Kuala Lumpur
Partly cloudy
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Wind from SW at 5kph

Sandakan - Borneo, Malaysia


Sandakan is a busy commercial centre at the entrance to a beautiful island-studded bay. Most activity centres on the docks and wharves that sprawl along the waterfront. Barges, ferries and motorboats of every description buzz around, unloading fish and other produce, and taking away rattan, timber, rubber, copra, palm oil and even birds’ nests. Compared to Sabah’s relatively anonymous state capital, Sandakan has character and even a certain downmarket charm. The real attractions lie outside the town, but there’s excellent seafood to enjoy and beautiful views from the hills at sunset.

Earlier known as Elopura, Sandakan is the second largest town of Sabah and hence quite important. Till 1946, it was the capital of the British occupied North Borneo. The town was going through its golden times when it was a central port of Sabah where traders from various countries used to visit. "Sanda" means pawn and therefore Sandakan is a place that is pawned.


With a typical rainforest climate, Sandakan faces incessant and heavy tropical shower and the average temperature hovers around 32° C to 27° C, being hot and humid during day and cool and soothing at night. From October through February, it remains monsoon in Sandakan, although rain is common almost throughout the year. April is comparative a dry month and experience very little downpours.

Language Spoken in Sandakan:

Most people in Sandakan speak in the national tongue that is Malay which can be distinguished by the touch of Sabahan dialect. The Malay spoken here is different the one used in the western part of Malaysia. Sandakan's vocabulary is very much influenced by the Suluk words. Apart from that, Chinese people with Cantonese tongue are also to be found here.

Getting there and getting around

Sandakan is well served by the Malaysian Airlines domestic network, and there are daily flights to Kuching, and KK, and Air Asia has a direct daily flight from KL. Malaysia Airlines also operates twin-otter flights to Tawau, Kudat, and Tomanggong (Tabin Wildlife Reserve).

A couple of companies run passenger ferries between Sandakan and Zamboanga in the Philippines, which is a popular route with overseas Philippines to visit their families. Boats also go daily from the Karamunting Jetty (about 4 km west of town) down the Kinabatangan River, which at over 560km in length, is Sabah’s longest river. Boats to Selingaan Island (Turtle Island) also leave daily form this jetty.

How to get around Sandakan:

Sandakan has several public and private transport options that may help one to travel around this place. Taxis are easily available but negotiating the fare is a must as they may charge big when it comes to the foreign travellers. Buses are also easy to get and the fares are quite reasonable. The town is cosy and small so walking around the streets might also be pleasurable and one can also enjoy the scenic beauty completely. Motorbikes are available on rent which can be used for the sightseeing in Sandakan.

Areas of Interest in and around Sandakan

Sandakan Memorial Park

Sandakan Memorial Park is in a quiet, wooded park just past the government buildings at Batu on the road to Ranau. Despite its tranquil appearance, this was the site of the Japanese POW camp and the starting point for the infamous ‘death marches’ to Ranau. There’s a very good exhibit with surviving prisoners’ accounts and photographs, in a chapel-like building at the centre of the park. In short, this park pays a tribute to those who participated in the Sandakan Death marches that took place during the World War 2.

Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre

One of only four orang-utan sanctuaries in the world, Sepilok is about 25km north of Sandakan. The centre was established in 1964; it now covers 40 sq km and has become one of Sabah’s top tourist attractions. Usually the Orang-utans are brought when they are either orphaned or injured.
Orang-Utans are the only species of great ape found outside Africa. A mature male is an impressive, not to mention hairy, creature with an arm span of 2.25m, and can weigh up to 144kg. Orphaned and injured orang-utans are brought to Sepilok to be rehabilitated to return to forest life, and so far the centre has handled about 100, although only about 20 still return regularly to be fed. The Orang-Utans are fed fruit, such as bananas, twice daily from a platform in the forest, about 10 minutes’ walk from the centre.
The Sepilok orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre can also make a great place for educational tours. Children enjoy the view of the baby Orang-utans and their playful activities and their interaction with their mother.

Agnes Keith House:

Agnes Keith House is the museum atop the hill with two storeys. This wooden villa reserves all the information of Agnes Keith who came to Sandakan as a forest conservator and documented many events that occurred during her stay in this place. There are pictures depicting her plight during the second World War when she was in prison and had to look after her child.
Apart from these, taking a tour into the Chinese Cemetery and the St. Michael and All Angels Church might also give a better idea of the cultural and ethnic diversity of this place.

Turtle Island National Park

Also known as the Pulau Penyu National Park, this park comprises three small islands – Pulau Selingan, Pulau Bakungan Kecil and Pulau Gulisan that lie 40km north of Sandakan.

Two species of marine turtles – the green and hawksbill – come ashore here to lay their eggs at certain times of the year. The eggs are collected by permanent staff based on Pulau Selingan and transferred to fenced hatcheries, where they are safe from illegal collections by fishermen, who eat or sell them, and other marine and winged predators. Once hatched, they are released back into the sea during darkness to enable them to get as far away from shore before dawn breaks.

(Illustrated: entrance to reception, ranger conservation look-out post and launch, life-guard station, hatcheries and beach)

Gomantong Caves

These limestone caves are Sabah’s most famous source of swiflets’ nests used for birds’-nest soup. The caves are 5km south off the road to Sukau, 20km from the main highway. You can venture in, but be warned – it will involve wading through ankle-deep bat guano alive with insects.

Sungai Kinabatangan

One of Borneo’s treasures, the lower Sungai Kinabatangan floodplain is home to an astonishing variety and richness of plant and wildlife, whatever time of year you visit. In 1999 some 27,000 hectares in the lower Kinabatangan were declared a protected area, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been actively working in the area with its ‘Partners for Wetlands Projects’ for the past 15 years. In 2001 the WWF succeeded in upgrading lower Kinabatangan to bird sanctuary status, and the next step is to have the area declared a wildlife sanctuary.

(Illustrated: one of the many river lodges along the river; river boat trip with guide; a shy proboscis money, and a long-tailed macaque).

Lahad Datu

Lahad Datu is a bustling boomtown bordering a lovely bay. There’s no real reason to stay in Lahad Datu except to arrange on-going transport to the Danum Valley. Danum Valley Conservation area is some 43 sq km of pristine wilderness on Sungai Segama, about 81km west of Lahad Datu. The conservation area supports an incredible diversity of wildlife. At present, botanical riches include 200 tree species per hectare; 275 bird species (many endemic to Borneo); and 110 species of mammals, including great rarities such as the Sumatran Rhino and the beautiful clouded leopard.

Jungle Walks and Canopy Walkways

A number of trails have been cleared around the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, although you aren’t allowed on most without a guide, either arranged by the field centre or the lodge. One of the best attractions of the Borneo rainforest Lodge is a canopy walk-way suspended 25m above the rainforest floor. It’s an ideal spot to look for bird life and save you craning your neck to look into the treetops.

(Illustrated: Borneo Rainforest Lodge; one of the canopy walkways; canopy walks with fellow jungle trekkers – Gemma and Sophie, and Neil and Hazel; an orang-utan in the wild.)

Pulau Sipadan

This small island 36km off the southern coast of Sabah attracts experienced and novice divers from all over Asia and further afield. The sea is teeming with colourful tropical fish and the island is billed as one of the world’s great diving destinations. Certainly friends of mine – Naomi and Nigel Walton – thought so, as they indicate so eloquently in their own written account of their time in the area. (Photos supplied by Nigel Walton PADU Master Instructor 616893)

Diving In Sipadan January 2006

In January 2006 we were lucky enough to be able to take a trip to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. As Diving Instructors we have dived in some of the best locations all around the world. We were very excited to be able to finally dive around Sipadan Island as we have read some great reports and seen amazing photo of the underwater life around the Island.

We booked our trip with Borneo Divers at their Kota Kinabalu office, and chose to stay at their Mabul Island Dive Resort close to Sipadan Island. All resorts have vacated Sipadan Island now as it a fully protected conservation zone, and UNESCO are pushing for it to be listed as a World Heritage site.

We were met at the airport and transferred in an air-conditioned mini bus to Semporna where we boarded a high speed boat to Mabul Island. The resort occupies a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach and there is easy access to the water for effortless diving. We were expecting quite basic accommodation and were surprised to find that the accommodation was in attractive and comfortable chalets, all with a view of the beach and the Borneo Mainland in the distance. The price of the accommodation included all meals which were served buffet style and were of a very high quality. There is a small bar where you can purchase a beer at the end of the day’s diving and relax on an open veranda looking out over the beach.

The diving is just amazing! During every dive we saw turtles and during one dive we turned in the water and counted fourteen different turtles all around us. Sipadan is home to the world famous Turtle Cavern which is located on the drop-off by the pier. We also saw black tip, white tip, nurse and grey reef sharks, and were very lucky indeed to see the rare ghost pipefish and a frogfish. Our favourite part of the whole trip was the first time we rolled off the back of the boat and had our first glimpse of the underwater world. There were two turtles and countless fish right underneath us and the water was warm and crystal clear.

Nigel & Naomi Walton

January 2006

Shopping in Sandakan:

The most popular shopping area in Sandakan is the Harbour Mall. It is common shopping mall visited by the travellers and the citizens alike. Apart from that, there is the Sunday street market where groceries to art pieces - all types of stuffs are available. Gentingmas shopping complex is also a favourite destination for those who are fond of buying household items, stationeries and clothes.