East Sabah on the island of Borneo is a nature lover's paradise. Very few places in the world provide the average visitor such easy access to rainforests, endangered species, and nature centers. Sandakan - the second-largest city in Sabah - serves as the perfect base for exploring East Sabah's natural delights.
The seven-hour journey by bus from Kota Kinabalu will be easily forgotten once you get to witness life in the rainforest!
- Read more about getting around Sabah.
Even harder to find than orangutans, the strange-looking proboscis monkeys are a must-see before leaving Borneo. Biologists estimate that less than 1,000 proboscis monkeys remain in the wild. The males' huge noses and strange antics make watching these special creatures highly entertaining.
An estimated 300 monkeys live in the sanctuary at Labuk Bay. Visitors can take a river cruise and spot monkeys, crocodiles, and a huge variety of birds.
Getting There: From Sandakan take a minibus to Batu 19 from the minibus lot on the waterfront, then a 15-minute taxi to the sanctuary.
- Read more about Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.
Twice a year men scramble up a rickety latticework of ladders and bamboo poles, risking their lives to harvest abandoned swiftlet nests. The nests - some of which sell for astronomical prices - are used to make Chinese bird's nest soup. Harvest seasons are from February to April and from July to September.
Along with watching the dangerous nest harvest, visitors are treated to the sight of an estimated two million bats exiting the cave entrance each evening.
Getting There: Getting to the caves is tricky. You must either arrange a tour in Sandakan, or take the Sukau-bound minibus and ask to be let out on the road to the caves. It is a three-mile walk from the road intersection to the caves.
Situated an hour from Lahad Datu on the east coast of Sabah, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is the place to see some of Borneo's largest animals. Sumatran rhinos and Borneo pygmy elephants roam freely. A mud volcano provides mineral-rich mudbaths for visitors who don't mind getting dirty. Hot springs attract a huge variety of animals that come to lick the salt.
Accommodation is available inside the wildlife reserve.
Getting There: Lahad Datu is located four hours south of Sandakan on the way to Semporna.
Mention the name Sipadan in front of any scuba diver and their eyes will instantly glass over. Situated in the Indo-Pacific Basin, Sipadan provides diving in the richest marine habitat in the world. The reefs and diving around Sipadan and nearby Mabu are simply unmatched anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, the secret about Sipadan is out; getting accommodation and a permit to dive take patience. If you intend to dive around Sipadan on your trip, making arrangements should be your first priority!
Getting There: The nearest airport is in Tawau, an hour's drive from Semporna. From Semporna it is a 40-minute speedboat ride to Mabul or Kapalai where the only accommodation exists.
- More diving in Sabah.
The Turtle Islands Park - only one hour from Sandakan by speedboat - is a beautiful island sanctuary for nesting sea turtles. Endangered hawksbill turtles and green turtles lay eggs on the beaches between July and October.
Aside from viewing the turtles, superb snorkeling, diving, and swimming can be enjoyed in the pristine water around the islands. A Sabah Parks office, education center, and accommodation are available on the islands.
Getting There: Go to Sandakan Harbor to arrange boat transport or call 089-212-711.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre was established in 1996 as an environmental education center. Three steel walkways are suspended above the rainforest canopy, providing visitors a chance to view birds from a dizzying 100 feet above the ground.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre hosts around 250 species of birds - many of which are endangered - as well as walking trails and a Plant Discovery Garden.
Getting There: The RDC is located only 20 miles from the Sandakan Airport along the same road as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Any bus - including those marked for "Batu 14" - going to Sepilok will actually pass by the entrance; ask the driver to drop you at the Rainforest Discovery Centre.
Over 350 miles long, the Kinabatangan River is a haven for wildlife driven from their homelands by logging and palm plantations. Visitors stay overnight in the tiny village of Sukau and take boat cruises up the river to view wildlife. Spotting three or more endangered species in one day is a common occurrence in this remote area!
Elephants, crocodiles, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and a long list of other hard-to-find species can be observed in the wild along the banks of the muddy Sungai Kinabatangan.
Getting There: Sukau is located about three hours outside of Sandakan. Packaged tours are available or you can make your own way to Sukau via the once-daily minibus from Sandakan.
One of Sabah's top attractions, SORC draws an average of 800 tourists a day to observe orangutans in their natural habitat. Considered the foremost orangutan rehabilitation center in the world, SORC doesn't only educate the orangutans to survive - you are guaranteed to leave there with a renewed respect for animals and the world that we live in.
Accommodation for all budgets is available just outside of the rehabilitation center.
Getting There: Sepilok is located about 40 minutes from Sandakan by bus. Take any bus from the waterfront bus lot to "Sepilok Batu 14".
Admission: $10 for adults; bringing a camera inside costs an additional $3.50.