The first tourist lodges on the Sungai Kinabatangan opened around the kampung of Sukau, 134km from Sandakan by road or 87km by boat. Still the easiest place to reach, it’s particularly popular with independent travellers as it’s possible to stay in the village itself on a B&B basis then charter boats as needed. Most of the all-inclusive lodges are on the riverbanks close to the village.

Many would argue, however, that Sukau is a victim of over-development. In July and August in particular, dozens of boats converge along the same narrow tributaries at the same times and shatter any sense of peace. Although many boats now use quieter electric motors when the current allows, some still do not.

Once tourism became well established in Sukau, a few operators decided to open lodges further upriver around the kampung of Bilit. Although not the undeveloped spot it once was, Bilit remains quieter than Sukau partly because there’s no public transport to the village – it’s upstream of Sukau and reached via a lower-quality road.

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