Sandakan is most likely a place you have never heard of before. However, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be on your Malaysia travel itinerary. It really should for a number of reasons. Sandakan is popular among locals and foreign visitors for many reasons but the most significant one is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation. You’ll also want to head to Sandakan if you plan to hike areas in Sabah that are off-the-beaten-path and visit conservation areas. This part of Sabah is focused on ensuring that the wildlife and forest are preserved and well-looked after. This area also has historical sites related to World War II. Welcome to the best things to do in Sandakan Borneo.
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#1 THING TO DO
The Top 17 Things to Do in Sandakan
When you visit Sandakan, most of the activities to do here are related to the outdoors and nature. This includes hiking, water activities, wildlife adventure, and exploring historical sites.
There is absolutely no doubt at all that going to see the Orangutan at Sepilok is the TOP thing to do in Sandakan. You CANNOT miss it.
The easiest way to get to Sepilok is to take a small group guided tour from Sandakan. It’s easy, not expensive, and a great way to get there.
Orang-utans are native to Sabah and the Borneo region. Some species like Bornean Orangutans are critically endangered due to the lack of stable and safe homes in the wild, the pet trade, and hunting. The work that the local government and NGOs here do helps care for orphan apes until they are ready to join the wildlife, it is undeniably one of the best things to do in Sandakan Borneo.
You can get to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre by either joining a tour or arranging transportation on your own. This includes taking a bus, driving yourself, or taking a taxi. It is about half an hour to 40-minute drive, 16 miles (26 km) from the city center to Sepilok. I wrote about visiting the Orangutan Rehab Center in Sepilok here. And my guide on how to go from Sandakan to Sepilok is here.
If you plan to take the bus, it only leaves three times a day from the bus station near the Nak Hotel, look for bus #14 (or with the sign “Sepilok”). The buses leave at 9 AM, 11 AM, and 2 PM. From the rehabilitation center, the bus returns to Sandakan at 10:30 AM, 12:30 AM, and then 4 PM. The fare costs RM6 ($1.36) each way. The bus takes you right to the entranceway of the center, where you’ll find this home for the old men of the forest. If you’d prefer to be picked up from your hotel and have an English-speaking guide, then this half-day tour of the Sepilok Orangutan centre is fabulous
The best time to arrive at the center is from 10 AM to 3 PM when the orangutans are being fed and not hiding away in the rainforest.
- Address of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: Sabah Wildlife Department, W.D.T. 200, Sandakan, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: Monday to Sunday from 9 AM to 11:30 AM, then again from 2 PM to 4 PM
- Entry Fees for Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: RM30 ($6.8) for foreigners or RM5 ($1.14) for locals, best to buy the ticket at the location, all fees go towards improving and providing care to the animals
You can also visit the Semenggoh Orangutan Rehab Centre from Kuching in Sarawak, it is a very different, but equally rewarding experience and I wrote about it here.
Now that you’ve seen the Orangutan, you simply MUST head to see these glorious creatures too.
Amazingly, this attraction is located directly opposite of Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. It’s another great conservation center to preserve wild animals from going extinct. I wrote about the Sun Bears here.
The Sun Bears make such unique barking noises and they are amazing climbers. They are also the smallest species among all bears. Unfortunately, due to deforestation and hunting, many Sun Bears struggle to find a safe home. In this conservation center, they are nursed to health until they are ready to join the wildlife again. Some Sun Bears, however, may never be returned to the wild and live their days out here.
It’s best to plan to head to Sepilok in the morning. First, visit the orangutans, then in the afternoon, you can come to the sun bear center and still have time to catch the bus back to Sandakan. The area is much smaller than the Orangutan Rehabilitation, it should take you about an hour to explore and find the Sun Bears, learn about them and the conservation center, and walk around. Alternatively, this trip from Sandakan to Sepilok will take you to both the Orangutan Centre AND the Sun Bear Centre and take you back to your hotel too. It’s a great visit.
- Address of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre: PPM 219, Elopura, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre: 9 AM to 3:30 PM
- Entry Fees for Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre: RM30 ($6.8) for foreigners or RM5 ($1.14) for locals, all fees go to keeping the center functioning
Not far from both rehabilitation and conservation centers is the Rainforest Discovery Centre. This site is focused on educating visitors about the rainforests of Sabah and how to preserve them. Apart from the educational tour, you can also explore the hanging bridges and walkways in the tree tops.
There are also hiking trails where you can spot birds. But you can also sign up for a night walk, where you can see wild orangutans. If you do this, then you’ll either need to book a taxi back to Sandakan or stay the night in Sepilok. To go from Sandakan you can combine a trip to the Rainforest Discovery Centre and the Orangutan Rehab Centre in this full-day trip that visits both.
- Address of Rainforest Discovery Centre: Jalan Lintas Sibuga, Sepilok, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Rainforest Discovery Centre: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM
- Entry Fees for Rainforest Discovery Centre: RM15 ($3.41) for adult foreigners and RM7 ($1.59) for 5-17 years old | RM7 ($1.59) for locals and RM3 ($.68) for 5-17 years old
We’re heading back to explore the wildlife now – after all, it’s what Borneo is most famous for! Proboscis monkeys are extremely unique-looking and have particularly striking colors. Proboscis monkeys are native to Borneo, so during your visit to the region, it MUST be on your list of things not to miss in Sandakan.
Proboscis monkeys are at a critical level of extinction. They are victims of deforestation, hence the sanctuary here in Labuk Bay’s job to keep them alive is very crucial. There are about 7,000 Proboscis monkeys in the wild, however, they don’t do well in captivity even in an “artificial wild” setup. This means that these monkeys need very specific care.
There is a scheduled feeding time that allows visitors to see the Proboscis monkeys on the platform. You can either drive up to the sanctuary, take a shuttle bus or visit as part of an organized tour along with other wildlife locations near Sandakan. (that’s your best option if you are short of time). The drive takes a bit over an hour (28 miles/45 km), past the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, towards the northwest. You can combine a visit to the Orangutan Centre, the Rainforest Discovery Centre, and Labuk Bay easily here.
The shuttle bus costs RM20 for one-way and RM40 which includes the return. The bus leaves from San Da Gen Kopitiam (9:15 AM) and the Hotel Sandakan (9:30 AM). It then leaves Labuk Bay to return back downtown at 3 PM.
During your visit, there’s a chance that you will spot wild hornbills and other species of monkeys such as the Silvery Lutung monkey and Bornean orangutans.
- Address of Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary: Off, Jalan Labuk, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary: 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM, daily
- Entry Fees for Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary: RM60 ($13.57)for adult foreigners, RM30 ($3.39 )for children below 12, RM15 ($3.39) for locals/Malaysian residents, and RM5 ($1.13) for children below 12. Plus RM10 for a camera fee (phone cameras not applicable)
5. Take a (self-guided) walking tour of Sandakan on the Sandakan Heritage Trail
This is an incredible way to explore the city and learn about Sandakan. Not only does it features the history of the place but also showcases how it became the city it is today. It shouldn’t take your entire day, but you can add a few items to visit near the Heritage Trail such as 100 Step Staircase, Dataran Sandakan, and William Pryer Monument. (Pryer was the founder of modern Sandakan) The walking trail is free and the signage around the city explains everything you need to know.
- Address of Sandakan Heritage Trail: Wisma Sandaraya, Jalan Tiga, Third Avenue, Sabah, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Sandakan Heritage Trail: 24 hours
- Entry Fees for Sandakan Heritage Trail: Free
6. Pay your respects at Sandakan Memorial Park
The Memorial Park of Sandakan is located 7.5 miles (12 km) from the city center, is. It was built on a former Japanese camp and is to commemorate those who perished and fought in World War II. The site is both interesting and beautiful as it is surrounded by beautiful trees and the atmosphere is quite peaceful.
There is also a small museum here that will show you Sandakan’s story during the war and the infamous Borneo or Sandakan to Ranau Death March. There’s a lot of detailed information about the fallen soldiers, a great place to pay respect to those who fought for peace and freedom. The Batu 7 minibus from Sandakan center is the easiest way to get there to what was the 8-mile, or Sandakan POW Camp. There’s no Commonwealth Graves here, all the bodies of Allied servicemen that were recovered were interred in the Commonwealth Graves on Labuan (you can read more about that here)
- Address of Sandakan Memorial Park: Mile 8, Jalan Labuk, Taman Rimba, 90702 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Sandakan Memorial Park: 8 AM to 6 PM from Monday to Saturday
Our travels through South East Asia have taken us to many places associated with WWII that are moving and that we remember every day. There’s Kota Bharu, where the Japanese first landed in Malaysia, and there’s Labuan Island, where the peace accord was signed. The Sandakan – Ranau death march can be celebrated by the fact that 6 men escaped the march from Sandakan. Of course, Hellfire Pass and Kanchanaburi too on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. We visited, too, the Myanmar side of the railway at Thanbyuzyat. We explored Fortress Singapore. We saw one of the Japanese trains that ran on the death railway in Tokyo.
7. Visit the Sandakan Heritage Museum (Muzeum Warison Sandakan)
Back downtown in Sandakan is the Heritage Museum of Sandakan. This small, but interesting museum highlights the history of the city and area and features traditional houses, musical instruments, and clothing. The museum is quite rundown, located in an old building, and with limited staff. It can be hot inside, so remember to bring water and something to fan yourself with. But it’s still worth a visit while you are in town.
- Address of Sandakan Heritage Museum: Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Sandakan Heritage Museum:9 AM to 5 PM from Friday to Sunday
- Entry Fees for Sandakan Heritage Museum: Free
8. Head to St. Michael and All Angels Church, Sandakan
Northwest of the city center is one of the oldest buildings in Sandakan. The Church of St Michael and All Angels in Sandakan survived the bombing in World War II, which is pretty surprising as most of Sandakan was leveled! The Church is still well-maintained today. It is built of bricks and features stained glass on the windows, a very unique thing to see in Sandakan.
- Address of St. Michael and All Angels Church: 51, Jalan Puncak, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of St. Michael and All Angels Church: 8.30 AM to 4.30 AM, closed every Tuesday and Sunday
9. Walk to the Sam Sing Kung Temple
This Buddhist temple, also known as the Temple of Three Saints, is only an 8-minute walk from St Michael’s and All Angel’s Church. It is the oldest Chinese temple in Sandakan and it’s over 150 years old. If you plan to visit, make sure you are dressed conservatively. If you’re walking the Sandakan Heritage Trail, then you’ll see it en route.
- Address of Sam Sing Kung Temple: jalan Singapura, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Sam Sing Kung Temple: 7 AM to 3 PM
10. Visit Agnes Keith’s House
20-minute on foot or a 4-minute drive from Sam Sing Kung Temple is Agnes Keith House. Agnes Keith was an American writer who lived in Sandakan for many years before, during, and after the war. The bombing destroyed the original house. Agnes and her husband Harry rebuilt it in 1946.
She wrote three autobiographies related to her life in the Northern Borneo including wartime. Agnes, her husband, and her son were imprisoned by the Japanese in 1942 and spent over three years in two prison camps. Sandakan was liberated by the Australian Army Division in 1945.
After leaving Sandakan, the house had a few occupants but eventually stayed empty, perhaps due to some stories in Agnes’ book that it was haunted. The local government then decided to turn the house into a museum and named it to honor Agnes.
- Address of Agnes Keith House: 296, Jalan Utara, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Agnes Keith House: 9 AM to 5 PM, daily
- Entry Fees for Agnes Keith House: RM15 for foreigners, RM2 for locals, and free for senior citizens
11. Take a break at the English Tea House
Ait’s easiest to combine a visit to Agnes Keith’s house with a visit to English Tea House. They also have a food menu and you can choose between doing a light tea set; a snack and tea or a full set menu which includes a 3-course meal. The tea house is located in an old colonial building with a spacious backyard on top of a hill. The area is quiet and gives you a view of the sea. Most customers come between 10 AM to 4 PM and it is less crowded around 5 PM.
- Address of English Tea House: 2002, Jalan Istana, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of English Tea House: every day from 10 AM to 6 PM
12. Hike to the Chinese Cemetery and Japanese Cemetery
The Chinese Cemetery is another interesting site in Sandakan and it’s about an 8-minute walk from the English Tea House. It’s interesting because the style of memorials is significantly different from what you might see elsewhere. If you plan to take a taxi, it’s best to have the map ready and help the driver navigate because it’s not a very popular spot for tourists. It is, however, an active cemetery, meaning many Chinese in Sandakan today still choose this place to bury their loved ones. It’s about 100 meters up the hill from the main entrance.
Walk another 700 meters uphill and you will find the Japanese Cemetery. You will notice how different the graveyards are in the Japanese versus the Chinese Cemetery. It is also filled with overgrown weeds, more deserted, not maintained, and quite eerie.
- Address of Chinese Cemetery and Japanese Cemetery: Jalan Istana, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
13. Explore Sandakan’s Central Market
Head back downtown to Sandakan and visit the Central Market of Sandakan, an amazing place to look for interesting souvenirs or try out some local snacks and dishes. The most sought-after dishes here are dried anchovies and fried pork noodles. Remember to bargain your way around when it comes to buying non-food items.
- Address of Sandakan Central Market: Sandakan Central Market, Jalan Pryer, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Sandakan Central Market: 6 AM to 6 PM
14. See The Malaysian Fountain in Sandakan
The fountain here in Sandakan was built to celebrate and remember the day that the last British Government of North Borneo left the office. This marks Sabah’s independence from the British Empire on September 16, 1963. There’s not much to do here but the fountain has a nice little garden surrounding the area.
- Address of Malaysian Fountain: Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
15. Drive to Puh Ji Shih Temple
Let’s get out of the town proper for a little bit. This beautiful Buddhist temple can be reached by car or taxi, the drive is about 15-minutes. It’s a very peaceful area, and if you hike up to the top, you can enjoy the sea view and overlook the fishing village.
- Address of Puh Ji Shih Temple: 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Puh Ji Shih Temple: 8 AM to 4:30 PM, every day
The enormous Gomantong Cave is found directly south of Sandakan, about 71 miles (114 km) away. This is a large network of limestone caves. The Gomantong cave is not for the faint-hearted. It is filled with bats and cockroaches, while the ammonia smell (bat poop is very strong), so be mindful when making plans to visit. If you are traveling to Gomantong Cave by car, you will have to walk a bit over a half mile (1 km) from the car park to the entrance. Along the trail, you will (hopefully) spot orangutans hanging on the tree branches and birds. You will also see informational boards detailing how the cave formed and which wild animals live inside. You might also spot wild orangutans by the entrance of the cave, hiding away from the heat of the sun.
If you’re not driving, then the only way to visit Gomantong Cave is to go by van on an organized trip – this one can either be private or as part of a small group. It’s a great way to see the Kinabatangan River too.
It will take you about 15-minutes to walk around the Gomantong Cave since only a limited part of the cave is open to the public. Remember to bring a head torch or flashlight, water, and any snacks you might need as there are no shops around.
- Address of Gomantong Caves: 90000 Kinabatangan, Sabah, Malaysia
- Opening Hours of Gomantong Caves: Sunday to Thursday, 8 AM to 1 PM, then from 2 PM to 5 PM, Friday 8 AM to 11:30 AM, then 2 PM to 5 PM
- Entry Fees for Name of Attraction: RM30 ($6.78)for foreign visitors and RM5 ($1.13) for locals
17. Visit Sim-Sim Water Village in Sandakan
Just like its Sabah-sister cities, Sandakan also has a water village. The water village of Sim-Sim is made up of houses built on stilts. The houses and stills are built with a mix of wood, metal, and concrete. When you visit, you can check out its local market, and some restaurants, and book a boat tour. When you get here, make sure to eat at the Sim Sim Seafood restaurant and try out freshly caught seafood at affordable prices.
If you want a different view of the Sim-Sim Water Village, hike to the Sim Sim Hilltop which is also an incredible spot to watch the sunrise.
- Address of Sim-Sim Water Village: 90000 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
If you plan on seeing other things outside of Sandakan, my guide to the top Sandakan tours is here.
Map of Things to Do in Sandakan
A Brief History of Sandakan
The name Sandakan came from two words, “sanda” which means “to pawn” and “kan” which is a suffix. The direct translation of Sandakan is “place that was pawned”.
In late 1800, Sandakan was under the governance of the Sultan of Sulu. They made an arrangement to let Scottish explorer William Clark Cowie create a base as a trading port in exchange for guns and ammunition. Cowie, thus, called the base “Sandakan”. Although most people at the time called it “Kampung German” because of the high numbers of German traders. The name was changed to “Elopura” when the trade settlers were moved. But then the name was changed back to Sandakan.
Eventually, the town and entirety of Sabah fell under the jurisdiction of the British North Borneo Company, and Sandakan became the administrative capital. During World War II, Sandakan was badly bombed and most buildings were destroyed. The Japanese changed the name back to Elopura. In 1945, the town basically no longer exist.
After the war, the British Crown didn’t want to spend the money to rebuild Sandakan and moved the administrative capital of Sabaha to Jesselton (aka Kota Kinabalu). The government also, however, made plans to reconstruct the town since it held great value in terms of the export of timber and the fishing industry. It then became the “economic capital” of Sabah.
Where to Stay in Sandakan
There are a host of places to stay in Sandakan – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Sandakan, mid-range places to stay in Sandakan, and budget accommodation in Sandakan.
D’ Northstar Hotel and Spa, Sandakan: D’ Northstar Hotel and Spa, a luxury hotel in Sandakan has rooms that have an LCD TV, air-conditioning, a private bathroom with hot and cold shower, a hairdryer, and toiletries, a work desk, a fridge, an in-room safe, and a coffee/tea maker. As a guest, you can enjoy delicious dishes at their bistro and unwind with their spa services. This top hotel in Sandakan also provides daily housekeeping, dry-cleaning, and laundry services. Sandakan’s D’ Northstar Hotel and Spa is the perfect accommodation for a lush experience and relaxing time while in Sandakan. Check more reviews, room rates, and availability here.
Amanson sigNature Hotel, Sandakan: The Amanson sigNature Hotel in Sandakan is a great mid-range hotel and all rooms here have a flat-screen TV, air-conditioning, black-out curtains, a private bathroom with a hairdryer, towels, and toiletries, a desk, coffee/tea maker, an in-room safe, and a clothes rack. This excellent mid-range hotel in Sandakan has a restaurant, a bar, and a lounge area. The Amanson hotel in Sandakan also provides guests with daily housekeeping and complimentary WiFi throughout the property. The Amanson sigNature Hotel is a fabulous place to stay when exploring Sandakan. See rates and availability here.
OYO 1026 Hotel Lutana, Sandakan: The OYO 1026 Hotel Lutana in Sandakan is close to central Sandakan. Each room in this budget-friendly hotel in Sandakan has air-conditioning, a flat-screen TV, a mini-fridge, a seating area, and a private bathroom with a hairdryer. The budget Sandakan hotel is also ideally situated nearby a variety of restaurants, giving you plenty of dining options. The hotel also offers food delivery services and free WiFi throughout the accommodation. The OYO 1026 Hotel Lutana is the perfect budget-friendly hotel in Sandakan and is really popular among travelers, check out their rates and availability here now.
How to Get Around Sandakan
Your main mode of transportation around Sandakan is on foot. Sandakan town center is small enough to simply walk around, but remember to have proper footwear as some areas can be hilly. You can also take ride-hailing apps such as Grab or take taxis, but make sure to use the meter or compare the prices on Grab for a fixed price.
Where is Sandakan
Sandakan is located on the northeast coast of Borneo Island, facing The Philippines. It is 205 miles (330 km) from Kota Kinabalu by road.
How to get to Sandakan
From Kota Kinabalu, you can take an hour’s flight directly to Sandakan which costs about RM110 ($23) and up. For a more affordable option, you can take a bus, the ticket costs RM43 ($9.78), and it’s about a 6-hour drive. You can book the bus to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu here. Note that you’ll need the exact bus terminal details that I’ve included in the link.
My guide on going between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan is here.
To get to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur, there are daily direct 3-hour flights, and the ticket costs about RM179 ($41).
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Final Words on The 17 Best Things to Do in Sandakan
Sandakan is one of the few places in Malaysia that is not packed with tourists. The town might be small and offer very specific kinds of activities, but for me, the combination of visiting the wildlife areas of Sepilok, Labuk Bay, and the Kinabatangan River for starters along with the World War II memorials around Sandakan make it a must-visit place in Malaysian Borneo.
Stock images in this article are courtesy Deposit Photos.
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