Widely known as Sabah’s Nature Capital thanks to the wealth of wildlife and nature attractions nearby, the laid-back coastal town of Sandakan is a Malaysian gem worth exploring. Its unpretentiousness is a welcome change, while its fascinating past is something that not a lot of Malaysians outside of Sabah know about.
If you’re looking to get acquainted with what the town has to offer, the best place to start is at NAK Hotel. Centrally-located in the heart of Sandakan town on Jalan Pelabuhan Lama, you’ll have no problem exploring the town’s top food joints and historical sites, as many of them are within walking distance. The hotel’s friendly staff are also happy to offer suggestions and answer any questions that you have.
The hotel has been around since the 1960s and has witnessed Sandakan’s growth and progress through the decades. However, you can still take a walk down memory lane, as Oriental relics are used as decor to give NAK Hotel an authentic retro feel that you won’t find in most modern hotels.
The hotel’s vintage vibe continues into the guest rooms, where you’ll find spacious canopy beds, cushioned rattan chairs and birdcage lanterns. You’ll even have a giant porcelain Chinese bowl as a sink basin.
Dinner with a view
Looking for dinner recommendations? You won’t have to look far, as one of Sandakan’s top dinner establishments is actually located at the hotel’s rooftop. Ba Lin Rooftop Bar & Restaurant is a must-visit for the Instagram crowd, as the rooftop seats offer stunning views of Sandakan Bay, particularly at sundown. So if you’re hoping to catch the view, be sure to book your table ahead of time!
It’s often said that the food at trendy eateries might not be up to par with its decor, but luckily, this isn’t the case at Ba Lin, as its dishes are just as good as its aesthetics. Serving up Western cuisine with a dash of local flavor, you’ll get the chance to try unusual combinations such as smoked duck pizza and softshell crab spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce. There are also gluten-free and vegetarian options for those with dietary restrictions.
Not your typical kopitiam
If you want to try local treats without having to travel to multiple locations across town, then the charming San Da Gen Kopitiam is the answer. Located next door to NAK Hotel, it’s also where guests take their breakfast, with a choice between a Malaysian or continental breakfast. But be prepared to be tempted by their full menu, which features favorites like laksa and nasi lemak, as well as Sandakan specialties such as UFO tarts and the famous grass jelly drink from Yap Syn Kee.
Top Things To Do in Sandakan
See Sun Bears and Orangutans up-close
Just a 40-minute drive from town, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre are undoubtedly two of Sandakan’s biggest tourist draws. They’re also next-door neighbors, making it easier to visit both.
Malaysians are charged an affordable RM5 per entry (Adult) – all you need to do is show your MyKad. The entrance fees collected from visitors go towards supporting the maintenance of the centres, so you’re doing your bit to help the conservation of endangered animals whilst admiring them from a safe distance.
On the weekends, you can easily get a Grab to and from Sepilok for around RM20+ one way. (Yes, you can actually get a signal in the rainforest!)
Plan your visit with our guide to Sabah’s top wildlife hotspots.
Walk among the treetops at the Rainforest Discovery Centre
Though not as famous as the wildlife sanctuaries, the Rainforest Discovery Centre is still worth a visit if you’ve got some time to spare, as it’s just down the road from the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Operated by the Sabah Forestry Department, the centre mainly functions as an environmental education centre for the public, particularly school children. The centre’s main highlight is its Canopy Walkway, a 347-meter long structure that puts you at the same level as the rainforest’s tallest trees.
The Rainforest Discovery Trails and Plant Discovery Garden are safe and easy ways to plant a life-long love of nature in young kids, as they can learn about the beauty of the local ecosystem first-hand.
Get a taste of unique local eats
Kota Kinabalu’s not the only place in Sabah with good eats! Sandakan has its fair share of unique foods that you can’t get elsewhere, such as the sweet and custardy UFO tarts (also known less appetizingly as cow dung tarts) and the Soto Special at Coto Makassar Haji Alimuddin bin Indala, a thick, spice-infused broth where the chunks of meat outnumber the cubes of nasi impit.
(Psst… Both are within walking distance from NAK Hotel. 😉)
Take a step back in time at the Agnes Keith House
Did you know that Sandakan was once home to a best-selling American author? Agnes Newton Keith became famous for her three autobiographical accounts of life in Sabah (then known as North Borneo) before, during and after World War II.
In 2001, Sabah Museum began restoration works on the Keith’s former home, as the house is a rare surviving example of post-war colonial wooden architecture. It has since been turned into a museum, where visitors can learn about the history that ties Agnes and family to Sandakan.
After your visit to the house, be sure to drop by the English Tea House – their afternoon tea sets are absolutely delightful! Enjoy your tea and scone on the verandah, which overlooks Sandakan Bay.
Discover Sandakan’s history on the Heritage Trail
If you’re curious to learn more about Sandakan’s history, one of the best ways is to put on a pair of walking shoes and hit the Heritage Trail. Starting from Masjid Jamek, Sandakan’s oldest mosque, the trail covers the town’s important and interesting historical sites, including Pryer Memorial, the Stairs with a Hundred Steps and St. Michael’s and All Angels Church.
The trail normally takes about an hour, but feel free to go at your own pace, as you might encounter some hidden gems along the way.
With such a wide range of accommodation options across the country, it can be a challenge to pick the one that’s best for you. To be in the know when it comes to Malaysia’s stand-out stays, keep your eyes peeled for Traveloka’s ‘Super Stays’ posts, a bi-weekly hotel special featuring our top picks!