When choosing tours in Sabah, Malaysia, if you’re signing up for a tour of the Sandakan and Kinabatangan areas, not all of the must-see and dos will be included in your itinerary. Which is a shame when you come all that way and have to miss anything. For the most part you can pretty much explore Sandakan City area on your own. However, when it comes to beyond the city limits, that’s when you’re really going to need some help; transportation and communication being especially important.
Here is a list of possible things to do in Sandakan and Kinabatangan that I think are truly not-to-be-missed, and could be ‘comfortably’ conquered within a week’s time. Especially if you are arriving into Sandakan and have your transportation and tours pre-arranged. When you do pick your various tours, this list may help you decide which Sabah tour itineraries are more suitable for you.
Flying into Sandakan will leave you with a chunk of daylight to see and do quite a few things on your very first day, so take advantage of it and explore Sandakan. If you are scheduling a jungle resort stay and Kinabatangan area tours, they often include an airport pick up or hotel pick up, which leaves you to exploring Sandakan on arrival or on the return leg of your journey. Your choice. I’d personally recommend some time in Sandakan first before heading off into the jungle. At any rate, here are 16 things to see and do in Sandakan & Kinabatangan to consider when booking your tours in Sabah.
Choosing Tours in Sabah:
Best Things to Do in Sandakan City
1. Follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail
After arriving into Sandakan, one of easiest first things to do, is to follow the well-marked Sandakan Heritage Trail, which visitors can take on their own time and at their own pace. The route takes about one hour and begins at the 100-year-old Masjid Jamik and ends at the Sandakan Heritage Museum.
The Sandakan Heritage Trail is a no brainer for newbie Sandakan visitors and it’s also free. Yet a couple of those stops on the trail may warrant a bit more time, so I’ll give them their own highlights. Like to be prepared? Get a copy of the Sandakan Heritage Trail map HERE
2. Visit the Agnes Keith House
If you’re a fan of colonial style architecture, then you will appreciate the Agnes Keith House. It’s number 4 on the heritage trail map, but it’s a great first stop for new arrivals because there’s also a unique restaurant nearby.
The Agnes Keith House was a British colonial government quarters, known as ‘Newlands’, and was the home to Henry George Keith, his wife Agnes and son George. Henry Keith was the Assistant Conservator of Forests for the governor of North Borneo. However, in addition to the gorgeous refurbishing of the original building (which was destroyed during World War II) it was Mrs. Keith who brought fame and recognition to the property.
Agnes Newton Keith wrote three books based on her life in Borneo; Land Below the Wind in 1939, Three Came Home in 1946, and White Man Returns in 1951. Three Came Home is the only book which was not written from the shores of Sandakan. It was a post-World War II account of the Keith family’s life as prisoners of war, and was written after their temporary, post-wartime departure to Canada.
Newlands was rebuilt after 1946. It became the first government permanent timber building to be built after World War II and was forever referred to as the ‘Agnes Keith House’. The Keith’s permanently left Sabah in 1952.
Today the building has been restored and turned into a heritage house by Sabah Museums and the Federal Department of Museums and Antiquities. It is furnished with reproductions of colonial furniture and antiques and highlights the life of Agnes and her family. To keep in the colonial spirit of things, the English Tea House & Restaurant is right next door.
Agnes Keith House,296, Jalan Utara, Sandakan
Open: Daily, 9:00am to 5:00pm, Tel: 089-221 140
Entry: RM15 (Under age 12, free)
3. Get Historical at the Sandakan Heritage Museum
Last but not least, and number 10 on the Sandakan Heritage Trail map is Muzium Warisan Sandakan Wisma, better known as the Sandakan Heritage Museum. Not what you might expect from a Malaysian heritage museum, but the Sandakan Heritage Museum houses several displays which highlight the Borneo movements of American adventurers Martin and Osa Johnson.
The Johnson’s legacy may include a certain degree of exploitation, especially in the case of their time in North Borneo, depending on the source. But on the plus side, their film documentations of Borneo during the 1920s and 1930s has left the world with an incredible, historical glimpse of an amazing part of Malaysia. You can read more about this adventurous couple HERE
Sandakan Heritage Museum, Pusat Bandar, Sandakan
Open: Daily, 9:00am to 5:00pm, Tel: 088-255 033
4. Take a Free Walking Tour
Visitors to Sandakan can also take advantage of Borneo Sandakan Tour’s Free Walking Tours given on Wednesdays and Fridays, 10:00am until 12:00pm. Yes, that’s right, free! The tours are led by local volunteers who support sustainable tourism, local businesses, culture and tradition, as a way of supporting and giving back to the community they love.
Included in the two-hour walking tour are stops at the William Pryer Monument, Sandakan Central Market, Masjid Jamek, Sandakan Heritage Museum, Sam Sing Kung Temple, Sandakan Harbour Square and the Malaysia Fountain. Borneo Sandakan Tours asks that you book 24 hours in advance and do note that the maximum number of participants is ‘usually’ 15.
For booking, WhatsApp them at +6 016 520 5754 or check their website HERE
5. Explore the Sandakan Art Trail
Although you will see various street art all-around Sandakan City, there is also an official Sandakan Art Trail with attached information markers which highlights several works of art. Each official marker includes an art trail map, theme inspiration and credits the artists by name, which is something you don’t often see at other street art locations in Malaysia.
The eight locations include a wall at the Sandakan Heritage Museum, the stairs next to the Public Bank, Astaka Padang Bandaran Sandakan, the REX Building, the former Standard Chartered Building, STP PUMP Pasar Umum, the Sandakan Central Market (Pasar Umum Sandakan) and Jalan Servis Harbor Square (more famously known now as Creative Lane).
6. Shop Till You Drop at Sandakan Central Market
Malaysia markets are always an interesting cultural experience and worth a visit, especially if you like to shop or eat local foods. Located near the waterfront, you can expect to find an abundance of fresh seafood and a whole lot more at the Sandakan Central Market. The massive market has 3 floors worth exploring, so be sure to allot yourself plenty of time.
The ground level is typical of a wet market with loads of fruits and veggies, shrimp pastes, dried fish and Malaysian kuihs taking center stage. The second and third levels have Malay and Chinese food stalls. You will also find clothing, shoes and household goods at the Sandakan Central Market, so keep your eyes open for some great deals.
Sandakan Central Market, Jalan Pryer, Pusat Bandar, Sandakan
Open: Daily, 6:00am to 5:00pm
7. Pay Your Respects at Sandakan Memorial Park
Located 11km from Sandakan city, the Sandakan Memorial Park is the site of a former World War II prison camp. With its careful landscaping and modern signboards, the park is almost too sterile, aside from a few rusty pieces of forgotten machinery dotting the grounds. But for those who are acquainted with the past horrors of this site, the quiet whispers of nature could easily be interpreted as the whispers of the dead.
Approximately 2500 Australian and British prisoners of war died at the Sandakan POW camp. Many had initially been captured by the Japanese military during the Battle of Singapore (in February 1942) and were shipped to Borneo to help build an airstrip for the Japanese military. 6,000 Javanese civilians were also used as forced labor on the airstrip construction.
In 1945, the surviving Australian prisoners were, on three separate occasions, used to carry baggage and supplies for the Japanese battalions relocating to the western coast. The hike across North Borneo took its toll on many of the already weak prisoners. Sandakan Memorial Park is the first stop of these prisoner of war routes known as ‘The Sandakan Death Marches’. Only six prisoners survived.
Although the park or its small onsite museum has no entry fee, donations are used for daily maintenance and upgrades. The Office of Australian War Graves operates an account for donations, which can be made payable to DVA Official OAWG Contributions.
Sandakan Memorial Park, Jalan Labuk, Taman Rimba, Sandakan
Open: Daily, 8:00am to 6:00pm, Tel: 089-275 400
Entry: Free, Donations appreciated
Choosing Tours in Sabah:
Best Things to Do in Sepilok
8. Get Back to Nature at the Rainforest Discovery Centre
Located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve (and just 2km from the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, the Rainforest Discovery Centre is an environmental education facility run by the Sabah Forestry Department. The Rainforest Discovery Walk is paved for the most part and wheelchair and stroller friendly.
A rather intimidating 347-meter, long Canopy Walkway provides a birds-eye-view of the surrounding forest. It also has sign boards to help non-bird experts identify some of the 300 species of birds (and other wildlife) that call the RDC home. The Rainforest Discovery Centre is so abundant with birds that it’s the official location for the Annual Borneo Bird Festival, which is usually held in October.
An onsite Exhibition Hall offers an introduction to Sabah’s flora and fauna and a Plant Discovery Garden has displays of more than 250 species of native orchids, pitcher plants, ginger plants, and more. You may need a couple of hours, to fully appreciate all that the center has to offer. So be prepared. They also have a Night Walk: Monday, Wednesday & Friday 6:00pm to 8:00pm.
Rainforest Discovery Centre, Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve
Open: Daily, 8:00am to 5:00pm, Tel: 089-533 780
Entry: Adults RM15, Kids (5-17 years) RM7, Kids under age 5 free
9. Visit the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre
An absolute not-to-be-missed if visiting the Sandakan district, the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is 26-kilometers west of Sandakan. The center opened in 1964, long before rescuing wildlife became trendy. It was the first orangutan rehabilitation project focused on rescuing orphans (and later injured adults) whose lives had been negatively affected by the logging industry, plantations, illegal hunting, and the illegal pet trade. Orangutans are presently only found in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra.
Baby Orangutans stay with their mothers for 7 to 10 years to learn all of the skills necessary to survive in the jungle. If the mother is killed, the babies have little chance of surviving. That’s why it is essential to have proper rehabilitation.
It will take up to 10 years for Sepilok rehabilitation graduates to be releasable to the wild, at the cost of 8K Ringgit per Orangutan per year. It’s a commitment. So please visit them during your visit to Sandakan because the center needs all the support it can get. Plus, the Orangutans are guaranteed to put a smile on your face because they’re so cute.
The center has a feeding platform and outdoor nursery where visitors can observe the Orangutans (at a distance) and take plenty of photos. Interestingly enough, despite the feeding station looking a bit staged, if it’s fruit season in the jungle then there is a good chance that no Orangutans will show up at the feeding station. During fruit season the jungle has plenty of tasty snacks for the Orangutans to feed on. You can read more about the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre HERE
Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok
Open: Daily, 9:00am to 11:00pm, 2:00pm to 3:00pm
Thursday, 9:00AM to 11:30am, 2:00pm to 4:00pm
Tel: 089- 531 180
Entry: RM30 (additional RM10 for cameras)
10. Meet Sun Bears at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Established in 2008, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) offers a sanctuary and rehabilitation program for injured or (previously) captive sun bears. Sun Bears are the smallest bears in the world and are presently in danger due to habitat loss (development and timber industry), illegal hunting, and they are also at risk of capture for the illegal pet trade industry.
The BSBCC presently has 37 rescued sun bears within their 2.5 ha parcel of forest. Visitors can observe the sun bears via an elevated wooden walkway but are never allowed to come into direct contact with them. Sign boards introduce some of the bears and tell their stories as well as display sun bear information. Education and awareness are a big part of the center’s objective so don’t be shy about asking questions. In Sabah, sun bears are now categorized as a Totally Protected Species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997. Jail time and big money fines are given to anyone ignoring sun bear protection laws.
Since the BSBCC is conveniently located next to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, visitors can easily spend several hours visiting the two sanctuaries, so be sure to give yourself enough time to thoroughly explore both. You can also ‘Adopt a Sun Bear’ from the conservation center. Adoptions can be made under your own name or given as a gift. An excellent gift for the wildlife lovers or animal rights supporters in your life.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Jalan Sepilok, Sepilok
Open: Daily, 9:00am to 3:30pm, Tel: 089-534 491
Entry: Adults RM30-50, Kids (13-17 years) RM15-25, Kids under 12 free
(additional camera fee of RM1,000 for cameras with lenses 500mm or more)
Choosing Tours in Sabah:
Best Things to Do in Kinabatangan
Kinabatangan is one of 5 districts in the Sandakan division of Sabah. It’s about 8o-kilometers from Sandakan City (a 90+ minute drive away, depending on the traffic and road conditions.). In addition to having loads of jungles and amazing wildlife, Kinabatangan has another story to tell, and that is one of survival. In a non-academic nutshell, the local people of the Lower Kinabatangan have lived off the surrounding rainforests for generations. Rainforests provided them with food, medicine, household goods and trade worthy products.
Due to deforestation issues and efforts to fix things, some of the communities of Kinabatangan eventually found themselves surrounded by a protected forest reserve, which meant there wasn’t much for them to do where traditional livelihoods were concerned, except maybe fishing. Thus began their introduction to eco-tourism.
The Kinabatangan region is especially attractive, not only in an adventurous jungle sense, but tourists are now the direct bread and butter for the various communities. The locals in turn welcome you with open arms and real smiles, and offer you Sabah experiences you will never forget. Here are a few must-dos in Kinabatangan:
11. Spend a Few Nights in a Jungle Resort
I’ve been fortunate to have stayed in several jungle resorts in Sabah, but Bilit Adventure Lodge (in Kampung Bilit) is thus far my favorite, because they are located next to the Lower Kinabatangan River. It also has spacious rooms, it’s clean, well-maintained and has a chilled-out jungle vibe. I just felt especially comfortable there.
Bilit Adventure Lodge has 12 semi-detached and 12 detached chalets. All rooms come with comfortable queen size bed, with exception to 6 detached chalets that come with king size beds. All rooms have air-conditioning, private bathrooms with hot and cold-water showers. Bottled water and coffee and tea sets are provided as well as basic toiletries.
A wooden walkway connects the chalets to the restaurant and dock areas, with a separate ‘nature’ walkway for strolling (or rolling) through the adjacent forest area. The restaurant serves delicious daily buffets or one can order from the menu a la carte. They also have a quiet full bar. WIFI is available at the restaurant, but it may get temperamental at times so do expect that. Other than that, Bilit Adventure Lodge is a sweet choice for a home away from home jungle accommodation.
Bilit Adventure Lodge/ Kampung Bilit Seberang
Kota Kinabatangan, Sabah
Tel: (+6) 088-448 409
12. Take a Kinabatangan River Cruise
Sungai Kinabatangan (Kinabatangan River) is the largest and longest river (560km!) in Sabah, Malaysia. A must visit during a trip to Sandakan, especially if you’re a wildlife and nature fan. The 2.5-hour journey from Sandakan to the Kinabatangan River is absolutely worth the effort to take a Kinabatangan River Cruise.
Although mornings and sunsets are more conducive to seeing wildlife, there is still a 99% chance you will indeed see wildlife at any time of the day. The Kinabatangan River is home to a plethora of wildlife including Proboscis and Macaque monkeys as well as Pygmy Elephants, Crocodiles and more!
Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars and/or use a zoom lens (if you have one) because the National Geographic moments on the Kinabatangan River are incredible and offer great photo ops. Kinabatangan River Cruises can be booked from any resort along the river; such as Bilit Adventure Lodge and Myne Travel & Resort.
13. Plant a Tree with KOPEL
Can’t see the forest for the trees is an old idiom that means a person can’t see the big picture because they are basically too busy nitpicking the details. But with KOPEL Rainforest Reforestation Program you see plenty of both! In fact, there are so many trees along the Kinabatangan River that you may wonder why bother adding more. However, KOPEL has a plan.
KOPEL is a community co-op based in Kampung Mengaris, Kinabatangan. It was started by a group of individuals from different villages in the Batu Puteh area to help the Sungai Orang (River People) have livelihoods through ecologically sustainable tourism ventures. Tree Planting is one of those ventures and is part of KOPELS’s forest restoration program. KOPEL has been planting trees since 1999 after realizing the severity of the forest degradation in the Lower Kinabatangan.
You won’t get your name on a tree or any special plaque for your tree-planting efforts, but you will get the satisfaction that you helped the planet as well as the people of Kinabatangan. You’ll also get a pretty fun boat ride to the tree planting area. You can read more about KOPEL’s Tree Planting program HERE
14. Visit a Homestay and See a Cultural Show
The Orang Sungai of the Lower Kinabatangan have more than 20 dialects in their language and have unique stories to tell through music, dance and their daily lives in general. Visitors can arrange a homestay visit through MESCOT KOPEL, a Community Ecotourism Co-operative initiative for the Batu Puteh communities of Kampung Batu Puteh, Kampung Mengaris, Kampung Perpaduan and Kampung Singgah Mata.
Based in Kampung Menagaris, the Miso Walai Homestay Program has been in operation since 2000. At that time there were more than 30 families participating in the program. Today the households range from rustic to more modern, and offer cultural experiences through traditional local food, household and farm ‘chores’, as well as village games and sports.
Homestay visits and other cultural activities can be booked through MESCOT KOPEL, which is also based in Kampung Menagaris. They are under the umbrella of the KOPEL eco-tourism cooperative, which means they work together. You can read more about MESCOT KOPEL HERE
15. Learn Traditional Cooking at TREC
TREC, better known as the Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp is a sustainable tourist’s dream accommodation. Located adjacent to the Kinabatangan River, the rustic camp is designed to ensure zero waste, no chemicals and maximum water conservation. The camp has ten live-in jungle platforms and limit their visitors to a maximum of 20 persons at a time. They also use no electricity. If you need a serious digital detox or simply want to hang out in a hammock and commune with nature, Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp is the place to go.
All meals are provided and guests can help with food prep (and learn about cooking traditional local food) or just kick back and enjoy the meals that are served. Special non-guest ‘group’ cooking classes can be pre-arranged through MESCOT KOPEL.
Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp/ Kampung Mengaris
Tel: (+6) 012-380 1070
16. Don’t Forget to Eat Like a Local
Regardless of where you travel to in Sabah, or what tours in Sabah you sign up for, Sabah has amazing local food. Finding some of the best eateries is much easier now thanks to the launch of Tourism Malaysia Sabah’s SeeEatFood Trail Fun Map. The culinary themed travel brochure comes with a colorful map and highlights 42 seafood restaurants within Kota Kinabalu, Kudat, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Semporna, Tawau and Labuan. Seven locations in one neat package! But these restaurants don’t just serve seafood, many also serve non-seafood dishes as well as have vegetarian menu listings.
For more information about Tourism Malaysia Sabah’s ‘SeeEatFood’ Trail Fun Map and their fabulous list of 42 top seafood restaurants in Sabah and Labuan, visit their website at www.malaysia.travel . You can also get information at the Tourism Information Center at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport.
That’s a Wrap and My Two Cents on Choosing Tours in Sabah:
Having explored Malaysia for many years now, I’ve learned that locking myself into tight timeline schedules is not the best way to see the country. Malaysia has many layers and sometimes the most interesting opportunities can come up rather randomly.
My best advice for anyone planning a trip to Borneo is to leave yourself some wiggle room when choosing tours in Sabah. You don’t need your hand held in Malaysia. The more you rely on yourself, the more opportunity you will have to mix and mingle with local people in the ‘real’ world, not just the ‘safe’ world of airport pickups and deliveries, and private drivers from point A to point B.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty awesome having those services, but having both experiences is even better. We call it ‘free and easy’ in the blogger/media world; time to do your own thing. And that’s my advice to others, be sure and schedule in some free and easy time for yourselves, because your Malaysia experience will be even more memorable.
For more information about tours in Sabah, contact Tourism Malaysia