Sandakan is the second city of Sabah and many people flock here for the famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which rescues and rehabilitates theses beautiful apes. The city would have been the capital of North Borneo until 1946 when it was switched to Kota Kinabalu at the end of the Second World War and holds an important place in history. This was the starting point of the infamous ‘death marches’ during the Second World War when British and Australian prisoners would have marched all over Borneo and you can see several monuments in their honor all over Sandakan.
The main reason to come to Sandakan is to check out this amazing history here as well as an abundance of gorgeous rainforests, and anyone who loves wildlife should make sure not to give it a miss. Just some of the spots that you can visit as part of a trip to Sandakan include amazing rainforest walkways and mighty tropical rivers, and this is one of the most unspoiled parts of Borneo that will give you a great insight into the culture in this part of the world.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Sandakan:
1. Visit the turtles at Selingan Turtle Island
Selingan Turtle Island is a conservation area off the coast of Sandakan that is dedicated to taking care of turtles and releasing them back into the wild.
There is a turtle hatchery here where you can check out the baby turtles as they hatch and are released into the ocean and there are some basic sleeping quarters here if you want to stay a little longer on the island.
If you want to see the turtles as they make their way into the sea to begin their journey into adulthood then try to visit from March to July, or you can also visit from July to October as this is when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in the sand.
2. Go spelunking at Gomantong Cave
Gomantong Cave has the claim to fame of being one of the largest cave systems in all of Sabah and with that in mind you shouldn’t miss it off the itinerary on a trip here.
The cave is known for its bat population which is said to include millions of these furry creatures and at night time the central chamber of Gomantong Cave is filled with darting swiftlets.
Over the centuries, the cave became famous for the nests left behind by the switflets which are edible and are used to make bird’s nest soup.
There are actually two main cave chambers here that include the Black Cave which is open to the public and the White Cave which is difficult to enter due to its inaccessible terrain and is best avoided unless you are an avid cave fan.
3. Meet the orang utans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
The main reason why many people come to Sandakan is to take a trip to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
The center is the most famous of its kind in Borneo and is dedicated to rescuing orang utans that have been poached or illegally kept as pets and cares for them before releasing them back into the wild.
There are several feeding platforms where you can check out these amazing apes when they come in search of fruit, although one thing to bear in mind is that this the main tourist attraction in Sandakan and as a result it gets very crowded so come early to get the best views of the cuddly orang utans.
4. Visit Sandakan Memorial Park
Sandakan Memorial Park is one of the most important historical sites in Sabah and lies in an area of forest land that is separated into different lush gardens.
This site used to be a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War and was also used as the place where prisoners would begin the horrific ‘death marches’ which would take them to Ranau.
To put the tragedy of this area in perspective, 1800 Australians and 600 British troops where imprisoned in the camp and only six Australians survived after they managed to escape.
The park is a haunting yet moving memorial to all those who lost their lives here and you can see photographs of those imprisoned as well as some of the machinery that they would have operated in the camp.
5. Have lunch at the English Tea House and Restaurant
You might not be expecting a traditional English cafe in Sandakan but that is exactly what you will get when you come to the English Tea House and Restaurant.
The cafe is modeled on a gorgeous colonial style villa which is encircled by pretty gardens and you will find shady trees that are perfect if you want to sit out and take tea on the terrace.
The restaurant menu features traditional English classics like fish and chip as well as stew and English teas.
The cafe also overlooks a delightful bay area which makes it the ideal spot to spend the afternoon taking in the soothing vistas.
6. Visit Sam Sing Kung Temple
Sam Sing Kung Temple was built in 1887 and as such this is also one of the oldest buildings in all of Sandakan.
The temple is not particularly large but it is one of the prettiest Taoist temples in Sabah and visitors should make sure to check out the ornate stone work around the temple.
There is also a central chamber with an altar piled high with incense and this is a great spot if you want to see a little bit of the culture linked to the Chinese community in Sandakan.
7. Stop by Sandakan Fountain
Sandakan Fountain is not one of the best known attractions in Sandakan but is a very important spot in the city nonetheless.
The fountain is dedicated to the day when Sabah officially declared independence from British colonial rule on the 16th of September 1963 and it and marks an extremely important time in the history of this part of the world.
8. Check out Buli Sim Sim Water Village
Buli Sim Sim Water Village skirts along the coastline of Sandakan and presents visitors with the perfect spot to go for an afternoon stroll as the sun is starting to go down.
The village stands on stilts over the water and is famous for its delicious seafood restaurants that line the waterfront.
Come here if you want to try some of the signature seafood based delights to be found in Sandakan such as prawn noodles, dumplings, and laksa.
9. Explore Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Center
The Rainforest Discovery Centre is not to be missed if you are in Sandakan and is part of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve.
You will recognize the center when you see it as it is lined with steel walkways that let you get up into the trees to check out the rainforest from a completely different vantage point.
There are around 250 different species of birds here as well as hundreds of flowers and different animals and you will be 100 feet above the forest floor so there is a chance you may even see a graceful orang utan swing by.
10. Walk around the Chinese Cemetery
Sandakan has a large Chinese Cemetery which is a scenic spot to go for a walk in the afternoon to learn more about the Chinese community here.
Many of the graves here go back decades and some are built in the style of charnel houses which are the final resting place of members of Sandakan’s famous clan members.
The cemetery is also located on a hill so you can enjoy the views back over the city which is especially pretty around sunset.
11. Visit the Agnes Keith House
The Agnes Keith House spans two floors and is a traditional villa made of wood that is built in the colonial style.
The house has now been turned into a museum and would have been the former home of Agnes Keith who was an American writer who lived here in the 1930s.
Some of Keith’s most famous works about Sandakan include ‘Land Below the Wind’ but bear in mind that you will need to climb some one hundred steps to get to the house.
12. Have a drink at Balin Roof Garden
If you are looking for a quiet place to have a drink in Sandakan then consider the rooftop bar of the Nak Hotel which is one of the best spots in the city to take in the sunset.
The roof garden comprises a restaurant and bar area and is covered in soft couches so that you can curl up at the end of a long day in Sandakan and relax as you sip on one of their freshly made signature cocktails.
13. Shop at Sandakan Central Market
If you want to try some local food in Sandakan then check out the Sandakan Central Market which isn’t much to look at from the outside but is one of the tastiest spots in town.
On the upper floors you will find a range of delicious eateries that serve up Chinese, Malay, and Filipino cuisine.
One good tip is to make sure that you go in the early afternoon as most places close by around 3 pm.
14. Visit the Japanese Cemetery
One of the great delights of Sandakan is the sheer diversity of the different sites on show and one of these in particular is the Japanese Cemetery.
The cemetery was built in the 1890s by a Japanese national named Kinoshita Kuni who was the madam of a famous brothel in Sandakan and this is the place where the prostitutes who worked in the brothel were laid to rest.
There is also a monument that commemorates the Japanese soldiers who died in Sandakan during the Second World War.
15. Take a Kinabatangan River Cruise
The Kinabatangan River has the claim to fame of being the second longest river in all of Malaysia and is another one of the great jewels in Sabah’s crown.
The river stretches for some 560 kilometers and a river cruise is one of the best ways to check out all the beauty of this part of the world from the vantage point of the water.
As you float along the scenic waterway you will be able to spot a huge number of animals including monkeys swinging through the trees next to you.
There are also night cruises available or you can opt to stay overnight in the middle of the jungle at one of the lodges found along the river.
16. Sample the seafood at Sim Sim Seafood Restaurant
Nestled in the middle of the famous stilt village in Sandakan called Kampung Buli Sim Sim is the Sim Sim Seafood Restaurant which one of the most famous spots to eat in town.
The set up is basic and you can expect to see the fish brought and then prepared and cooked in front of you to your specifications.
Seating is restricted to plastic tables at the quayside but the freshness of the fish more than makes up for the less than glamorous setting.
17. Have a curry at Habeeb Restaurant
If you are looking for a curry in Sandakan then look no further than the Habeeb Restaurant which is a legend in the city thanks to its toothsome and fiery curries.
The restaurant belongs to a chain and you will find several branches dotted all over town and the main cuisine served here is Indian Muslim food that makes a great change to the abundance of seafood served all over Sandakan.
18. Visit St. Michael’s & All Angels Church
St. Michael’s & All Angels Church looks exactly like a traditional English village church and was built in the colonial period in the typical style.
The church enjoys a scenic location atop a small hill although spare a thought for those who built it as prisoners had to drag the stones up the hill by hand.
Some highlights to look out for here include the pretty stained-glass windows that were put it as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
19. Meet the bears at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center
The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre is part of the wider Sepilok rescue center and is dedicated to the beautiful but endangered Borneo sun bears.
The bears live all over Southeast Asia and are the smallest of their kind in this part of the world and over the years have teetered on the brink of extinction thanks to poachers and the overall destruction of their habitat.
Fortunately the center protects the bears and aims to rehabilitate them in the wild and any animal lovers should make sure not to give this a miss on a trip to Sandakan.
20. Shop at Centre Point Mall
Centre Point Mall is one of the largest in Sandakan and makes a good place to come if you want to do a spot a shopping.
The mall has a mix of local and international brands and if you want to buy some souvenirs then you will find plenty of choice here.
The mall also has a number of fast food outlets and international eateries and it makes an interesting spot to visit at the weekends to see how people in Sandakan hang out in their free time.
21. Explore Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Proboscis monkeys are found all over Borneo but are also an endangered species, so if you want to see them in their natural environment then a trip to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is not to be missed.
These cute monkeys are known for their large, prominent noses and this is the best place to learn all about this fascinating species and the efforts being made to get them off the endangered list.
22. Walk along the Sandakan Heritage Trail
One of the best ways to explore Sandakan is to take a self-guided walking tour along the Sandakan Heritage Trail and you can get a map from the tourist office that will show you the way.
The trail takes about two hours to complete and you will get to walk up hills and check out the city from a different vantage point.
This is also a good way to learn a little more about the history of the city as many of the stops on the trail are places of historical and cultural interest.
23. Have dinner at the New Tropical Garden Steamboat
Steamboat is very popular in Sandakan and one of the best places to try it is at the New Tropical Garden Steamboat which is at the top of Trig Hill.
One of the main draws of the restaurant is the fact that it has amazing sunset views and you can also try a delicious steamboat here which is made from a stock base to which you add your own ingredients.
Some of the choices include meat, vegetables, and fish balls and you can also get beer here if you fancy watching the sunset with a cold one.
24. Stay at Sepilok Nature Resort
If you really want to make the most of your time in Sandakan then consider staying in the Sepilok Nature Resort.
Located so that it overlooks the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, this is one of the most magical experiences you can have in Sandakan as you stay in the privacy of your own lodge and still have a good chance of seeing orang utans swinging by.
It may not be the cheapest place to stay in Sandakan but it is well worth it for the forest views.
25. Explore Puu Jih Shih Temple
One of the prettiest temples in Sandakan is the Puu Jih Shih Temple which is covered in red and gold decorations.
Make sure to look out for the amazingly ornate carved dragons here as well as the elegant lanterns that illuminate the central courtyard.
The temple offers a great look at the culture of the Chinese community in Sandakan and is one of the prettiest religious buildings in the city.