Sandakan Destination Guide
Meet the 'wild man of Borneo', the adorable orang-utan, at Sepilok, a sanctuary where young orphaned orang-utans are reared and then let back into the wild. Along the Menanggol River you can see a large variety of wildlife like monitor lizards, long-nosed proboscis monkeys, hornbills and several other cheeky bright eyed monkeys.
A visit to the Kota Kinabalu's Sabah State Museum and Heritage Village will treat you to several exhibits related to archaeology, natural history and ceramics, among other things. Traditional houses of the indigenous people of Sabah are on display at the Heritage Village.
An overnight stay on Turtle Island can reward you with the experience of watching turtles coming ashore for egg-laying.
This Sandakan Destination Guide gives some handy information about some of the exciting Sandakan highlights you can expect to see while visiting the country. While many of these sites can be seen independently you may find it more convenient, and more educational to take a tour with a local company. For useful general country information check out our Malaysia Country Guide.
Things to see & do in Sandakan
Follow the links to the right or scroll further down the page for details on some of the many interesting tourist attractions in Sandakan:
Themed nights and live music in hotels are the options for those looking for some nightlife in Sandakan. After sundown the place seems to go to sleep, with the only sounds coming from the jungles close by. Rains lash the islands from October to February. So time your visit between March and September for a pleasant stay, with calm seas and dry weather.
It is interesting to learn about how human intervention helps creatures in the wild. Orang-utans are an endangered species and thus a lot of effort goes into their rehabilitation. Young orang-utans need several acquired skills, which they learn from their mothers in the first few years, to survive.
Here, at the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, orphaned orang-utans are given a training that is similar to what the orang-utan mothers give. A lot of effort goes into this process with a 'kindergarten' being the first stage. Here, training is carried on in enclosed areas. The last stage of the training is in the open forest reserves in the sanctuary where the orang-utans roam unchecked. Visitors can see the orang-utans here.
Feeding times bring the animals to a feeding platform once at 10 am and again at 2.30 pm. Visitors get to see them at these times. There is a pathway leading to the feeding platform for use by visitors. Access to other areas and at other times is restricted so that the apes are not unduly disturbed.
There is a high possibility of meeting apes at feeding time along the pathway. If you do see them keep your distance and on no account make contact. Just watch and observe. However, do be on your guard for naughty long-tail and pig macaques. It is best not to carry anything in your hands as that is what makes the animals approach you.
Anything that you have can be left at the reception when you pay the entrance and camera fee. In the sanctuary you get to relish views of the dense forest populated by massive and uncommon rainforest trees. Close observation can show you orang-utan nests.
Once you have seen the orang-utans feeding you can go to the visitor centre, where a video presentation is screened. The presentation is a short film explaining the rehabilitation project and the importance of the Sepilok sanctuary and the rangers who work there.
The marine park that lies off Sabah's east coast is popularly referred to as Turtle Island Park, in the Sulu Sea, at a distance of 40 km north from Sandakan. The islands of Pulau Gulisan, Pulau Bakkungan Kecil and Pulau Selingaan taken together measure approximately 1,740 hectares.
The islands are formed over low-lying rocky shoals formed from the coral shingle of the surrounding coral reefs. Abundant plant life flourishes here, with the yellow-flowered sophora, lantana, the furry silver-leaved Tournefortia and mangroves being plentiful. Green turtles, Chelonia mydas, come to nest on Pulau Selingaan's shores. Hawksbill turtles, Eretmochelys, prefer Pulau Gulisan.
While both the species lay eggs all through the year, July to October are the best months for them. A few chalets on Pulau Selingaan provide accommodation for overnight visitors. The other two islands have no accommodation facilities. On all three islands visitors are allowed close to the shore after nightfall. This is done to ensure that the turtles are left as undisturbed as possible.
The park can be reached in an hour by boat, being located at a distance of 40 km from Sandakan. A narrow stretch of water separates the islands from Bakkungan Besar, a large Philippine island. In ancient times this stretch was a favourite of pirates and barter traders.
The Kinabatangan River, running all of 560km, is the longest river in the state. A cruise along this river will show you one of the world's richest ecosystems. The flood plains and dense mangrove swamps in Sukau and Lower Kinabatangan are home to the proboscis monkeys.
The views are spectacular where the Kinabatangan River meets the sea. While cruising up river you will pass several villages which are connected by the river. You also have the option of taking a conducted tour organised by tour companies from Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. During these trips you may glimpse elephants and other wild animals. The Sukau Rainforest Lodge is one such place from where you can board the river cruise.
You can also visit Puu Gih Jih, a Chinese temple located on a hill top behind Sandakan. The views of Labuk Bay from here are spectacular.
Do make the time to visit St Michael and All Angels Cathedral, one of Sabah's earliest stone building dating back to late 19th century.
Another must see spot is Buli Sim Sim, a charming water village on stilts, which is just 3 km east from Sandakan. Vans take visitors to Buli Sim Sim.
Sandakan Memorial Park is located near the government buildings, on the road to Ranau, at Batu. The park is a quiet retreat with dense greenery all around. This spot, tranquil at present was, during World War II, the site of the infamous Japanese POW camp. This is where the ‘death marches' started from. A chapel-like structure at the park's centre has several exhibits with photographs and accounts of surviving prisoners.
Heard of Sabah's famous birds-nest soup? The Gomantong limestone caves are the source for the swiflets' nests that the soup is made of. These caves are 5 km south from the road leading to Sukau. The caves are a good 20 km from the main highway. Visitors may go in, but many do not as the whole place buzzes with insects.
The lower Sungai Kinabatangan floodplain has an abundance of plants and wildlife the whole year through. This area is one of Borneo's natural treasures and 27,000 hectares were marked and given the status of a protected area in 1999.
‘Partners for Wetlands Projects', a World Wide Fund for Nature initiative, has been operational in the region for the past 15 years. The year 2001 saw the WWF awarding the status of a bird sanctuary to lower Kinabatangan. The next upgrade will result in a status of a wildlife sanctuary.
Lahad Datu is where you will stop en route to Danum Valley. There is a charming bay at the edge of this busy town. The Danum Valley Conservation area lies 81 km west of Lahad Datu and occupies 43 sq km of sprawling, unsoiled wilderness on Sungai Segama. An incredibly diverse species of wildlife thrive in this region. Studies have pinpointed the existence of 200 tree species in every hectare; 110 mammals, including the clouded leopard and the Sumatran Rhino; and 275 species of birds.
Quite a few trails have been readied in the vicinity of the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Trails can be used only in the company of a guide sent by the lodge or by the field centre. The best walkway here is the canopied one suspended a good 25 m above the forest floor. Avid birdwatchers find this spot ideal for watching birds. The view of the trees is also wonderfully different from here.
Pulau Sipadan is a small island which lies 36 km away from the southern coast of Sabah. Divers, both novices and experienced ones, find ideal diving conditions here. The sea has abundant tropical fish and is renowned as a popular diving destination the world over.
The famous Turtle Cavern is found on this island, close to the drop-off near the pier.