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Why Sandakan is the Best Wildlife Destination in Malaysia?

Sandakan Best Wildlife Destination in Malaysia

Having visited Sandakan City numerous times in the last 12 years for my work, I have decided on writing this article about why Sandakan is the best wildlife destination in Malaysia.

You see, over the last decade, most visitors or tourists would love to visit Sabah, but a majority of them usually end up in Kota Kinabalu, or on the east coast side of Semporna, to access the islands of Mabul or Sipadan.

Due to the common visitor or traveller's timing, they would just opt for these two destinations, and only a handful would venture on a longer sightseeing experience in Sabah. I believe it is high time that this tourist mindset is changed, and I hope to contribute to this.

Sandakan - The Best Wildlife Destination in Malaysia

Sabah is not only about stunning mountains, beautiful beaches, exotic islands, and incredible seafood, as most people tend to think so.

But when you look deeper into this part of North Borneo, you will find out that there is much more appealing to many different travellers.

While most travellers are accustomed to doing the five days to one week tours, they simply want to see the best of Sabah, resulting in visitors just spending time in Kota Kinabalu and some of the islands.

This article is more suited for those who love nature and wildlife. Therefore it will focus solely on that, and if you want something else, read this article on things to do in Sandakan for the general traveller.

Where is Sandakan?

Map of Sandakan
A map showing where Sandakan is located in Sabah
Before I continue, you should know that Sandakan or Little Hong Kong is located on the east coast of Sabah Borneo and is a six-hour drive or a 40-minute flight from Kota Kinabalu City.

Known as Sabah's Nature city, many come here for all kinds of nature and adventure experiences due to the vast choices for places to visit.

Sandakan is also known as Little Hong Kong, a history dating back decades and is currently one of the cities that is up and coming among the niche tourism genres.

Many come here to also experience some of the best food in Sandakan, where some of the dishes cannot be found anywhere else in Sabah or Malaysia.

Sandakan is also connected by flights from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu or KK, while those seeking a driving adventure can also drive from KK.

Where are the Places to See Wildlife in Sandakan?

There are many different places where some are located near the city area, while most of them require travelling to the destination. This means that you need to book a tour to do so.

While some backpackers may try to do this independently, you can, but it requires a lot of time, namely, public transport and walking.

Let me start with the closest wildlife attractions to Sandakan, and from there, it gets a little further. Note that if you stay in Sandakan City, you will not walk to any of the attractions.

Sepilok Orangutan Centre Sabah
The main entrance to Sepilok Orangutan Centre
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

This is probably the most famous wildlife sanctuary that that world recognition and is home to the Bornean Orangutans. Even Star Trek Discovery star Michelle Yeoh has visited Sepilok among the many famous people who have done so repeatedly.

Many people have claimed that the rehabilitation program conducted here is one of the best globally and is also the best way to see Orangutans in their natural habitat.

Sepilok is not a zoo and has special timed sessions to see the Orangutans being fed, once at 10.00 AM and the other at 3.00 PM.

The place is family-friendly, and numerous tour companies offer trips here from Sandakan City. A special volunteer program is also available, but by request and not walk in. If you have ever wanted to see Orangutans naturally, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is highly recommended.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
Sabah Wildlife Department, 
W.D.T. 200, Sandakan, Jalan Sepilok, 
Sepilok, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah
Tel: +6 089 531 180
Entrance: Adults - RM30, Children below 18 - RM15
Camera Fee (Personal) - RM10 per unit

Sun Bear Conservation Sabah
The Bornean Sun Bear at Sepilok
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center

Just next to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is another world-class wildlife conservation centre called the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center or BSBCC, which specializes in the conservation and rehabilitation of rescued sun bears.

These are the smallest bears globally and have been seriously threatened by hunting, poaching and forest degradation, which has now reached an alarming level.

Opened in 2014 by passionate Malaysian biologist Dr Wong Siew Te, he has single-handedly struggled to do this passion project into what it is today. In total, there are about 40 sun bears there.

Visitors to Sepilok now have two places to explore with the Orangutan and Sun Bear centres side by side, and this has made both these places one of the most popular in Sandakan.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center
PPM 219, Elopura, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah
Tel: +6 089 534 491
Hours: 9.00 AM to 3.30 PM
Entrance: Adults - RM31.80, Children below 18 - RM15.90
Camera Fee (Personal) - RM1000 for lens 500mm and above

RDC Sepilok
One of the observation towers at the RDC in Sepilok
Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC)

Located just nearby the Sepilok Orangutan and Bornean Sun Bear Center are the Rainforest Discovery Center or RDC. This is one of the best places to see birds and smaller wildlife, where a massive one-kilometre steel canopy walk runs through the rainforest here.

The RDC is also best suited for day trips from Sandakan and is also children or family-friendly. This means that you can bring your kids here to learn about nature and wildlife as it is highly educational, with information found through the reserve here.

Rainforest Discovery Center
Address: Sepilok, 90715 Sandakan, Sabah
Tel: 089-533 780
Hours: 8.00 AM to 5.00 PM
Admission: Adults RM15, Kids RM7
Website: http://www.forest.sabah.gov.my/rdc/

Sandakan Labuk Bay
Monkeys crossing a manmade bridge at Labuk Bay
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Known as the best place to see Proboscis Monkeys up, close and personal, Labuk Bay is a sure bet to see these unique primates that are endemic only to the island of Borneo.

The surrounding location is a palm oil plantation, and the landowner created Labuk Bay as a conservation for the Proboscis Monkeys who were found to be living in the vicinity.

Since opening this sanctuary in 1994, tens of thousands of visitors and nature lovers have been coming here to see the monkeys. The location is at the Semawang mangrove forest, which is about 48km from Sandakan city.

There are special feeding times, which are done four times a day at two main viewing platforms. Platform A feeding time is 9.30 AM and 2.30 PM, while Platform B feeding time is 11.30 AM and 4.30 PM.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Address: Off Jalan Labuk, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah
Hours: 8.00 AM to 6.00 PM
Tel: +6 089 672 133
Tickets: Adults RM60, Kids RM30 (Non-Malaysians)
Camera Fee: RM10 per camera

Gua Gomantong
Gomantong Caves, photo by Sabah Tourism
Gomantong Caves

Gomantong Caves are not your regular cave visit but more of an educational experience about caves, bats, and birds' nest harvesting. This cave is located a little further out of Sandakan and is usually a half-day trip or a stopover for those heading to the Kinabatangan River.

These caves' beauty is home to one of the most popular bird's nest harvesting in Sabah. If you come on certain months, you can see the harvesters at work and using centuries-old technology.

There are two main caves here, the Black Cave and the White Cave, where both can be explored. Other than that, the cave formations, cave wildlife and the outsides of the cave is an interesting experience: spot orangutans, birds, red leaf monkeys and other wildlife outside the cave.

Gomantong Caves
Address: Off Jalan Sukau, Gomantong Hills, Kinabatangan, Sabah
Hours: 8.00 AM to 6.00 PM
Contact: Sabah Wildlife

Wildlife Watching Kinabatangan River
Wildlife watching at the Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River 

The ultimate place for wildlife watching in Sandakan and possibly in all of Malaysia. If you are a serious wildlife lover or photographer, the Kinabatangan is the place to visit. This mighty river is also the second-longest river in Malaysia, with a total length of 560 km.

There are numerous lodges and resorts located all along the Kinabatangan, and many tour companies in Sandakan sell all kinds of packages here.

The journey is via road to the river jetty and then by boat to your respective lodge or resort. All tours are conducted with boats, and there are some walking treks available.

A map showing the jetties along the Kinabatangan River

If you are staying deep inside, then your start point will be at the Lepit Jetty or the Sukau Public Jetty, and if you are going to Abai, you may just take a boat from Sandakan Abai.

There are many options to choose from for lodging, ranging from homestays, lodges, guest houses, and resorts. Most packages sold here are overnight to multiple days, but I would recommend spending at least three nights at Kinabatangan to fully experience this place.

Kinabatangan River
Lepit Jetty or Sukau Public Jetty, Off Jalan Sukau,
Kinabatangan 90200 Sabah.
Contact: Various travel agents in Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu.

Sabah Turtle Island
A green turtle lays eggs by the beach.
Turtle Island 

One of the more unique wildlife experiences combined with a lot of conservation is Turtle Island or Pulau Selingan, off Sandakan City. This special experience allows visitors to spend a night at Turtle Island, observing sea turtles come up to the beach and lay eggs.

Visitors are also invited to help collect the turtle eggs and then re-bury them in the special turtle hatchery on the island.

And if your luck is good, you may even have the opportunity to release some of the newly hatched turtles from there. Overall this is an amazing experience for just about anyone, namely those travelling with kids.

Turtle Island (Pulau Selingan)
Off Sandakan City, Sabah
Tours: Various travel companies in Sandakan City

Lodge Hotel Sandakan
One of the nature lodges in Sepilok, Sandakan
Where To Stay In Sandakan?

There are numerous choices for nature lovers to stay in Sandakan, and in most cases, the accommodations would be out of Sandakan City and nearer to the nature places. However, you have various options, depending on the type of nature or wildlife package you choose.

Some of the popular places include Sepilok Nature Lodge near the RDC, the Orangutan centre, and the sun bear conservation. All of the places are within walking distance too.

And if you choose the city, try the S'kan Styles Hotel in town, one of the recommended places to stay.

If you are going to Kinabatangan, you will most likely book a package that includes your stay there, so there are also many options.

Flights take less than three hours from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan. Image from Google

How To Go To Sandakan?

To get to Sandakan, there are direct flights from Kuala Lumpur or from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. Most visitors would fly in and spend several days here.

If you are in Kota Kinabalu or any other city around Sabah, you can also rent a car and self-drive to Sandakan. From KK city, various tour companies organize tours to Sandakan as well.

For the budget travellers, buses are going to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu and other larger cities all over Sabah.

Selingan Island Sandakan
Pulau Selingan or Turtle Island

Having been to Sandakan many times, I can easily say that this place is truly a nature lover paradise waiting to be discovered and explored.

If you are planning to visit, you can also take a look at some of the things you can do in Sandakan when you are here, as it all relates back to nature and adventure.

For those who love fast city life, shopping malls and an abundance of entertainment, Sandakan is not the place for you. Sandakan is more laid back and a tiny city that takes its time to mature.

After visiting this incredible place, you will know why Sandakan is the best wildlife destination in Malaysia, and you may even come back for more.

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