If you’re heading to the northern part of Malaysian Borneo, known as Sabah, then it’s very likely you’ll be visiting Sandakan and Sepilok. Home to orangutans, proboscis monkeys and a whole host of other wildlife, Borneo is one of the very best places to visit in the world if you love wildlife. This guide aims to detail all the best things to do in Sepilok and Sandakan, as well as how to get around and where to stay. If you’re keen to learn more about the wildlife and seeking a more general guide to Borneo, make sure to check out my guide to seeing orangutans in Borneo here.
Sabah, Borneo Travel Guide: Useful Information
Firstly, great choice if you’ve already decided to go to Sabah to see orangutans in Borneo. Whilst these beautiful creatures can be found all across the island of Borneo, it is slightly easier and with a higher success rate, to see orangutans in Sabah. For key information on visas, currency and budget, make sure to check out my main travel guide to Malaysia here.
How to get to Sandakan and to Sepilok
Sandakan is the main airport and entry point into this northern part of Sabah. Kota Kinabala, the capital, is a 40 minute or so flight away from Sandakan. There are dozens of flights from here, or you can fly into Sandakan directly from Kuala Lumpur.
Sepilok is around a 20-30 minute drive from Sandakan. You can either travel by the main ride hailing app (called Grab), or your accommodation is likely to have a transfer pick up. The roads here are well maintained and it’s a very straight forward journey to Sepilok.
Sepilok itself is a very small village, and is by large, walkable.
How long do I need in Sandakan and Sepilok?
Around 2-3 days it a great amount of time in this area. If you’re bookending a longer tour into the Borneo rainforest, then 1-2 days either side of the tour can be spent in each of these areas.
Some tours, such as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Safari (by boat) 3D2N that we did with Borneo Eco Tours, included all the main attractions in Sepilok and Sandakan either end of the rainforest section.
I’ve gone into a lot of detail regarding the tour we did in this guide to Borneo here.
For ease, I’m sharing how our itinerary in Sabah looked here:
- Day 1: Landed in Sandakan 6pm in the evening, checked into The Elopura Hotel in Sandakan waterfront
- Day 2: Picked up at 8am for day 1 of the Borneo Eco Tours tour. This included a morning in Sepilok, and lunch in Sandakan before heading to the jetty to take a speedboat along the Kinabatangan River. We arrived at our lodge by 3pm and enjoyed a couple of hours of free time, before the evening safari and first night in the rainforest.
- Day 3: Full day in the rainforest at our lodge (morning river safari, free time, evening river safari)
- Day 4: Morning at the lodge before departure by speedboat back to Sandakan. We then drove to Sepilok to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre before checking into local hotel in Sandakan (the Sabah Hotel)
- Day 5: Early flight from Sandakan airport to Kota Kinabalu.
Where to stay in Sepilok
There are a plenty of places to stay in Sepilok. Most are within walking distance of the various attractions here, or the accommodation offers a shuttle service. Most of the lodges and guesthouses are fairly small. Some of the main options include:
- Sepilok Forest Edge Resort (£85 per night)
- Sepilok Jungle Resort (£30 per night)
- Nature Lodge Sepilok (£40 per night)
- Sepilok B&B (£27 per night)
- Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat (£43 per night)
Where to stay in Sandakan
Sandakan is the largest town in the area, and although there aren’t a dozen things to see and do in Sandakan, it makes an excellent base and location from which to see sights.
Some of the best places to stay in Sandakan include:
Best Things to See and Do in Sepilok and Sandakan
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
This is the most popular attraction in the area, and unmissable on any visit to Sabah. Around 100 orangutans live in this protected 43sq km of land, located at the edge of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. The centre was set up in 1964 by a British woman called Barbara Harrison and is the first centre in the world to be dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans.
There are around 70 orangutans who live independently in the reserve, and around 25 orphaned orangutans living in the nursery.
Every day at 10am is a feeding session by the nursery platform. Guests can enjoy watching the orangutans enjoy their breakfast and play with each other from the comfort of an air conditioned viewing platform.
You are guaranteed to see orangutans at the centre, whether from the feeding platform or from the boardwalks of the reserve.
Please head to Sabah tourism’s site here to read more on visiting the Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre.
Top tip: There is an additional fee to pay for using any camera or video camera with a zoom lens from 100 to 400mm. This fee is MYR10. For any camera with a lens of 400mm and above, or any film making equipment, the fee is MYR1,000. The only way to pay for this is by cash, so do be prepared.
Key info about this centre:
- The centre is open every day from 8.30am and tickets cost MYR30. If you’re visiting on a tour, then the entry cost will likely be covered.
- The daily feeding sessions are at 10am and another at 2pm.
- On arrival, you will be asked to leave all valuables and loose items either in your vehicle or in one of the lockers at the entrance. Orangutans in the reserve can get very close and be cheeky, and apparently unsuspecting guests have seen their favourite sunglasses be taken away high up into the rainforest canopy!
- Keep about 2-3 hours for the visit here. You don’t want to rush walking around or the boardwalks, you never know what you’re going to see!
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Directly adjacent to the orangutan centre is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which opened in 2014. There are around 42 rescued sun bears living here, and the aims of the centre are five-fold. As well as rehabilitating the rescued bears, they are also aiming to raise public awareness, improve the animal’s welfare, contribute to research and help increase eco tourism in the area.
The Bornean Sun Bears are the smallest bear species in the world, and the second rarest, after the giant panda. To find out more about sun bears and the centre in Sepilok, make sure to check out their brilliant website here.
Bears are always fun to watch, and the sun bears here are no different. You can spend around an hour or so observing the bears from various platforms and boardwalks.
- The centre is open daily from 9am – 3.30pm
- The entry fee is MYR50 for non-Malaysian adults.
- As with the orangutan centre, there is a fee or MYR1,000 for cameras with lenses over 500mm.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
The Rainforest Discovery Centre, or RDC as it is more commonly known is surprisingly vast attraction within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. You can easily spend half a day here, and had we known how much there is to do here, we would have definitely factored in longer for our visit.
The key attraction here is the 620m long elevated canopy walkway, which gives visitors a unique opportunity to walk high up amongst the trees. If you’re scared of heights, definitely don’t look down!
The opportunities to see wildlife here are endless, and this is a particularly excellent location for birdwatching. In fact, the Borneo Bird Festival is held here annually, attracting birding enthusiasts from around the world. There are several tall towers dotted along the elevated skywalk, with benches to stop and birdwatch. The variety of bird is so special here, that we even met a passionate birding couple from India who were on their 10th consecutive day in the RDC with their binoculars!
They also offer a night walk which you can sign up for on the day, costing MYR30. It leaves at 6pm from the ticketing centre and takes around 2 hours. This is a great opportunity to join a guide on a special walk to see flying squirrels, tarsiers and slow lorises, amongst other unique creatures!
There’s also a great cafe here, a lake which you can boat on, several educational exhibits, a Plant Discovery garden and plenty of walking trails at ground level too. And don’t forget to try the 180m long zipline too!
- The RDC is open daily from 8am-5pm.
- The entry fee RM20 for non-Malaysian adults
Sandakan War Memorial
A visit to the Sandakan Memorial Park is a definite must-do whilst in Sabah. The memorial park is located adjacent to the site of the original Sandakan Prisoner of war (POW) camp, where thousands of Australian and British prisoners were held between January and August 1945. Tragically, of the 2,400 prisoners, only 6 Australians survived.
They were subject to horrific conditions whilst imprisoned at this camp. The Japanese treated the prisoners terribly, with daily beatings and punishments, as well as starving and overworking them. Many of the deaths also came from the arduous marches they forced the prisoners on, right through the depths of the dense rainforest. These became known as ‘death marches’.
The six prisoners who survived did so by escaping. Four escaped from the camp they were marching to in the middle of the rainforest, and another two by escaping into the jungle during a march. Locals helped feed and hide them until the end of the war.
The memorial park is well worth visiting. It is right by Sandakan airport, which during World War II was the airstrip the Japanese were forcing these prisoners to construct.
It takes around an hour or so to walk around. You can also see some of the compound’s structures, including the Japanese quartermaster’s store and kitchen. The park is very well maintained and is a beautiful memorial to the lives lost.
You can find out more about Sandakan Memorial Park here.
Entry is free but you can donate to the Office of Australian War Graves who manage and maintain the park.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Another sanctuary that can be worth visiting is this Proboscis Monkey sanctuary. These special creatures are endemic to Borneo, meaning this is the only place in the world you can see them. We didn’t up visiting here as we were advised we would see hundreds during our time along the Kinabatangan River – which we did. But if your visit to Sabah is shorter and you’re keen for some up-close time, then definitely stop by this sanctuary.
The centre is located about a 25 minute drive from Sepilok and is open every day from 8.30am – 5.30pm. Adult non-Malaysian tickets are MYR60.
There are four daily feedings at two different platforms at 9.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm and 4.30pm.
Agnes Keith House & the English Tea House
Another attraction worth visiting in Sandakan is the Agnes Keith House and the adjacent English Tea House.
This beautifully preserved heritage house provides a fascinating insight into life into British North Borneo, and is furnished with colonial items and antiques. The house was once occupied by Mr Harry Keith, his American wife Agnes Keith, and their son George. Whilst Mr Keith worked in forest management, Agnes wrote a three part autobiography in 1939. The first part was called ‘The Land Below The Wind‘ which made both her, and Sabah famous.
Much of this popular book is based upon her experience of living in Sabah and also in this house. It’s worth mentioning that if you like haunted experiences, then visiting this house is a must-do!
Entry is MYR15 for non-Malaysians and the house is open daily from 9am-5pm.
Th English Tea House adjacent, located within the grounds of Agnes Keith House, is a wonderful stop if you fancy a traditional cream tea and perhaps a lawn game of croquet! They also serve other British meals, such as traditional Fish & Chips! You can find out more about the English Tea House here.
Follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail
Finally, why not follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail. Marked by white concrete tiles, with red footprints and ‘Heritage Trail’, this route weaves together several of the historical sites in Sandakan.
As well as Agnes Keith House, it connects the Sandakan Jamek Mosque, the 100-step staircase as well as a number of memorials, temples and the St. Michael’s and All Angels Church.
Best Things to Do in Sepilok and Sandakan
So, there’s my complete guide to all of the best things to do in Sepilok and Sandakan, in Sabah, Borneo. I really hope this blog post has helped in your research and planning for your trip to Borneo, and all of the amazing wildlife opportunities it offers. If you’re looking for a more detailed guide on where to see orangutans in Borneo, make sure to check out my other post.
As always, let me know if you have any questions.
If you’re planning a longer trip around Malaysia, or South East Asia, then make sure to check out my other posts here:
- Malaysia Travel Guide: The Best Places to Visit in Malaysia (including Borneo)
- Thailand Travel Guide: The Best Places to Visit in Thailand
- Vietnam Travel Guide: The Best Places to Visit in Vietnam
- Singapore Travel Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Singapore
Disclaimer: This guide has no involvement from the local tourism board or a hotel.
Enjoyed my guide on the best things to do in Sepilok and Sandakan? Pin it!