Updated November 30th, 2017.
Borneo wouldn’t be complete without seeing the orangutans, taking a trip into the jungle, experiencing the marine life or watching baby turtles. You can do some or all of these things on a tight timeframe given their close location.
Sandakan is a historical town known as ‘seafood heaven’ and provides a base for some excellent dive sites and turtle viewing locations.
Sepilok is a small, leafy, sleepy town around an hour inland of Sandakan, where nothing moves very fast and is the base for visiting the orangutans.
The Kinabatangan River is an hour from Sandakan and is surrounded by expansive and lush tropical jungle excellent for trekking and exploring.
There are other small towns at which you can stop in between these places, which provide a good insight into Malaysian life but there aren’t many activities for tourists.
Buses run to and from Kota Kinabalu – Sepilok – Sandakan (around 7hrs in total) with some other stops along the way. All journeys, despite the length, are 43RM. It’s easy enough just to wait at a stop and hop on but you may risk not getting a seat; it’s best to try and book the day before through your accommodation.
Places to Stay in the area:
Seaview Sandakan Budget Backpackers Hotel: Perfectly located in the heart of Sandakan Town, Sea View is on the waterfront adjacent to the central market and within walking distance of banks, ATMs, currency exchange booths, tourist attractions, convenience stores, malls and local transportation. A 6-bed dorm will set you back 26RM per night or 23RM in a 16-bed dorm. Private rooms start at 72RM per night. All with free breakfast and an airport pick up at 25RM.
Sepilok: There are a few places to stay in Sepilok but most backpackers flock to Uncle Tans, a nice guesthouse set in pleasant grounds. Rooms (dorms of four or private) are basic, as are the bathrooms, but most only stay the one or two nights either side of their trip into the jungle. You pay 48RM a night for a dorm, which may sound steep, but breakfast, lunch and dinner is all included – handy when the nearest shop is quite some way away!
Kinabatangan: The main operator taking travellers into the jungle surrounding the Kinabatangan River is again Uncle Tans, which has also built the impressive Uncle Tans’ Wildlife Camp. The camp is set on the river bank and made up of boardwalks over grass and small swamps. Accommodation consists of basic but homely wooden huts (no doors) with comfy floor mattresses and mosquito nets. Top-class hygiene can prove a little difficult in the jungle, but you can use collected rainwater to wash, and toilets are flushed with dirty water from buckets. Food is impressive, diverse (and always plenty of it!), and the staff are a friendly, cheerful bunch who play music for you each night. What’s not to like?!
Things to do:
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: The centre tends to get mixed reviews depending on how many orangutans you see and whether you can ignore the setup. Sometimes you will see one or two, sometimes six or seven. The orangutans here are semi-wild and the centre is set in some of the last remaining rainforest in Borneo – however, many spectators (usually around 300) wait on a boardwalk platform in front of the feeding station at 10 am and 3 pm hoping to catch a glimpse of these entertaining creatures. The wait is worth it but you will be vying for space to get the photos you want. If you wait until the masses disappear, other monkeys usually appear and you may be lucky enough to find a lone orangutan on the boardwalk as you leave. It will cost you 10RM for entrance then 20RM for a ‘camera fee’.
Rainforest Centre: If you like beautiful flowers and plants, a trip to the Rainforest Centre is an interesting must. You can take some wonderful photos and complete the Canopy walk.
Jungle Tour: The Kinabatangan River is set in the Borneo jungle and gives an excellent taste of jungle life. Most people sign up for a 3 day/2 night trip but 2 day/1 night is also available. Sepilok is the easiest place the stay the night before your trip starts and at Uncle Tans, you have the choice of visiting the orangutans in the morning (9 am) before being transported for around one hour to the boat jetty. The boat to camp takes 40mins, spotting wildlife along the way. After being welcomed to camp and being briefed on the next few days’ activities, you will check into your bungalow (sleeping six) and sit down to an impressive dinner while the staff keeps you entertained with music and singing. Before bed, you are taken on a nighttime boat ride down the river, which can be a little daunting when crocodiles surface near the tin boats! You can usually expect to see several species of bird, long-tailed macaque monkeys (in abundance); orangutans, probosci’s monkeys, civets and slow Loris – and if you’re lucky – also pygmy elephants, crocodiles and bearded pigs! Tours usually consist of three trips out on the boat and a daytime and nighttime jungle walk where you will see all manner of creepy crawlies. The whole jungle experience is well worth it even if you are desperate for a shower on your return.
Turtle Island: From Sandakan, you can get a boat to Pulau Selingan otherwise known as Turtle Island to watch the babies hatch and find their way into the sea. A special experience indeed, but you need to book through an operator to arrange this excursion; independent travellers are unable to make their own plans. Crystal Quest is a well-known operator but there are a few others. For a one night trip, expect to pay around 250GBP. For single travellers, it can tend to be pricey, with operators charging double.
Sipadan Diving: The dive Mecca of Malaysia, Sipadan has some of the most spectacular marine life. Pulau Sipadan Island was at the top of Rodale’s Scuba Diving Magazine Gold List for ‘The Top Dive Destination in the World’. In fact, Sipadan shared its top spot with 2 other destinations known for the amazing diversity of their marine life – the Galapagos Islands and Truk in Micronesia. You can arrange diving from Sandakan to either Sipadan, Mabul or Kapaali – also excellent sites. Accommodation at the dive resorts tends to be expensive.
Gomontong Caves: A large intricate maze of caves made of limestone, and home to thousands of insects that include bats and swiftlets, whose nests are collected to make ‘birds nest soup’. Each evening, some two million bats spiral out of the caves: a sight indeed.
Air Asia fly into Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur. The new airline, Maswings, now offer internal flights throughout Borneo. You can also take the bus for 40RM per journey from Kota Kinabalu – Sepilok (6hrs) – Sandakan (1hr) and vice versa.
Where to go next?
- Kota Kinabalu: Visit the Tunku Rahman National Park, go white-water rafting, explore the city.
- Kinabalu National Park: Climb Mt Kinabalu, take one of the many beautiful nature walks or visit the Poring Hot Springs for a soak in the sulphurous waters.
- Sempra: 5 hours south of Sandakan by bus, Sempra is not a place worth visiting alone but is the place to experience some amazing dives.
Written by: Donna Jackson
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