Sandakan was once the capital of British North Borneo (now Sabah) before the capital was moved to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). It played a significant role during the British colonial period and World War II.

It is known for the Sandakan Death Marches, one of Asia’s most tragic World War II events. Many Australian and British prisoners of war were forced by the Japanese to march under brutal conditions, leading to the deaths of almost all involved.

Sandakan is a gateway to several natural attractions. It is close to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which attracts many visitors interested in wildlife conservation. Other notable sites include the Rainforest Discovery Centre, Turtle Islands Park, and the Gomantong Caves, famous for edible bird nests.

How to get to Sandakan?

By Air

Several airlines operate flights to Sandakan, including Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia, with direct flights available from Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) and Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia). The best way to get from Sandakan Airport to the city centre is to use the ride-hailing service, Grab.

By Land

There are bus services from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan passing through Kundasang and Sepilok. The journey takes about 6-8 hours.

For ticket booking, visit Easybook or 12Go.Asia

Berhala Island
Berhala Island

When to go?

The best time to visit Sandakan is during the dry season, which typically falls between March and October. The weather during these months is generally more favourable with less rainfall, making it easier to explore the rainforest (the trails are less muddy) and enjoy outdoor activities.

How long to stay?

Sandakan itself can be easily discovered in one day. If you are planning to visit natural attractions around Sepilok or Turtle Islands Park, you should plan 2-3 days more.

Where to stay?

I spent two nights in AeCOTEL and would recommend this hotel. The rooms were spacious, everything was very clean and the beds were comfy. They also have scooters for rent and can help you to book a river cruise at Kinabatangan.

How to get around?

You can comfortably get around using the ride-hailing app – Grab. If you want to be more independent, a good idea is to rent a scooter. I rented one at my accommodation: AeCOTEL.

What to do in Sandakan?

Agnes Keith House

A restored colonial mansion called Newlands, presents the story of American writer Agnes Keith and her British husband Harry, the Conservator of Forests in North Borneo. They spent three years in Japanese internment camps during World War II and resided in Sandakan from 1934 until 1952. Keith immortalized the house in her hilarious, engrossing, and award-winning depiction of colonial life in Land Below the Wind.

Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Agnes Keith House

Sandakan Old Chinese Cemetery

The Chinese Cemetery is spread over the hillside and is quite impressive, especially if you have not seen a similar place previously. It is still used as some of the graves are recent but some parts are overgrown. You can walk through most of it using the steps and pathways.

Berhala Island

An island with a truly local and authentic village. You won’t find any resorts there. The village is not big and it takes about half an hour to visit. Unfortunately, I felt completely overwhelmed with the amount of rubbish, especially plastic bottles that I saw all around.

You can also hike up towards Berhala Island Lighthouse but the trail isn’t easy to find so you will need to ask locals for directions or hire a guide.

To get there, look for a boat at the pier behind the fish market at Sandakan Central Market.

Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Berhala Island
Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Berhala Island
Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Berhala Island

Sandakan Central Market

All seafood, veggies and fruits are fresh and sold at an affordable price here. Very clean place for both dry and wet markets. The surroundings of the market are very lively. Right outside, you can see the waterfront, harbour mall and lots of shops and restaurants.

Sim Sim Water Village

A charming and unique village that is known for its traditional stilt houses and picturesque waterfront views. Known as one of the oldest and most historic water villages in Sabah, Sim Sim can be explored on foot. It’s a must-visit in Sandakan, for anyone interested in admiring the traditional architecture of the stilt houses and sampling delicious local cuisine from the waterfront eateries. I got rice with dried fish and sambal for as little as 1 RM!

Sandakan, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Sim Sim Water Village

Trig Hill

A great place to admire the panorama of Sandakan. Unfortunately, the Rotary Tower was closed and I couldn’t climb it.

Puu Jih Syh Temple

One of the finest Chinese temples in Sabah. It’s about 4km west of the city centre centre and provides beautiful panoramic views from its terrace.

St. Michael’s and All Angels Church

This Anglican church, a relic of colonial times and a monument to Christian worship, is the first and oldest stone church in the State of Sabah, completed in 1925.

Sandakan Memorial Park

The location marked by a stunning rainforest garden was a Japanese prisoner of war camp and the beginning of the infamous WWII “death marches” to Ranau. By July 1945, only six Australian escapees remained alive out of the 1793 Australians and 641 British servicemen who had been imprisoned here in the beginning. The only tangible remnants are a concrete water tank and a few rusty machinery from the British agricultural station that was converted into a jail.

Check the offer of guided treks, following the route of death marches.

Astana Height Recreation Park 

A very pleasant and interesting loop trail. Breathtaking views from the top toward Berhala Island and Sim Sim Water Village. Be careful on the stairs as they might be a bit shaky.

Sandakan Rainforest Park

Beautiful scenery of nature and you can hear different types of birds singing. There are wide, concrete paths, often used by locals for jogging. If you want to be more adventurous, take a turn into a proper jungle trail. It was surprisingly wild and quite difficult loop with many ups and downs. No fees are required to enter the park.

What to outside of Sandakan?


The place is renowned primarily for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, and hiking opportunities at the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Read more in a separate post HERE.

Sepilok, Sabah, Borneo
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Turtle Islands Park

40 kilometres to the north of Sandakan is the Turtle Islands Park including three small islands: Selingan, Gulisan, and Bakungan Kechil. It encompasses the nearby reefs and oceans and spans 1,740 hectares. This park is unique since it is home to two different types of turtles: green and hawksbill. They come ashore at night to lay their eggs all year round. Every one of the three islands has hatcheries. The islands offer more attractions than only sea turtles. The crystal-clear, turquoise-coloured ocean and its surrounding coral reefs are perfect for diving, snorkelling, and swimming.

It takes you about 45 minutes by boat from Sandakan to the island. With no day trips allowed at Turtle Island, this overnight package is the shortest option to witness the magic of baby turtles hatching off the coast of Sandakan. Similar to other activities including nature in Sabah, it isn’t cheap and you should expect to pay about 1500 RM per person for the 2D1N package.

Gomantong Caves

It’s a stinky and dirty place but if you are not afraid of cockroaches then this cave is worth going to. You might get lucky and witness how locals collect edible nest swiftlet plus don’t forget to keep your head up as orangutans are hanging around high in the trees from time to time.

For most of the tourists coming here, Gomantong Caves is included in their Kinabatangan River Cruise package. If you are not on tour, you will need to rent a car to reach it.

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