For divers, Sandakan is the gateway to Lankayan Island, a renowned hotspot for diving in the Sulu Sea. This tiny island is a jewel of green, framed by white sand sitting in a turquoise blue sea. It is part of an immense marine protected area and is entirely unpopulated with a single resort.
There is plenty to do in Sandakan, and we highly recommend travellers stay in the area for at least a couple of days when travelling to this part of Borneo. It is a known eco-tourism area, with an abundance of stunning regions of natural beauty and exciting experiences, such as rainforest, cave and heritage walks, animal sanctuaries, river tours, and sights of cultural interest.
Sandakan is also known as an area of historical interest, as a Japanese airfield was built here in WWII. The memorial park here is a poignant reminder of the brutality that occurred here during that time. Before the war, the city was thriving, and it has taken a long time to recover.
Whatever interests you, you’re sure to find an experience to suit in this thriving metropolis, and it’s surrounding area. We highly recommend adding a stay at Sepilok Nature Resort after your dive holiday at Lankayan Island to see the Orang-utan and Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centres. A trip to Labuk Bay to see the Proboscis Monkeys or a river tour to see more of Borneo’s captivating wildlife is also highly recommended.
Tropical climate. It is generally hot and sunny all year round, year-round temperature 21 – 32°C. Scattered, unpredictable rains can occur frequently.
Wet Season: November to February.
Dry Season: March to October.
Avoid the wettest months if travelling up the Kinabatangan River as the river flats are prone to flooding.
The area is the busiest with local travellers during the Chinese Holidays, Chinese New Year, July, August, Chinese National Week (first week of October) as well as Christmas and New Year. Please ensure you enquire and book well in advance when looking to travel during these periods.
A dawn service is held on ANZAC Day in Sandakan. Attendance should be registered with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Lankayan Island’s dive sites, all just a few minutes away and boast unbelievably colourful macrofauna, a variety of larger marine creatures, fascinating wrecks and, in season from March to May, regular sightings of gigantic whale sharks.
Schools of parrotfish, yellowtail barracuda, humphead parrotfish and scads appear at many of the dive sites and are always exciting to encounter. Sometimes, divers are lucky enough to meet large rays, guitarfish and even manatees. Sabah’s Turtle Sanctuary, Pulau Selingan is nearby, so it is not unusual to see the occasional green turtle or hawksbill on a dive. For those more inclined towards the smaller creatures of the reefs, there are numerous juvenile fish, clown anemonefish, decorator and spider crabs, coral shrimps, nudibranchs, prawn gobies and rarer subjects such as jawfish, ornate ghost pipefish and frogfish.
Water temperature is consistently around 27°C to 29°C – 3mm wetsuit, or rashie.
Lankayan is as a year round diving destination.
If you’d like the chance to spot a Whale Shark, it is recommended to travel between the months of March to May.
Turtle Nesting Season : From June to September, it is at this time that you have the chance of seeing nesting turtles as they come up to the shore to lay their eggs.
This is an illegal fish poaching vessel that demised in the area. The wreck is located 2 km (8 minutes) from Lankayan Island Jetty, and it's a host to a variety of species, including small glassfish, harlequin ghost pipefish and painted frogfish. Other rare subjects to be found include seahorses, jawfish, dragonets, flying gurnards, flamboyant cuttlefish and also the seasonal whale sharks. Depth: 15 - 23m.
This area has recently been declared a National Marine Park. Robust staghorn coral, fine table coral, bush coral, maze coral, lobed pore coral covered with Christmas tree worms, mushroom coral, these are just a few of the colourful hard coral varieties fused together to create the perfect home for all manner of critters at Jawfish Lair. Apart from macro creatures such as nudibranchs, ghost pipefish, frogfish, cuttlefish, and devil scorpionfish, divers can spot stingrays in the sand and resting leopard sharks, that frequent many of Lankayan's diving sites. Depth: 15 - 25m.
This site is an artificial reef, made from the wreck of a small fishing boat, located right in front of the resort's jetty. Within minutes of descending into the waters, divers can spot schools of batfish and sometimes jacks as well. The wreck itself is home to a couple of frogfish. Other life on board include groupers, blue-spotted stingrays, cuttlefish, scorpionfish, ghost pipefish and anemonefish. This site is also a greatfor night diving, nocturnal visits will bring you up against more frogfish and other reef life. Depth: 15 - 20m
One of Lankayan Island's three wreck diving sites. The ship was once part of the Mosquito Fleet maintained by the Japanese during World War Two. The wreck itself has some great items of interest - from the bow gun, which still remains intact to other bits and pieces of its original cargo. As for fish life, around the surrounding waters, you might come across schools of jacks and barracuda, with the occasional manta ray or even whale shark. Depth: 15 - 25m
Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre
One of only four orang-utan sanctuaries in the world, the centre which was established in 1964 attracts tourists and researches alike and is the most popular place to watch these lovable apes up close in their natural habitat. Orphaned and injured orang-utans are brought to Sepilok for rehabilitation so they can return to forest life.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Located adjacent to the Orang-Utan Sanctuary, visitors can now get close to the world's smallest bear! One of the most threatened bear species due to habitat loss and for their value for use in traditional Chinese medicines, this adorable bear is named for the patch of bright yellow fur spread across their chests.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
In the centre of the mangrove forests of Semawang, within an oil palm estate, is the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. This privately-owned sanctuary gives you the chance to observe Borneo's indigenous monkeys up close and personal. The remarkable males sport big dangling noses, reddish flat-top hairstyles, white tails and markings, and pot bellies. The females are much smaller with up-turned noses. During a night tour, you may also see wild boars, flying squirrels, fireflies and crocodiles.
The massive cave is home to swiftlets, whose nests are harvested as a Chinese delicacy, and bats. Outside, other birds such as serpent eagles, bat hawks and kingfishers can be seen. You might even spot an orang-utan or two. There are two cave complexes from which to observe the harvesting.
Kinabatangan Wildlife Safari – 3 Days / 2 Nights
Embark on a 2.5-hour speedboat journey from Sandakan jetty up the Kinabatangan River to Sukau Rainforest Lodge. There will be opportunities along the way to view wildlife and birds, including the Proboscis Monkey and if you're lucky, even the shy Bornean Pygmy Elephants.
Turtle Islands Park
Selingaan, Gulisaan and Bakkungan Kechil Islands are where you can see turtles laying eggs as well as turtle conservation at work. Overnight stays can be arranged on Selingaan Island. Water sports gear and equipment for diving, snorkelling and ocean kayaking activities can be rented at the dive centre. There is excellent snorkelling around the island and guests can watch active baby blacktip sharks swimming in the shallow water by the beach as well as turtles nesting and hatching in season.
Culture and History
Sandakan Memorial Park
This site which commemorates a tragedy and atrocity which struck Sandakan between January and August 1945 is a must-see for history enthusiasts. The Memorial Park witnessed the death of approximately 2,400 Australian and British prisoners of war held by the Japanese in the Sandakan POW camp, within sight of Allied victory in the Pacific war. The park also includes a small museum. Rusting remains of an excavator and a generator and a boiler still lie in their original positions near the steps leading up to a small Commemorative Pavilion.
ANZAC Day Service
A dawn service is held on ANZAC Day in Sandakan . Attendance should be registered with the Department of Veteran Affairs. The official Anzac Day Dawn Service in Sandakan is conducted by the Australian Government and is made possible with the assistance of the local communities of Sandakan.
Sandakan Heritage Trail
The Sandakan Heritage Trail is a comprehensive walk that covers the town's important and interesting sites which have contributed to her rich historical past. A leaflet maps out the entire trail. The walk begins at the 100-year old Masjid Jamik, then continues to the Pryer Memorial, a granite structure erected to honour the founder of Sandakan, William B. Pryer. You will then climb the Stairs with a Hundred Steps which leads to a beautiful view of Sandakan town and bay and the famous Agnes Keith House. Next is the remains of an old staircase which is believed to be what is left of the Consulate building of the pre-war Chinese Government. From restored colonial buildings like Agnes Keith's House to places of worship - St. Michael's and All Angels Church, Sam Sing Kung (Three Saints) Temple and Goddess of Mercy Temple, this one hour walk takes you back over a 100 years.
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