Sandakan: Borneo in a nutshell

By Finn McCarthy, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Sabah.

Overall rating:4.6 out of 5 (based on 8 votes)
Recommended for:
Adventure, Cultural, Eco, Budget, Mid-range

Get up close and personal with Borneo's wildlife. Then discover Sandakan's fascinating history

We watched in awe as the giant green turtle laid her eggs in a hole on the beach, scooped sand over them, prepared a decoy birth site to confuse predators and lumbered back to the sea. Of all our encounters with creatures in Borneo this was the most magical and the most privileged.

Sandakan, once the capital of the former British North Borneo, is the ideal tourist hub from which you can not only see turtles, but have close encounters with orangutans and proboscis monkeys.

It is located on the east coast of Sabah, a 40-minute flight away from its capital Kota Kinabalu. Air Asia, the budget airline ( ) flies direct from Kuala Lumpur and also from the capital.

Turtle Island Marine Park

Turtles are amazing creatures in that they return from huge distances, many years later, to lay eggs in their original birthplace.

Tours to the Turtle Island Marine Island Park are heavily booked in advance but it is worth checking at Crystal Quest, the franchise operator, (Jalan Buli Sim Sim; 60 89 212711) in case there are cancellations. We were fortunate in securing places and at 9am we left by speedboat for the exhilarating 40 minute voyage to Selingan Island. (Transfers, accommodation, meals and guide came to 570RM for two; £1=4.87 Malay ringett).

The rest of the day passed with swimming, snorkelling and exploring the island. After dinner there was an informative film about the turtles and the conservation work of the centre.

At 9pm we received the call to follow a ranger to witness the birth. Our group of fifteen was manageable and we saw the eggs transferred to the hatchery. The final phase in the operation was watching the release of recent hatchlings as they scurried under moonlight to the sea and a new life.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Orangutans are the poster boys of Borneo. One place that you are guaranteed to see them is Sepilok (60 89 531180; email To avoid the crowds it is worth getting there early, before the official feeding times, to appreciate the marvellous gymnastic ability of these animals. The success of the rehabilitation programme for these orphaned babies from logging sites is reinforced in a video shown at the Centre.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

In many ways these intriguing but less publicized creatures create an even more stunning impact than orangutans. The day trip, leaving at 9.30 and returning at 5.30pm, (15RM ) was excellent value and allowed us to see two feeding times, experiencing close contact with the proboscis monkeys (Bandar Sibuga Jaya; 6 0 89 672133; ). Tours to the Sanctuary are organized by Hotel Sandakan.

Agnes Keith House

Sometimes a book inspires you to visit a location. In this instance, a visit to the Agnes Keith House in the city (6 0 89 221140; ) encouraged us to read her autobiographies ‘Land Below The Wind’ (Michael Joseph) and ‘Three Came Home’ (Mermaid Books). The beautifully restored house, once the headquarters of the British Colonial government, is furnished with reproduction colonial furniture and antiques.

A gallery on the first floor celebrates the life of this remarkable authoress who was married to a Conservator of Forests and managed to survive imprisonment during the war. The admission price of 15RM might seem high but it did also give entry to the Sabah museums in Kota Kinabalu.

Sandakan Memorial Park

On a more sobering note, we took a bus to Mile 7 by the Taman Rimba sign, where a Memorial Park (60 906 822 1616) is close to the original P.O.W. camp. Several interpretive stations and relics commemorate the atrocities suffered by both the Australian and British soldiers held by the Japanese during the Second World War. The story of how only six men survived out of 2400 is a reminder of Sandakan’s violent past.

Heritage Trail

The very friendly woman in the Tourism Information Centre (Wisma Warisan Centre; 60 89 222679) gave us helpful advice about the city’s attractions. There is a heritage trail which starts at the adjacent museum which has striking photographs of Sandakan’s pre-war world and continues with several significant temples and churches.

Where to stay

To select accommodation called Nak Hotel on Jalan Pelabuhan Lama requires a leap of faith. We need not have been concerned. There we found, a friendly welcome, clean spacious rooms with a view of the bay and vouchers for free drinks in the rooftop bar.

More luxurious accommodation was available at the Swiss Inn in Harbour Square and in Hotel Sandakan, on Lebuh Empat, where doubles started at 240RM.

Where to eat

Many of the most attractive restaurants are in the Waterfront area. As you would expect, there were many seafood delicacies available. We chose Harbour Bistro (Harbour Square; 60 89 235315) where we had sizzling prawns as well as tasty chicken satay. With beers it came to a very reasonable 33RM.
Habeeb Restaurant (Third Avenue) had scrumptious biriani whilst Hawaii Restaurant (23 Lebuh Tiga; 6 089 273107) had succulent lamb cooked in a claypot and prawns in sesame seeds.

Next to the Agnes Keith House was an English Tea House and Restaurant (Jalan Istana 60 89 222 544; complete with a croquet lawn. We felt compelled  to recapture the colonial experience and take tea with the obligatory scones, cream and jam, elegantly presented on a two- tiered cake stand.

A Footnote

If time is at a premium, select Sandakan over city rivals like Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. From here it is possible to get guaranteed sightings of Borneo’s fascinating wildlife and to discover a city steeped in history.

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More information on Sandakan: Borneo in a nutshell:

Finn McCarthy
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
Average: 4.6 (8 votes)
Total views:
First uploaded:
20 October 2010
Last updated:
4 years 22 weeks 6 days 6 hours 42 min 16 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Adventure, Cultural, Eco
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range
Free tags / Keywords:
history, adventure, turtles, monkeys

Finn recommends


Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Hotel Nak
2. Hotel Sandakan
3. Swiss Hotel

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Community comments (15)

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

An excellent introduction to a part of the world with which we are not familiar but clearly has so much to offer. The animal life sounds fascinating (didn't realize turtles made 'decoy' holes!) and the food varied and tempting. What a contrast to the brutal images that Borneo once provoked.

Finn's descriptions always whet the appetite and Borneo is now high on our 'must visit' list.

Thank you, Finn.

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Thank you Finn for this amazing travel report. How moving to find the cemetery of all theses soldiers deep in the Borneo Island.It must have been a terrible war with such brutality in a part of the world otherwise so paradisiac.
I must say I never considered going to such a place, but now that I have read your report, my curiosity is definitely aroused. Thank you.

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1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.


I very much enjoyed your guide, except that I just wish you had written it sooner! I went to Borneo last summer, visiting Kota Kinabulu and Kuching. While both of these were interesting, after reading your guide and speaking to fellow travellers out there I think I really missed out by not going to Sandakan.

I'll be sure to read your other guides before I book my next trip!


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Thanks for going to the trouble to add a comment.We also really enjoyed Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
Sandakan had the edge in giving us fantastic close up views of the animals.
I will try to anticipate where you are going to next summer!
In the meantime have a look at Nicaragua and Cape Verde Islands which might be destinations that you have not considered.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Another fascinating travel report by Finn. I am following his journalism closely and am inspired by where he goes in the world. He was very lucky to see the hatching of the turtles without waiting very long. I wonder was the visit planned to coincide with the hatching time or was it luck. I would have liked another video of the trip, and maybe a few more photos of the restauarants etc but overall the report was inspiring

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1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

I'm planning a trip to Borneo for next year so your guide is very useful. The proboscis monkey sanctuary sounds great - my friend and I are both big monkey fans so we'll have to squeeze in a trip there. Your proboscis monkey photo is great! Did you also visit Kinabatangan river? Just wondering how the monkey sightings there compare to in the sanctuary.

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Thanks for your comment. We didn't visit Kinbatangan river but it did get good reports from other travellers.We did see proboscis monkeys in the wonderful Bako National Park and on a trip on the river in Brunei but they were fleeting glimpses. By far the best close up views were in Sandakan.

Hi Finn. Have just booked 3 nights at the Nak Hotel via your guide so hopefully you should get a few pennies commission at some stage!


Great, hope you enjoy the views of Sandakan from the roof terrace. Have a really wonderful trip.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Finn you tske me back nine years to my tour of the area. Turtle Island is indeed a lovely place, and we too were lucky in that we didn't have too long a wait.

You covered more attractions than we visited, so I was interested to hear about these too. A grand whistlestop tour of the attractions on offer in this amazing part of the world.


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Great to hear from someone who has been there and who is reliving the experiences.

1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

Another well written and informative guide to add to your Borneo collection - it's a trilogy now, I think? Great work Finn.

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Thanks for the comment.Remember your piece on Borneo inspired us to go there in the first place.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Your style always overflows with warmth and enthusiasm Finn. It's not a part of the world that I am likely to go but that didn't stop me thoroughly enjoying the guide. Who would not enjoy a piece about the "poster boys of Borneo"- brilliant touch. I like the look and sound of Agnes Keith House and may well look her books up- thank you

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Thanks once again for your valuable and considered comments.