Sandakan is the second largest city in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Borneo. It’s built around the harbour front and stretches back up into the hills. There’s not too much in the way of tourist attractions but you’ll get an authentic insight into local culture and way of life and there’s a few key things to see and do to fill a day or two.
Vibe: Sandakan feels quiet and traditional. It’s not a typical tourist city which means it’s a great place to see how daily life is lived.
Known As: “Little Hong Kong” due to a large amount of Chinese people who have migrated here from Hong Kong, but it’s really nothing like it.
Must Do: Walk up the hill to visit the Agnes Keith Museum and have high tea at the English Tea House on the hill overlooking the Sulu Sea.
Things to see and do
Agnes Keith House
This house was once the home of famous American writer, Agnes Keith, who wrote three books during her time in Borneo. The house itself is beautiful, built in colonial style architecture. Sadly the original building was flattened by bombs during World War two but it has been rebuilt to its former glory and is set up to look as it would have in the 1930s. It houses interesting household items of the time like old fashioned telephones and radios and information boards tell the story of the author, the house and history of Sandakan.
The English Tea House & Restaurant
While the British colonial rule of Northern Borneo only lasted a mere 17 years, they have certainly left their mark. Next to the Agnes Keith house you can find the English Tea House, set up on the hill, with a lush garden area. Here you can have traditional English tea and scones while gazing out over the Sulu sea.
Sandakan Central Market
Across the road from the Four Points Sheraton (where we stay on the Borneo Explorer tour) you’ll find the main market which is at its prime early in the morning. On the ground floor you’ll see local produce stacked up in colourful rows, and at one end a fresh fish market. On the upper levels you’ll find local crafts, souvenirs, jewellery, T-shirts and sarongs. Borneo isn’t exactly a destination known for its shopping but if you want to pick up a few gifts for people back home, this might be your best bet.
Buli Sim Sim Water Village and seafood restaurants
A short taxi ride (or a 40min walk) from the hotel is a village that is built on stilts over the water. Here you’ll also find some of the best seafood restaurants in Sandakan. The most famous is the 88 seafood restaurant where you can sit out on the deck and enjoy freshly caught prawns, octopus, fish and squid while looking out over the harbour.
At the top of the Nak Hotel, in the centre of downtown Sandakan, you’ll find the Balin Roofgarden, a cafe/bar with some nice drinks, decent food and a great view in an open air rooftop garden. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset from.
The Harbour Mall is not the most exciting mall you’ll ever visit but does have a few necessities such as a supermarket and a pharmacy as well as a few familiar western brands: The Body Shop, Macdonalds and Levis. The upper levels of the mall are set up in a market style and sell knock off cosmetics, t-shirts and shoes.
Ready to explore Borneo?