Sandakan Travel Guide
Overview of Sandakan
Sandakan, formerly known as Elopura and nicknamed ‘Little Hong Kong’, is the capital of the Sandakan district in Sabah, Malaysia. It is the second largest town in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu and was also the former capital of the British North Borneo. Eco-tourism, alongside other economic activities, plays a big part in Sandakan. The town has since then gone on to establish a reputation in this industry, with its conservation centres and the Kinabatangan River taking centre stage.
Where to Go
With the amount of conservation centres and wildlife located in and around Sandakan, it's no wonder Sandakan is known as a ‘Nature City’. To explore more of Sandakan’s status as a nature city, here are a few places you can visit and things you can do while there:
Get close to Orangutans and Sunbears
Sepilok is located about 30 minutes away from the town of Sandakan. It is where the Rainforest Discovery Centre is located at, where you can learn about Borneo’s unique rainforests. The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is also located here.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Built among a mangrove forest originally destined for palm oil development, the sanctuary has become a haven for the endemic to Borneo proboscis monkey and other species such as the silvery langur.
Cruise along Kinabatangan River and spot Wildlife
The Kinabatangan River is only a 2 hour-ride away from Sandakan, where you can embark on a river cruise to spot Borneo's unique wildlife as well as the Borneo Big 5: orangutans, proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, hornbills, and pygmy elephants.
Gomatong Caves are a magnificent cave network located outside Sandakan and is a popular stop for those visiting the Kinabatangan River. There are two complexes available to explore—Simud Hitam (Black Cave) and Simud Putih (White Cave)—with the latter being only suitable for skilled cavers. Experience the unique smell of guano from the thousands of resident bats and swiftlets that nest in the caves.
Visit Selingan Turtle Island
Selingan Island is located in the Sulu Sea, approximately 1-hour boat ride away from the Sabah Parks Jetty in Sandakan. It forms part of the Turtle Islands Park, a gazetted area of sea consisting of three islands and serves as an important hub for turtle conservation. The island is home to one of the oldest turtle hatcheries in the world and is considered one of the most important nesting beaches and breeding grounds for Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles. On the island, you will get the chance to witness turtles laying eggs as well as baby turtles being released into the open sea.
Visit Cultural and Historical Sites
Sandakan is rich in culture and heritage, from its history of immigration to its status as Sabah’s former capital during the British colonial era. Visit the Sam Sing Kung Temple, one of the oldest in Sandakan, or the Agnes Keith House turned museum to learn more about the famous American writer who lived here in the 1930s.
You can pay a visit to the Sandakan Memorial Park built on the site of the former Sandakan POW camp. The park commemorates the tragic events of World War II and the allied prisoners of war who died walking to Ranau in what are known as the Sandakan Death Marches.
If you’re looking to learn more about Sandakan as a town, the Sandakan Heritage Trail is a great self-guided walking trail you can take. As part of the tour, you will come across St Michael's Church: the oldest stone church in Sabah. It takes about two hours to complete and is a great way to learn about the city’s history.
When is the Best Time to Visit
Sandakan is a year-round destination, though the months from August to September are considered ideal as it is the dry season, making it perfect for those who seek warm weather. Do take note that from the months of October to December, it is considered as Sabah’s wet season.
How to Get to Sandakan
There are regular flights to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. The main airlines are Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia. You will fly straight to Sandakan airport.
You can reach Sandakan via self-driving from Kota Kinabalu city, which typically takes around 5 hours depending on the weather and route taken. It is best to leave Kota Kinabalu early in the morning so you can reach Sandakan by noon.
You can take a bus to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu, which takes roughly 6 hours one way.
How to Get Around
If you are self-driving, it is relatively easy to get in and around Sandakan by car.
Sandakan has a minibus terminal called Terminal Bas Sandakan, located behind the Centre Point Mall. The fare of the minibuses depends on how far from town you would like to travel. If you’re looking to travel long distance, you can catch a local bus from the bus station at the waterfront.
You can also get around Sandakan using a taxi or ride hailing services such as Grab.
What to Eat
To many visitors both local and international, Sandakan is considered as a foodie destination. With so many restaurants to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to go to get the best bite. To start off, here are a few suggestions:
Mei Mei Restaurant is non-halal. It specialises in its variety of soup, whether it is cooked with seafood or spare pork parts. You can also choose your own noodles.
Sim Sim Seafood Restaurant within the Buli Sim Sim water village has earned a thumbs up with the locals if you’re looking for a seafood lunch! The chefs have won awards for their dishes and they only cook with the freshest ingredients.
And for dinner, do try to make a reservation at the the Fisherman’s Association, considered a legendary seafood place with limited tables.
Empire Seafood Restaurant is also famous for fresh seafood cooked Chinese style.
If you like grilled seafood, go to Ikan Bakar Sederhana. Grilled seafood is a popular dish with the local Malays and this restaurant’s ikan bakar or ‘burnt’ fish is a sure winner. You can choose to grill with other seafood such as squid and chicken. All dishes are served with a side of homemade sambal.
Coconut Pudding, Chinese Pastries and Snacks
Other restaurants in Sandakan include but are not limited to Kedai Makan Ngee Lee for their coconut pudding and Cantonese roast meats and Kedai Roti Gold Crown for their Chinese pastries.
What to Buy
When in Sandakan, don’t leave without getting a few packets of their famed crispy anchovy snacks. There are a few brands to choose from but ‘Covisnek’ is the most popular brand. It comes in a range of flavours, from sweet and sour to sweet and salty.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of places to stay at in Sandakan. If you’re looking for budget accommodation, there are several backpacker hostels around such as the Sandakan Backpackers or the Hotel Seafront. If you’re looking for something a little high-end, the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel is a good place to stay.
What to Bring
It is best to pack along some sunscreen and a cap or a hat to protect from the sun’s rays. If you’re going hiking, renting or investing in a good pair of leech socks would be ideal. Insect repellent is also recommended to bring along. Always pack with you the appropriate clothing, footwear, and gear for the activities you’ll be partaking in.
What to Wear
It can get very hot and humid in Sandakan so put on some comfortable clothing and a good pair of walking shoes. Wear a hat to protect yourself from the heat.