If you are travelling to Borneo, it’s likely you’ll visit Sandakan. With its own airport and accessible transport system, Sandakan provides a perfect gateway for exploring Sabah. It is an ideal base for day trips to wildlife sanctuaries, an overnight visit to Turtle Island or jungle adventures on the Kinabatangan River.
In this post we’ll share the best things to see and do in Sandakan and the surrounding area. We’ll give you details of the main attractions and top places to visit, as well as practical advice for a stay in Sandakan.
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A brief history of Sandakan
Historically, Sandakan was an important trading post and port for the export of timber. Europeans settled here and in 1883 the British North Borneo Company moved its capital to Sandakan.
Unfortunately, heavy bombing destroyed Sandakan during WWII and nearly flattened it to the ground. The Sabah state capital was then moved to Kota Kinabalu.
Today Sandakan has been rebuilt and is once again a bustling city. Although, on first impressions, it is not the most attractive city, Sandakan retains evidence of its diverse history and colonial past.
The combination of old and new makes an interesting blend. More importantly the surrounding areas are beautiful and Sandakan is the perfect destination for visitors wanting unique wildlife experiences.
Here are the best things to do in Sandakan:-
Be captivated by orangutans
One of the best reasons to visit Sandakan is for The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. This wildlife centre was set up by the Sabah Government in 1964. Its aim was to care for abandoned orangutan orphans and rehabilitate them back into the wild.
Unfortunately, orangutans are a critically endangered animal and numbers of the species continue to dwindle. However a visit to the Sepilok Centre gives you a chance to see these adorable creatures in their natural habitat and contribute to ongoing conservation work.
There are 2 main feeding platforms, where you can spot the older orangutans. Alternatively you can enjoy the antics of the younger apes in the nursery enclosure.
Sepilok is about 20km from Sandakan city centre and is easily accessibly by road. You can take a Grab or travel to Sepilok with an organised tour. The journey takes about 45 minutes.
However, we travelled directly to Sepilok Forest Edge Resort from the airport and stayed there for a couple of nights. From here we walked to the Orangutan Centre and Sun Bear Centre and didn’t have the time constraints of an organised visit.
Be enchanted by sun bears
Whilst in Sepilok, allow time to visit the The Sun Bear Conservation Centre. It’s directly opposite the Orangutan Centre, so it’s easy to combine a visit to both.
The Sun Bear Centre is home to the world’s smallest bears. It rescues bears who have been orphaned because of deforestation or illegal pet trade. It’s only a small centre, so you can easily sport the little bears in their natural jungle environment.
For more details about the centre, read 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, where you can learn about the jungle habitat and wildlife. It offers several jungle trails, night hikes and a 347 m canopy walk.
There are also two observation towers, from which you can spot more wildlife and tropical plants from above.
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. Watching these lovely turtles giving birth in their natural environment is just so awesome. You’ll also get to see the hatchery, where the eggs are buried and the babies running down the beach to the sea to start their life journey.
It’s 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 from the UK with Crystal Quest.
The departure jetty is walking distance from Sandakan city centre, but it’s easier to take a Grab.
Discover a traditional Malay stilt village
As you head out to Turtle Island, keep a look out for the Buli Sim Sim Water Village. This is a community of wooden houses on stilts on the water. Local fishermen built the village on the site of the original town of Sandakan.
If you like seafood, Buli Sim Sim is famous for its delicious seafood restaurants offering up freshly-caught Sandakan produce.
Follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail
If you want to explore more of Sandakan, leave time for the Sandakan Heritage Trail. You can get a leaflet with a map from your hotel or the Sandakan tourist office.
Sandakan’s self-guided walking tour takes in all the historical sites and points of cultural interest. White concrete tiles on the path will guide you, so that you don’t get lost.
The Stairs with a Hundred Steps leads to the top of the city. We did count steps and it definitely has more than 100. Or at least it felt it on a hot morning. However, it’s worth it for the viewpoint from the top, with stretching views over Sandakan and the Sulu Sea.
Take afternoon tea at the English Tea House and Restaurant
At the halfway point of the Sandakan Heritage Trail you’ll come across the English Tea House. This attractive colonial style house is a restaurant, serving traditional English food and cocktails. It’s great for an old-fashioned afternoon tea.
The style is similar to the neighbouring Keith Agnes House. Outside the gardens are neat and the views amazing. 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 overlooks the sea front. The market looks like an ugly building from 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 was one of our favourite places to eat in Sandakan. It is one of Sandakan’s most cosmopolitan restaurants. It’s not that easy to find as it’s 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 serves amazing desserts.
Have a nose at the Proboscis Monkeys
Another of the best things for animal lovers to do in Sandakan is visit The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.
This wildlife centre is home to the rather comical Proboscis Monkey, another of Borneo’s indigenous primates. The monkey is distinctive because of its exceptionally large nose and pot belly. Unfortunately, the proboscis monkey is another of Borneo’s beautiful unique animals which are endangered.
The proboscis monkeys can only live in mangrove forests and lowland rainforests, so are in decline because of the destruction of their habitat. The sanctuary provides home to over 60 proboscis monkeys.
The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is in the mangrove forest of Labuk Bay, about 43 km from Sandakan. You can get there by bus or Grab from the city centre, so makes a great day trip from Sandakan.
As well as the monkeys, you might also see other native species, such as silvered leaf monkeys, slow lorises, and hornbills. It is heaven for animal lovers who want to observe the wildlife close up in a natural environment.
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 is a trip of a lifetime and was another 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.
Getting to Sandakan
Sandakan lies on the northeast coast of Borneo and is the second largest city in Sabah, after Kota Kinabalu.
You can fly direct from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Sandakan with either Air Asia or Malaysian Airlines. This takes just under 3 hours.
Alternatively you can fly into Kota Kinabalu and take an internal flight. This is what we did as we were flying in from Singapore. The flight from Kota Kinabalu with Malaysian Airlines, only takes 40 minutes.
Sandakan Airport is 11km from the city centre. The easiest way is to take a Grab (Asian equivalent of Uber), which takes about 25 minutes. It is worth downloading the Grab app before you arrive. It is a better option than a taxi as you will know the price in advance.
If you’re looking for a cheaper option, there’s a bus that leaves from Kota Kinabalu North bus terminal and takes about 7 hours.
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