Guide to Sandakan, Malaysia's Gateway to Nature

Explore Sabah's Natural Wonders from This Sleepy Seaside Town

Tourist looking over walkway in Sepilok

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Edited by Mike Aquino.

There may not be a lot to do in Sandakan itself, but the city is literally surrounded by nature centers and opportunities to enjoy the animals and ecology of Borneo.

With a population of just under 400,000 people, Sandakan is the Malaysian state of Sabah's second largest city. Daily life unfolds on the busy streets which are refreshingly far less touristy than those in Sabah’s other major city, Kota Kinabalu.

Sandakan is frequently used as a base for animal lovers in search of endangered orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and even rhinoceroses on the muddy Sungai Kinabatangan. The city is well-connected for enjoying the nature attractions around East Sabah; Sandakan is a frequent stopping point for travelers on their way to visit Samporna or dive at Sipadan.

Unlike Kuching, Sandakan's waterfront esplanade is a little grubby, however the abundance of excellent seafood and friendly people make up the difference.

Getting Around Sandakan City Center

Sandakan is quite spread-out, however everything that a traveler needs can be found around the easily-walkable city center. An overabundance of accommodation around the city helps to keep prices in-check; be prepared to decline numerous offers for packaged tours.

The bustling Harbour Mall complex (harbourmallsandakan.com, Google Maps) is located on the eastern end of the waterfront, adjacent to the multi-level Central Market (Google Maps). A small naval base (Google Maps) marks the far west.

Hawker stalls and vendors peddling durian fruit and delicious foods can be found nearly everywhere along Jalan Coastal. A helpful Tourist Information Office with maps is located inside the Sandakan Heritage Museum (Google Maps).

Surprisingly for a city of its size, things wind down early in Sandakan. By 10 p.m. nearly every shop and eatery in the city center is shuttered; the dark streets are quiet.

Agnes Keith House, Sandakan, Malaysia
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Sandakan Heritage Trail

Despite being Sabah’s O.G. capital, Sandakan has precious little heritage infrastructure left; the city was flattened by bombs during World War II.

The remaining colonial-era buildings and memorials can be seen in a two-hour Sandakan Heritage Trail walking tour that starts at the century-old Masjid Jamek mosque and ranges throughout the following stops:

  • William Pryer Monument: a granite memorial to honor Sandakan’s British founder, William B. Pryer
  • Stairs with a Hundred Steps: staircase up a hill, which leads to a beautiful view of the bay and the city
  • Agnes Keith House: a wooden colonial-style bungalow that housed its namesake author in the 1930s-1940s; Agnes Keith wrote a book that romanticized Sandakan for Western readers
  • A multi-faith assortment of places of worship: the Christian St. Michael’s and All Angels Church; the Taoist Sam Sing Kung (Three Saints) Temple; and the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Temple
  • Wisma Warisan: site of the Sandakan Heritage Museum and attached Tourist Information Centre; once Sandakan’s main government nerve center

Visit the official Sabah Tourism site (sabahtourism.com) for tour information and bookings.

Sandakan Memorial Park, Sabah, Malaysia
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Other Things to Do and See in Sandakan

Other than the Sandakan Memorial Park – starting point of the infamous Japanese Death Marches during World War II – Sandakan's main draws are well away from the city center.

  • Buli Sim Sim: a water village set on stilts above the waters of Labuk Bay, where you can admire the traditional Malay houses and try seafood at one of the local restaurants.
  • Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary: Found only on Borneo, the strange-looking, endangered proboscis monkeys are even harder to spot than orangutans. The monkey sanctuary is located about 40 minutes outside of Sandakan along a very rough road. Admission is US$14.30 (MYR 60); bringing a camera inside costs an additional US$2.40 (MYR10) a day.
  • Sandakan Memorial Park: Starting point of the atrocious Japanese Death Marches during World War II, this park is located only six miles from the city center. A museum honors the 2,428 participants - most of which died along the brutal march. A taxi costs around $10; entrance is free.
  • Gomantong Caves: Located 60 miles outside of Sandakan, the giant Gomantong Caves are one of the most famous sources for the nests used in Chinese bird's nest soup. Watching the harvesters risk their lives to collect the nests is an interesting site. Negotiating buses to the site is difficult; the easiest way to reach Gomantong Caves is via an arranged tour or private car. Ask around Sandakan first to find out if one of the periodic harvests is in progress.
  • Sungai Kinabatangan: Famous for boat rides with the potential to spot orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and even elephants in the wild, many travelers book tours to Sungai Kinabatangan – the second-longest river in Malaysia – from Sandakan. It is possible to enjoy the river cruises without a tour by taking a minibus (about $11) to the village of Sukau. One minibus a day departs from the lot near the waterfront around 1 p.m.
Feeding time at Sepilok, Sandakan, Malaysia
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Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Considered to be the foremost place in the world to view highly-endangered orangutans, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre receives more than 800 visitors a day. Sepilok is located 14 miles outside of Sandakan on the way to Kota Kinabalu. Entrance fee costs MYR 30 (US$ 7.30).

As with the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Sarawak, Sepilok has daily feeding times which allow tourists a better opportunity to see the orangutans.

If traveling from Kota Kinabalu, ask the bus driver to drop you at Sepilok rather than Sandakan. Sepilok has reasonably priced accommodation just outside of the rehabilitation center.

Getting to Sandakan

By Bus: Sandakan is a winding, six-hour bus ride across Sabah from Kota Kinabalu. The beautiful views of Mount Kinabalu on the left side of the road help to break up the monotony of the journey.

Many bus companies depart for Sandakan from the North Bus Terminal in Inanam (Google Maps), around six miles north of Kota Kinabalu; the one-way ticket costs about $10. You can taxi to the Inanam terminal or opt to save some money by taking a bus (33 cents) from the busy lot adjacent to Wawasan Plaza in the south of Kota Kinabalu.

Buses from Kota Kinabalu arrive at the bus terminal near Gentingmas Mall (Google Maps).

By Air: Sandakan's busy airport (SDK) is just outside of the city; a taxi to town should cost around $10. Air Asia, Malaysia Airlines, and MASWings offer daily flights all over Malaysia. Flights back to Kuala Lumpur are frequently cheaper from Sandakan than from Kota Kinabalu!

Where to stay: You’ll find no shortage of hotels around the city center; the selection caters to travelers of all budgets.

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