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 500,000 people, Sandakan is Sabah's second largest city. Daily life unfolds on the busy streets which are refreshingly far less touristy than those in 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.
Orientation in Sandakan
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 Gentingmas Mall complex is located on the left end of the waterfront; a small naval base marks the far right. Hawker stalls and vendors peddling durian fruit and delicious foods can be found nearly everywhere along Jalan Coastal.
A new, multi-level Central Market can be found on the far left of the waterfront. The Central Market has fruits, gifts, and delicious food on the second floor.
Taxis and minibuses are easily secured for getting to the sites outside of the city. Buses for various locations depart from the front of the Gentingmas Mall as well as the minibus lot on Jalan Coastal. Long-distance buses leave from Batu 2.5 - three miles north of the city.
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. Nightowls can still find cheap food and drinks at the Harbour Bistro Cafe near the naval base on the waterfront.
A helpful Tourist Information Office with maps is located inside Wisma Warisan at the junction of Lebuh Tiga and Jalan Utara.
Sites and Activities Around 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 noise and concrete.
- 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 $20; bringing a camera inside costs an additional $3.50. Read more about Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.
- 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.
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. Admission with a camera costs around $13.50.
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.
- Read more about the Sepilok Orangutan 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 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 Batu 2.5 - a busy bus lot three miles north of the city center. A taxi to the city center costs around $3.50 or you can cram into one of the small minivans on the main road. To catch a minibus, turn left out of the lot and start walking; a ride costs 33 cents.
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!