With 150 000 citizens, Sandakan is the second-largest city of the Sabah Region and was originally the capital city of North Borneo until 1946 when it was switched to Kota Kinabalu at the end of the Second World War. Sandakan was founded in the 15th Century during the Bruneian Empire but was completely destroyed during the Second World War. Although today it is a modern city, it has very few tourist specific landmarks to visit. Nevertheless, the city is very pedestrian-friendly with a lovely 2.5km heritage trail past some significant landmarks and with great views. The friendly and good-natured people are what really make Sandakan worth a short stay.
Most people, however, visit Sandakan to see the famous Borneo Orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which is less than 20kms outside of Sandakan and rescues and rehabilitates Orangutans.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN SEPILOK
SANDAKAN OR SEPILOK - WHERE TO STAY?
There are far more budget accommodation options available in and around Sandakan than there are in Sepilok. Although most wildlife attractions are actually based in Sepilok, it is quick and easy enough to reach these either by Grab taxi from Sandakan or by public bus (number 14). It is also easier to find cheap local food around Sandakan, whereas you may be limited to eating at your accommodation if you stay in Sepilok. We chose to stay in Sepilok (at Sepilok Bed & Breakfast) so that we could walk to the Rain-forest Discovery Center. There are only a few eateries in Sepilok, of which Mama Wati's is the only real local spot. We ate all our meals here and they were both delicious and cheap!
SANDAKAN - WHAT TO SEE AND DO FOR FREE
The Sandakan Heritage Trail
You can get a free map online or from your accommodation and there are also many maps on signposts all around Sandakan. The trail starts at the Masjid Jamik As Sheikh Hasabollah At-Tohiri, which is a very simple structure from the outside and could easily be missed entirely.
Sandakan Central Market (Pasar Umum Sandakan)
Stroll through the Sandakan Central Market (Pasar Umum Sandakan) and do some shopping here. The market is busiest in the mornings, with the ground floor selling everything from fruit and vegetables to a wide and colourful variety of fresh fish and meat. On the first floor, you will find clothing, local crafts and souvenirs, while the second floor is made up of many various small eateries. This is by far the cleanest fresh market that we have encountered across Asia. Even if the eateries on the second floor don't interest you, you can enjoy a pretty good view over the bay from there.
Sandakan Harbour Mall
If you didn't find what you were looking for at the Sandakan Central Market, then head over to the Sandakan Harbour Mall just next door.
Sandakan Memorial Park
Situated about 11 km outside of Sandakan, this is the former site of the notorious WWII prisoner of war camp. The park also includes a small museum that serves as a memorial to the thousands of Australian and British who lost their lives in the hands of the Japanese during WWII.
Sandakan Crocodile Farm
Sandakan Crocodile Farm is very close to the Sandakan Memorial Park and has many other animals in addition to crocodiles. This is great for kids.
Buli Sim Sim Water Village
Walk amongst the Buli Sim Sim Water Village and have a seafood lunch here. This is the site of the original town of Sandakan which began in 1879 and you can observe the lives of some of the local fishermen families in neat wooden houses as they go about their daily activities.
Admire the Buddhist temples of Sandakan
Puu Ji Shih Temple is a beautiful Chinese-style Buddhist temple located on a hilltop at Sandakan Bay. Sam Sing Kung Chinese Temple is another Buddhist temple also known as the Temple of the Three Saints. You will find both of these Buddhist temples along the Heritage Trail.
Sandakan Jalan Chinese Cemetery
Walk around the Chinese Cemetery (Jalan Chinese Cemetery). Different cultures have different methods for interring their bodies, as can be seen in the Sandakan Cemetery, one of the most fascinating burial grounds in all of Asia. Here, the Chinese graves adhere to ancient feng shui principles aimed at soothing the spirits of the dead. You will see that each grave vaguely resembles a home, backing into the hill and also backed by solid horseshoe arches, which serve to block the winds of bad luck from disturbing the body within. The good feng shui is continued with flowing water in front of each grave. We really liked being able to visit this interesting place and would definitely say it is worth the short detour from the Heritage Trail.
Sandakan Massacre Memorial
The Sandakan Massacre Memorial consists of three monuments built on the spot where the massacre took place and where the victims were buried. It is located near the Chinese cemetery on a hill above the old town centre of Sandakan. From here you get a great view over the Chinese Cemetery and over the bay.
Sandakan Japanese Cemetery
The Japanese Cemetery is part of the extended Sandakan Heritage Trail, located on a hill about 2 kilometres from the town central business district and beyond the Chinese Cemetery. It is sometimes referred to as the Haunted Jungle Cemetery and unfortunately, due to rain, we never quite made it there.
Enjoy Sunset at the Sandakan Esplanade together with the locals. We were here over a weekend and really enjoyed the local vibe around sunset when everyone came out to enjoy the cooler time of the day.
Be sure to grab a bite to eat at one of the local eateries or if you prefer air-conditioned comfort, you can visit the food court at the Sandakan Harbour Mall.
SANDAKAN DAY TRIPS
Selingan Island / Turtle Island Park
Selingan Island forms part of the Turtle Island Park and is located about 40km north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea. The best way to visit this island is with a 2 day 1-night package deal as there is only limited accommodation on the island itself and the main turtle laying and hatching activity also takes place at night.
Most people end up in Sandakan to see the famous Borneo Orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which is less than 20kms outside of Sandakan and rescues and rehabilitates Orangutans. See our full article on WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN SEPILOK.
Together with Sepilok, the Kinabatangan River is probably the most visited attraction from Sandakan. Here you can enjoy a local home-stay along the river. The main attraction to this area is wildlife spotting from the River itself and for this, we would suggest allocating enough time (and money) for more than one river trip in order to increase your chances of spotting some of the wonderful wildlife of this area such as the Pygmy Elephant, Crocodiles, Proboscis Monkeys, Hornbills and many other birds. If you don't have your own transport, be sure to read our article HOW TO GET TO SANDAKAN AND SEPILOK.
If you have your own transportation and are making your way from Sandakan to Kinabatangan River, why not visit the Gomantong Caves. Gomantong Hill is the largest limestone outcrop in the Lower Kinabatangan area and is home to the intricate Gomantong Cave System. The Cave consists of two caves and the highlight is by far, seeing the thousands of bats leaving the cave around sunset. The Gomantong Caves are about 95km from Sandakan.