Sandakan was the capital of British North Borneo until 1946. The town prospered in the early days due to its port with visiting traders from around the world. Sandakan is an important town to Australian and British World War II history with the infamous Death Marches commencing here in 1945 and ending in Ranau. After the war, the capital was 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.
Sandakan has always been a predominantly Chinese town. 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 of different ethnicities, the lingua franca is 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.
Daily direct connections with Kuala Lumpur (by AirAsia) and to Kota Kinabalu (by Malaysia Airlines and its subsidiary MASWings). MASWings also has connecting flights with Kudat, Lahad Datu, and Tawau.
From Kota Kinabalu: several bus companies depart between 7AM-2PM, and 8PM (~5 hr, RM 33).
- 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 can purchase the full-fare ticket from Kota Kinabalu and request to be picked up from Kinabalu park HQ. (Duration from Kinabalu park about 4.5 hours. Updated Aug 2022 with Tung Ma bus. )
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 RM 3-5 pp by taxi to get to (drivers will be waiting at the bus drop-off).
To get to KK North Bus Terminal in Inanam get on a public bus (go to the bus station on Jalan Padang across from the State Library [RM 1.50, 20 min]) or by taxi (~RM 20).
To Semporna: buses leave from the express bus terminal for Semporna at 7:30AM, 8AM, and 2PM.
All express buses arrive at one of the express bus terminals, which are still 15 minutes from downtown, and a taxi ride to downtown should cost RM 15.
2 Stesen Bas Ekspres, Jalan Utara.
3 Terminal Bas Ekspres Sandakan, Bandar Letat Jaya, Jalan Lintas Utara.
Aleson Lines runs a ferry from Zamboanga every Monday at 1PM.
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 RM 180. Airport from downtown RM 28. [Feb 2010] Taxi to Sepilok and Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary wait and return RM 160. [Aug 2022]
There are buses and vans going everywhere in the areas around Sandakan, to the airport, Sepilok, Buli Sim Sim etc.
There is a water taxi from Buli Sim-Sim to Pulau Berhala. For individual explorations of the islands within Sandakan Bay, it is highly recommended to book local boats only via tour agencies or experienced guides.
Sandakan is only a small town and it is easy to walk around. There is a walking trail which covers all the main sites.
- 1 Sandakan Memorial Park (12 km from the city. Negotiate a taxi to take you there (15 min), and expect to pay around RM 30 including waiting time.). The memorial park is 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. Free.
- 2 Puu Jih Syh. 8AM-4:30PM. A Chinese temple on top of a hill behind Sandakan where you can get beautiful views of Labuk Bay. Home to lots of Buddhist swastikas. free.
- 3 St Michael and All Angels Cathedral. Erected in the late 19th century, it is one of the oldest stone buildings in Sabah. RM 10.
- Buli Sim Sim (3 km east of town past the big mosque. Mini vans go there.). A picturesque water village on stilts.
- 4 Agnes Keith House and Museum. Former home of author Agnes Newton Keith, now restored as a museum. Same ticket as the Sabah State Museum in Kota Kinabalu, so if you can cross Sabah in a day you can visit both for the price of one. RM 15.
- 5 Gomantong Caves (The caves are 100 km by car from Sandakan, and there is little public transport.). 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. Wear closed shoes as the raised footpaths are covered in bird and bat dropping. There are facilities to wash your shoes afterwards. Some tour companies visit here. Entrance fee RM 30. Photo pass additional RM 30.
- 6 Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Off Jalan Labuk, ☏ . 8AM–6PM. You are guaranteed a sighting of these monkeys from a wooden balcony built in the middle of the mangrove forest, as well as silvery lutungs (another species of monkey) that often come into close proximity with visitors. There is a feeding at 2:30pm. If you're lucky, you might even get to see some oriental pied hornbills. It is definitely worth a visit, and can be arranged easily by a day tour. Closest accommodation is at Nipah Resort (domitary RM35 per bed, chalet RM180+). Getting there/away: The journey to Labuk Bay is very rough and will take about half an hour from the main road, but it is worth it. There's a bus departing from Hotel Sandakan at 9:30AM for RM 20 (ask at the Tourist information office in Sandakan for more details), private van will cost RM 80 one way. Entrance fee RM 60.
- 7 Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (right next to Sepilok Orang Utan rehabilitation centre). The sun bear conservation centre You’ll be able to see tree-climbing sun bears. Entrance fee RM 50.
- Cruise on the Kinabatangan River. The 560 km 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.
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 at Pasir Putih was once a famous seafood restaurant. It was closed down in the aftermath of a kidnapping incident in April 2015. The pier-like structure over the water, with indoor and outdoor seating is still there. An alternative are the seafood restaurants at Kg Buli Sim-Sim.
- Restaurant 2020, serves non halal Chinese cuisine, but is considered expensive by local standards. Located at Bandar Kim Fung, Mile 4.
- 1 English Tea House, Mile 1 of Jalan Utara, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Nice ambience and serve traditional English Food. Serves excellent English high tea in the afternoon. 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.
- 1 BaLin roofgarden, on the 8th floor of NAK hotel. 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.
- 1 Hotel City View (In the town center.). The associated Hawaii Restaurant has a huge choice of excellent meals for RM5, popular with locals. RM 60 single with A/C.
- 2 Hotel London, Lot D1-D2,Block 10, Jalan Empat (Next to Masjid Jamek Mosque), ☏ , , 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. RM 55-75.
- Hotel Seafront, Block 43, Fourth Land, Leila Rd, ☏ . 5 min 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 RM 59 single, RM 69 double.
- 3 NAK Hotel (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. Some rooms are thematically designed, with views of the sea. Others are not. From RM 118.
- 4 PAT'S Bed and Breakfast Lodge, Mile 1½ North Road (Between the bus station and city center.), ☏ . Manageress: Patricia Pascua. Family home atmosphere. Comfortable living room and nice balcony. Kitchen for your own use. Laundry service available. Clean dormitory rooms with fan or A/C RM 29..
- 5 Sandakan Backpackers Hostel (On Harbor Square near Gentingmas Mall, near the KFC.). Backpacker guesthouse with harbor views. Run by the owner, Zaina, who doubles as a travel agent. Small dorm rooms RM 25, private rooms RM 55, laundry RM 15/kg.
- 6 Borneo Seaview & Budget Hotel, Lot 126, 1st Floor, Harbour Square 14 (near the harbour opposite the Central Market), ☏ , toll-free: , borneoSeaview_hotel@gmail.com. Clean, quiet and safe. RM 20 upwards.
- 7 Tai Lee Hotel, Block A, Bandar Kim Fung, Mile 4 (in the middle of Sandakan), ☏ . 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, and supermarkets. Three different room types. RM 53 to RM 75.
- 8 WinHo Lodge, Off Lebuh Dua, Town centre. Comfortable beds and decent sized rooms for all budgets including dorms. Double rooms, come with A/C, free wifi, ensuite and TV. From RM 55.
- Swiss-Inn Waterfront Sandakan, HS12, Sandakan Harbour Square, ☏ , fax: . On the waterfront esplanade. 138 trendy and compact rooms, all with A/C, free wifi and LCD TV. From RM 140.
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.
Due to the ongoing kidnapping threats and actions posed by pirates from the southern Philippines, there is a large military/police presence in Eastern Sabah coastal waters and a night time curfew on all vessels. (October 2017)
- Sepilok — The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is where orangutans 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 orangutans come out from the jungle. Besides, there are surprisingly good Botanical Gardens near Sepilok, where one can learn about Palm Oil and the rain forest, enjoy walks and boats.
- Turtle Islands Park — Three islands in the 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 RM 630 per person including flights and transfers from K.K. (2017).