Best things to do in Sandakan, Borneo
Sandakan is famous as a gateway to ecotourism in the Sabah region of Borneo. As a huge animal lover, my purpose for visiting was to see as much of the species native to this part of Borneo as I could, although primarily the orangutan. I used the city of Sandakan as a base to explore the local area, however, there are also many things to do in Sandakan itself that can keep you happily exploring for a few days.
Where Is Sandakan?
Sandakan is a town in the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the northeast coast of Borneo. It is the second largest town in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu. Sandakan is easy to get to with an international airport on the outskirts of the city and many local and long distance bus routes.
Sandakan has a population of approximately 158,000 and is considered to be one of the main ports for tobacco, oil, coffee, sago and timber exports. This industrious history meant that at one time it had a high concentration of millionaires due to the booming timber export business.
The town was completely destroyed in World War II, although now it since been rebuilt and is thriving. Sandakan is not very Westernised, so if you’re after shopping centres, luxury hotels and restaurants then you won’t find them easily in Sandakan. What you will find, however, is a an authentic experience and a town that’s in a great position for you to explore this part of Borneo.
The town is structured by miles with the centre of Sandakan as 0 and the further you travel outwards the more the miles increase. It will not be uncommon for you to hear destinations referred to by their miles – e.g. The Australian War Memorial is at Mile 8.
What to do in Sandakan
There is plenty to do in the town and the surrounding area so you could easily spend several nights here. I booked two nights in my hostel when I first arrived to explore the local area before heading off to the Kinabatangan River. On my return I spent a couple more days in Sandakan to finish up my sightseeing, so I can recommend at least a stay of four nights.
How long to stay in Sandakan really does depend on how much wildlife you are hoping to encounter and at what pace you do so. If you squeeze in a visit to most of the local sanctuaries into one day then you can whiz through it – although this is not my style of travel.
Here is my round up of the best things to do in Sandakan.
Agnes Keith House
I enjoyed visiting the house of Agnes Keith, an American woman who lived in Sandakan in the 1930s and 40s. She wrote a book about her experience of living in Borneo during that time called ‘Land Below The Wind’, which became popular when in the United States when it was published in 1939.
The house did fall into disrepair after the family vacated it, but it has since been restored into a living museum. The furniture and decor is as it would have been in the 1930s and the upstairs of the house has an interesting display on the life and times of Agnes and her husband. The family endured remarkable events during their time in Borneo, most notably when Agnes and her child was held by the Japanese in a Prisoner of War camp.
The entrance fee to Agnes Keith’s house cost £2.60/ 14RM/ $4.50AU. If you’re looking for a respite against the tropical temperatures, I would certainly recommend a visit as the house was beautifully air conditioned!
English Tea House and Restaurant, Sandakan
Just across from Agnes Keith’s house is a small cafe/restaurant called The English Tea House. This building is high up on the hill overlooking Sandakan Bay and has a good view of the water. The building is inspired by Agnes Keith’s house and built in a colonial style with tables outside on a veranda and waiters in smart shirt and trousers. The restaurant serves teas from around the world, cakes and pastries plus meals from an a la carte menu
The address of the Tea House is 2002, Jalan Istana, 90000 Sandakan. I walked there from the centre of the town and although it is uphill it didn’t take long, perhaps about 30 minutes in total to get from my hostel to Agnes Keith’s house and the Tea House.
I purchased a cold drink and a giant scone with cream and jam from the tea rooms, which cost me £2.50/ 13.50RM/ $4.40 AU.
Sandakan Heritage Walk
You can spend a morning following the Heritage Trail, which covers several points of interest throughout Sandakan such as the Jamek Mosque, 100-step staircase and the Goddess of Mercy temple. Red footprints on the ground throughout the town centre indicate the direction of the trail and you can pick up a map at tourist information at Jalan Administration, 90000 Sandakan.
Promenade On The Waterfront
Sandakan has a small waterfront area where you can stroll around and check out the weekend street market, shops and cafes along the harbour front. My hostel was situated close to the waterfront and it seemed to me to be the place that many locals would come to relax. This was especially so when the evening temperatures cooled and people would fish on the banks or sit and wait for the sun to set over the harbour. It was a great place to people watch.
Shopping and Eating
I found Sandakan to have a good mix of local street markets and small stores with a small shopping mall – The Harbour Mall – found at the Harbour Square by the waterfront. It’s also here along the waterfront that you’ll find a nice range of restaurants to sample.
Sandakan’s mixed culture means that you’ll discover a variety of food to try, from local Malay cuisine to Chinese and Indian.
Sandakan Day Trips
There is plenty on the doorstep of Sandakan that is worth visiting, especially if you’re into wildlife. The region of Sabah, Borneo, is home to many unique species and a lot of effort is being made to rehabilitate sick, injured or displaced animals due to destruction of their natural habitat.
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
The orangutan sanctuary is definitely the main draw card to the area. This popular attraction is well worth a visit as it gives you the opportunity to witness these graceful creatures up close. The orangutans in this sanctuary are rehabilitated as youngsters before being allowed to live freely in the rainforest that surrounds the sanctuary. The adult orangutans are in effect released back into the wild. The expert keepers at the sanctuary leave out food twice a day on wooden platforms in the trees to supplement the orangutan’s natural diet, and it’s this food that draws in both the great ape and a crowd of breathless onlookers.
For a full description of what to do here, including how to get to Sepilok and more pictures of my time there, take a look a the blog post I wrote about visiting Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.
Entrance fees to the orangutan sanctuary cost: 37RM / £6.75 / $11.98AU.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC)
Across the road from Sepilok’s orangutans is the sun bear sanctuary. The sun bear is the world’s smallest bear and can only be found in Southeast Asia. The bears are threatened by illegal hunting, destruction of their forest habitat and capture to become part of the illegal pet trade.
The sanctuary was established as a rescue and rehabilitation centre and they currently have 44 rescued ex-captive sun bears. The centre has a large forested area so that the bears live in a habitat that is as close to their natural environment as possible. This aids rehabilitation and eventually all the bears are released into the wild.
The Sun Bear Conservation Centre is open daily from 9am – 3.30pm and costs 31.80RM / £5.86 / $10/14 AU to enter. There is also an additional small charge for visitors with a camera lens greater than 500mm.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre
If you don’t have time to explore some of Borneo’s lush rainforest, then a trip to the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is definitely worth your time. This is conveniently located down the road from Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. You can choose to walk here, which would take approximately 45 minutes (although take into consideration the humid temperatures and make sure you carry plenty of water) or you can grab a taxi from outside Sepilok’s entrance and whiz down the road in minutes for a few ringgit.
The entrance to the RDC cost 14RM/ £2.50 / $4.48. Inside, armed with a map, you will find several walking trails through the rainforest that allow you to experience the foliage and wildlife up close. The RDC features an exhibition gallery that details the history and formation of the rainforest, plus the plant and animal species you can expect to find here.
I enjoyed the tree-top canopy walk that allowed me a bird’s eye view of the rainforest, although that day I didn’t see any of the rich birdlife present in the forest. However, on my walk along one of the trails I did spot a completely wild orangutan high up in the trees. I heard crashing in the tree tops first, and when I scanned the trees above me I eventually saw a lone orangutan in the branches above my head. It was one of those incredible moments from my years of travelling that I will remember forever.
After all that walking you may be searching for a place for lunch. I stopped at the Keruing Cafe in the grounds of the park where I ate a tasty, freshly cooked lunch for 10RM/ £1.60 / $3.00AU.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Before I visited Borneo I hadn’t really been too aware of this long nosed monkey. However, when I got to Sandakan and realised that the proboscis monkey is native to the Sabah region I knew I had to take my chance to try and spot these unique primates.
Labuk Bay takes approximately an hour to get to from Sandakan and there is a public mini bus you can catch from the centre of the town to take you there. There are two feeding times at the sanctuary, in the middle of a palm oil plantation, where the keepers supplement the monkey’s diet with fruit because of the adverse affect local deforestation was having on the proboscis population. The area is now a designated sanctuary and palm oil production has ceased.
I really enjoyed my visit to the proboscis monkey sanctuary in Labuk Bay and you can read all about it in my blog post about my day trip, including how to get there, what to do and where you can eat. The entrance fee to the sanctuary cost. 55RM/ £10/ $18AU.
The Australian War Memorial, Sandakan
This memorial marks the prisoner of war camp where the Japanese army imprisoned and killed thousands of Australians during WW2. The Japanese used the Australian troops as free labour to build infrastructure projects on the island (as the Japanese had taken control at the time) and also sent many on what is now known as a Death March in 1945. This walk, weeks in length through difficult, humid terrain with no food or supplies, was designed to kill off as many soldiers as possible. Only 6 soldiers survived the concentration camp.
The park is free to enter and walk around. There are several information boards at key sites within the grounds, describing how the area would have looked at the time of the camp. There is the memorial and a very thorough exhibition centre to explain the history of the concentration camp.
The park is situated in between Sandakan and Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Negotiate a taxi to take you there (15 min), and expect to pay around RM 30 including waiting time. You can take a public bus going towards Mile 8, they will drop you off at the main road and you will have to walk about 900m towards the park – local buses cost between 1-3RM. Take a look at my blog post on getting to Labuk Bay for details on how I arranged my visit to the Australian War Memorial.
Attractions Further Afield From Sandakan
If you’re willing to travel a little further, Sandakan is perfectly situated at the gateway of some of Borneo’s most beautiful natural attractions.
The Gomantong Caves are accessible from Sandakan, either as a day trip or perhaps on-route to the Kinabatangan River.
It’s inside this cave that hundreds of thousands of swifts make their nests high up on the walls and the roof. These birds nests are considered a delicacy in the making of birds nest soup and once the swiflets have flown the nest they are collected to use in cooking. In order to protect the birds and cave, harvesting of the nests is strictly regulated and only a few licensed collectors are allowed to enter the cave to do so. Once you realise how high the roof and vertical the walls are, you’ll appreciate that the task of collecting the nest is incredibly challenging. The methods used to scale the walls remain traditional: rattan ladders, ropes and bamboo poles.
In addition to the swifts, the cave is also home to thousands of bats. The result is a pungent aroma and a cave floor that is covered in guano. Be sure to wear shoes that have a reasonable grip as the floor can be slippery. Bring a torch with you to guide you around the wooden walkway. The cave is perhaps not the best place to visit if you are particularly squeamish.
To get to the cave you walk through tropical rainforest along a boardwalk. This gives you the opportunity to spot some of the wildlife present in the area such as macaque monkeys and orangutans. The highlight for me was the unexpected joy of seeing a mother orangutan and her baby in a tree just outside of the cave entrance. They munched on fruit and leaves and gazed down at me as I almost burst with excitement at seeing such a beautiful creature, completely wild and free in its natural habitat.
You will need either a car, a taxi/driver or a bus to take you here. It is 95km from Sandakan to the Gomantong Caves. I called in here on my way to the Kinabatangan River and you’ll find that visits to these two attractions are often offered in the same package.
Sandakan to Kinabatangan River
If you have a little more time on your hands and fancy using Sandakan as a base to explore the wider local area, I would strongly recommend a river cruise on the Kinabatangan River. You can arrange a 1 – 2 night or longer stay in a lodge on the banks of the river, which immerses you in the exciting array of wildlife in the area. The focus of a trip to one of these lodges is to go wildlife spotting.
Cruising the river in an open top boat I saw a large herd of pygmy elephants on the water’s edge. This was an incredibly special experience as apparently it’s quite rare to spot the elephant, which is native to the island of Borneo. I also saw several types of hornbill bird, macaque monkeys, orangutan, proboscis monkey, a snake and many other type of birds.
Read about the rest of the activities I got up to on my stay on the Kinabatangan River, including how to get there from Sandakan in my blog post about my trip. Most importantly, I organised this trip when I got to Borneo and paid in Malaysian Ringgit. As a solo traveller, I had been noticing that prices online were incredibly high and included a single room supplement. I paid 403 RM / £74 / $131AU by waiting to arrange this excursion when I was in Borneo.
Getting to Sandakan
Flights into Sandakan are frequent and not expensive. I flew from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia – a three hour flight – for 281 MYR / £51 GB / $90AU. I booked this fairly last minute as my travel plans tend to be fluid, so you will probably score cheaper options.
The airport also flies to/from Kota Kinabalu, Kudat and Tawau.
Check availability and prices out on Skyscanner, which is the site I use when I travel to compare the best deals for my air travel.
It’s very simple to get from the airport into Sandakan. The airport is situated 14km west of Sandakan. Your options are to take a taxi from the airport that will cost roughly 30 to 40 MYR. I paid 27 MYR because I was happy to take a shared mini-bus into Sandakan (£5 /$9 AU), which means you wait a little longer until the mini-bus is filled and the driver drops off visitors along the route. There is a ticket counter in arrivals where you can pay for the taxi in advance, which saves you negotiating with the driver.
You can also get to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu by bus. This drive will take approximately 6 hours
Where To Stay In Sandakan
If, like me, you’re travelling on a backpacker budget then I highly recommend a friendly hostel called Sandakan Backpackers. Situated right in the centre of town close to all shops, food and public transport, this clean and welcoming hostel definitely made my stay in Sandakan.
The rooms were air conditioned and a simple breakfast was provided each morning. There was a great roof terrace to relax and take in the views over the waterfront of Sandakan.
The reception staff were incredibly knowledgeable and willing to help you with recommendations of where to eat, what to do around town, day trips from Sandakan and any other Borneo question you may have. This hostel was one of the friendliest I have stayed in for a long time, and it certainly helped me to enjoy my visit to Sandakan because of the homely atmosphere waiting for me in my accommodation.
Check out availability and prices on Booking.com. I use Booking because I trust their reviews are verified and the descriptions and photos are accurate.
Hints And Tips
- The currency of Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM)
- Malaysia – and this part of Borneo – is a largely Muslim country. Be mindful that standards of dress may be more conservative than what you are used to and consider packing a pair of lightweight, long trousers or a skirt and a shawl to throw over your shoulders if you are female. That said, I found dress styles to vary widely, especially in more urban areas and near the beach.
- Sandakan has a tropical climate and is relatively hot and wet all year round with temperatures averaging at around 32 degrees centigrade during the day. The best time of year to visit Sandakan is in April when it is the driest month. The wettest months are October through to February, although rain falls throughout the year.
Planning A Trip To Borneo
Hopefully I’ve helped you by giving you some useful information to help you plan your trip to Borneo. If you want any more ideas, take a look at my blog post about the best things to do in Borneo for a few additional ideas on what to do in Malaysia.
Have you visited Sandakan, or would you like to? If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.
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