Borneo is one of those often-talked about but lesser known destinations that the adventurous often head to. The island is basically split amongst three countries. Malaysia takes up the states of Sarawak, Sabah on the East Coast, and Kota Kinabalu on the West Coast, Kalimantan is the Indonesian portion of the island and finally, Brunei.
Boasting a number of sanctuaries to animals in many regions, one tends to associate Borneo with a lot of wildlife, rainforests and the opportunity for adventure.
You’re not completely wrong there, but there’s a lot more to experience and take in than we get to hear. Let me give you a rundown of 10 ways to fully discover North Borneo, Sandakan. Which, to make it easier, is within the part of Borneo that’s closest to Singapore.
1. Go On A River Safari Ride
If you’re looking for a safe(-ish) place to go on a four-hour river safari ride, the Kinabatangan River should be on your list. The second longest river in Malaysia, it is eight metres deep and is home to a variety of animals including monkeys, birds, crocodiles and elephants.
We were told that there used to be 400 wild elephants roaming the riverside, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll see some along the river’s edge having a drink and a play. You should also keep your eyes peeled for crocodiles – the biggest sighted crocodile in the area was a whopping 5.2 metres long!
I wouldn’t be too worried though, the only crocodile we saw was a little baby one just chillin’ on the riverbank.
To catch the sunset, arrange for a river cruise that sets off at about four in the afternoon. You’ll have more than enough time in the daylight to go animal-spotting.
2. Spend A Night (Or Two) In The Jungle
To make the most out of your trip near the Kinabatangan River, I’d recommend spending a night or two in the jungle. One of the small villages, Bilit, has a population of 650 people, also known as Orang Sungai (people of the river). The families there are open to hosting guests in exchange for a fee.
Alternatively, there are lodges offering tour and accommodation packages wrapped into one which would be suitable if you’re worried about language or if you’re travelling with an entire family. It’ll definitely offer you peace of mind, and the lodges themselves have had a recent facelift and are welcoming and well-kept.
The Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge: Website
3. Visit Wildlife Sanctuaries
Years ago, a man bought a massive plot of land with the intention of turning it into a palm oil tree plantation. But, as the forestry cleared, the staff noticed food missing from the kitchen. Soon enough, this large-nosed culprit of a monkey was caught in the act.
I like how this story ends though. The landowner halted the demolition of mangroves that had yet to be cleared, and turned what was left into a sanctuary, so that the monkeys could live freely in what was left of their home.
30 years later, on the same 470 acres of land, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is run by Sean, the landowner’s son, who continues contributing to conservation of the species. With an average of one birth a year, the land is currently home to only about 70 – 80 monkeys.
Did you know? They are the only species of monkeys that do not consume bananas, and its main diet is made up of Bakar leaves which are poisonous to humans.
Not enough is known about this endangered species and Sean has taken it upon himself to see how he can continue to contribute to educating the public about the importance of preserving the mangrove swamps and the Proboscis monkey habitats.
Alongside the Proboscis monkeys are families of Silver Leaf monkeys as well. Feeding on leaves and beansprouts, the Silver Leaf monkeys contribute to the quickly-growing population.
Standing anywhere on the viewing platform, you’ll see very contented baby and teenage monkeys wrestling and playing and rolling about while the adult monkeys laze around trying to nap.
The sanctuary is open to the public and only requires a minimal fee if visitors take pictures with their camera. Pop by during feeding time which happens twice a day.
You can get as close as you like to any of these local residents with most of them being used to tourists, but no touching – we wouldn’t really fancy strangers trying to stroke our heads and faces either after all.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary: Info
4. Shop At The Sandakan Central Market
A local tourist spot for years, the Sandakan Central Market has stalls that open as early as three in the morning and have almost anything you can think of. Before you go around haggling, note that there are flat market prices so no one gets undercut.
Inside feels like an entirely different world altogether with fresh flowers being sold across the row from dried fish, and things like fresh belacan around the corner.
The market brings you from dried preserved foods and slowly transits you to the fresh goods area. You’ll pass fresh produce before you hit meat like chicken and duck. But the real treasure trove of Sandakan Central Market is what comes after the poultry – seafood.
5. Buy Large, Cheap & Fresh Seafood
Can you imagine going for Tze Char, ordering sambal lala and then having a plate full of cockles that are this size? The lala lovers will find this a dream I’ll bet, and if where you’re staying allows it, by all means, you might as well get fresh seafood while you can and cook a meal or two on your own.
Everything is so inexpensively priced – why not right?
Sandakan Central Market is one of the most important seafood landing ports of Sabah and the biggest fishing port. Families, fish mongers, anyone in the industry travel all the way over here for the seafood – some of which will be sold off in other markets in other places.
Sandakan Central Market: Pusat Bandar Sandakan 90000, Sabah
6. Check Out Local Fishing Villages
Now, if you’re really keen on (possibly and literally) getting dirty, grab your sneakers and go visit a fishing village. Here, homes are huts built on stilts in the water, which would make lots of sense if you had to wake up early all the time and crawl into your boat and head out on the water.
Most fishing villages are likely to have a local Kopitiam- equivalent where you can order food and make an entire day-trip out of your visit. Of course, being a local fishing village, you can trust that the fish on your plate was probably swimming around just that morning.
It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
After all the gushing about fresh seafood, it would almost be cruel not to bring some home with you. Kampong Pukan, this Chinese fisherman village prides itself in its specifically traditional way of catching fish and a special way of drying them.
As you can tell, fishing and selling off what’s been cleaned and sun-dried is a huge part of their everyday lives. Sold by weight, the fish will be efficiently wrapped, packed and vacuum sealed for you to take with you when you leave.
There are various fishing villages, all quite similar in nature, but a couple that will definitely offer fresh seafood meals is Sim Sim 88 Seafood Restaurant as well as the Kedai Makan Pukat set just on the outskirts of Sandakan Town.
Sim Sim 88 Seafood Restaurant: Sim Sim Bridge 8
Kedai Makan Pukat: Kampung Pukat Fishing Village, Bandar Nam Tung | Tel: 089-616510
7. Go On A Date At A Rooftop Bar
What’s more romantic than an al fresco roof deck, dinner with a view complete with drinks and dessert to die for? Also, I must qualify, you don’t need someone to take you out on a date to enjoy this.
Set atop Sandakan Town’s oldest surviving hotel built in 1966, you should most definitely make sure you stop off at the Ba Lin Rooftop Garden.
Serving portions that will have you rolling home, start early at happy hour which starts at five in the afternoon. Take yourself out with an empty stomach and a camera – singles get to enjoy romance too!
Ba Lin Rooftop Garden: Nak Hotel, Jalan Pelabuhan Lama, Sandakan Town, Sabah, Malaysia | Opening Hours: 7am – 12am | Facebook | Tel: +60 89-272 988
8. Stand In A 100-Year-Old Building
9. Take A Panoramic Shot Of Sandakan Bay From Puu Jih Shih Temple
Located right at the top of Tanah Merah Hill, you could choose to work your way to the top of the temple via the stairs, or join your tour bus as it drives you all the way through the temple gates. I picked the latter only because I thought my travel buddies would get lonely on the bus. True story.
Built in 1987, Puu Jih Shih is the largest temple in the town known for its breathtaking view from the top. If you’re wondering why the temple looks vaguely familiar, this very temple was also featured on America’s The Amazing Race 4 back in 2003.
When you’ve finally caught your breath from walking all the way up, let it get taken away again as you see all of Sandakan Bay and the town from where you stand. Don’t be shy, the temple is open to visitors, buddhist or not, and you get to take in the view all around.
Costing $2 million to build – that is what I’d call a million dollar view.
10. Swing By A Festival (& Eat At Every Chance You Get)
Tourism might have only started properly 10 to 20 years ago on this side of the island, but that doesn’t mean locals don’t know how to throw a party. There are special festivals held in Sandakan that people often fly in specially for.
Major festivals that you should keep a look out for are Sandakan Memorial Day which happens every 15 August, the Borneo Bird Festival in October, The Rhythm of Rimba and most recently, the Sandakan Food Festival that made its debut this year, in 2017.
With 688 different species of birds in Sandakan, some migratory and some residents, this part of Borneo ought to be on your list. Budding amateur photographers can join the photography competition and rub shoulders with professionals and hobbyists who make the trek to this part of Borneo on a yearly basis.
The Rhythm of Rimba (Rimba means forest), perhaps better known as Future Alam is an entire festival dedicated to education and creating awareness on wildlife conservation. The family-friendly festival has music, arts and activities over the two-days so that learning about the importance of conservation is experiential for everyone.
To find out more about local festivals and events taking place, check out this page and let us know if you’ve attended any festivals that are as awesome!
What I find particularly beautiful about Sandakan is its commitment to conservation. If you’re looking for touristy elephant rides along the beach, you’re probably not going to get it.
But you’ll definitely get a glimpse of animals right where they should be – hanging out in forests and being happy.