Sandakan – a charming, quiet city on Sabah’s east coat

Sandakan is on the north-east coast of Sabah and is a good gateway for exploring Sabah’s nature hot spots, like the Kinabatangan River and Sepilok. There isn’t much to do in the city itself, but the charm of the old town, the lack of western development and the friendly people make it an enjoyable visit for a couple of days.

The city is split into two parts – the old town that was virtually destroyed by the WW2 bombings in 1944, and the new town which is a mass of more modern concrete buildings. We stayed in the old town, which is on the sea front.

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Sandakan’s old town.

Getting there

We got dropped off in Sandakan after our stay at the Kinabatangan River, but Sandakan is easy to get to/from. The city has an airport with direct flights to other Asian cities including Kuala Lumpur, which cost me & Ste £40 each one way including baggage. Buses to/from Kota Kinabalu run regularly to Sandakan and take about seven hours.

Accommodation

We stayed at Sandakan Backpackers Hostel, a wonderful hostel with free breakfast and drinking water, a rooftop terrace with hammocks and a darts board. The staff were super friendly too. Ste and I had a double room that overlooked the sea, which cost us £6.50 / RM35 a night.

Sandakan Backpackers Hostel roof terrace, Sabah.
The roof terrace overlooking the sea at Sandakan Backpackers Hostel.
Sandakan Backpackers Hostel roof terrace, Sabah.
Working in a hammock on the hostel roof terrace.

Things to do

Heritage Trail

The self-guided heritage trail is a good way to explore the sights of the old town. The walk takes a couple of hours and is quite hilly. I didn’t follow the whole trail and only went to the English Tea House and the Sandakan Heritage Museum. The museum is free to enter and contains a lot of interesting photos of the old Sandakan and Kinabatangan River in the 1920’s, before development really took off. The photographs and information boards about Martin and Osa Johnshon’s explorations in the early 1900’s gave a compelling insight into Sabah’s olden days.

Memorial Park

The Sandakan Memorial Park is a little out of the old city centre, but it is worth a visit. The park and small, but informative museum commemorates the British and Australian troops that were held in the Sandakan POW camp by Japanese soldiers in WW2. Unfortunately the vast majority of the POWs died by walking 265 km in scorcing heat across Borneo’s treacherous terrain to Ranau, which is also known as the death marches. The beautifully landscaped park is a nice place to take a walk, you might even spot a resident striped bronzeback snake – don’t worry it’s not venomous!

Sandakan Memorial Park, Sabah.
Can you spot the snake?

Food

  • English Tea House – this restaurant is set up on a hill, overlooking the Sandakan Bay and on a clear day, the Philippines can be spotted in the distance! As the name suggests, the restaurant is in a colonial style, serving a mix of English and Malaysian cuisine, like afternoon teas, curries and soups. There are good vegetarian options, but it is a little pricey. The English Tea House is next to the Agnes Keith House, but we didn’t get a chance to visit it.
English Tea House Sandakan, Sabah.
The English Tea House gardens overlooking the bay.
  • Balin Roof Garden & Bistro Bar – this rooftop restaurant was fancier and a pricier than other places in Sandakan’s old town, but the views and food quality were fantastic. We ended up having a delicious, three course, early Christmas dinner here, drinking several cocktails and watching the sunset. There were lots of vegetarian options (the pizza is delicious) and cocktail happy hour was between 3-7pm (two words – espresso martinis!).
Balin Rooftop, Sandakan, Sabah.
Merry Christmas from Sandakan!
Balin Rooftop, Sandakan, Sabah.
Devouring the decedent, Christmas themed, chocolate lava pudding.
Balin Rooftop, Sandakan, Sabah.
Sunset views from Balin Rooftop overlooking the bay.

I’ve had the most amazing two and a bit weeks in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur, and I’m blessed that my parents could get their backpacks on and share these special experiences with me and Ste. I’m going to miss them terribly, but I’m already planning a road trip in Australia with them next year.


Next stop: Kuala Lumpur then Thailand.

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