17 Top Things To Do In Sandakan Borneo

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Going on a Sandakan trip and want to know all the top things to do in Sandakan Borneo? We have you covered! Below you will find our guide to all the best Sandakan attraction options to plan your ultimate trip. 

Sandakan is the second-largest town in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu. Most famous for its nature, this is ultimately a destination for animal lovers. Visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center for an up close encounter with beautiful orange-reddish primates, cruise along Kinabatangan River to spot endless wildlife in action, or take a trip to Turtle Island and be part of a sea turtle conservation project.  These are just some of the unique things that can be found in Sandakan.

However, there is more to the region than just nature. Culturally diverse – with over 42 ethnic groups within Sabah – the area is also of interest if you’re enthusiastic for wartime history.  The Agnes Keith House showcases the experience of someone having lived through WWII, whilst the marvellous St. Michael’s and All Angels Church was once used to house POWs. These attractions, along with others, reflect the story of one of the most well-known wartime incidents – the Sandakan Death Marches.

A Buddhist Temple in Sandakan
A Buddhist Temple in Sandakan

Do note that most of the attractions require some travel time and are slightly out of town. Whilst deciding what to do in Sandakan, Malaysia, ensure you consider this and plan your days accordingly.

Plenty of domestic flights arrive daily into Sandakan from major Malaysian cities, such as Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. Also, direct flights are available from SouthEast Asia’s largest air transportation hub – Singapore –  making it relatively easy to reach for all international travellers.

Below, you will find our things to do Sandakan blog post with everything you need to know about the best places to visit in Sandakan, where to go in Sandakan surrounds as well as the best information about some Sandakan things to do for your ultimate holiday in Sandakan!! There is also a handy map of the places of interest in Sandakan.

Sandakan and Sepilok are so close together and you can visit attractions in both places quite easily from Sandakan. With that, you will also find our list of the best things to do in Sepilok and exactly what to do in Sepilok so you can have the best time!

17 Top Things To Do In Sandakan Borneo

Here are the best things to do in Sandakan. Read through and select the ones that fit your interests and timeframe.

Get Up Close To Orangutans At Sepilok Sandakan Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

sepilok orangutans, Sepilok Sandakan Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
An orangutan at Sepilok Sandakan Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

No doubt the most famous attraction in Sandakan, tourists travel to Borneo from all over the world with the main purpose of visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Orphaned and injured orangutans are brought here for medical treatments and care, before being released back into the wild. The centre is built within a reserve and lucky visitors can often observe released orangutans in their natural habitat. 

Your visit to the centre starts with a video introduction, which shares some important and interesting facts about the loveable orangutans, how the organisation works and what to look out for during your time there.

Next up, it’s the feeding platform.  Fruits and sugar cane are on offer for the hungry orangutans, who swing in from the jungle for a feast.  Keep an eye out and you might even see orangutans playing right next to your boardwalk, or grabbing for the fruits in front of your viewing platform. A highlight of any trip to Sandakan, it’s an amazing experience to observe these magnificent creatures at such close distance.

After the feeding, head over to the outdoor nursery where you can see juvenile orangutans in the last stages of rehabilitation. This is great fun, as staff carry out different types of training to prepare these youngsters for release, ensuring they can thrive in the wild.

Plan ahead for your visit, with current daily feeding times being 10 am and 3 pm.  For sure, you stand the highest chance to see orangutans up close during these times.

Address: Sabah Wildlife Department, W.D.T. 200, Sandakan, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok, 90000 Sandakan

Explore Gomantong Caves

Gomangton Cave, Sandakan, Borneo
The natural limestone cave system inside Gomantong Cave

If bats and crawlies do not repel you, check out the Gomantong Caves. You might have seen these on television, as this natural limestone cave system is renowned for its massive chambers that play home to 2 million bats, along with an uncountable number of crawlies such as cockroaches, centipedes and cave crabs! 

Take a stroll along the one-way boardwalk loop, built for visitors to manoeuvre around the cave easily.  And, don’t forget a pair of really good shoes and a strong stomach for the poor smell!

If you visit around sunset on a non-rainy day, you might also encounter a large colony of bats flying out of the cave.  One of the most iconic sights of Sandakan, this is very dramatic! Making the Gomantong Caves, out of all the Sandakan places of interest, surely one of the most unforgettable. 

Address: 8, Lebuh Dua, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan

Pay Respects To The Fallen Heroes Of WW2 At Sandakan Memorial Park

Sandakan Memorial Park

The former site of a prisoner of war camp, Sandakan Memorial Park commemorates the brave souls who fought during WWII and is dedicated to the 2,400 Australian and British soldiers who died during the notorious event of the Sandakan Death Marches.

The park is tranquil, well maintained and a wonderful spot for a quiet afternoon. Nicely shaded, you can stroll around and read through all the displays detailing the Sandakan Death Marches and the city’s war history. There is also a free app, “Sandakan Memorial Park”, that is loaded with comprehensive information of each display, and has some written interviews from one of the last standing survivors – Russ Ewin – where he talks in detail about his heroic days in Sandakan. 

The memorial park serves as a grievous reminder of the atrocity of war and a chance for people to pay their respects to fallen heroes.

Address: Mile 8, Jalan Labuk, Taman Rimba, 90702 Sandakan

See The Bears At The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center

Sun Bear, Borneo
The Borneo Sun Bear

Located adjacent to the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center is globally the only one focused on these small bears. Native to South-East Asia, the cute Malaysian Sun Bear is the smallest among the bear family and is classified as a vulnerable species.

The Sun Bear Conservation Centre rescues, treats & equips sun bears with the necessary surviving skills before releasing them into the reserve. At the viewing platforms, you will see released bears climbing up and down on trees, digging termites for food or just lazing around, all in their most natural demeanour. 

The Centre is relatively small; thus it’s best to combine the visit with the Sepilok Orangutan Center, making for a fun and educational day out at two of the most meaningful places to visit in Sandakan, Sabah.

Address: PPM 219, Elopura, 90000 Sandakan

Take In A Bit Of History At The House of Agnes Keith

The House of Agnes Keith Sandakan

If you’re a history fan, you will find The House of Agnes Keith to be the best place in Sandakan to visit. 

Agnes Keith was an American writer who wrote three autobiographies outlining her time spent before, during and after WWII in North Borneo, mostly based in Sandakan. In one of her most noted books, she details her experiences of being captured and imprisoned at a Japanese war camp.

The house itself was restored in 2004 and turned into a heritage museum. Inside, you will find various antiques and colonial furniture, as well as a gallery of photos of Agnes’ adventures, her books and family. 

Address: 296, Jalan Utara, 90000 Sandakan

Have Lunch At The English Tea House And Restaurant

English Tea House And Restaurant Sandakan

Dining at The English Tea House And Restaurant is a great way to compliment your journey into the past after visiting the House of Agnes Keith, which shares the same grounds. This colonial-styled restaurant sits in a beautifully lush garden which overlooks Sandakan Bay, offering breathtaking views. 

Taking a break from local food, dine on English cuisine and enjoy an icy-cold cocktail to chase away the heat of the day. There are no better places to go in Sandakan than the English Tea House for a chilling afternoon!

Address: 2002, Jalan Istana, 90000 Sandakan

Stop By Sandakan Fountain

Sandakan fountain in Downtown

Sandakan Fountain is aesthetically quite ordinary and many tourists walk past, unaware of its significance. However, it is an extremely important monument, especially in the heart of local people. 

Also known as Malaysia Fountain, it commemorates the day in September 1963 when the last Governor of British North Borneo left Sabah, thus bringing about independence – a fundamental part of Sandakan’s history.

Address: Wisma Harrisons, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan

Go On A Sandakan Nature City Half Day Tour

Sandakan Waterfront

There are great attractions in the surroundings of Sandakan, but perhaps you are wondering what to do in Sandakan Town itself? We recommend joining a half-day tour and learning about the remarkable history of the city and delving into its cultural sites.

The tour will take you to Sandakan Memorial Park, which is adjacent to the original site of a POW camp, commemorating the Australian & British soldiers who lived and died in the camp during the war. 

Move on to Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple, the largest Chinese temple in the city, and St Michael’s Church, an elegant centuries-old stone structure. 

Your guide will relate interesting stories at each location and lead you to local markets for produce and seafood, helping you to barter some good deals!  

All in all, this half day tour provides you with a deep understanding of the history of the town and the city’s cultural diversity.

You can buy discounted tickets for this tour by clicking here.

Do The Night Walk At Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC)

Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Centre, Borneo
Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Centre

The Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok is near to both the Orangutan and Sun Bear Centres and is equally as impressive.  A 25-metre tall steel canopy walkway takes you high into the rainforest jungle, allowing you to spot exotic birds and animals, whilst enjoying incredible panoramic views. 

The local Sabah region is home to some of the rarest flora and fauna species.  Whilst they are hard to spot within the natural jungles, you can easily find all at the Plant Discovery Garden within the RDC.  An absolute must-visit spot for any botanist or naturalist!

However, the most intriguing activity on this site is the Night Walk.  This guided tour starts at 6 pm, with the evening being the only time you can spot animals such as flying squirrels, mouse deers, slow loris, vipers, and more. 

Unquestionably one of the best things to do in Sandakan at night, be sure to include this in your schedule! 

Address: Jalan Fabia, Sepilok, 90715 Sandakan

See The Monkeys At Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Proboscis Monkeys in Labuk Bay, Sandakan, Borneo
The monkeys at Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Thanks to its long bullous nose, you can’t mix up a proboscis monkey with any other primate,  and these funny looking creatures can only naturally be found on the island of Borneo. 

Preferring to live near large rivers or freshwater streams, Sandakan’s mixture of mangroves and lowland forests make the region a natural thriving ground for these loud monkeys.

Drop by the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, 30mins drive outside of Sepilok, for an up close experience.  Here you’ll find two feeding platforms – set almost 1km apart.  Visit during the feeding times, when you can usually easily spot over a dozen or more monkeys, and plan ahead by pre booking their shuttle service to save some dollars.  

Animal lovers will find this one of the most interesting places in Sandakan to visit.

Address: Off Jalan Labuk, 90000 Sandakan

Go On A River Cruise At Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan River Cruise, Sandakan, Borneo
Cruise along Kinabatangan River

Another natural gem in Sandakan, the 560km Kinabatangan River is the second-longest in Malaysia. Thriving mangrove swamps provide a unique and fantastic ecosystem where a large population of wildlife can be observed.

Many consider Kinabatangan River to be the most incredible Sandakan place to visit due to the large variety of animal species viewable along its banks. 

Cruise along the calm river, spotting crocodiles, pygmy elephants, many different species of primates including orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, gibbons, etc. Birdlife is equally rich, with exotic birds such as kingfishers, hornbills, storks and hawk-eagles. 

For an even more extraordinary experience, take a night safari cruise, where your guide will help to identify nocturnal species hidden in the forest.

Visit The Puu Jih Syh Temple

Puu Jih Syh Temple, Sandakan, Borneo
Puu Jih Syh Temple

A grand looking Buddist Temple situated at the hilltop overlooking Sandakan Bay, Puu Jih Syh Temple is a relatively modern structure built recently in 1987. Yet the carved details on the pillars and statues are equal to other great ancient temples found in the region. 

Open to the public; you are free to roam around and take photographs. Grand architecture, countless colourful lanterns and lush gardens that open to an endless sea view, this is a perfect spot for your daily insta post!

Address: Hilltop of Tanah Merha, 90000 Sandakan

Shop In Sandakan

Sandakan Downtown

Sandakan,Sabah,Malaysia-Dec 28,2015:Street view of Sandakan town with shopping and commercial building during sunny day in Sandakan,Sabah,Borneo,Malaysia.In truth, there isn’t much shopping to do in Sandakan, yet at Harbour Mall shopping centre you will find some international chain restaurants such as McDonald’s. You may also find health and beauty retailers to purchase any daily necessities that might need replenishing.  

Address: Harbour Square, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan

For a more intriguing shopping experience, head to Sandakan Central Market and try out the fresh local produce.  You’ll be surprised at just how many you’ve never seen or tasted before!

Address: Jalan Pryer, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan

Visit Sam Sing Kung Temple

Sam Sing Kung Temple Sandakan

In contrast to the Puu Jih Syh Temple, Sam Sing Kung Temple (also known locally as the Three Saints Temple) is a small, non-flashy place of worship with a wealth of history. It is part of Sandakan’s heritage trail and was built in 1887, making it one of the oldest temples in the city. 

The three saints worshipped at the temple are the saint of righteousness, the goddess of the sea and the god of culture and literature, revealing the cultural beliefs of the local Chinese community. 

Address: Singapore Road, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan

See The Turtles Of Turtle Island

Selingan Island, Sandakan, Borneo
The beach at Turtle Island

For all marine-life enthusiasts,  there is no better Sandakan place to visit to view sea turtles than Turtle Island. Located in the Sabah National Park, three islands in the Sulu Sea together form a sea turtle conservation project.  However, only Selingan Island (Turtle Island) is open to visitors. 

If you’re lucky, here you will see green and/or hawksbill turtles that use the island for nesting, or hatchlings that are released sporadically throughout the year.  

Access to the island is limited and organised by joining a 2-days-1-night tour, which doesn’t come too cheap! Taking a little over an hour by boat from mainland Borneo, you will find basic air-conditioned accommodation for your overnight stay.  You are free to roam the island, relax at the beautiful white-sand beach or snorkel in crystal clear waters.  …and once dusk arrives, the fun starts, as the sea turtles will come, only in the night and hatchling release activities also commence.

With only 50 visitors allowed on the island each day, remember to book ahead of time if you decide to join this incredible journey.

Address: Selingaan Island, Turtle Islands, Sabah National Park

You can buy discounted tickets to see the turtles of Turtle Island by clicking here.

Check Out Buli Sim Sim Water Village

Buli Sim Sim Water Village, Sandakan, Borneo
Buli Sim Sim Water Village

Want to take a closer look at Malaysian food culture? The best place to visit in Sandakan for this would be the Buli Sim Sim Water Village. Here, you’ll find a maze of Malay houses built on stilts over the water, connected by numerous bridges that divide the houses into various zones, each filled with eateries and shops. 

On offer, you’ll find local delicacies such as spring noodles and century egg dumplings – perfect for an afternoon tea break – to full-on seafood feasts, prepared with locally caught fresh tiger prawns, snappers, giant oysters, clams, and more. 

Swamped with food options, this is a place you might want to visit more than once during your stay.  Incredible foods, great sea views and a nice breeze – heavenly!

Address: No.7, Jalan Sim Sim, 90000 Sandakan

Visit St. Michael’s & All Angels Church

St. Michael’s & All Angels Church Sandakan

Amongst all the interesting places in Sandakan, Sabah, not only is St. Michael’s & All Angels Church the oldest stone building in the region, but it also displays stunning historical architecture. 

Taking 13 years to complete, the Church opened in 1903.  However, bombed and burned during WWII, a major restoration was completed in the 1950s. Before the bombing, the Japanese army took the church for military use and transient stays for POWs. Today, you’ll find magnificent stained-glass windows in the church, installed as an appreciation by the family members of POWs to the local community for their support during wartime.

The Church is a place full of stories, and a must-stop for anyone interested in wartime history.

Address: 51, Jalan Puncak, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan

What To Do In Sandakan Map

Top Things To Do In Sandakan Borneo map
Click the Map to open in Google Maps. You can then access directions to each of the locations discussed in this article.

Best Place To Stay In Sandakan

Sandakan is a fairly small town and accommodation options are not too wide.  Unlike Kota Kinabalu, international 5-star properties are non-existent. 

Nonetheless, we have handpicked a few options, suitable for all budgets, so you can easily select the one most suitable for your stay.

BEST – D North Star Hotel & Spa Review

A dream location for nature lovers, Sabah Hotel is located at a hilltop surrounded by rainforest. An eco-friendly hotel, only 1.5km from the Sandakan city centre, there are plenty of recreational facilities available.  When not taking in the local tours and activities, enjoy a game of tennis or squash, or a workout at their sizable gym. For youngsters, there’s a children’s playground, nature trail and even a karaoke room. 

Sabah Hotel offers two in-house restaurants: one for local and international cuisine, and another specialised in Cantonese. 

There are various room types, suitable for solo travellers or couples, and also a triple occupancy room that is an excellent choice for families or small groups. 

Click here for the latest prices.

MID-RANGE – Sabah Hotel Review

Located in a neighbourhood 9km outside of Sandakan town, the D North Star Hotel is conveniently found in an area surrounded by many restaurants, banks, convenience stores and pharmacies. 

A standout in the area, the hotel offers day spa service, with sauna and steam room facilities. Something that comes in really handy after days of exciting nature exploration trips around Sandakan!

All room types are adequately equipped with ensuite bathrooms and are air conditioned. Family rooms are also available, configured with one single and one double bed. 

And in-house restaurant – the Dnorthstar Bistro – serves a wide variety of food and also has a bar if you fancy an ice-cold beer!

Click here for the latest prices.

BUDGET – One Avenue Hotel Review

One Avenue Hotel is just 11km from Sandakan city centre. Travellers find it to be a favourable location as it’s surrounded by many restaurants, and has ample parking spaces for those travelling under their own arrangement.

At an extremely friendly price point, One Avenue Hotel offers everything you need in a hotel room. Rooms can in standard single, double and family-room options, which are all air-conditioned and mostly with ensuite bathroom. A 24-hours check-in desk is also available.

Click here for the latest prices.

How To Get To Sandakan

It’s easy to get to Sandakan by bus, plane, ferry or car. If you have your own car, great! You are good to go.

If you need to take a bus, click here for the latest timetables and bus prices.

If you’d prefer a ferry, click here to see the latest ferry timetables.

To see all the latest flights and prices, click here.

You can also hire a car to get you there by clicking here.

Sandakan With Kids

Sandakan Rehabilitation Center

A stay at Sandakan is similar to dropping into a live National Geographic program: nature is everywhere!  

For any age group, but perhaps especially children, seeing the marvellous animals up close, and learning from the volunteers and park rangers how best to help and protect the many endangered species, or how to conserve the rainforest, are all valuable and memorable life long lessons. 

Sandakan might not have a perfect 5-star resort but the majority of accommodation options are modern, clean and safe, and little time is spent around the hotel at this adventure filled destination!  

As you will likely travel through jungles and along rivers, remember to pack well.  Include essentials such as trekking shoes, mosquito repellent, sunscreen and sun hats for your little ones (and you!).

Final Words

Sandakan is undoubtedly one of the most amazing places to travel to in Asia. It is the place that takes you right to the heart of nature. To name just a few, the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, Kinabatangan River and Turtle Island all offer such precious and inspiring experiences. Alongside the impressive (and often sad) wartime history of Sandakan Town, you will undoubtedly learn so much from your journey to Sandakan.  

Hopefully you found this guide on things to do in Sandakan helpful. You can read our guide on getting to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu here, our full guide to the best hotels in Sandakan here or all the top things to do in Borneo here.

By Julia Rolph

Julia has been in Asia almost twenty years, discovering Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Myanmar and more! Finally settling in Bantayan Island, Philippines, she enjoys sharing her love of Asia with fellow travelers and helping them plan out memorable vacations.