Friday, October 23, 2015

Nick Ups Sticks: Sandakan and Sepilok, Malaysian Borneo


Another sleepy seaside gateway town with visitors who are passing through on their way to more interesting parts of Sabah. We reached Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu by taking a short 45 minute flight. The only way into town from the airport is by taxi, which will set you back 30 RM.

There isn’t a lot to do here, but as we had spent the last few days admiring wildlife, we decided to walk the Sandakan Heritage Trail which visits 11 sites, from Chinese temples to Australian war memorials, and takes a couple of hours to complete. Sandakan is Sabah’s most historical town.

Prepare to be underwhelmed. The sites include overgrown cemeteries, tiny concrete churches and a staircase. It is a great walk, however, and will take you to parts of town you would otherwise have no reason to visit.

We enjoyed bumping into to local school kids who wanted to practice their English with us. They repeatedly told Ed that they loved him. We sat down at a little cafe and learnt a few words of Malay while we waited for our banana (pisang) fritters to be cooked. The chef was more amused than impressed by our pronunciation.

We also went to the central wet market and bought two bunches of the world’s smallest bananas and a weird looking, strong smelling fruit called marang. It’s complex taste is hard to describe, like a phenolic mix of pears, bananas, durian, jackfruit and pineapple rolled into one slippery mouthful.

We ate mee goreng at My Harbour restaurant and roti canai at Buhari curry house. We only found one place to grab a drink: Best Brew at the Sheraton – where we rendezvoused with two of our bestfriends (who happened to stop in Sandakan for a night on their elaborate, envy-inducing honeymoon) and sang along with the band until late.


A short distance away from Sandakan, Sepilok is synonymous with its famous orangutan rehabilitation centre.  It is one of the best places to see these flame-haired primates. At the centre you are able to get up close without disturbing them too much. There is also a sun bear conservation centre next door, which, for the same price, offers a much less satisfying experience. This was probably the only place we visited in Borneo that fell slightly short of our expectations.

We took the 14 minibus from the bus terminal down by the seafront in Sandakan (6 RM one way). The first bus is at 9.00am and should get you there in time for the first feed at 10.00am. The journey is about 45 minutes, with stops to pick up other passengers on the way. Bear with it though as it is the only bus that will take you straight to the entrance.

Entry is 30 RM plus 10 RM camera fee. They will ask you to leave your belongings in a locker to stop inquisitive apes from nabbing them. Make sure you apply repellent and sunscreen before you go in, and drink as much water as you can manage as it is suffocatingly hot and humid once you are in the forest.