge on a family trip to Borneo

A family trip to the River Kinabatangan, Borneo (2024)

If it’s wildlife you’re after, then Borneo is definitely the place to be! If you’re planning a family trip to Borneo and have kids that love nature, then make sure you include a trip to the River Kinabatangan on your itinerary.

The opportunity for spotting wildlife here is pretty much unparalelled. Plus, its incredibly accessible for families and those travelling on a budget.

We stayed on the river for two nights in April 2024. Read on for all the information you need for booking a family trip to the River Kinabatangan, Borneo!

Where is the River Kinabatangan?

Malaysian Borneo is split in to two states – Sabah in the North and Sarawak in the South. Sabah is the area that receives the bulk of tourists, as it offers exceptional wildlife spotting.

The River Kinabatangan is located around 1-2hours drive from Sepilok and Sandakan, the two main jumping off points for tours.

We also opted to spend time in Sarawak visiting Kuching and Bako National Park – more on this in a separate blog post soon!

How do you get to the River Kinabatangan?

Visiting the river is usually done as part of a 3day/2night tour. Transport to/from Sepilok or Sandakan is usually included (or can at least be arranged by your accommodation).

Be aware that while the road between Sepilok/Sandakan and the river jetties IS paved, it is incredibly bumpy. It’s not the most comfortable of journeys!

Image of River Kinabatangan at sunrise from the side of a boat on a family trip to Borneo

 

What do tours of the river usually include?

There are dozens of tours of the river available, ranging from fairly basic through to relative luxury. As a guide, pretty much all tours will include:

    • Accommodation in a lodge on the river

    • Return transfers to/from either Sepilok or Sandakan

    • All meals/drinks

    • Wildlife watching river cruises by boat (usually 3-4 during your stay)

Which tour did we book?

We didn’t actually book a tour – we looked at a big range of options but had read that they can feel a little like a conveyor-belt of tourists. Plus some options were just completely out of our price range!

A little homestay on the river – Osman’s Homestay – had been recommended to us by a work colleague. I’d trawled through the reviews on TripAdvisor and Google and they were largely excellent.

I was a little reticent, mostly just because there was no website! I contacted Yanti (Osman’s wife) via WhatsApp and she was so helpful that it really put my mind at ease. Plus, we knew that Osman had previously been a guide for Sir David Attenborough (and this really sold it to us!)

If you DID want to opt for an organised tour then River Junkie came highly recommended to us by several people.

What was the accommodation like?

We had two simple rooms with en-suite bathrooms and airconditioning. They do have cheaper rooms without aircon but I would highly recommended paying the extra for the cold air!

The rooms were fairly basic but the beds were comfortable and they were spotlessly clean. The electricity is a bit temperamental at times – mostly in the evenings when the afternoon safari boats return and people in lodges along the river turn on their aircon and showers!

The showers were decent too. This IS the jungle though so we really didn’t expect luxury!

There are around 8 rooms in total at Osman’s. The communal area is in a separate part of the lodge a few steps away. This is where the meals are served; there are also fridges where you can either buy a cold drink or pop your own in to chill.

View out over the River Kinabatangan in Borneo with two small boats in the foreground


How was the food?

The food was absolutely delicious, and plentiful. One of my main concerns on trips like this is whether there will actually be enough food – I needn’t have worried at Osman’s!

At each lunch/dinner we had a buffet that included a couple of meat dishes (butter chicken, fried chicken, stewed pork), a veggie dish and rice and/or noodles. There was also always fresh fruit.

For breakfast we had some sweet crispy pancakes and dips, fresh fruit, toast and jam and fried noodles.

Everything was really tasty but not spicy, which suited the boys!

Coffee and water are available free of charge throughout the stay.


What did we see on our river cruises?

In total we did three boat safaris – one on the first afternoon (3-6pm), a sunrise one the next morning (6-9am) and then a night safari that evening (8-10pm).

We were incredibly lucky to see everything we’d been hoping for, and more! The ‘Borneo Big Five’ consists of orangutans, pygmy elephants, hornbills, crocodiles and proboscis monkeys. We saw the them all on the first boat trip!

I think in total we saw the following:

    • Wrinkled Hornbill

    • Rhinoceros Hornbill

    • Oriental Pied Hornbill

    • Black Hornbill

    • Buffy Fish Owl

    • Oriental Darter (Snake Bird)

    • Crocodiles

    • Pygmy Elephants

    • Black and Red Broadbills

    • Water Monitor Lizards

    • Orangutan

    • Proboscis Monkeys

    • Long Tailed Macaques

    • Pig Tailed Macaques

    • Storm Stork

    • Green Pit Vipers

    • Oriental Bay Owl

    • Grey Headed Fish Eagles

    • Blue Eared Kingfisher

    • Little Herons

I’m not an avid bird-watcher but am told that some of these are pretty rare to see in the wild.

The scenery was fabulous on all the trips, but watching the mist rising from the river on the sunrise cruise was very special. Equally, we saw no other boats on the night safari and the stars were insanely beautiful.


What are the advantages of booking a homestay direct instead of a tour?

I’m really glad we went for the slightly DIY approach rather than booking a tour. At Osman’s we simply paid a price per night for the room and board, then we could choose how many river safaris we wanted to go and when.

This meant that we could really personalise our experience – we could stay for as many nights as we wanted and only paid for the cruises that we wanted to do.

With kids this is really handy – we ducked out of the afternoon boat trip on the second day as we felt that the boys would struggle with three safaris on one day!

It was also lovely staying in a really tiny homestay with only a handful of other guests (there were only two other people on our boat trips with us).

All the food was fresh and served straight from the oven as it was all timed around our schedule; there were no queues!

And finally, it’s also great to know that every penny went direct to Osman and his family.


How much did it all cost?

In total we paid GBP £395 for the four of us. This breaks down as:

2x double rooms with private bathroom and aircon: RM1,020 – GBP£172
3x boat safaris: RM720 – GBP£122 (RM60 per person per safari)
Transfer from Sepilok: RM300 – GBP£50.50
Transfer to Sandakan Airport: RM300 – GBP£50.50

All meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon snacks) were included in the room rate. They have a fridge with soft drinks/cold beers that you can buy, or you can bring your own.


The verdict

I was so surprised at just how easy a trip to River Kinabatangan was with the kids! The transfers to/from the river are easy and only a couple of hours, then when you’re there the actual wildlife spotting is easy for all ages too. As you’re spotting wildlife from the boat there are no long, sweaty hikes through the jungle. You just cruise along the water watching the animals on the riverbank.

If you’re considering a family trip to Borneo then this should definitely be on your itinerary.


Planning a family trip to Borneo?

If you’re planning a family trip to Borneo, Malaysia or wider South East Asia then check out some of our other blog posts here for more travel info and tips:

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