April 22, 2024
10 min read

The Complete Guide to Exploring Sandakan: Must-See Attractions & Tips

Discover Sandakan's treasures from wildlife sanctuaries to fresh seafood & historical gems. Your ultimate guide to exploring Sandakan's must-see attractions & tips.
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Nasalis Larvatus Tours
June 27, 2024

Sandakan is a city where nature's beauty meets history and culture, promising an adventure for every traveler.

Sandakan is a city where nature's beauty meets history and culture, promising an adventure for every traveler. Known for its lush rainforests, fascinating wildlife sanctuaries, and rich historical sites, Sandakan invites visitors to dive deep into the heart of Borneo. Whether you're exploring one of the many discovery centers, sampling the fresh seafood, or embarking on a wildlife expedition, Sandakan offers a blend of experiences that cater to the adventurous spirit and the conservation-minded.

For those seeking an escape into nature, Sandakan is synonymous with wildlife conservation efforts such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Turtle Islands Park. These sanctuaries not only allow you to witness Borneo's unique fauna up close but also to understand the importance of preserving these species for future generations. Meanwhile, history buffs can explore remnants of the past at spots like the Agnes Keith House and St Michael's & All Angels Church, offering a glimpse into colonial life and the rich tapestry of cultures that have shaped this region.

Food enthusiasts will find delight in Sandakan's culinary scene, where seafood is king. The city's coastal location means the catch is always fresh, offering a myriad of flavors that reflect the diverse influences of Malaysian, Chinese, and indigenous Bornean cuisine.

In summary, Sandakan is a city where adventure, history, and culinary delights converge, making it a must-visit for those looking to experience the essence of Borneo.

Why Sandakan is Known as "Little Hong Kong"

Historical Significance

Sandakan's nickname, "Little Hong Kong," is not just a whimsical moniker but a testament to its rich historical tapestry. This city was once the cradle of trade and commerce in Borneo, much like Hong Kong in the Far East. In the early days, Sandakan thrived as a bustling port town, drawing in traders and settlers from around the globe.

Trade and Commerce

The city's economic boom was largely fueled by its role as a major export hub. Goods like palm oil, tobacco, cocoa, and coffee flowed through its port, marking Sandakan as a cornerstone of trade in the region. In the mid-1930s, it even became the world's largest exporter of hardwood, with its timber gracing structures as far-flung as Beijing's Temple of Heaven.

Immigrant Influence

The parallel to Hong Kong extends beyond trade; it's also about the people. A significant wave of immigration from China, particularly from Hong Kong, brought a flurry of cultural and economic vitality to Sandakan. These immigrants, many of whom were entrepreneurs and laborers, contributed immensely to the development of the city. They set up businesses, cultivated the land, and infused the local culture with their traditions and culinary delights.

This blend of cultures, combined with a thriving economy, earned Sandakan the nickname "Little Hong Kong." The city's Chinese temples, colonial architecture, and vibrant markets continue to mirror the bustling street scenes of its namesake. Even today, efforts are being made to rejuvenate Sandakan, aiming to restore its former glory as a dynamic trade center and cultural melting pot.

Sandakan's moniker as "Little Hong Kong" is a nod to its historical significance, economic prowess, and the indelible mark left by its immigrant community. It's a city where East meets West, tradition meets modernity, and nature meets commerce, making it a fascinating chapter in the story of Borneo.

As we move on to explore the rich history and culture of Sandakan, it's clear that this city is not just a gateway to Borneo's natural wonders but also a living museum of its multicultural heritage.

Exploring the Rich History and Culture of Sandakan

Sandakan, once the capital of British North Borneo, offers a deep dive into the history and culture that shaped this vibrant city and its people. Let's explore the landmarks and stories that make Sandakan truly special.

British North Borneo

Sandakan's role as the former capital of British North Borneo is central to its identity. This era left behind a legacy of colonial architecture, trade, and a melting pot of cultures. The British influence is evident in the city's historical sites and its development into a commercial hub in the early 20th century.

Agnes Keith House

A visit to Sandakan is incomplete without stepping into the Agnes Keith House. This colonial-era bungalow, once home to the famous American writer Agnes Newton Keith, tells the story of life in British North Borneo. The house, beautifully restored, offers insights into her writings, including the celebrated "Land Below the Wind," which describes the enchanting landscapes and diverse cultures of Borneo.

St Michael's & All Angels Church

St Michael's & All Angels Church is a testament to Sandakan's resilience. One of the few buildings to survive World War II, this stone church, built in 1893, showcases beautiful colonial architecture and is a peaceful place for reflection. Its presence speaks volumes about the city's history and the enduring spirit of its people.

Chinese Cemetery

The Chinese Cemetery in Sandakan is a poignant reminder of the city's multicultural fabric. As you walk through this vast, serene space, the older, more weathered graves tell tales of early settlers who played a significant role in Sandakan's development. It's a place where history rests, literally, and a visit here connects you with the generations that shaped this city.

Sam Sing Kung Temple

Sam Sing Kung Temple - sandakan

Sam Sing Kung Temple, also known as the Three Saints Temple, is Sandakan's oldest temple, built in 1887. Dedicated to three deities revered for their virtues, this temple is not just a spiritual center but also a cultural one, reflecting the Chinese community's contributions to Sandakan's growth. The vibrant festivals and rituals here are a sight to behold, offering a glimpse into the traditions that enrich Borneo's cultural tapestry.

In Conclusion:

Exploring Sandakan's rich history and culture is like walking through the pages of a living history book. From the remnants of British colonial rule to the multicultural landmarks dotting the city, Sandakan is a testament to the resilience, diversity, and spirit of its people. Whether you're marveling at the colonial elegance of the Agnes Keith House, reflecting at St Michael's & All Angels Church, wandering through the Chinese Cemetery, or seeking blessings at the Sam Sing Kung Temple, you're experiencing the soul of Sandakan.

As we transition from the historical and cultural exploration of Sandakan, we'll next delve into the heart of Borneo's natural beauty and the wildlife sanctuaries that make this region a haven for nature lovers and conservationists alike.

Must-Visit Wildlife and Nature Attractions

Sandakan isn't just a city with a rich history; it's a gateway to some of the most incredible wildlife and nature attractions in Borneo. Here's where you can get up close with unique species, explore ancient caves, and wander through lush rainforests.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Imagine standing quietly and watching a baby orangutan swing playfully from tree to tree. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is a place of hope and a haven for orphaned orangutans. Here, these magnificent creatures are cared for until they're ready to return to the wild. Visitors get to see these orangutans up close, especially during feeding times, in a setting that mimics their natural habitat. It's not just an attraction; it's an education on conservation.

Turtle Islands Park

Next, imagine a night under the stars on a secluded island, waiting for the magical moment when a sea turtle comes ashore to lay her eggs. Turtle Islands Park offers this unique experience. The park consists of several islands, and it's a critical nesting site for green and hawksbill turtles. Witnessing the process of turtles laying eggs and then helping release hatchlings into the sea is unforgettable and a stark reminder of the fragility of marine life.

Gomantong Caves

Deep within the Gomantong Caves, you'll find a world unlike any other. These caves are renowned for their edible bird's nests, harvested by locals using techniques passed down through generations. But it's not just about the nests. The caves are also home to a diverse array of wildlife, including bats and swiftlets, whose aerial maneuvers as they enter and exit the cave are a sight to behold. Walking through these ancient caves, you're stepping into a living, breathing ecosystem.

Kinabatangan River

Cruising down the Kinabatangan River, you're entering the realm of pygmy elephants, crocodiles, and a plethora of bird species. This river is the second longest in Malaysia and a vital part of the region's ecosystem. Morning and evening river cruises offer the chance to see wildlife when they're most active. The Kinabatangan River is a testament to the incredible biodiversity of Borneo and the importance of preserving these natural habitats.

Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC)

Lastly, the Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC) is not just a walk in the park. It's an immersive journey through the heart of Borneo's rainforest. The canopy walkway gives you a bird's-eye view of the forest, while the botanical garden introduces you to the flora that makes this ecosystem so vital. Whether you're a bird watcher, a plant lover, or just someone who appreciates the beauty of nature, the RDC offers a glimpse into the complexity and richness of Borneo's rainforests.

Each of these attractions not only provides a unique experience but also teaches the importance of conservation and the role each of us plays in preserving our planet's natural beauty. Remember that the adventure in Sandakan extends beyond its shores and into the heart of Borneo's wilderness.

Transitioning from the awe-inspiring experiences at these natural attractions, our journey through Sandakan's highlights will take us next to explore the local delicacies and where to find them.

Local Delicacies and Where to Find Them

Sandakan is not just a treasure trove of natural beauty and wildlife; it's also a paradise for food lovers. The city's culinary scene is as diverse as its ecosystem, offering a variety of local delicacies that promise to tantalize your taste buds. Let's dive into some must-try dishes and where you can find them.


Given its coastal location, it's no surprise that Sandakan is famous for its fresh and delectable seafood. From grilled fish to prawn noodles, the seafood here is prepared with a blend of local spices that give it a unique flavor. Sim Sim Water Village is particularly renowned for its seafood restaurants, where you can enjoy your meal with a view of the sea.

Nasi Lemak

A visit to Malaysia would be incomplete without trying Nasi Lemak, and Sandakan offers some of the best versions of this dish. Traditionally served with fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk, accompanied by spicy sambal, crispy anchovies, peanuts, and boiled egg, it's a flavor explosion in every bite. Look for local eateries and kopitiams to enjoy this beloved breakfast dish, though it's delicious at any time of day.

Durian Cream Puff

For the adventurous foodie, the Durian Cream Puff is a must-try. This pastry is a unique blend of creamy durian custard encased in a light, fluffy puff. It's an excellent introduction to the king of fruits for those who are new to durian. Bakeries around Sandakan city are the best places to find these delightful treats.

Tiramisu Cake

A local twist on the classic Italian dessert, the Tiramisu Cake in Sandakan often incorporates local ingredients like Sabah tea. Its rich and creamy taste, coupled with the unique flavor of the tea, makes it a favorite among locals and tourists alike. Cafés and bakeries around the city serve this delectable dessert.

Sang Nyuk Mee

Sang Nyuk Mee, or pork noodle soup, is a comfort food for many in Sandakan. The broth is rich and savory, and the noodles are typically served with tender slices of pork, liver, and sometimes, meatballs. This dish is a testament to the city's ability to create simple yet hearty and flavorful meals. You can find it in many local kopitiams and noodle shops.

Local Kopitiams

Speaking of kopitiams, these traditional coffee shops are the heart and soul of Malaysia's dining scene, and Sandakan is no exception. They serve not just coffee but also a variety of local dishes and snacks. It's the perfect place to start your day or to take a break and enjoy some local flavors. Kopitiams are scattered throughout the city, each with its own specialties and charm.

As we explore the delightful culinary landscape of Sandakan, it's clear that the city offers a feast for the senses. Whether you're craving the freshness of the sea, the comfort of a warm bowl of noodles, or the sweet indulgence of a dessert, Sandakan has something special for you. Don't forget to venture into local markets and street food stalls for an authentic taste of the city's diverse flavors.

Moving on from the culinary delights, our guide will next take you through essential safety tips and the best times to visit Sandakan, ensuring your adventure is not just memorable but also worry-free.

Safety Tips and Best Times to Visit

Sandakan is a treasure trove of natural beauty and wildlife wonders, making it a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers. However, like any travel destination, it's important to stay informed about safety and the best times to visit to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience. Let's dive into some essential tips and insights.

Travel Safety

Sandakan is generally a safe place for tourists. People are friendly and helpful, but it's always wise to follow basic travel safety tips:

  • Keep your belongings secure, especially in crowded places.
  • Use authorized taxis or ride-sharing apps to get around.
  • Stay informed about local news and any travel advisories.
  • Respect wildlife and follow guidelines when visiting conservation areas.

Moderate Night Safety

While Sandakan is relatively safe during the day, it's advisable to be more cautious at night:

  • Avoid walking alone in poorly lit or secluded areas.
  • Stay in well-lit, populated areas if you're out late.
  • Keep a local emergency number handy, just in case.

Peak Seasons

The best time to visit Sandakan largely depends on what you want to do:

  • Dry Season (March to October): Ideal for wildlife spotting, as animals tend to gather around water sources. This is also the perfect time for exploring the outdoors without the worry of rain interrupting your plans.
  • Wet Season (November to February): While this season sees more rain, it's also when Sandakan is less crowded. You can enjoy the lush, green landscapes and cooler weather. Plus, some wildlife, like certain bird species, are more easily spotted during this time.

Budget Travel Tips

Visiting Sandakan doesn't have to break the bank. Here are some tips to help you save money:

  • Travel during off-peak seasons. Hotel prices tend to be lower, and you might find some great deals.
  • Eat like a local. Local eateries and street food stalls offer delicious food at a fraction of the price of tourist spots.
  • Use public transportation or shared rides to get around. It's cheaper and a great way to experience the city like a local.
  • Look for combo tour deals. Some tour operators offer packages that include multiple attractions at a discounted rate.

Best Times to Visit

The best time to visit Sandakan depends on your interests:

  • For wildlife enthusiasts, the dry season provides the best opportunities for sightings.
  • If you're looking to avoid crowds and don't mind a bit of rain, the wet season could be ideal.
  • Budget travelers might find better deals during the shoulder months, just before or after the peak season.

Sandakan's rich biodiversity and cultural heritage make it a fascinating destination year-round. By following these safety tips and considering the best times to visit, you're set for an unforgettable adventure in one of Malaysia's most captivating cities. Next, we'll explore the conservation efforts that help keep Sandakan's natural and wildlife heritage thriving for generations to come.


Sandakan is not just a destination; it's a living, breathing testament to the beauty and fragility of our natural world. As we wrap up our guide to exploring Sandakan, it's crucial to highlight the positive impact of conservation efforts, the unique offerings of Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, and the unforgettable immersive safari experiences available to visitors.

Conservation Efforts

Sandakan stands at the forefront of conservation in Malaysia, with several initiatives aimed at preserving its unique ecosystem and the diverse species that call it home. The dedication to wildlife rehabilitation and forest conservation is evident in places like the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. These centers not only provide a sanctuary for endangered species but also offer educational insights for visitors, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature's intricacies.

  • Key Fact: The conservation programs in Sandakan have led to significant strides in orangutan and sun bear rehabilitation, with many animals successfully reintroduced into the wild.

Nature Lodge Kinabatangan

Nestled along the banks of the Kinabatangan River, Nature Lodge Kinabatangan offers a unique gateway to exploring the rich biodiversity of Sandakan. This eco-friendly lodge is committed to sustainable tourism practices, ensuring that every stay contributes to the conservation of the surrounding natural environment.

  • What We Offer: From comfortable accommodations that blend seamlessly with nature to guided river safaris that bring you up close with Sabah’s wildlife, our lodge is designed for those who seek an authentic jungle experience.
  • Guest Experience: Visitors often rave about the magical moments spent watching wildlife from the lodge's viewing platforms, the knowledge imparted by our expert guides, and the serene atmosphere that envelops the entire experience.

Immersive Safari Experiences

The true essence of Sandakan is best experienced through its immersive safari adventures. These excursions offer a unique opportunity to witness wildlife in their natural habitat, from the majestic orangutans swinging through the canopy to the elusive pygmy elephants that tread softly through the forest floor.

  • Highlight: Our Kinabatangan River cruises are a guest favorite, offering unparalleled opportunities to spot a diverse array of wildlife. Imagine cruising down the river at dawn, the air filled with birdsong, as you catch a glimpse of a hornbill in flight or a crocodile basking on the riverbank.
  • Sustainability: We ensure that all safari experiences are conducted with the utmost respect for wildlife and the environment, adhering to strict ethical guidelines to minimize our footprint.

In Conclusion, Sandakan offers a rare blend of natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and a commitment to conservation that makes it a must-visit destination for eco-conscious travelers. At Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, we're proud to be part of this remarkable community, providing guests with not just a holiday, but an experience that enlightens, educates, and inspires. Whether you're witnessing the orangutans' gentle demeanor, marveling at the biodiversity of the Kinabatangan River, or savoring the tranquility of the rainforest, Sandakan promises an adventure that stays with you long after you've returned home.

Join us in Sandakan, where every visit contributes to the preservation of one of the world's most precious ecosystems. Together, we can ensure that this magnificent part of Malaysia continues to thrive for generations to come.

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