In a nutshell
Sandakan is widely considered to be the gateway to Borneo, as a small but friendly city close to beautiful wildlife and nature it’s a must visit destination if you’re travelling in Malaysia.
Why go to Sandakan
There are many reasons to visit, from amazing tropical rainforests to some excellent snorkel and dive locations, as well as some lovely islands located just off the coast.
Whilst the area is used to receiving tourists due to its fantastic location for sightseeing in Borneo, it still feels very rustic compared to other resort destinations. If you happen to be a western tourist you’ll find that you stand out a mile and friendly locals will stop to say hello, welcome you to their country and sometimes pose for a selfie.
Not too far away is the famous Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, where the team rescue orangutans and help to rehabilitate them in these lush jungle surroundings. There is also a sanctuary for the unusual proboscis monkeys that are native to the area, as well as many other wildlife spotting activities.
Many choose to spend at least a couple of days in the jungle – taking a boat trip on the Kinabatangan River, and getting the opportunity to experience one of the world’s oldest rainforests in a more virgin setting.
There is also plenty of history to take in in the city itself, with a heritage trail that’s well worth exploring in addition to the war memorial in memory of the infamous death marches which took place here in the mid 20th century.
When to go to Sandakan
Sandakan is located in the Sabah region of Borneo, and the best time of year to visit the region is considered to be August and September, as these months are mostly rain free – although it’s a year round destination with good weather for tourists in all seasons.
Where to stay in Sandakan
It’s only a small city, but there are generally some decent accommodation options in most price categories.
If you have specific needs it’s probably worth booking in advance to ensure you secure the accommodation that most suits what you’re looking for. What you will find in Sandakan is that prices tend to offer great value for money – especially if you’re lucky enough to be visiting the area at a quiet time of year. In our experience accommodation is cheap, clean and offers excellent value with extremely friendly staff who can help you to organise all of your tours and activities. Most places tend to include breakfast and even in hostels there are often private bathrooms available.
Where to eat in Sandakan
If you’re visiting Sandakan then you must try the local seafood – it really is excellent, and again, provides fantastic value for money. Along the seafront there are many local eateries serving fresh seafood alongside other delicious options – here you can enjoy a tasty meal from as little as MYR7.
Some of the hotels also boast good quality restaurants if you’re looking for more fine dining options, whilst there is also the famous English Tea House that must be fitted into any itinerary in the city - especially if you’re a Brit.
In addition to seafood you can also find plenty of spots where you can enjoy traditional Malay cuisine. As with much of Malaysia there are also numerous places offering good quality Chinese food, again this is normally well priced and tasty. While if you’re looking for coffee shops there are also a couple of these to take in.
How to get around Sandakan
Sandakan city itself is small and compact, making it easy to walk around for the most part. When it comes to getting to restaurants, shopping malls and even taking in the heritage trail and main city sights it’s easiest to walk, providing you can deal with the heat. Some areas are a little hilly so if you think you’ll struggle then it may be worth considering a taxi.
Taxis within the town will need some negotiation – at the time of writing Uber wasn’t widely available to make this process easier! Most of the popular spots with visitors that are located outside of the centre have set rates with taxi drivers which makes things a little more simple and sometimes you can combine a few attractions in one day, especially if you’re on a limited time frame.
There are also many buses available covering both the town and the main tourist areas, which offer a cheap alternative to taxis although they are sometimes not in the best state of repair. Finally if you prefer to get around under your own steam then you can hire motorbikes or bicycles for cheap prices at several centrally located tour agencies.
How to get to and from Sandakan
The easiest way to access Sandakan is by air, as it is well served by the small airport on the outskirts of town. There are regular and cheap flights from Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur, often costing from as little as USD20 if booked in advance - these are run by Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines.
It costs just MYR30 for a taxi or MYR2 for a bus from the airport to the town centre although if you arrive in the evening then a taxi will definitely be the best option as buses stop running fairly early.
If you’re on a tighter budget then Sandakan can be reached by road without too much difficulty. Buses run from Kota Kinabalu and take around 5–6 hours. The cost to travel by bus between the two cities is around MYR40 and it’s also possible to get dropped off directly at the junction near Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary which some choose to do.
Is Sandakan a safe place to visit?
Finally, Sandakan is generally considered to be safe although some governments do have travel advisories in place for Sabah more generally. There was a terror attack in the city where two Malaysians were kidnapped in 2015, so do keep your wits about you while travelling and exercise basic precautions.