Sandakan is the gateway to a world of adventures and if you are on holiday in Borneo, you will probably need to go there. It is the perfect base for day trips to wildlife sanctuaries, such as the Sepilok Centre, visits to Turtle Island and jungle adventures on the Kinabatangan River.
This post will show you the best things to see and do in Sandakan and the surrounding area. It is a perfect guide to help you plan your itinerary, so you can make the best of the time you spend in Sandakan. It will give you details of the top places to visit and main attractions of the area, as well as practical advice for a stay in Sandakan.
Sandakan was destroyed during WWII and if I’m honest is not the most attractive city. However, the surrounding areas are beautiful and Sandakan is a great town for visitors who want to delight in the local wildlife and nature. There is also still some evidence of its history and colonial past.
Getting to Sandakan
Sandakan lies on the Northeast coast of Borneo and is the second largest town. It is easily accessible by air or road from Kota Kinabalu.
We flew from Kota Kinabalu into Sandakan airport using Malaysian Airlines, which only took 40 minutes.
Alternatively, you can come by car, which takes 7 hours.
Here are the best things to do in Sandakan:-
Be captivated by orangutans
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre helps care for abandoned orangutan orphans and rehabilitate them back into the wild and can be found about 20km from Sandakan. Visit the centre to see these adorable creatures in their natural habitat.
There are 2 feeding platforms or you can see the younger ones in the outside area of their nursery. This place is an essential visit for anyone on a visit to Borneo.
You can take a cab or minibus to get to Sepilok. This takes about 45 minutes. However, we chose to go directly to Sepilok Forest Edge from the airport and stay here for a couple of nights. By doing this we were able to walk to the Orangutan Centre and Sun Bear Centre on our own and weren’t constrained by the timings of an organised visit.
Be enchanted by sun bears
For more animal encounters, cross the road at Sepilok for The Sun Bear Conservation Centre. It was fascinating watching the world’s smallest bears in a natural jungle environment.
The Sun Bear Centre rescues these cute little animals who have been orphaned, because of loss of habitat and the illegal pet trade. You can read about our visit in A visit to the Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
Learn about the Rainforest
The Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is about 20km away from Sandakan and just a short distance from the Sepilok Centre. The Sabah Forestry Department manages this 4,300 hectares of natural habitat.
The Sandakan Rainforest Centre is primarily an environmental education centre, so you can learn about the jungle habitat and wildlife. It offers a number of jungle trails, which are marked with signboards and a 347 m canopy walk.
There are also 2 observation towers, where you can observe more wildlife and tropical flora and fauna. In addition, the Rainforest Centre also offers night time hikes.
Visit Turtle Island
A trip to Turtle Island, Boneo is a once in a lifetime experience and a must-do visit if you are staying in Sandakan. Nothing could have prepared us for the sheer awesomeness of seeing these lovely turtles giving birth in their natural environment and the new-borns being released to the sea to start their life journey.
It’s probably best to book in advance, as they limit their visitor numbers to 50 each day. We booked our visit to Turtle Island directly by e-mail with Crystal Quest.
You can walk to the departure jetty from the town centre, or take an uber or cab.
Discover a traditional Malay stilt village
As you head out to Turtle Island, you will be astonished by the Buli Sim Sim Water Village. This is a community of wooden houses on the water. These have been built on stilts by local fishermen on the site of the original town of Sandakan.
If you like seafood, Buli Buli Simt is famous for its delicious seafood restaurants offering up freshly-caught Sandakan produce.
Follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail
For a closer look at the town of Sandakan, take a map from your hotel or the tourist office and follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail. Follow the white concrete tiles on the path, so that you don’t get lost. The trail leads around the city and outskirts, taking in all the historical sites and points of cultural interest.
Watch out for the 100 steps, as we counted far more! There is a great viewpoint from the top, with stretching views over Sandakan and the Sulu Sea.
Take afternoon tea at the English Tea House and Restaurant
Halfway through the Sandakan Heritage Trail you will come across the English Tea House, where you can stop for refreshments or food. This attractive colonial style house has the style of the neighbouring Keith Agnes House. It is is a popular destination for tourists in Sandakan.
We stopped for afternoon tea and a Singapore Sling, both of which were excellent.
Step inside the Keith Agnes House
Keith Agnes was an American writer who wrote 3 famous novels about her life in Sandakan in the 1930s and 1940s, when she lived in the house. Keith Agnes House later became the British colonial government quarters called Newlands.
This timber house was destroyed in the war, but rebuilt in 1947. Nowadays, it is a museum, providing information on Sandakan’s history and tributes to the works of the author.
Browse the market
Sandakan Central Market lies right on the sea front. The market looks like an ugly building from the outside. However, it’s interesting to wander round the wet and dry markets to see what’s on offer. It’s also good to see what the locals are buying.
There were many new, exciting fruits, as well as fresh fish direct from the sea. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to sample the famous Malaysian dorian fruit, well-know for its stinkiness!
Admire the Sam Sing Kung Temple
As you follow the Heritage Trail, you will stumble upon the Sam Sing Kung Temple. The Chinese communities from Guangdong Province built this Chinese temple in 1887, making it the 3rd oldest in Sandakan.
Take a drink at a rooftop bar
The Balin Roof Garden and Bistro is one of the more stylish restaurants in Sandakan. It is hidden on the 8th floor of the Nak Hotel.
The Balin Roof Garden serves a mixture of European and Asian food and offers great views over the sea and Sandakan.
You can eat indoors or on the rooftop terrace. It has a very relaxed atmosphere and served amazing desserts.
Have a nose at the Proboscis Monkeys
The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is in the mangrove forest of Labuk Bay, about 43 km from Sandakan. This comical monkey who is so distinctive because of its exceptionally large nose and pot belly is native to Borneo. The proboscis monkeys can only live in mangrove forests and lowland rainforests.
The sanctuary provides home to over 60 of these primates. It is heaven for animal lovers who want to observe them close up and makes a great day trip from Sandakan.
Enjoy a safari jungle on the Kinabatangan River
Sandakan is a great base for taking a jungle river cruise. One of the best jungle trips is on the Kinabatangan River. The starting point is about 2 hours away from Sandakan by car.
There are a number of different tour package options, but we did the 3 day/2 night package and stayed at one of the lodges, Nature River Lodge.
This trip included 4 river cruises, 2 night walks and a guided day walk. Of course, this gave us plenty of opportunities to see jungle wildlife in its natural habitat. Really, this is a fantastic experience for anyone on a family adventure in Borneo.
With the help of our guide, we spotted orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, elephants, crocodiles and lots of native birds. Quite honestly, this really iss a trip of a lifetime and the highlight of our visit to Borneo.
Hang about at the Gomantong Caves
On your return to Sandakan, you will probably have the option to visit the Gomantong Caves. The cave system is located within Gomantong Hill and is a protected area for wildlife. A large population of Wrinkle Lipped Free-tailed bats live here, as well as many swiftlets.
However, the smell inside the cave is quite overpowering because of the guano. In addition, this attracts an army of cockroaches and parasites who climb all over the floors and walls.
On the plus side, you may be lucky enough to spot an orangutan in the areas surrounding the cave.
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