Many tourists will visit Sabah for a short time to do an organised tour or stay on the Kinabatangan River and visit the attractions of Sepilok. The town of Sandakan itself is worth a couple of days of exploring. Historically an active commercial and trading centre, Sandakan was part of British North Borneo in the late 1800s. During the 2nd World War it was occupied by the Japanese and the entire town was totally destroyed. The town itself is not particularly attractive, but it is interesting to explore and not at all touristy.
We stayed for 3 nights although we’d originally planned 2. It was nice just to relax after a busy week in Sarawak and Sepilok. We explored Sandakan Central Market, the locals were friendly and welcoming and spent time showing us their produce and chatting to the kids. The seafood market was fascinating and the fisherman were happy to tell us the names of their catch.
The market offers a taste of colourful local life and an insight into local cuisine. The herbs, limes and chillies were displayed so beautifully. Dried fish and seafood features in many local dishes.
If you walk around the back of the market building you will find the fishing boats, depending on the time of day or night you’ll see them preparing to go out, or coming in and unloading.
A visit to the English Tea House and Restaurant in the grounds of the historical Agnes Keith House, is a popular activity in Sandakan. On the day we went it was unfortunately raining heavily, so we couldn’t appreciate the views over the town. The afternoon tea was nice enough but not really worth the tourist prices. Instead there are fantastic local seafood restaurants at the Harbourside. It is worth the trip up the hill for the views so choose a fine day!
While in Sandakan we stayed at 4 Points By Sheraton, Sandakan. The hotel has an amazing Infinity pool and rooms with fantastic views over the town and harbour. The service and rooms were fantastic and the prices are amazing value. We had interconnecting rooms, but the twin room for the kids had 2 double beds so we could have used one room.
As well as the local harbourside restaurants we enjoyed a dinner and a brunch at Balin Roof Garden. Tucked away on the 8th floor of the Nak Hotel, you need to know where you are going to find this hidden gem. When you are ready for a break from local cuisine, this place serves delicious western food.
Our final day in Sandakan we made a trip back to Sepilok to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre. If we’d had more time in Sandakan we would have visited the Memorial park at the site of the former prisoner of war camp in Sandakan, where approximately 2,400 Australian and British prisoners of war were held by the Japanese.
We chose not to visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey during our time in Sabah. Not only were we lucky enough to see these monkeys twice in the wild, but responsible tourism is important to us. The sanctuaries we visited are charities, with a focus on conservation above all else. They do not allow tourists any contact with the animals. This doesn’t appear to be the case at Labuk Bay, owned by a palm oil plantation owner and run for profit, the monkeys are effectively forced there because the plantations have taken over their habitat. They have close contact with tourists and are fed pancakes to lure them closer at feeding time.
Travel will always have some negative impact on the environment, all those bottles of water for a start. However we have seen it also has many positive impacts on local economies and families. It can have positive environmental impacts when visits to conservation centres support them with raising funds and awareness for their cause. So it is a balance to ensure that we travel responsibly and consciously. I’m sure sometimes we make mistakes through ignorance and misunderstanding, but as we seek to be more informed we try to make good choices about where and how we spend our money.