The bustling coastal city of Sandakan is famous for being the gateway to Sabah’s unique ecotourism experiences. However, Sandakan is not just a destination for wildlife lovers, but history buffs too. Once a colonial capital and thriving port, Sandakan has a large wealth and history and heritage for visitors to discover and explore. So whatever it is that draws you here, these are the best things to do in Sandakan to help you make the most of your time there.

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Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Just a 30-minute drive from Sandakan, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is one of the best things to do in Sandakan. The centre cares for young orangutans who have been orphaned as a result of deforestation and logging, with the goal to rehabilitate them back into the wild. Visitors have the opportunity to observe the orangutans during feeding times (10 am and 3 pm) as well as in the outdoor nursery from 10am – 12pm and then 2 – 4 pm. Entry is RM50 and which allows you access into the centre all day.

Selingan Turtle Island

Selingan Turtle Island is a conservation park for sea turtles and other marine animals and is another one of the best things to do in Sandakan. Situated 40km offshore, the only way you can visit the island is on a tour, all of which are run by a company called Crystal Quest. Whilst on the island, you’ll have the chance to witness turtles laying their eggs on the beach, see the eggs be placed in the hatchery. Then for the real fun…help release the newly hatched baby turtles into the sea! It costs MR500 per person for a 2-day 1-night tour when you book directly with Crystal Quest.

Selingan Turtle Island, turtle hatchling

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Sandakan Heritage Trail

Sandakan’s Heritage Trail takes you on a route around all the city’s historic landmarks and places of interest. Although it’s not all that scenic, the trail is a good way to fully explore the different areas of Sandakan and get a feel of its heritage. It’s easy to follow too, with the trail mapped out by red markers on the ground to follow and information plaques at each site. Highlights along the route include the Agnes Keith House and the English Teahouse.

Sandakan Heritage Trail

English Tea House

You’ll find this colonial-style tea house nestled on top of a hill just outside of Sandakan’s central hub. Home to very pretty gardens that overlook the Sulu Sea, here you can enjoy a spot of fine dining both indoors or outside. Their menu is mostly traditionally British, serving afternoon tea, cakes, and other dishes like fish and chips and shepherd’s pie, as well as cocktails and soft drinks.

English Tea House - best things to do in Sandakan

Agnes Keith House

Although this preserved historic house turn museum doesn’t look anything special, it has a very interesting story to tell. Inside is a fascinating exhibition that details the life and achievements of Agnes Keith. An American author who lived as an expat in Sandakan, Keith is most well known for her autobiographical books about life in Northern British Borneo. Key stories include her experience as a Japanese POW and her return to Sandakan after WW2 to help rebuild it.

Agnes Keith House - Best things to do in Sandakan

Sandakan Waterfront

Visiting the city’s picturesque waterfront is one of the best things to do in Sandakan on an evening. Restaurants line and light up the sea wall with tables and chairs set out right on the water’s edge. It’s a lively place that attracts both tourists and locals with cheap, tasty Malaysian dishes and seafood being served up fresh.

Sandakan Waterfront - Best things to do in Sandakan

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Set nearby to Sepilok is the Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Centre. This preserved area of land is home to ancient trees, tropical flora and fauna and indigenous animals. Here you can stroll amongst and explore the treetops from canopy towers connected by walkways. Or back down on the ground, there are also few walking trails you can follow through the forest floor and around the lake. Entry is just RM 15 per person.

Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Centre - Best things to do in Sandakan

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Kampong Buli Sim Sim Village

This Malay stilt village to the northeast of the city is the original settlement of Sandakan. Although it’s been modernised to a certain extent, the village is still made up of hundreds of houses and walkways perched on wooden stilts over the sea. It’s a very interesting historic area to walk around. Plus whilst you’re there make sure to stop off at Sim Sim 88, an amazing seafood restaurant that’s popular with tourists and locals alike.

Kampong Buli Sim Sim Village

Sandakan District Mosque

Just before the Kampong Buli Sim Sim village is Sandakan’s District Mosque. Completed in 1990, it’s futuristic design and architecture make it well worth stopping at to admire as you walk past.

Sandakan District Mosque

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Just down the road from Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is another equally rare conservation centre. The endangered Borneo Sun Bear is the smallest bear in the world and like their name would suggest, is only found in Borneo. This centre cares for over 40 ex-captive Sun Bears, with the aim to rehabilitate them back into the wild when possible. It has a large forest enclosure where visitors can observe the Sun Bears in their natural habitat and learn more about them. Entry is RM30 for tourists.

Kinabatangan River Tour

If you’re looking for even more eco-tourist things to do in Sandakan, then a Kinabatangan River tour is the perfect activity. Stay in a riverside lodge and enjoy cruises of the river to spot indigenous Borneo wildlife in its natural habitat. Along the riverbanks, you can spot orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaque monkeys, pygmy elephants and lots more!

Although the Kinabatangan River isn’t that close to Sandakan, the city offers the perfect base to do a tour from. There are a lot of tour companies in the city that offer a whole range of river tours. So whether you’re looking for a 1 or 3 night tour, luxury or shoestring budget, you’ll definitely find a tour that’s right for you.

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A guide to Kinabatangan River tours - river cruise

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