The Kinabatangan river in South West Sabah, Malaysia is famous for spotting forest/jungle wildlife in its natural habitat. Palm plantation encroachment forced local wildlife into the remaining strip of forest next to the river. Now there is a higher density of wildlife in this area.
River trips give a good vantage point allowing quiet & easy access to forest wildlife, so the Kinabatangan (river)/Sukau (town) area has become popular. Forest lodges accommodate tourist parties in a range of living-standards.
You can book packages of boat trips/guided forest treks/accommodation from various towns in Sabah, notably Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. Packages typically start at 400MYR (around 150USD) for basic lodge accommodation for a “3 days, 2 nights” package (though, actually, the first and last days are mostly getting to/from the site, so it’s more like a 1 day, 2 nights package). Here are a couple of established package-tour operators. 1 2 3.
This all struck me as rather pricey, so I looked into doing the Kinabatangan on the cheap. This article is about what I discovered.
Like many things in Sabah, at first sight, it seems that the only way to go anywhere or do anything is via an organised tour. But when you jump-in with both feet and go independent, it usually turns out that you can just rock-up somewhere and find lots of facilities (at much better prices than you thought).
Sleeps: In Sukau town, there are a couple of B&B places with dorms starting at 20MYR a night. Private double rooms start at about 50MYR. There are numerous homestays for 50MYR.
Tours: You can join up with parties of package-bookers on their lodge’s guided river trips for about 40MYR for a 2 hour trip. On foot, there doesn’t seem to be any guided trekking in Sukau town, but there is a track at the north end of town that takes you into some forest, so you can do your own ‘trek’.
Food: There is only one restaurant in the village. Depending where you are staying, it can be quite a hike to get to. Otherwise you are stuck with Lodge-prices for food, usually 20MYR and up. There are a couple of basic grocery stores in town, or you could bring your own snacks.
Sukau is about 40 miles/70km down a dead-end spur off highway 13. Getting down this last bit of road is going to be the hardest part of the exercise – more about it later.
Long distance buses from Tawau/Semporna/Lahad Dhatu to Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu go past the junction with the Sukau spur road (which is known as “the junction”). The buses can let you off there.
There is also another junction about 30 miles up the road (known as “the checkpoint” – it’s a police checkpoint for illegal immigrants at the 32 mile marker from Sandakan). If you’re short of big buses, changing here can give you more options. For example, if you were coming from Sandakan, you could get an early big bus bound for KK (the red line on the map), ride it 32 miles to the checkpoint, then change to a KK-Semporna bus (green line on the map) and jump out at “the junction” to Sukau.
..but that still leaves us with the problem of how to cover the 40 miles from the Sukau junction to Sukau.
My 2pm big bus from Semporna to Sandakan didn’t get to ‘the junction’ until 7pm. I had been intending to try and catch a public bus down that last stretch, but as it was already dark, I had no clue about accommodation and the driver of the big bus said that there would be no public transport down to Sukau at that time of day. I bottled-it and stayed on the big bus to Sandakan to figure it out the next day.
From Sandakan, there is a public minibus direct to Sukau once a day, leaving from downtown at 1pm. It costs 35MYR and takes about 3 hours. This is a good bet if you are coming from Sandakan, although you pretty-much use-up a whole day.
Note that the Sukau minibus leaves from a little street a block West from the main minibus stand (see the Sandakan map). Many drivers at the main minibus stand didn’t know of it’s existence, so give yourself time and be prepared to search a bit.
If you were hopping off a big bus at ‘the junction’, the Sandakan-Sukau minibus would be your most reliable bet for public transport for the last leg – wave it down as it goes past at about 2pm (it’s white with the destinations written in black down the side). I’m guessing it’d be 20MYR from the Sukau junction.
I think that there are probably other public (mini) buses going down the Sukau spur. I met some folks in Sukau who had arrived via three buses from Sepilok (which is 12 miles west of Sandakan). Their first was a minibus from Sepilok to the Checkpoint. Then a bus from the Checkpoint to the Junction. Then a minibus from the Junction to Sukau. 27 MYR all together. They arrived at around 2pm, so I guess that the last minibus was a different one from the Sandakan-Sukau minibus.
From Sandakan, some workers at the minibus station suggested an early start. Take a minibus from downtown to the out of town long-distance bus station (its 2 miles/4km West of Sandakan), then grab a 8am big bus to KK, change at the Checkpoint, then get, err, something to the Junction and, err, something else to Sukau.
Life was made all-round easier, when I found this about.com article referencing a local guy who does daily Sandakan-Sukau trips in his 4×4. I called him up in the morning and he had a space that same day. He leaves late morning (11am on my day) and charges 40MYR per seat. Mr Choy (019 536 1889). On further investigation, apparently there are three other guys doing a similar thing. One backpackers place in Sandakan were selling one of these at 45MYR a trip.
Getting back: Apparently there is a 6am public minibus from Sukau to Sandakan, leaving from the village square near the school. I had intended to take this but somehow got funnelled into taking Mr Choy’s car again. Not a problem. From the Sukau end, he’s 20MYR to the Junction or 30MYR to the Checkpoint or 40MYR to Sandakan. 0630 am start.
Sukau is a long strip of road that closely follows the curve of the river for a few kilometers (many accounts say the road is 1km long, but really it’s more like 3km).
(clickable for a bigger version)
As you come in from the Junction, you arrive in the main village area first.
Your minibus will probably drop you off in the main village square near the school. Most of the action is on up the road straight ahead of you, but while we’re in town, let’s look at a few features here.
Just before you got to the main square, you passed a mosque on the right. Then there is a turning off to the left, signposted to Longhouse Lodge, Greenview B&B, Barefoot Lodge and Sukau B&B. This is a bit confusing, because those places are supposed to be on the road straight ahead. What is going on here is that there is an unsealed gravel back-road that goes around the back of town and joins up with the main (riverside) road later on.
The main (riverside) road has suffered a landslide and vehicles can’t get through it. If you are taking private transport to a far-end lodge, then you will probably be taken down the gravel back road and by-pass the whole of town. There is a homestay down that gravel road, too (see the map – (Homestay 4).
Ignoring that left turn to the backroad and continuing on towards the main square there is the Sukau Art Gallery on the left. I haven’t been in, but the people there seemed very friendly. It’s a good landmark for the gravel-road turn-off anyway.
On the right, there is a little turnoff into a small square that has the orange wartel (phone and internet) building. (Some of the lodges also have wifi internet). The village restaurant is also down here (the pink building, behind the white car in the picture). It was closed the three times I went there.
There’s a grocery store next door to the restaurant.
Ignoring that turning to the restaurant/wartel and heading straight ahead again, you come to the main square. On the right is a shiny office that has been set up to administrate and take bookings for the homestays in the area. I’m told that there used to be about 8 staff working there, but, over time, many of them have retired and now there is only one left. This means that you might well find the office closed. Not a problem, there are many homestays in town (four within sight of the office) and you can probably just approach them direct. Apparently homestays are 50MYR per night including meals. I assume that’s per person.
Details on the door of the Homeshare office:
Bangunan Informasi Balai Kito Homestay Kg GDW Sukau Kinbatangan
PO Box 3109 90734 Sandakan Tel/fax (60) 89568 472
e: firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.sukauhomestay.com
After ten minutes walk, you’ll get to a new B&B/lodge, called RD Nature B&B. Not that you’d know it, because at time of writing (July 2012) there was no signage up. This is a new venture (started Jan 2012) and IMO is the best deal in town. They have (three-bed) dorms at 20MYR per person (shared toilets) and double private rooms (with bathroom) for 50MYR (per room). The prices are equal or better than old-faithful Sukau B&B at the end of the line and RD Nature B&B is about a quarter of the distance to walk from the village. The restaurant is on the right about 20m from the river and accommodation is on the left.
B&Bs vs Lodges:
Apparently, there are strict licencing regulations for running a guesthouse in Sabah, and there are specific differences between a B&B and a Lodge (for example, a Lodge has to have a full-time tour-guide on the staff). It is more difficult and expensive for an operator to get registered as a Lodge and, apparently, B&Bs aren’t allowed to print brochures or have a website. RD Nature have aspirations to become a Lodge, but at this early stage of the business only qualify as a B&B. Hence no signage on the building, no website, etc. RB Nature B&B 010 941 8416 Mr Shabirin Arbe.
I stayed here and was impressed. The only downside was that meals were a little expensive at 15MYR. But servings were big, and you can always walk into the village to look for something cheaper. Breakfast is included in the room-rates. They don’t have a boat for tours, but you can join-in with boat tours at Greenview next door.
Continuing aloong the main road, there has been a mudslide under the road and it is no longer wide enough for cars. If you are driving/being driven North/West of here, you will be going on the gravel road around the back of town. The main road is OK to walk on, though.
There is a couple of hundred meters of empty space next (when I visited, it was jam-packed with stalls for the monthly market (Friday night to Saturday lunchtime one day a month only).
Importantly, they have their own guides and boats and are happy to let non-guests join-in on their tours (40MYR for a 2 hour tour, provided there are at least 3 passengers on the boat; depart at 6am and 4pm). Sukau Greenview BnB 089 565 266; 013 869 6922
Sukau Longhouse Lodge. The restaurant and the accommodation are both next to the river, with good views out over it.
Accommodation looked to be all air-con with private toilets. They had a couple of water buffalo tied up in the front yard.
There’s a long sweeping left hand curve in the road with trees on both sides before you get to a few more houses on the left then Barefoot Sukau Lodge. This has the restaurant on the right, next to the river and accommodation back across the road. This looked nice, and Lodgy-pricey. I have read that it’s the most expensive one in town.
Next on the left is the other end of the gravel back-road that looped round the back of town. Here’s the sign where it rejoins the main road.
Continuing on up the (main, riverside) road is Sukau Evergreen Lodge B&B. This is on the left, away from the river. It looks a little less fancy than those other Lodges and their riverside restaurants. Sukau Evergreen Lodge B&B 017 831 3832. From the name it seems confused about whether it is a Lodge or a B&B!
Then it is another few hundred metres to the last show in town – the long established Sukau B&B 089 565 979. Doubles are 50MYR. There are 2-bed “dorms” for 25MYR per person. The place looks pretty presentable.
If you want, you can turn left (West) into the forest itself and wander around some wild pigs tracks, but take a compass with you (or at least get a fix on the sun) as you won’t find your way back out otherwise. I didn’t see any wild beasties in here, but I probably left it a bit too late (warm) in the day.
What else? Oh yes, the wildlife.
I did a couple of river trips with Sukau Greenview B&B, both down a quiet tributary, downstream from Sukau town. We saw lots of proboscis monkeys, including two mating;
Some people report seeing pygmy elephants and orangutangs.
Trekkingwise, there were macaques and wild pigs cleaning-up after the monthly market, other than that, nothing bigger than dragonflies.
Overall, if you are a total jungle-buff or if you are on your holiday of a lifetime, you will probably want to splash the cash on an full package that includes guided walking treks day and night. But I met lots of people either with a more casual interest in the wildlife, or backpackers on tighter budgets who couldn’t justify the high-spend on package tours. To them, I say – have a day or two in Sukau, it’s pretty affordable and an enjoyable trip. Hopefully this has helped a bit.
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Miscellaneous left-over bits: Sandakan sleeps
I stayed in two backpackers in Sandakan
1st Fl, Lot 108 Block HS11 Sandakan Harbour Square
30MYR 8 bed AC mixed dorm; 50MYR double rooms. Wifi.
This one was OK.
Lot 43 1st Flr Block HS-4
Harbour Square Sandakan
tel/fax +6089 217072
22MYR 6 bed AC single-sex dorms, 50MYR doubles. Private lockers. Wifi.
Personally, I preferred this one. The service was excellent.
There are plenty of higher-end sleeps in Sandakan. Several are marked on the Sandakan map.
There are plenty of very reasonably priced restaurants on the Sandakan seafront.
Written: July 2012 Last Updated: July 2012