After spending a week in Kota Kinabalu, the charming capital of Sabah, I hopped on a plane to visit Sandakan. As the second largest city in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Sandakan has a surprising amount of activities to offer travelers.
Getting to Sandakan
There are two options for reaching Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu: By Air or Land.
At the moment google flights shows sub-$20 flights (78 RM) from KK to Sandakan leaving any day this month. That’s $10 each way for a last-minute flight, which is pretty good in my book. If you are bringing luggage you will need to pay an additional fee but if you came to Malaysia to go backpacking, well, throw that backpack in the overhead compartment and save your money for the park admission fees (see below).
If you are wanting a more adventurous trip you can try catching the bus that runs along the only highway connecting the two cities. Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan by bus cost 30RM each way (roughly $7.50). You can check the timetable here. It normally takes 6 hours to make the journey although accidents and traffic jams can push the trip towards 10 hours at times.
Choosing a hotel
Malaysia is a great destination for budget-minded travelers and for anyone looking to travel with a limited amount of money.
On my trip to Sandakan, I stayed at Four Points by Sheraton which looks to be the nicest hotel in the city. Its location, adjacent to the water, offered great views from the room and lounge. Also, how can you say no to an infinity pool? The cost of staying in the Four Points hotel in Sandakan usually runs about 200 RM per night ($50). Well within reason when you look at the quality you get.
Any hotel in Sandakan that cost more than 200 RM per night will be a nature lodge or “specialty accommodation”. There are a large number of hotels located on the small islands around Sabah, as well as many scattered around the interior, that offer a unique Borneo experience. These hotels are quite expensive due to their remote location and a limited number of rooms. One popular choice is Selingan Turtle Island hotel which runs around 1600 RM ($400) a night.
If you only care about having a bed to sleep at night you can consider staying at a budget hotel in Sandakan city. For 50 RM you can get a simple room with a reasonable level of comfort. A budget hotel is a good choice in Malaysia as the hotel tends to be the most expensive part of a vacation.
Top things to do in Sandakan
There are a number of interesting things to do in Sandakan while you’re here. Many people advised me to spend one day on my Sandakan tour. However, I’m happy I stayed for three days (and would stay longer if I could). Kota Kinabalu has more to offer as far as tour packages go, but Sandakan feels closer to the ‘real Malaysia’ experience I wanted. The food is more local Malay/Chinese, prices are cheaper, and there are less western options.
This is my list of the best places to visit in Sandakan.
Sim Sim Fisherman’s Village – Sim Sim is a group of houses, often called ‘stilt houses’, built on the water by local fishermen. It is correctly labeled as a slum in many reviews as the living conditions quite bad. However, Sim Sim is relatively prosperous when compared to other fisherman villages in the area and the have a few shops selling food and cold drinks to tourists. I had wanted to go to see the ‘real’ stilt houses but my taxi driver refused, claiming it was too dangerous. In summary, Sim Sim is a great chance to see this type of house and talk to the friendly locals, but it is quite sterilized when compared to the living conditions of thousands of Sabah’s poorest residents.
Orang Utan Sanctuary – Admission to the Orang Utan Sanctuary is 30 RM per person. As of 10/2016, there are two feeding times, 10am and 2pm. The number of primates the show up to the feeding times will be random so you can only hope for the best. When I went there were 6 Orang Utan who showed up during my 10am feeding. There is also a nursery where orphaned Orang Utan are cared for.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary – Labuk bay is located a ~20min drive away from the Orang Utan Sanctuary. The entrance fee is a bit higher at 60 RM but you can see a lot more of the monkeys interacting with each other. I went to see the 11:30am showing at platform B and enjoyed watching the show. There were a few babies causing mischief and entertaining the crowd as well.
Sandakan Memorial Park – This large park is a great place to walk around and relax in the afternoon. It can be very humid depending on the weather so come prepared. There is a memorial dedicated to the British, Australian and local soldiers who lost their lives fighting against the Japanese during world war II. The memorial describes the atrocities committed at the Japanese POW camp located near Sandakan.
Turtle Island Park – This is the one activity I didn’t get to do during my 3-day trip so I can’t speak from experience here. If I tour Sabah again I will put Turtle Island at the top of my list. This is an area where you can see green turtles year-round. The cost to visit the island is a bit pricey which is why I decided to forgo the experience this time.
Gomantong Cave Sandakan – This famous cave, located 2 hours away from Sandakan city, is home to hoards of swiftlets and bats. The nests of these small birds are still harvested inside the cave to make birds nest soup, a Chinese delicacy. It should be noted that this cave is incredibly smelly and has many cockroaches running around. If that kind of thing freaks you out, Gomatong might not be the right choice for you. The view at sunset as the bats come out to feed is a memorable sight and well worth the trip.
Sandakan Crocodile Farm – The crocodile farm is basically an amusement park for anyone who loves large reptiles with sharp teeth. Admission is 15 RM per person. The crocodile show is not happening at the moment so the quick walk around the park may be boring for some. They have a variety of animals such as deer, otters, and an ostrich. Small bags of food/leaves are available for 1 RM if you wish to feed the animals.
Puu Jih Shih Temple / Bao Gong Temple – These temples are a great visit for anyone interested in Chinese architecture. They are impressive in both size and design and make a great stop during your Sandakan tour.
Choosing a travel agency
Tours around Sandakan seem to be a bit more expensive than in Kota Kinabalu. Perhaps this is due to the numerous admission fees you will need to pay out at each of the wildlife parks. To get the cheapest rate you should skip the hotel tour desk and head out to the city. Sandakan is still a popular choice for tourists so there are many agencies to be found. The prices can be negotiated (within reason) and should be cheaper than what your hotel offers.
Another option is to take a private Sabah tour by taxi. This allows you to create a flexible and customized schedule for your day. After doing the math it ended up being cheaper to hire a taxi than join a tour, and more convenient as well. I paid 250 RM to hire the taxi driver from 8:30am – 4pm, he offered to continue but I was exhausted and ready to go back at that point. In addition to an increased number of stops on the ‘things to do in Sandakan list’ , I was also introduced to delicious local restaurants for breakfast and lunch. I would never have found these shops if it wasn’t for my local guide.
My three favorite things to eat/drink in Sandakan
If I made a list of all the great things to eat in Sabah I would never stop. These are three things you must try:
Teh Tarik – A sweet, flavorful milk tea.
Bak Kut Teh – This is a meal quite popular among Chinese-Malaysians. It consists of bowls of pork and fish stewed in a broth for hours. Tasty!
Soto – A cheap and popular noodle soup that can come with beef or chicken. Simple and filling.
My Sabah tour was a wonderful experience. I had the chance to try my new things in terms of both food and experiences. A 10-day trip is a bit longer than most people spend in Sabah, but I think the time was well spent. If anything, I’d like to have a couple more days in Sandakan. There is still a lot I could see and do there.
If I make another trip to Borneo I will make the trip to Miri and Mulu in Sarawak. The area is designated as a World Heritage site and filled with tons of adventurous things to do. Hopefully, I will soon be uploading a post on the unique Mulu Caves.
EDIT: I completely forgot to talk about my experience with the Sandakan Central Market. When it’s uploaded you can read about it here.