Situated on the north-eastern coast of Borneo lies a beautiful city called Sandakan. Formerly known as Elopura, the town was once a thriving place for trades of pearls, camphor, tobacco, bee’s wax, edible bird’s nest, sea cucumber and timber. During that time, Sandakan was said to have the greatest concentration of millionaires in the world. However, things took a turn for the worst when the Japanese occupied the area during WWII. As the war continued and the Allied bombing in 1944, Sandakan was destroyed.
Sandakan today is the second largest city in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu. It is known as the gateway to various ecotourism destinations in Sabah such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Rainforest Discovery Centre, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Turtle Island Park and Kinabatangan River.
Within the city itself, you can visit famous attractions such as the Sandakan War Memorial Park, Sandakan Big Market, Phu Jih Shih Temple, St. Michael Cathedral, All Angels Cathedral, Buli Sim Sim and Agnes Keith House.
Besides being known for its natural and historical wonders, Sandakan is also a food paradise – especially for its fresh seafood. So don’t forget to bring an appetite!
No holiday in Borneo would be complete without a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC). Established in 1964, SORC occupies an area of Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve about 25 kilometres north of Sandakan. It was built to rehabilitate orphan orangutans back to the wild and has become one of Sabah’s top attractions. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are living in the reserve, attracting visitors and researchers alike to watch orangutans up close in their natural habitat. The centre has a boardwalk which leads to a viewing gallery and feeding platform, where you can see rangers feed orangutans milk and bananas twice a day at 10am and 3pm. Feeding time is the best time for you to visit, as it also attracts long-tailed macaques to the area.
Located 40 kilometres north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea, Turtle Island Park is a safe haven for the endangered green and hawksbill turtles and gives you the rare opportunity to watch turtle landings. Selingan, the largest of the islands, is popular with tourists and turtles alike. It consists of the park’s headquarters, a turtle hatchery, accommodation and basic facilities.
As turtle landings usually occur after dusk, an overnight stay would be the best plan to see the turtles as they come ashore to lay their eggs. Turtles lay their eggs throughout the year, but the best time to head there is between July and October when the sea is calmer. Observe the collection of eggs, tagging of mother turtles and releasing of baby turtles into the sea. During the day, visitors can resort to other activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling.
Other islands include Bakungan Kecil and Gulisan islands. Visitors are not allowed to stay overnight on the islands due to conservation efforts and research being carried out; however day visits are sometimes possible.
Located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve and about 1.5 kilometres from SORC is the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC), one of Sabah’s most popular environmental education centre. The RDC gives you the opportunity to get intimate with Borneo’s diverse flora and fauna, as you stroll along the 147 metres long (28 metres above ground) canopy walkway. The Plant Discovery Garden has about 250 species of native orchids in bloom. The orchid family is known to be the largest flowering plant throughout the world with about 25,000 wild species in total. You can also go for night walks to catch a glimpse of the wildlife that have made the rainforest their home including tarsiers and wild cats. Paddleboats are available for adults and children to ride around the inviting lake near the centre’s entrance. As of 2009, RDC has become the official venue for the annual Borneo Bird Festival, attracting the participation of birding enthusiasts from around the world.
For history enthusiasts, the Sandakan Memorial Park is a great introduction to the rich history of Borneo as it brings you back in time to the historical Death Marches of the Australian and British POWs (Prisoners of War) during the World War II. Of the 1800 Australian and 600 British troops imprisoned here, the only survivors by July 1945 were six Australian escapees. Today the site of the POW camp has been converted into a quiet forest orchard and series of gardens, making it ideal for solitary soul-searching strolls. There is also a small museum that includes accounts from survivors and photographs from personnel, inmates and liberators. Up until today, you can still see the rusting remains of an excavator, generator and boiler lying in their original positions near the steps leading up to a small Commemorative Pavilion. In 2006, the original march route was officially reopened as a memorial trail.