Sandakan is known to be the gateway to many natural attractions on the east coast of Sabah. Within this town itself, there are already three main sites that appeal to nature lovers from within and outside Malaysia. But Sandakan is rich in historic sites too that travellers are recommended to spend at least a day just to explore and learn about Sandakan’s past.
Kinabatangan, on the other hand, is a two-hour’s drive by car from Sandakan town and is best known for its outstanding natural wonders. Mostly inhabited by the Orang Sungai tribe, the Kinabatangan River maintains its reputation as one of the world’s richest ecosystems, besides being Malaysia’s second longest river.
Read on to find out what you can experience when your experience Sandakan and Kinabatangan River…
English Tea House
This place graciously sits atop a small hill, close to the nostalgic Agnes Keith’s House that overlooks the Sulu Sea off the Sandakan Bay. Serving traditional English and Asian fare, this establishment has an English-styled garden and a colonial-inspired structure that contains antiques and vintage collections. My travel companions and I were feted to a lunch set comprising agreeable dishes such as cream of wild mushroom soup, English fish and chips, tender English scones and warm cup of tea.
Sandakan Heritage Trail
Do you know that Sabah’s sobriquet, Land Below the Wind, is coined from the novel of the same name written by Agnes Keith? This is one of the facts that travellers will discover as they follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail, which starts from Agnes Keith’s House where travellers can admire the architecture of this time-honoured building and Keith’s inspiring journey in Sabah. From here, go downhill and visit other landmarks like the Staircase with One Hundred Steps, Masjid Jamek Sheik Hasabollah At-Tohiri, Wiliam Pryer Monument, Sandakan Heritage Museum, Malaysia Fountain, Sam Sing Kung Chinese Temple, St Michael’s and All Angels Church and Kun Yam Temple.
Sandakan Memorial Park
About 11 kilometres outside of town, there is a memorial park built above the original grounds of the World War II’s prisoners of war (POW) camp. Approximately 2,400 Australian and British POW died in the hands of the Japanese captors in this camp during the notorious and tragic ‘Death Marches’ event in 1945. Only six miraculously survived. This park shows a collaboration between the Sabah State Government and the Australian Government in commemorating them. On the way to the Commemorative Pavilion inside the park, travellers can notice some eroding remains of the camp that include the excavator, generator, and boiler, all situated within an ironically beautifully landscaped park.
Empire Seafood Sandakan
This two-level restaurant is one of the famous seafood restaurants that travellers can visit in Sandakan. They are best known for their signature prawn noodles served in a tray that can be shared among eight people. Other dishes worth trying are steamed hybrid grouper, deep fried calamari, BBQ crab, roasted chicken thigh, and garlic Sabah veggie. Finish the hearty meal with a cup of refreshing coconut pudding.
Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC)
This is one of the prime locations in Sandakan that comes highly recommended for nature lovers to learn about the uniqueness and importance of Borneo’s rainforests while doing activities such as birdwatching, spotting animals, visiting gardens, jungle trekking, and even ziplining. But the main activity that is synonymous with RDC is walking along the newly-completed, 620-metre steel canopy walkway called The Rainforest Skywalk where travellers can traverse along the oxygen-rich forest, 28 metres above ground. It currently holds the title as Sabah’s longest skywalk.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
If you’re a first-timer in Sandakan, then this must definitely be ticked off from the list. Only half an hour’s drive from Sandakan city, this centre serves as a natural classroom as well as a treatment sanctuary for orangutans, a species of primate that is indigenous to Borneo and Sumatra. To make your trip here more meaningful, travellers are advised to come at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., which are the orangutan’s feeding time, to see this gentle creatures up close. The sanctuary does not allow visitors to carry bags, food, drinks, and insect repellents; fret not, for lockers are provided at the entrance.
Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre
The centre pays tribute to the least known and smallest bear in the world: the sun bear. Deforestation, illegal hunting and poaching are the common factors of why these bears are severely under threat. This centre provides everything that travellers, especially animal lovers, need to know to understand these adorable sun bears better and why they should be protected and conserved. The centre has well-equipped facilities such as boardwalks, observation platforms, information boards, and visitor centre.
This restaurant is huge. At the entrance, travellers can choose live seafood like fish, crab, and lobster from the tanks before they are cooked depending on the chosen style of cooking and served fresh on the table. Among the popular options are steamed grouper fish, sea snails, white clams halia, prawn with fengsha, salted egg calamari, roasted crispy chicken, mixed mushroom with broccoli and cauliflower.
Sandakan Central Market
Before heading home, travellers are recommended to visit this market to shop for souvenirs, which is usually crowded with locals buying and bargaining for cheaper prices, so you can try your luck too. The sellers here are welcoming and friendly. If you had the time, do check out the back of the market where travellers can see fishing boats docking near the market and fishermen coming back from the sea bringing fresh and raw marine products.
Bilit Adventure Lodge
Around two and a half hours from Sandakan, Bilit Adventure Lodge is ideal for travellers who want to experience Kinabatangan River since it is located along the river itself. The lodge has 24 rooms that can be categorised into standard air-conditioned rooms and standard fan rooms. The rooms are spacious and clean. Many activities can be done here including river cruise safari and night walk. When staying here, travellers might encounter native animals including elephants and rare, unique insects. Remember to savour the lodge’s special dishes like steamed ikan ubi (marble goby) or sweet sour large-headed prawn that are all caught fresh from Kinabatangan River.
River Cruise Safari
Kinabatangan River and its surrounding wetlands are some of the richest ecosystems on the planet. Therefore, travellers should not miss joining the cruise during morning or late evening along Kinabatangan River as it is the best way to take in what the longest river in Sabah has to offer. Get your binoculars and cameras ready as there are abundant of animals to be spotted in their natural habitats including crocodiles, macaques, silver leaf monkeys, hornbills, otters, including the endemic species like the iconic proboscis monkeys, maroon langur, and pygmy elephants.
Miso Walai Homestay
Located in the lower Kinabatangan River valley in Batu Puteh Village, the homestay is formed under the Batu Puteh Community Eco-Tourism Co-Operative (KOPEL Berhad). It made the country proud because it recently won the Best Tourism Village Award from The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in 2021. Staying with the local Orang Sungai gives a deeper insight and better understanding of how life is like along the Kinabatangan River and its surroundings.
There are a lot of activities that travellers can partake in learning Orang Sungai’s eye-opening culture in the form of dancing, music, and food. At the community’s Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp (TREC) that stands next to the breathtaking Tungog Lake, I was in awe when learning and savouring ikan tapah masak ampap and nangka masak lemak, both Orang Sungai traditional dishes. If time is not a concern, then spend an hour or two deeper into the jungle for guided trekking where travellers might encounter animals, or at least, their traces and footprints.
I took the opportunity to join one of their forest conservation programmes, the tree planting activity, which has been carried out since 1999. Located within the Sungai Pin Conservation Area, we planted two types of trees called salungapit (mallotus muticus) and bongkol (nauclea orientalis) at the sixth planting site.
Since the journey back and forth takes travellers traversing along the Kinabatangan River by speed boat, travellers can take time to enjoy the river as well. You might just spot wildlife along the way, even large crocodiles!
Extraordinary adventures await in Sandakan and Kinabatangan, so why don’t you make plans to travel there now?
Gaya Travel Magazine expresses our heartfelt gratitude to Tourism Malaysia Sabah for successfully organising the trip to Sandakan and Kinabatangan.