Things to do in Sandakan - Top attractions and experiences
Sandakan is the second largest city in Sabah and is located directly on the sea in the eastern part of the island of Borneo. It has a very eventful past, as it was heavily destroyed during the Second World War. Even today, monuments and memorials bear witness to terrible events. In addition, Sandakan offers other historical attractions such as religious sites and museums.
In our opinion, however, Sandakan doesn’t have too many things to do, and the big highlights are in the surrounding area. There you will find, among other things, exciting rainforest, various animal conservation facilities, and fascinating caves.
If you want to relax in Sandakan, you should spend some time at the waterfront. There you can stroll, relax in cafes, enjoy good food in various restaurants, pass the time in the markets or just read a book.
The Sandakan Heritage Trail connects the historical sights of the city
The Sandakan Heritage Trail provides a good overview of the city’s history. It was established in 2003 by a group of Sandakan residents interested in history. Started initially with eleven stops, since 2017, the trail only connects the following ten historical sites and landmarks:
- Masjid Jamek (Sandakan Mosque)
- William B. Pryer Monument
- Stairs with Hundred Steps
- Agnes Keith’s House
- Remains of old stairs
- Goddess of Mercy Chinese Temple
- Michael’s and All Angels‘ Church
- Sam Sing Kung Chinese Temple
- Malaysia Fountain
- Wisma Warisan
Red footprints in the city area show you the way of the tour. When you arrive at the airport, you will also find a free map in the arrivals hall to help you find your way around. Depending on how long you spend on the individual stations, you can complete the Sandakan Heritage Trail in about 2 hours. Of course, history enthusiasts will need a little longer.
The trail starts at the Sandakan Mosque
The oldest mosque in Sandakan is the starting point for the Heritage Trail. Masjid Jamek is its name, and it is already over 130 years old (built in 1887). Bullet marks in some of the pillars still bear witness to the fighting from World War II. From here, you continue to the William B. Pryer Monument. William B. Pryer, an Englishman, is considered the discoverer of Sandakan and founded the city on June 21, 1879.
Next, head up the Stairs with 100 Steps. At the top, you should first turn right, as there is a Chinese World War II memorial and a Japanese cemetery to explore. If you turn left at the stairs, you will first have a beautiful view of Sandakan „from above“ at the Rotary Observation Pavilion. Afterwards, the tour’s highlight, Agnes Keith’s House, is waiting for you.
The Agnes Keith's House is the biggest attraction
Agnes Keith was a US writer who lived in Sandakan in the 1930s and wrote books about her time there. As the wife of a high-ranking British colonial official, she initially enjoyed a life of luxury before World War II brought suffering to the family.
It was in this house that she wrote her first book, „The land below the wind“, published in 1939. Her breakthrough, however, came with her second book, „Three Came Home“. In it, she describes when she and her son were held as Japanese prisoners of war. This book was even made into a film in 1950.
Her house was completely destroyed during the war, later rebuilt and now hosts a museum: the Agnes Keith House. It offers exciting insights into the British colonial period and the writer’s life. After all, history was made in the truest sense of the word at this historic site.
Directly opposite is the English Tea House, a small café and restaurant. The chic, colonial-style building serves pastries, cakes, and coffee or tea from around the world. Hot meals are also available. After visiting the Agnes Keith House, you can take a break on the terrace of the café and enjoy the great sea view.
The last stations of the Heritage Trail
Then the trail goes downhill again to the next station. The Remains of the Old Stairs is said to be part of the pre-war Chinese Consulate. The consulate was destroyed and burned down by the Japanese during World War II. Only the stone staircase remains and has been preserved to this day. From here, you’ll first pass the small Goddess of Mercy Chinese Temple, built before 1890, before arriving at St. Michael’s and All Angels‘ Church.
Completed in 1925, more than 30 years after construction began, the church is one of the first stone buildings in Sabah. It is one of the few structures in Sandakan that survived World War II without major damage and is still mostly in its original condition.
After that, the Sam Sing Kung Chinese Temple is on the agenda. Built in 1885, the temple remains a repository for historical items with much information on Sandakan’s original history. Slowly the Heritage Trail is coming to an end.
On the way to the last sight, you will pass the Malaysia Fountain. This was built in honour of the founding of Malaysia in 1963. The last stop is Wisma Warisan. During the British colonial period, Wisma Warisan was the seat of government and, for some years, the General Post Office. Until recently, it also housed the Sandakan Heritage Museum. However, the museum has been closed in the meantime.
Sandakan War Memorial
The Sandakan War Memorial commemorates the British and Australian prisoners of war during World War II. The memorial is located where a notorious Japanese prison camp once stood. The camp was also the starting point for the horrific death marches in 1945. About 2,400 British and Australian soldiers were held in the camp in 1944. Six Australian prisoners successfully escaped, and all other inmates perished.
Today the site is a beautiful green park with an exhibition hall. You will get a lot of information about the camp’s history and what the area looked like at that time. Also, at the Sandakan War Memorial, you will find reports from the survivors about their time in captivity.
The Sandakan War Memorial is located just outside the city toward Sepilok. Travel time by cab is about 10 to 15 minutes. Admission is free.
Shopping and food
Sandakan has some traditional markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and meat, but also local handicrafts or souvenirs. Probably the biggest market is the Sandakan Central Market. It is a fairly new, tall building, and the stalls mainly sell fresh food and local delicacies.
Besides the markets, many smaller stores are also along the more prominent streets. It is worthwhile to take a look here as well.
In addition, there is a shopping centre, the Harbour Mall. In our opinion, a visit is only worthwhile if you have a lot of time.
The cuisine in Sandakan is Malaysian. But there are also many Chinese and Indian influences. For a few good restaurants, it is best to head for the waterfront at the harbour. There should be something for every taste.
The area around the city is fascinating
Most vacationers travel to Borneo because of the unique nature and the multitude of animals. No wonder, then, that few tourists come to Sandakan for the city’s attractions. However, the surrounding area is a prime destination for exploring Borneo’s nature and wildlife. In the small town of Sepilok, not far from Sandakan, there are two animal conservation facilities that are worth visiting.
Sepilok Orangutan Center and Bornean Sunbear Conservation Center
The Sepilok Orangutan Center takes in monkeys released from captivity and trains them for a life in freedom. Right next door is the Bornean Sunbear Conservation Center. There, too, formerly captive or injured animals are rehabilitated and later, if possible, released into the wild. Both centres are located directly on the edge of a rainforest. This is well integrated into the enclosures and thus offers the animals as natural an environment as possible.
A little further away than Sepilok is the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. This is a facility that is home to many proboscis monkeys. You can observe the primates during feedings.
Complete nature awaits you at the Kinabatangan River. The areas along the river are considered the Amazon of Asia. Worldwide, only the Amazon region has comparable biodiversity. With luck, you can see orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, and crocodiles in the wild during river safaris.
There is also a great attraction nearby for friends of marine fauna. After a 75-minute boat ride, you’ll reach Turtle Island. Every evening, turtles come to the island to lay their eggs. If you are lucky, you can also see newly hatched turtle babies on their way into the sea.
How to get to Sandakan
Sandakan has a small airport. There are many connections to Kota Kinabalu and flights to Kuala Lumpur several times a day. In addition, daily flights are available to Kuching and Tawau. Since airfares in Malaysia are usually very low, we recommend travelling by plane due to time constraints.
If you have more time, are on a budget, or want to travel more environmentally friendly, you can also take a bus to Sandakan. There are public long-distance buses from Kota Kinabalu or Tawau and Lahad Datu. However, from Kota Kinabalu, it takes around 6-8 hours, depending on traffic.
Accommodation in Sandakan
In Sandakan, there is a wide range of accommodations. Everyone will find the room or bed that suits their needs and budget. In terms of location, accommodation near the waterfront is a good choice. This is very attractive, and various restaurants are not far away. The prices are, as usual in Borneo, fair. 4-star hotels are available for around 45 USD per room.
Things to do in Sandakan: Our recommendation
Sandakan is a good starting point to experience some historical attractions and the attractive flora and fauna in the area. You will save yourself from moving every day and can easily sleep in the same bed for two or three days. You should not miss Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Also, we recommend a trip to Kinabatangan for one or two nights.
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