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Sandakan is the second-largest city in Sabah, East Malaysia, on the north-eastern coast of Borneo. It is located on the east coast of the island. Sandakan is known as the gateway for ecotourism destinations in Sabah, such as the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, the Rainforest Discovery Centre, Turtle Islands Park, Kinabatangan River and Gomantong Caves.
As Sandakan was almost totally destroyed in World War II, there are few surviving buildings of any age. However some of the main sights today include Agnes Keith House, Sandakan War Memoiral Park, Sam Sing Kung Temple, Kampung Buli Sim Sim Village, Crocodile farm and the Sandakan market.
It's not much to look at, but the city of Sandakan is an important port city and served as the capital of British North Borneo from 1883 to 1946. During World War II Sandakan was bombed to the ground (both the Allies and the Japanese bombed it), and when the colonialists returned the capital was moved to the town of Jesselton, which was renamed Kota Kinabalu.
Sandakan's strategic location saw it occupied by Japanese forces in 1942 and held by them till very late in the Pacific War, with Australian forces liberating it in October 1945. It was in the Sandakan region that theSandakan Death Marchesoccurred. Australian and British POWs (many of whom had been captured during the fall of Singapore) were transported to Sandakan to build an airstrip in 1942 and 1943. In early 1945, following the allies destroying the airport by aerial bombardment, the Japanese commander decided to march in a series of three marches over 1,000 POWs inland to the town of Ranau, some 260 km away. By the end of July 1945, less than 50 of the POWs were still alive.
Today, Sandakan is best known as the gateway to spectacular eco-tourism destinations like the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and safaris along the Kinabatangan River. The city itself has a few minor attractions like the Agnes Keith House, and most visitors pause only one day here to find an ATM and have a hot shower before heading out into the wilderness.
The town of Sandakan, once claimed to have the greatest concentration of millionaires anywhere in the world during its heyday as a timber centre, was developed on its present site in 1879, after an earlier settlement accidentally burned down. The region had been known for centuries for its pearls, camphor, bee's wax, sea cucumbers, and edible birds' nests. This attracted traders from the nearby Sulu sultanate and from as far away as China.
A group of British businessmen bought the rights to the northern tip of Borneo from the sultans of Brunei and Sulu and established British North Borneo in 1881. Sandakan was made its capital in 1884. In 1942, during World War II, the Japanese army took control and established a POW camp. It was from here that the infamous Death March to Ranau began in January 1945. Of the 2,400 POWs who left Sandakan, only six survived. What little of the town was left after repeated Allied bombings was burned to the ground by the Japanese.
Where You are Dock
Cruise ships dock at the Karamunting Port in Sandakan, approximately 7.5 miles (12 kilometres) from the city centre. Taxis are not readily available at the pier. There is no terminal, and no tourist facilities are available at the pier. Caution: Guests are urged to leave expensive jewellery, watches and other valuables aboard the ship. Be aware of pickpockets in crowded areas.
Things to See and Do in Sandakan
Famous attractions in Sandakan are the Sandakan War Memorial Park, Sandakan Big Market, Phu Jih Shih Temple, Labuk Bay, St Michael Cathedral, All Angels Cathedral, Buli Sim Sim and Agnes Keith House.Outside the city the following attractions are worth a visit: Sepilok (entrance fee RM30, camera fee RM10), the canopy walk at the Rainforest Directory Centre, Turtle Island (Selingan Island), Lankayan Island, Libaran Island (for relaxing, river cruises or night fishing), Crocodile Farm, Heritage Trail, Gomantong Caves and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.
Meet the Orangutans
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is located approximately 30 minutes out of Sandakan. The people at Sepilok do an amazing job rehabilitating orphan orang-utans and gradually releasing them back into the wild after they have learned how to look after themselves.
It has a rare opportunity to enter this conservatory, thanks to the fine arrangements by Four Points by Sheraton. Located across the road from Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, this hidden gem will only be open to public around the end of the first quarter of 2013. The omnivorous Bornean Sun Bears are the smallest bear species in the world and they are extremely rare, hence the need for conservation. Their common name is derived from the unique golden crescent-like patch found on its chest. The patch itself provides a unique identification for each bear, kind of like a fingerprint. They are are also known as honey bears for their love of honey, dog bears for their size, and in the Malay language, they are known as ‘Beruang Madu’.
Hang out at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
Set up in 1964, this popular Orangutan sanctuary in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve is administered by the Wildlife Department of Sabah. Visitors can observe the orangutans and macaques antics during feeding times at 10am and 3pm.
Feeding time at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Close to the city of Sandakan, nearby the small town of Sepilok, you will find Sandakan's biggest (and Sabah's 2nd biggest) tourist attraction; Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC). The rehabilitation center was founded 1964 with the aim of returning orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans into the wild. The ground where the rehabilitation centre is located is part of the 4,300-hectare Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre falls under the administration of the Wildlife Department of Sabah. Have you always dreamt about a close encounter with an orangutan? At this centre you're able to see the orangutans in their rehabilitation programs. At Sepilok the orangutans are divided in groups. The most independent ones are released in the wild after a certain period of time; you can watch them during feeding-time. Today up to 75 orangutans are roaming freely in the reserv
Visit the Agnes Keith House and The English Tea House
Situated on top of a hill, this colonial wooden bungalow (officially named Newlands) had been the home of the famous American author Agnes Newton Keith, her husband, Harry Keith and her children before and after the Japanese occupation (1941-1945). Three of her published books, Land Below the Wind (1939), Three Came Home (1946), White Man Returns (1951) chronicled the family’s life in Borneo including the time spent as prisoners of war. Due to the books worldwide success and recognition including a Hollywood film inspired by Three Came Home, Sandakan and the rest of Borneo became known to the world. Three Came Home was written about her experiences in a prison camp with her young son during the Japanese Occupation of Sandakan which lasted 2 ½ years.
Today, the Newlands house has been restored and turned into a heritage house cum museum, providing interesting insights into life during British North Borneo, Agnes Keith’s life, and also furnished with a reproduction of colonial furniture and antiques. If the antiquity thing is just too much for you, just a skip away is The English Tea House where a wide selection of branded teas (including the Sabah variety) is available for tea lovers, booze for the serial drinker, a respectable menu to keep the tummy filled, a well manicured garden to graze on, and an awe-inspiring view of Sandakan Bay to keep it all together.
Agnes Keith is one of the landmarks for Sandakan Heritage Trail. There at least 10 more heritage locations you may want to visit. Find out more from your hotel or the tourist center when you arrive in Sandakan. She submitted it to an American Literary competition and won, so went on to write two more books: Three Came Home (1946) and White Man Returns (1951).
Agnes Keith House. Firstly, it gives you a very eerie feeling, as if you have literally stepped back in time and into the lives of Agnes and her family.  You can imagine how Sandakan was in its heyday in the 1930’s – a bustling town full of very brave adventurers and explorers pioneering the wild lands of Borneo.
Secondly, I bought Agnes’s first book and read it while I was in Sandakan.  It adds a lot of depth to travel when you delve into the history and stories of a place.
It was a great way to start a stay in Sandakan as it gave me a completely different perspective on the town that you see today, and an appreciation for its history and past beauty.  Afterwards, high tea in the beautiful gardens of the English Tea House next door. Under the beautiful shady trees, with a very welcoming cool breeze, while overlooking Sandakan and its harbour is very highly recommended!
Kinabatangan River
A boat trip up the Kinabatangan River lined by the thick, lush jungle gave us the chance to see plenty of families of probiscus monkeys playing in the trees alongside.  The river is the second largest in Malaysia and is 560km long, and approximately two hours drive from Sandakan.You can often see water buffalo, crocodiles, orangutans and pygmy elephants but they all must have had a better offer on the day we were there!  We were on a day-tour, however, in hindsight it would have been far better to stay there for a night to have extra time in the jungle and more chances to see the wildlife on the river at different times of the day. At 560km, the mighty Kinabatangan is the largest and longest river in Sabah, and the second longest in Malaysia. The name originates from a mix of a indigenous names for Chinese (Kina) and River (Batangan) due to the arrival of the Chinese in the area for trade in ancient times. The river and surrounding areas teem with animal and plant life attraction, making this destination one of the best places in Malaysia to visit.
The attractions here are the natural lowland dipterocarp forests, riverside scenery and oxbow lakes which gives opportunity for wildlife spotting on the river, as well as on night walks organized by nature lodges. Due to the high concentration of wildlife, visitors will not leave Kinabatangan without spotting at the very least an indigenous proboscis monkey, orangutan, monitor lizard, long and short tailed macaques, crocodiles, snakes, pygmy elephant, slow loris or even, a western tarsier.
Delve deep into the Gomantong Caves
Located in the lower section of the Kinabatangan River, the caves in the Gomantong Hill, are home to many swiftlets who built nests high up in the ceiling of the cave. Abandoned nests located into 2 cave sections, Simud Hitam and Simud Putih, provide a source of income for licensed businesses which collect the nests to sell it to Chinese Medicinal Halls. Visitors get to marvel at the cave structures and the death defying ways which bird’s nest collector use to collect the best nests in the highest sections. In the evenings, a bat exodus provides a grand spectacle as well.
The Gomantong Caves are home to over two million bats and were featured on the BBC’s series Planet Earth.  They are absolutely massive and are famous for harvesting the birds nests from the lofty heights used for the Asian soup delicacy, by locals using ladders, ropes and bamboo poles.
The ground is moving with cockroaches – not on the wooden walkway thank goodness. As we entered the caves we were wisely advised by people coming out “don’t touch the handrails!” and my advice is wear non-slip shoes! If you look at the walkway handrail in the photo below, it gives you an indication of how big the caves actually are! Enter if you dare! Taxis are cheap and plentiful, as they are in many parts of Asia; so getting to Sepilok, Agnes Keith House and the memorial gardens is easy and cheap.  The caves and river are a couple of hours from Sandakan, so most easily accessed by jumping on a day-tour (or overnight stay) or by hiring your own local taxi and driver if you prefer.
English was spoken by most people that we encountered so that was no trouble at all.The beauty of Borneo is its wildlife so getting out in the jungles and rivers, or off the coast diving will give you the best Borneo has to offer.  Flying into Sandakan is a great starting point for the North East, but experiencing the wildlife as close up as you can is where the real adventure is
Selingan Turtle Island
At a 40km distance from Sandakan you can visit the Turtle Island. The Turtle Islands National Park comprises of 3 islands, Selingan, Gulisan and Bakungan Kechil (actually 10 in total, where 3 belong to Malaysia and the other 7 to the Philippines). The island got this name because of the many turtles that swim in the waters around the island. It is also the place where female Green turtles and Hawksbill turtles lay their eggs on the islands' beaches. Throughout the year, they come ashore at night to lay their eggs; usually in batches of 50 to 80.
The busy little port is the main port of the federal state of Sabah on Borneo, which is part of Malaysia. It has a forestry museum providing an overview of the country's plant species as well as the famous Sabah Orchid House with a magical collection of rare orchids. The Gomantong cave complex, home to the thousands of swallows that build the nests which are used to make the Chinese delicacy of bird's nest soup, is also worth a visit. Not far from Sandakan there is also a crocodile farm, with over 1,000 animals. It serves mainly for breeding purposes; wild stocks are boosted with young animals from here.
Lankayan Island
Not far from the city of Sandakan, easternSabah, lies the island of Lankayan. Lankayan is a small but beautiful tropical island in the Sulu Sea. The island is very popular among scuba diving enthusiasts and is often visited to get some well deserved rest after having done one of the activities on Borneo. The area around Lankayan is an official protected marine park; this was done to preserve the rich eco-tourism value. Unfortunately this doesn't stop fishermen from illegal fishing  in the waters around (below) Lankayan. There is only one resort on the island, Lankayan Island Dive Resort, and because of this prices are not that cheap compared to other tropical islands in Malaysia. Between June and September turtles come to shore to lay their eggs. During the same season visitors can witness baby turtle hatchlings that find their way into the sea. Most common turtles that can be found around Lankayan are the Green Turtle and the Hawksbill Turtle. So many turtles live in this area that even people who only do snorkeling are able to spot them underwater.
Through the port of Sandakan, travelers can reach locations where tours, activities and opportunities are laid out to explore the beauty of this ecotourism-centered port. The Turtle Island Park is great for families who want to see abundant plant life, mangroves, and of course, green turtles. One can also cruise along the Kinabatangan River to check out exotic wildlife.
The historical St. Michael and All Angels Cathedral, an early stone building that goes way back to the nineteenth century are a must-see. Visitors who have the time can also take a van and drive over to the Buli Sim Sim which is a rather charming water village that stands on stilts.
With a guide’s company, tourists can even go for jungle walks and watch birds at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Japanese Cemetery
This memorial pays tribute to Japanese migrants, including Japanese girls sold into prostitution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Australian Memorial Park
Located on the site of what was the POW camp in Taman Rimba, this memorial commemorates Allied soldiers who lost their lives during the Japanese Occupation.
When Sandakan was officially recorded in western history books in the midst of 19th century, its founder and early trader William Pryer called it Elopura or ‘Beautiful City’. Later on, it was known as Little Hong Kong, either due to the town harbour’s semblance to the original island city when viewed from the sea, or the large population of Chinese residents originating from Guangdong province. The town had once been a thriving place where trades of pearls, tobacco, camphor, bee’s wax, sea cucumber, edible bird’s nest and timber were in abundance. This led to the harbour city’s claim of having the highest concentration of millionaires in the world.
Sandakan today is a busy city undergoing a major face lift. A new business district has been built on the waterfront paving the road for bigger prospects for its residents and investors.
Here is our list of the top 12 things to do when you are visiting Sandakan. The list is not ranked in any particular order.
Visit Pu Ji Shih Temple
4km out of town, built in 1987 on a hill facing the sea, this relatively new temple’s interior has several large bronze buddhas, fierce looking deities, and ornate pillars of large intertwined dragons and phoenixes.
The temple offers magnificent views of the Sulu sea and part of Sandakan. This provides great inspiration for anyone, besides being a place of religious devotion.
Visit the Sandakan War Memorial
The well manicured grounds of the Sandakan War Memorial Park hides the tragedies of the fallen Australian and British Allied prisoners of war who suffered and perished in harsh conditions and treatment from the Japanese occupiers during World War II. Over 2,400 POWs had died. Most of them had died in tragic circumstances in 3 separate death marches towards Ranau town through thick jungle and swamps over 260 kilometers away.
Built on the grounds of the former camp, only a boiler, alternator, excavator and quartermasters store area lay in their original positions to remind visitors of the tragic grounds. An information center provides details on camp, the death marches, and the few escapees that lived to tell their tales. An obelisk of black granite had been built in memory of all the soldiers that perished.
If you follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail, there are several other memorials within the town center that remind of local fallen leaders in World War II.
Observe beach landings of the endangered Green and Hawksbill Turtles
Selingan Turtle Island Park offers overnight visitors the opportunity to observe beach landings of the endangered green and hawksbill turtles. Wildlife rangers will collect turtle eggs for conservation purposes, and tag the mother turtle. If visitors are in luck, they will be able to observe the release of baby turtles into the sea. The Turtle Island Park (gazetted 1977) lies 40km north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea and consists of Selingan, Bakungan Kecil and Gulisan islands. Selingan being the largest, provides the headquarters and the facilities for researchers and visitors. The best time to visit is between July and October when the sea is calmer. There are limited beds so book early!
Check out the Rainforest Discovery Center
This place is marvelous and one of the highlights when we visited. In one place, the young and old will learn about the plants, trees and flowers of Borneo on beautifully landscaped botanical gardens. In another section, a metal 300m walkway that looks like something from a science fiction movie, brings you up 25m high into the jungle canopy to observe the tall trees, flora, insects and birds. Occasionally, you will spot orangutans and macaques. Night Walks are available, and team-building events can be arranged.
Marvel at the St. Michael’s and All Angels Church
This icon on a hill had been established in 1893 and the construction took 30 years to complete. It managed to survive World War II and today remains one of the most beautiful structures in Sandakan and also one of the holiest. Many visitors come here to marvel at the beautiful stained glass windows on its 4 walls, or spend some quiet time with the Almighty.
And with that, we conclude our top 12 locations to visit when you are in Sandakan.
There are plenty of other little gems hidden across the Sandakan district. Maybe you can share with us your top favourite places in and around Sandakan!
Other Sights Things to See & Do
Sandakan Memorial Park
Puu Gih Jih - Chinese temple
Buli Sim Sim - water village on stilts
Agnes Keith House and Museum
Kinabatangan River cruise
Eating Out
Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western food are all represented. Most air-conditioned restaurants are located in the major hotels and coffee shops in the town centre or along Jalan Leila.
Food outlets and restaurants surround the port of Sandakan as visitors are always hungry for a delectable mix of numerous influences that can only be found in Malaysia. Distinct flavors and a large range of tastes keep the tourists coming back for more of that Malaysian cuisine. The Fat Cat V is a great example of a local eatery that serves up a broad menu of Chinese, Malay and even Western food. The Hawaii Restaurant packs in Western tourists for its huge Chinese and Malay dishes while Asian guests often prefer pricey chops and steaks.
For a cheap breakfast, feel free to head to the New Market where food can mostly be bought from stalls; even a couple of Ringgit can buy you a decent meal along with a fantastic view of the bay. For somewhere a little quieter, travelers can go relax at the English Tea House & Restaurant where they offer elegant food and a colonial atmosphere with its manicured gardens and rattan furniture; perfect for an afternoon tea or an energizing sundowner.
Eat a UFO Cake It’s obvious why it is the named UFO which certainly sounds better than its other less attractive names, cow dung or maybe, the pygmy elephant dung. We have been told this little snack with meringue-like top with a custard center on a sponge cake base is endemic to Sandakan bakers.
A brand new location and building for the old market. Located next to the seafront, this spacious multi storey building houses a dry market where fruits, vegetables and snacks are sold, and a busy fish market. Come early in the morning and you can view fishing boats docking in with their catches to sell. The upper section of the market is a food court which caters to both muslim and non-muslims.
Famous pork and rice noodles since 1940s. Sandakan is well known for its affordable and tasty seafood due to its abundant fresh supply from the Sulu sea. Finding the best restaurants will take some research, leg work and maybe some taxi rides. Wild boar curry is also found in some of the restaurants on the outskirts. Happy hunting!
The majority of the shopping in Sandakan is done in the Central Market where the town comes to trade. This is a real working market and you will see items such as dried and wet seafood, vegetables and fruits. The local currency is the ringgit; U.S. dollars or credit cards are not readily accepted.
Globe trotters who are ready for some trendy shopping can head directly to the Sandakan Harbor Square, very close to the seaport. It includes a shopping mall, retail outlets, central market, convention centers and even a 5-star hotel. Cafes and food outlets are also available along the promenade to provide visitors with an unforgettable snacking experience on top of the great shopping experience.
Downtown Sandakan offers a wide range of goods from household items to groceries and food stuff. The Gentingmas Mall and the Servay Hypermarket will be your best bet to find such goods. The Central Market, on the other hand, is a great place to find fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood while stalls that sell clothes and accessories can be found on its second floor.
Tourist dollars will definitely go a long way in Sandakan when exchanged for Malaysian Ringgit, especially with its low exchange rate. Duty exempt items are really the ones that pull the biggest crowds, making shopping so appealing in the Sandakan port of call.

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