Street art, Sandakan, Malaysia

Sandakan, Malaysia – Travel Guide 

No trip to Malaysian Borneo is complete without a visit to Sandakan. The second-largest city in the Sabah state, Sandakan is a jumping-off point for a range of bucket-list adventures, including Selingan ‘Turtle’ Island, the Danum Valley and the Kinabatangan River. 

Also known as the ‘Little Hong Kong of Northern Borneo’ due to the influx of Cantonese and Hakka migration, Sandakan is a historical town famous for its role in exporting various goods out of Borneo.

Whether by choice or circumstance, you’ll likely spend some time in Sandakan. During my month-long visit to Borneo, I had the opportunity to explore Sandakan and its surroundings. Read on to discover where to base yourself, what to do and which of the wild adventures nearby are worth the trip! 

Sandakan, Malaysia Map & Resources

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Sandakan, Malaysia – Backpacking Guide

Best Time to Visit Sandakan, Malaysia ☀️

March to September is the best time to visit Sandakan. This is the dry season in Sabah, though temperatures remain hot year-round. While March is a good time to visit for fewer crowds and less competition for accommodation, the weather can also be a mixed bag. 

Views over Sandakan, Malaysia
Visit Sandakan during Sabah’s dry season for the best wildlife spotting opportunities.

Those looking to travel to the nearby Turtle Islands should avoid December, January and February. These are the wettest months and the crossing can be rough at this time. You can see what South East Asia Community member Gemma said about her experience visiting in February below!

“Beware, at this time of year, the speed boat crossing to Turtle Island is ROUGH. Sometimes waves as high as the boat! A fish even got flung into the boat and hit me in the arm!  I felt okay but another passenger was pretty unwell so maybe just pop a motion sickness tablet beforehand if you’re prone to that kind of thing. Oh, and you WILL get wet. We hadn’t realised this until we saw our guide whipping on a poncho as we set off (with no heads up beforehand)…” 

Gemma, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Where to Stay in Sandakan, Malaysia 🛏️

Sandakan is a small city and most of the accommodation options are clustered in the centre. There are options to suit a range of budgets but since the pandemic, a lot of places have been neglected, which is reflected in tired decor and outdated facilities. 

If you are visiting Sandakan for no other reason than to visit the nearby Sepilok wildlife sanctuaries, it would be better to stay in Sepilok itself. See accommodation recommendations in our Sepilok guide here. 

Street Art 2,Sandakan, Malaysia
The colourful streets of Sandakan.

Top Accommodation in Sandakan, Malaysia

Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links. We always write our articles before checking if affiliate links are available.

Since the pandemic, more and more accommodation options have been forced to close. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sandakan, which has lost a variety of highly-rated options. In place of these lodgings, self-check-in style apartments have filled the gaps. 

While many of these are clean, comfortable and provide convenient access to the city centre, they also offer quite an impersonal experience. If you’re interested in one of the apartment ‘Airbnb’ type offerings, Inns Homestay, Sekeping Sandakan and Sandakan Homestay are all well-rated options. 

However, I’d recommend staying somewhere you can use the staff’s local knowledge to get the most out of your stay. They will be able to assist with onward travel, excursions and local recommendations. Here are a few options that receive consistently good reviews. 

Sandakan Backpackers, Sandakan, Malaysia
Sandakan Backpackers is a great place to meet your fellow travellers!

Sandakan Backpackers Hostel is your typical backpacker hostel. There are a range of clean and comfortable rooms, all with shared facilities. The hostel is known for its eclectic decor (grab a pen and add your own tag) and super friendly staff who can help you arrange trips to Kinabatangan and Turtle Island. Sandakan Backpackers is a very popular choice in Sandakan so you’re bound to meet plenty of people here.

“During my Kinabatangan/Turtle Island trip, I was able to leave my baggage at Sandakan Backpackers for no extra charge. The hostel was cheap and cheerful with a complimentary breakfast – everything I needed!”

Tim, Writer at South East Asia Backpacker 

If you’re looking for accommodation with a pool, look no further than Sabah Hotel. Offering resort-style lodgings ideal for families, this hotel is great for those seeking a green hideaway with good access to the city centre. Facilities include a fitness centre, children’s playground, water slide, karaoke room and tour desk.

The Elopura Hotel is located in Harbour Square, one of the best locations in the city. Just a stone’s throw from the waterfront, this movie-themed hotel offers a range of private rooms with ensuites. Breakfast is included (though some guests report that the food isn’t always kept hot) and it is possible to store luggage if you are heading out on a wildlife excursion for a few days. 

Street art 1, Sandakan, Malaysia
The Skywalker Lounge is part of the Elopura Hotel.

Things to Do in Sandakan, Malaysia 🗺️

1. Witness Nesting Turtles at Selingan Island 🐢

One of the most popular trips from Sandakan heads over to Pulau Selingan, otherwise known as Turtle Island. A trip here offers a magical experience, allowing guests to witness turtle conservation in real time. 

No day visits are permitted as guests will need to stay overnight to see the turtles when they come ashore. Once the rangers have radioed through, visitors will be taken to watch the turtles lay their eggs in the sand. The eggs will then be taken to the hatchery where they are buried, safely away from predators. The final part of the trip allows guests to witness the release of new hatchlings into the sea for the very first time. 

Turtle hatchery, Sandakan, Malaysia Turtle Island
The turtle hatchery on Selingan Island.

“I visited Turtle Island as part of a combined Kinabatangan River tour. This was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Borneo. Seeing the baby turtles be released into the ocean was an extraordinary moment and one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had!”

Sheree, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker 

If you want to visit Turtle Island, you will need to make your reservation in advance – visitor numbers are capped to avoid overwhelming the turtles and hampering conservation efforts. A range of tour operators offer this excursion but the cheapest way to visit is to go direct to Crystal Quest, who runs the chalets. All the accommodation caters to at least two people and there are no dorms so it can be pricey for single travellers who are expected to pay the full chalet cost. 

Turtle nesting, Turtle Island, Sandakan, Malaysia
Watch endangered turtles lay their eggs on Selingan Island!

2. Visit the Sandakan Memorial Park 🪖

Built on the grounds of the former Sandakan POW camp, the memorial park pays tribute to all those who died in the death marches from Sandakan to Ranau during World War Two. Of the 2,434 Allied prisoners held at the Sandakan POW camp, only six survived. While a visit to the memorial park isn’t an upbeat activity, it is a sobering lesson of human history which is as important today as it has ever been. 

3. Take a Day Trip to Sepilok 🦧

With the nature hub of Sepilok just a half-hour drive away, Sandakan is one of the best jumping-off points to see orangutans in Malaysia

Sepilok Orang Utan with Baby
Sepilok is internationally famous for its Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Hop onboard one of the buses or jump in a shared minivan to make the first feeding of the orangutans at 10 am. After that, head across the road to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre before spending the afternoon at the Rainforest Discovery Centre. A world-class spot for bird watching, keep your eyes peeled for broadbills, kingfishers and bulbuls, to name a few! 

4. Walk the Sandakan Heritage Trail 🥾

The Sandakan Heritage Trail is a good introduction to the city and will take you around an hour to complete on foot. The route stops at several places of interest around Sandakan including the town mosque, the Pryer memorial and the Goddess of Mercy temple. 

Sandakan Heritage Trail, Malaysia
The Sandakan Heritage Trail takes around an hour on foot.

While the route isn’t difficult, the steps can be a bit challenging in the midday heat. As such, it is best to tackle this trail early in the morning or shortly before sunset. 

5. Wander Through Sim Sim Water Village 🏘

This traditional stilted village was the first settlement that eventually evolved into Sandakan as we know it today. Although much of the village has been modernised over recent years, it still offers a fascinating insight into local life. Head here at lunchtime to enjoy some of the fresh seafood on offer at the local restaurants. 

Important! 💭

While it can be interesting to learn about the lives of local people, it is important to respect their privacy. Never enter someone’s house uninvited and refrain from taking photos of people without their permission. Essentially, treat others the way you would want to be treated. It ain’t hard. 

6. Cruise the Kinabatangan River 🚣‍♀️

A Kinabatanagan River cruise is the ultimate must-do activity in Borneo. Travel around an hour from Sandakan proper and you’ll be surrounded by rainforest, just a stone’s throw away from rare and exotic wildlife. 

Kinabatangan River at dusk
A Kinabatangan River cruise is one of the best things to do from Sandakan.

The most popular river cruise trips span 3 days/2 nights (overnighting in local accommodation) however, both shorter and longer excursions are also available. The Kinabatagan River cruises afford travellers the chance to see a range of creatures, including Borneo’s Big Five: orangutans, pygmy elephants, rhinoceros hornbills, crocodiles and proboscis monkeys. 

There is a range of tours on offer, all catering to different budgets. River Junkies are a good option for a premium experience whereas Uncle Tans come well-rated for more budget-friendly tours. 

“I’d definitely recommend bringing binoculars on your Kinabatangan River cruise. Wildlife spotting takes place from the boat only, (there is no walking ashore, except for the guided night walks), meaning the animals will likely be high in the trees or further away. Even if you haven’t remembered binoculars, your tour provider or accommodation may have the option to rent them for an extra fee so make sure you ask. You’ll see so much more!”

Sheree, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker
Kinabatangan Drone
Drone shot of the Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo.

7. Explore the Gomantong Caves 🦇

A large intricate maze of caves made of limestone, a visit to Gomantong is sometimes included in a Kinabatangan River cruise. 

Beware, these caves are not a destination for the squeamish – as well as a huge population of wrinkled lip bats, there are also cockroaches and other (large) creepy crawlies in abundance.  The cave is also a nesting site for swiftlets, whose nests are collected to make expensive ‘bird’s nest soup’

There is no public transport to the caves, so those brave enough to visit will have to hire a car or opt for a tour that visits the cave on the way. 

8. Visit the Danum Valley 🐒

How often do you get the opportunity to visit a 130 million-year-old rainforest?! Located a few hours from Sandakan, this conservation area is one of the best places to see Borneo’s most famous residents, orangutans. As well as our hairy cousins, it is also possible to spot a range of other wildlife on a visit here including pygmy elephants, barking deer, red leaf monkeys and gibbons. Visits aren’t cheap and are often combined with a Kinabatangan River cruise, with pick-up from Sandakan.

Danum Valley Red Leaf Monkey
A red leaf money spotted at the Danum Valley.

It is also possible to visit the Danum Valley independently, jumping on a bus from Sandakan to Lahad Datu and picking up onward transport to the Danum Valley Field Centre from there. Be aware that public transport to the field centre is not daily and requires a bit of advance planning. 

“I loved the Kinabatangan River and Danum Valley! I spent two nights at each, the best experience of my life and a truly unique experience in terms of scenery and wildlife! I’d do it any day again!!!”

Louis Williams, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member

Food and Drink in Sandakan, Malaysia 🍜

Sandakan has a vibrant food scene, catering to both local and international tastes. Here are a few of the best options: 

One of the swankiest joints in town, Balin Rooftop Bistro is located at the top of Nak Hotel. A beautiful spot for sunset, the rooftop seating area offers wonderful views of the city and waterfront. The food is more expensive than the usual fare in Malaysian Borneo but smacks of quality and flavour. I recommend the Wagyu beef burger! 

Balin Rooftop, Sandakan, Malaysia
Is your mouth watering yet?

If you’re craving a good cup of joe to set you up for an exciting day of wildlife spotting, head to #1 Roastery. This hipster hideaway is the absolute best place to grab a coffee, with a variety of milk options to suit all. While more expensive than other Malaysian offerings, the food is also rated highly by visitors. 

“#1 Roastery is a really cool place for coffee in Sandakan. They brew all their own coffee in-house and even have it on tap! I had the caramel popcorn latté (along with a big slab of chocolate cake) and it was divine!”

Gemma, South East Asia Backpacker Community Member 

Fancy a spot of afternoon tea? Look no further than the English Tea House and Restaurant! Located on the grounds of the historic Agnes Keith House, this fine-dining establishment offers Asian specialities as well as English favourites. Sit outside and enjoy the wonderful garden. (Also a spot on the Sandakan Heritage Trail.)

MOMO Oriental Kitchen is a great choice for those looking for a noddle fix. Ideal for plant-based eaters as it has an extra vegetarian menu – everyone is catered for here.

The Hard Deck (run by the Elopura Hotel) is undoubtedly one of the nicest locations in Sandakan to enjoy a drink and a bite to eat. A mid-range restaurant with sea views, this al fresco option advertises itself as ‘street food’ with meals being delivered from a range of nearby food trucks on rollerskates. Unfortunately, the food lacks the street food price tag but the quality is generally good. A good spot to enjoy a teh tarik rather than a meal. 

The Hard Deck, Sandakan, Malaysia 1
The Hard Deck outdoor restaurant.

Nestled in the Sim Sim Water Village, D72 Sim-Sim Seafood Restaurant is one of the most popular local options for freshly caught seafood. While a visit here presents a great opportunity to explore the floating village, don’t expect a classy dinner-by-the-sea dining experience – there is a lot of trash in this area. Despite this, the food is first-class and offers incredible value for money.

Getting Around Sandakan, Malaysia 🚗

The centre of Sandakan is easily walkable, however, it gets hot here so whether you want to walk will likely depend on your energy level! For trips around the city that you’d rather not take on foot, the local ride-hailing app Grab is a good option. 

Trips further afield to places like Kinabatangan, Turtle Island and the Danum Valley are most often arranged with tour providers who will include pick-up and transport from Sandakan or Sepilok as standard. 

The Hard Deck, Sandakan, Malaysia
Sandakan waterfront is best explored on foot.

If you are hoping to travel further afield independently, you will likely need to travel by bus. For the latest information about timetables, speak to the staff at your accommodation – schedules online are rarely kept up-to-date. Shared minibuses depart for Sepilok a few times daily (approx. 10MYR, around $2USD). 

How to Get to Sandakan, Malaysia 🚌

AirAsia flies into Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur. MASwings, an arm of Malaysian Airlines, also offers good-value internal flights from other destinations in Borneo. Buses run to and from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan (around 7 hours in total) with some other stops along the way (including Kundasang). 

Views over Sandakan, Malaysia 1
Sandakan’s bus station is 8 km outside the centre – use Grab for the last part of the journey.

All journeys, no matter how far you travel, are 47RM per person (approx. $10USD). It’s easy to wait at a stop and hop on but you may risk not getting a seat so it’s best to try and book in advance through your accommodation or online using a service like easybook

Where to Go Next:

  • Kota Kinabalu: KK is a charming waterfront city which is easily walkable and acts as a jumping-off point for a range of other adventures. Visit the Tunku Rahman National Park, go white-water rafting or explore famous landmarks like the beautiful Masjid Bandaraya. 
  • Kinabalu National Park: Take one of the many beautiful nature walks, climb Mount Kinabalu or visit the Poring Hot Springs for a soak in the sulfurous waters. Try and spend at least a couple of days here in case of cloudy weather – the views are too good to miss!
  • Semporna: Five hours south of Sandakan by bus, Semporna is home to some of the best dive sites, not just in Borneo, but in the world! Make sure you arrange your permit in advance as dive numbers are limited. 

Contributors: 👥

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

🙏 Staff at Sandakan Backpackers
🙏 Tim Ashdown | Writer at South East Asia Backpacker 
🙏 Donna Jackson | Contributor at South East Asia Backpacker  
🙏 Louis Williams | Member of South East Asia Backpacker Community
🙏 Gemma | Member of South East Asia Backpacker Community

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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