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10 Things to Do in Sandakan For First Time Visitors

 Among all the other towns or cities in Sabah, Sandakan has a unique identity of its own, due to its rich history and influence from British colonial era and vast settlement of Hong Kong immigrants in the past.

Known as ‘Little Hong Kong’, it gives me a familiar warmth upon hearing random Cantonese conversations among locals in their usual kopitiam hang out spots which fondly reminded me of my hometown, Ipoh. Previously used to be the capital of North Borneo, Sandakan is still a gem and more preservation efforts should be put in to restore its charm and beauty.

Besides from being well known for its rehabilitation efforts for endangered species, Sandakan is also a paradise for nature and seafood lovers. My first visit to Sandakan was brief as we only stopped by on the way to the Kinabatangan River Cruise in Sukau, a 2-hour bumpy ride from Sandakan city. This time, I spent most of the time exploring Sandakan city as well as eating the city’s famous local delicacies.

Based on my last two visits, I managed to compile the top 10 things to do in Sandakan!

1. Go on a Kinabatangan River Cruise

You’re probably doing it right if you start your Sandakan trip with some wildlife adventures! What better way to immerse yourself in nature than staying overnight in a jungle for wildlife spotting? If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the Borneo Big Five- Borneo orangutan, pygmy elephants, rhinoceros hornbill, proboscis monkeys, and estuarine crocodiles.
I wasn’t very lucky though; I spotted mostly monkeys. Both endemic and regular ones. Regardless, it was one of the most memorable and fulfilling moments I had in Sandakan. The wildlife experience was priceless and the tranquillity of the jungle was soothing.
Spotting wildlife in their natural habitat was totally a different experience from watching wildlife behind the cage in the zoo.

Read more about my Kinabatangan River Cruise guide here

 2. Find Orang Utans & Sun Bears in Sepilok

Sepilok acts like a hub for Borneo wildlife conservation. Sitting at the edge of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve is the famous Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre as well as Borneon Sun BearConservatory Centre and Rainforest Discovery Centre. Located 20km west of the Orang Utan sanctuary is the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Since we had seen proboscis monkeys during our wildlife spotting in Kinabatangan but have no luck in orang utans sightings except for their nests they left behind (oh yes Orang utans build their own nest!), we decided to go to Sepilok Orang Utan sanctuary.

While we were at it, we also visited the Borneon Sun Bear Conservatory. Too bad all the sun bears were hiding in the shade and sleeping during our visit. Apparently, they take afternoon naps.

I went to the Rainforest Discovery Centre during my second visit. It serves as an environment educational centre within the forest. It has a canopy walkway which provides easy access to wildlife sighting and bird watching. 

 3.  Food Hunting at Sim Sim Water Village

Sim Sim Water Village is a traditional stilt village situated on the coast of Sandakan. It is easily accessible through the walkways (as the locals refer them as bridges) from the main road, Jalan Buli Sim Sim.


It is one of the original settlements in Sandakan which houses many local fishermen families. Sim Sim Water Village grew to become a tourist hotspot for the best local authentic Sandakan cuisines and the freshest seafood in town.


We went to House No. 84 at Bridge no. 7 for the famous century egg and pork dumpling with springy noodles. It felt like walking into someone else’s home uninvited. We went early for breakfast to avoid disappointment as most popular food joints in Sandakan closes early even before lunch time. The century egg dumpling was generously stuffed with filling and the springy noodles are not the regular kon lou mee you find in Kota Kinabalu. 

You can also bring back some preserved dried seafood such as salted fish as souvenirs. 

4. Enjoy the famous UFO tarts 

UFO tarts are part of the traditional local Chinese pastries in Sandakan and they do not come from outer space. This iconic Sandakan dessert are made up of a soft butter cake base with custard and meringue as the toppings. The best UFO tarts are found in none other than its origin, Sandakan. 

They are found in most coffee shops or traditional pastry shops here in town or you can easily get them in San Da Gen, a modern hipster cafĂ©. I prefer to have my UFO tarts in traditional kopitiam for a more authentic version. 

The UFO tarts in Kedai Roti Gold Crown has a better texture of the butter cake base which melts in your mouth. San Da Gen version was stiff and hard. If you’re in KK and would like to have your UFO tarts cravings fixed, you can get them at Mee Ngar or Syn Syn Biscuits.

5. Visit the Agnes Keith House

Agnes Keith House is probably one of the many museums that I find interesting. It told the story of Agnes Newton Keith, an American writer and her family who once resided in this former British colonial government quarters called Newlands. 

This house had been restored and turned into a heritage house which gave a glimpse into the past during the British colonial era. 

6. Afternoon teatime at The English Tea House & Restaurant

Also sitting on a hill and located adjacent to the Agnes Keith House, the English Tea House & Restaurant offers a variety of both Western and Asian cuisines. 

It is mandatory to order the English Tea Set not only for the ‘gram, but for the British style dining experience in the garden. The classic tea and scones in the high tea set are perfect to fill your tummy after the visit to Agnes Keith. 

7. Check out the St. Michael’s and All Angels Church

Also another well-known historical building, this beautiful Anglican church survived the World War II. The old, traditional architecture transported us back into the past momentarily. 

We went on a Sunday afternoon which was closed but we still managed to take some photos at the church compound. There was a wedding photoshoot going on at that time too. No doubt that it’s definitely a popular wedding venue too.

8. Visit Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple

Puu Jih Shih temple sits on the hill overlooking the bay of Sandakan which boasts a beautiful panoramic view. This temple is a popular instagrammable site for cute photos. 

Our visit was almost lunch time which probably explained why it was close. However, we did manage to take a few shots within the temple grounds as memories. 

9Chill at Ba Lin Rooftop Bar

Situated on the highest floor of Nak Hotel, Ba LinRooftop Bar is a great place to chill and unwind in the presence of the colourful sight of Sandakan townscape during the golden hour. 

Please take note that reservations should be made in advance for the rooftop seats after 5pm because sipping cocktails while watching sunsets is basically everyone’s favourite pastime in Sabah. 

10. Stroll around Sandakan Harbour Square

The Sandakan Harbour Square acts like the town’s commercial hub at downtown Sandakan. Sandakan Harbour Mall, the only shopping mall in Sandakan is one of the town’s earliest urbanisation projects. There is an esplanade along the coast you can stroll while watching the sunset. 

There you have it- the top 10 things to do in Sandakan! If you're planning a trip to Sabah, I highly suggest you to make Sandakan as part of your travel itinerary for a more complete experience.


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