Southeast of Sandakan Bay, Sabah’s longest river – the 560km Sungai Kinabatangan – ends its journey to the Sulu Sea. Whereas logging has had an adverse impact on the river’s ecology upstream, the creation of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary has kept its lower reaches largely free of development. This is the largest forested flood plain in Malaysia, laden with oxbow lakes, mangrove and grass swamps, and distinctive vegetation including massive fig trees overhanging the water’s edge.
The sanctuary offers some of Sabah’s best opportunities for seeing wildlife. Although some tour operators offer day-trips from Sandakan, it’s much better to stay overnight given the travel time; the ideal is a two-night stay. Although there are a few exceptions, most lodges are located either in or around the villages of Sukau or Bilit. From November to April, the rainy season can lead to flooding at some lodges – at its worst in January – and even force their closure.