Sandakan is the second city of Sabah, and many people flock here for the famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which rescues and rehabilitates these 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. You can see several monuments in their honor all over Sandakan.
The main reason to come to Sandakan is to check out this great history here as well as an abundance of gorgeous rainforests, and anyone who loves wildlife should make sure not to give it a miss. Some of the spots you can visit as part of a trip to Sandakan include fantastic rainforest walkways and mighty tropical rivers. This is one of Borneo‘s most unspoiled parts that will give you a great insight into the culture in this part of the world.
Visit the turtles at Selingan Turtle Island
Selingan Turtle Island is a conservation area off the coast of Sandakan dedicated to taking care of turtles and releasing them back into the wild.
There is a turtle hatchery where you can check out the baby turtles as they hatch and are released into the ocean, and there are some primary 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 see from July to October as this is when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in the sand.
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 swiftlets, which are edible and are used to make bird’s nest soup.
There are actually two main cave chambers here: 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.
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 orangutans that have been poached or illegally kept as pets and care for them before releasing them back into the wild.
There are several feeding platforms where you can check out these fantastic apes when they come in search of fruit. However, 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 orangutans.
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 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.
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.
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 and hundreds of flowers and various animals, and you will be 100 feet above the forest floor, so there is a chance you may even see a graceful orangutan swing by.
Shop at Sandakan Central Market
If you want to try some local food in Sandakan, check out the Sandakan Central Market, which isn’t much to look at from the outside but is one of the town’s tastiest spots.
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.
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 vast 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.
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 an excellent way to learn a little more about the city’s history, as many of the stops on the trail are places of historical and cultural interest.
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 lodge and still have a good chance of seeing orangutans swinging by.
It may not be the cheapest place to stay in Sandakan but it is well worth it for the forest views.