Sandakan was the former capital of British North Borneo until 1946. The town prospered in the early days due to its port with visiting traders from about the world. Sandakan is an important town to Australian and British WWII history with the infamous Death Marches commencing here in 1945. After WWII the capital moved to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu).
"Sandakan" is derived from the Suluk word "sanda", meaning to pawn, and "kan" being the suffix. So "Sandakan" means the place that was pawned. Who pawned it, and to whom, remains a mystery.
The most practical way for the short term visitor to get into Sandakan is by air. Self-drive, tour group or public bus are the other options.
Sandakan Airport (IATA: SDK) is connected directly daily with Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu by AirAsia, and to Kota Kinabalu by Malaysia Airlines and its subsidiary MASWings (which took over the rural air service from FlyAsian Express (FAX) on 1 October 2007). MASWings also has connecting flights with Tawau and Kudat.
From Kota Kinabalu:
- The bus will pass the junction to Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre and you can ask to be dropped off here. The centre is about 4 km down the road and costs 3-5 MYR pp by taxi to get to (drivers will be waiting at the bus drop-off).
KK city to KK North Bus Terminal in Inanam. By public bus, go to the bus station on Jalan Padang across from the State Library (1.50 MYR, 20 min), or by taxi (~20 MYR).
- KK North Bus Station (Inanam) to Sandakan. Several bus companies depart between 7AM-2PM, and 8PM (~5hrs, 33MYR).
- Tung Ma Express (Tel: +60 19-8827334 Mr Shim)-(buses from KK at 7AM, 8AM, 10AM, 12:30PM, 2PM, 8PM.
- Sida Express (Tel: +60 12-816 5524 Ms. Sanita Binte Sapena) has departures from KK at 7:30AM, 9:30AM, 11:30AM, 2PM, 8PM.
- Bunga Raya Express (Tel: +60 19-8999142 Ms. Suraidah Mohd) has departures from KK at 7:30AM, 9:30AM, 1:30PM, and 8PM.
You arrive in Sandakan at the express bus terminal on Jalan Utara. This is still approximately 15 minutes from downtown, and a taxi ride to downtown should cost RM 15.
To Semporna: Buses leave from the express bus terminal on Jalan Utara for Semporna at 730am, 8AM, and 2PM.
Weesam Express runs 2 ferry per week between Sandakan and Zamboanga, Mindanao (Philippines). See [www.zimnet.com/weesam/php/booking.php] for booking and schedule. It's a 13h/P2600 ride. Aleson Lines also runs ferries on the same way twice weekly but it's longer and more expensive.
Taxi - travel by taxi out to places such as Sepilok or the War Memorial is easy, however fare negotiation will be required as meters are not commonly available. Taxi to Sepilok wait and return 40myr. Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary 180myr. Airport from downtown 28myr. [Feb 2010]
Bus - there are buses and vans going everywhere in the areas around Sandakan, to the airport, Sepilok, Buli Sim Sim etc.
By foot - Sandakan is only a small town and it is easy to walk around. There is a walking trail which covers all the main sites.
Sandakan has always been a predominantly Chinese city. Unlike most other parts of Sabah, the main Chinese dialect in use among Sandakan's Chinese is Cantonese. However, the most widely spoken Chinese dialect in Sabah, Hakka, is also widely spoken and understood, as is Mandarin. Among locals, the lingua franca is Bahasa Malaysia (Malay). Most residents are able to understand and speak at least basic English. Other races, such as the Bajau and Suluk, may be able to speak their own native languages but generally these native tongues are not in common use as a lingua franca within the community.
- Sandakan Memorial Park - Located 11km from city, the memorial park is situated on the original site of the Japanese Prisoner of War camp. The memorial park is dedicated to the men who lost their lives in the Borneo Death Marches during the Second World War. A small museum in the centre of the park provides a sombre look at the atrocities which occurred. Negotiate a taxi to take you there (15 min), and expect to pay around RM 30 including waiting time. Entry is free.
- Puu Gih Jih - a Chinese temple on top of a hill behind Sandakan where you can get beautiful views of Labuk Bay.
- St Michael and All Angels Cathedral - erected in the late 19th century, it is one of the oldest stone buildings in Sabah.
- Buli Sim Sim - a picturesque water village on stilts, 3 km east of town past the big mosque. Vans go there from Sandakan.
- Agnes Keith House and Museum - former home of author Agnes Newton Keith, now restored as a museum.
- Sepilok - The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is where orang utans rescued from plantations and also from being kept as pets are re-adapted to living in the jungle. Most popular are the twice daily feeding times when the orang utans come out from the jungle. See the Sepilok page for more details.
- Turtle Islands Park - Three islands in ths Sulu Sea where you can see turtles laying eggs and also turtle conservation at work. You can only stay on Selingan Island. Overnight stays on Turtle Island are now offered at a whopping 600myr per person although the lowest rate is 265 myr according to the Information Centre [Feb 2010]
- Gomantong Caves - The massive cave is home to swiftlets and their nests are harvested as a Chinese delicacy. The harvesting processes involves people climbing to the roof of the caves with bamboo poles and ladders. Getting there/away: The easiest way to get to the caves is by car from Sandakan about 100 km away. Using public transport is difficult. The caves are on the itinerary of some tour companies.
- Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary - The journey to Labuk Bay is very rough and will take about half an hour from the main road, but it is worth it. You are guaranteed a sighting of these monkeys from a wooden balcony built in the middle of the mangrove forest. If you're lucky, you might even get to see some silvery lutungs and oriental pied hornbills. Learn more about the sanctuary here. It is definitely worth a visit, and can be arranged easily by a day tour. Entrance fee 60 MYR (March 2011). There's a bus at ~9AM for 15 MYR. Ask at the Tourist information office in Sandakan for more details.
- Go on a river cruise on the Kinabatangan - The 560km Kinabatangan River, the longest in the state, flows pass some of the richest ecosystems on earth, especially just before it meets the sea. The Lower Kinabatangan and Sukau areas are known for its mangrove swamps and flood plains, and is home to its most famous inhabitants, the proboscis monkeys. Up river, you will go past interesting villages where the river is still the main highway. There are also opportunities to view wildlife, including elephants. The best way to do this is through tour companies from Sandakan and even Kota Kinabalu.
- Visit the Botanical Gardens near Sepilok for a surprisingly good experience. Learn about Palm Oil and the rain forest. Walks and boats to enjoy.
Fancy "Salted Fish"? Prawn crackers & dried shrimps are tasty and available at the local market.
Dried "Ikan Bilis" is also a locally produced product available at most shops and even at the Airport; available to bring back as gifts.
Sandakan has good and fresh seafood.
- Restoran Ajmeer Located at mile 3 (Hing Lee) and mile 4 (Bandar Prima). Specialize in South Indian food and Malay-styled fried food. Also serve lamb briyani, fish head curry, dosai, idli, vadai and other Indian traditional food. They have been awarded as Cheap and Best Restaurant in town by Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs.
- 'Sandakan Curry House, Beside Hotel Indah, Mile 4, Bandar Indah. Indian and local food. Excellent Fish Head Curry.
- Habeeb Restaurant, at the third avenue in the town. Serve nice Indian and local food. Taste the Roti Cobra here.
- Imperial Bay View, in the newly developed Harbour Square. Serve nice Chinese food with reasonable prices.
- Ocean King Seafood Restaurant, Pasir Putih. A pier-like structure over the water, with indoor and outdoor seating. No menus, just pick your creature from the tanks and tell the waitress/chef how you want it prepared.
- Restaurant 2020, serves non halal Chinese cuisine, but is considered expensive by local standards. Located at Bandar Kim Fung, Mile 4.
- English Tea House, at Mile 1 of Jalan Utara, nice ambience and serve traditional English Food.
Also, don't forget the steamboat at the Trig Hill; it's very tasty and the seafood is very big. The price is also very reasonable.
- Tomato Sandakan. A casual restaurant serving local and western food. The menu is extensive and prices are very reasonable. Popular with locals and centrally located in town.
- Several famous hawkers' centre in Sandakan. There are a few hawkers' centres at Sandakan located at Central Market (2nd & 3rd floor), Bandar Kim Fung Market, and Mile Eight Market. They provide you with delicious foods (mostly Chinese & Malay Cuisine) and the prices are very reasonable. After you've finish your foods there, do not forget to buy some kuih (something like small cake) in the market in the same building (market).
About seven kilometres outside of town in a few shoplots, there are a number of entirely or partially Chinese vegetarian restaurants serving mock meat dishes. It's a good place to stop on your way back from the Memorial Park.
A great place to spend your evening in Sandakan is the alfresco, BaLin roofgarden on the 8th floor of NAK hotel in town. With panoramic views of the coastline and the entire stretch of town, its one of the best places to catch the Sandakan sunset and festive firework displays. Tropically designed, it has a mixed assortment of seating and chill-out corners; making the Sandakan-night sky your personal kaleidoscope. An innovative dining experience to follow. Try down along the waterfront as this area is being developed with new places opening all the time.
- Hotel City View at 60myr per standard room with a/c is great value. The hotel is in the town centre and the associated Hawaii Restaurant has a huge choice of excellent meals for 5 myr, popular with locals.
- Hotel London, Lot D1-D2,Block 10, Jalan Empat (Next to Masjid Jamek Mosque), ☎ +60 89-216366, +60 89-216371, e-mail: email@example.com. In the heart of the city is a great deal for budget traveller. The room is clean and beautiful as it is newly renovated though some rooms have ventilation problems giving damp bathrooms after showers. Free WiFi. Simple breakfast (toast and instant coffee) is served in the pleasant rooftop garden. Other facilities include tour arrangement, internet access corner, all rooms are ensuite and have satellite channel (DVD player upon request) and the hotel has a backup generator in case of power outage. 55-75RM (July 2011).
- Hotel Seafront, ☎ +60 89 222 233. Block 43, Fourth Land, Leila Rd, Sandakan. Located 5 mins walk to the water front. This hotel offers modern, clean and comfortable rooms suitable for the independent traveller wanting something mid-range. Internet is available in the foyer. Bookings can made via the website. Note that the hotel is 4 storeys and there is no lift.From 59 MYR single, 69 MYR double.
- NAK Hotel, ☎ +60 89 272988. In Town Centre; behind HSBC and Standard Chartered banks, Malaysian Airlines office, central market & bus station, . The oldest, purpose-built hotel in Sandakan. Family run since 1966. A mix of history and the contemporary. Recently refurbished. Some rooms are thematically designed, with views of the sea. Others are not. Expect to pay MYR118 plus.
- PAT'S Bed and Breakfast Lodge, Mile 1½ North Road, between bus station and city. Tel: 60 019 5843895 or 60 016 8345488. Manageress: Patricia Pascua. Family home atmosphere, clean dormitory rooms with fan or A/C. RM29 per pax. Comfortable living room and nice balcony. Kitchen for your own use. Laundry service available.
- Sandakan Backpackers. Backpacker guesthouse with small dorm rooms at R25 and private rooms starting at R55. All with harbor views. Laundry runs at an expensive RM15 per kilo. Run by the owner, Zaina, who doubles as a travel agent. On Harbor Square near Gentingmas Mall, near the KFC.
- Sea View Sandakan Budget & Backpackers Hotel, Lot 126, 1st Floor, Harbour Square 14, 90000 Sandakan (Near the harbour opposite the Central Market), ☎ +60 89-221 221, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Clean, quiet and safe. Upon arrival, guests are welcomed with traditional banana fritters and a drink. Fan and air-conditioned rooms. Price includes pancake breakfast. Tour packages for Sepilok Orang-Utans, Kinabatangan River Cruise, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey and Selingan Turtle Island can be arranged upon request. Motorbikes are available for rentals. RM 20 upwards.
- Tai Lee Hotel, ☎ +60 89-210220. It is located in Block A, Bandar Kim Fung, Mile 4, Sandakan. Room rates start from RM53 to RM75. There are three different room types to choose from. It is a strategic and convenient place located in the middle of Sandakan, where buses and taxis are easily accessible, just in front of this Hotel. It is completed with WIFI, aircon and two channels of Astro (including Astro Sports, and Wah Lai Toi). Besides, there are shoplots including restaurants, pharmacies, supermarkets, etc.
- WinHo Lodge, Off Lebuh Dua, Town centre, Sandakan. Comfortable beds and decent sized rooms for all budgets including dorms. Double rooms, come with A/C, free wifi, ensuite and TV, and start at RM55, possibly cheaper if booked through a hostel site. March 2012
- Swiss-Inn Waterfront Sandakan, ☎ +60 89 240 888, fax: +60 89 214 888. HS12, Sandakan Harbour Square, Sandakan. Room rates start at RM140++. New hotel, located right on the waterfront esplanade. 138 trendy and compact rooms, all with A/C, free wifi and LCD TV.
Tour Groups - there are many outfits offering tours to Sepilok via Sandakan and will take is the other nearby attractions.
Turtle eggs, while illegal, are obtainable at the local wet market at a very cheap rate. Bringing it out, or even buying it, when found by the custom officers or wildlife officers can really ruin your trip as they will press charges again you. Do not try! Do not get caught with turtle eggs in your luggage as police and customs officials will take a very serious view of this.