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In the end, I decided to ‘hang in there’ and it was a choice of heading back to KK to catch the over-night bus to Semporna or to catch the bus from Kudat to Sandakan. A opted for the latter as it got me closer to Semporna anyway.
The Sandakan bus terminal is 10km out of town centre so, as always, the taxi drivers are waiting… they will tell you that there is no ‘local bus’ from there to town and that the only way to get to town is by taxi. This is not true.
The taxi fare should be MYR20. So, if you can, ask the other tourists on the bus if anyone wants to share a taxi!
Backpackers: You CAN get to Sandakan town centre on a local bus for MYR1.50, this is how: from the long distance bus terminal walk the 10-20 metres to the main road. IGNORE the bus stop that is there. When you get to the main road turn right (Sandakan is actually to the left but but you TURN RIGHT). Walk the 30 metres to the roundabout and straight through that roundabout for 30 metres to the other side. You need to be on the side facing NORTH). You will find a ‘layby’. It is not a bus stop, it is just a bit of dirt that cars can pull over onto. Wait at the layby and flag down any white, 12-seater minivan that goes past. Ask if they go to Sandakan Harbour Square / Town Centre. The tariff is usually stuck on the window and starts at MYR0.50 for journeys up to 1km. Your journey is over 9Kms, so you pay the maximum rate of MYR1.50. You should get dropped off at the Minibus Terminal near the Centrepoint Mall. Face the waterfront and turn left to find the many backpacker hotels / hostels on the Harbourside (see below).
WHERE TO STAY:
Between Esso Petrol Station on Jalan Pryer and the waterfront there are many cheap hotels especially along the new Harbourfront. They are very similar with the usual variances in quality and cleanliness.
I paid MYR60 / night for a Double room with hot water ensuite and aircon. There was no TV and no in-room wi-fi. But, I was lucky as my room was directly over the common area, so I got some in-room wi-fi (but the quality varied). The price included a breakfast of toast and tea / coffee. I chose to stay here because of the common area where it was easy to meet people (albeit people much younger than I). However, please note, when I returned to Harbourside for the second time the wifi was almost unusable and I had to survive on my own Mobile Data Plan.
May Fair Hotel: Probably the best value for money that I found. It is one street back from the corner of Jalan Pryer and Jalan Empat. It offers a Double with aircon, cable tv, one free rental dvd / day, in-room wifi, and hot water ensuite for MYR50 (1 person) or MYR55 (2 people). The downside is that there’s no shared area to meet other people.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK:
The central area around Harbour Square has many restaurants to choose from. What I liked about Sandakan (more than anywhere else in Borneo so far) was the waterfront where there were a string of restaurants looking out over the water. You paid a bit more for this location but it was somewhere (finally) where you could sit and while away some time in a pleasant environment. As an example, I had a prawn Tom Yam soup (MYR5.50) and hot Lemon Tea (MYR1.50). Fresh fruit juices ranged from MYR3.50-4.50. Fancier mains (for your evening meal) ranged from MYR12-18. As usual in Malaysia, if you want an alcoholic drink, you have to pay heavily for it. On the waterfront, a large bottle of Tiger is MYR19! The cheapest place to have a beer is Restoran Capital which can be found near where Lebuh Dua meets Lebuh Empat. You get 3 cans of Tiger for MYR16 or 3 Skols for MYR14.
Again, it is impossible to find anywhere to rent a scooter. On the internet, you will find (everywhere) that you can rent one from the Sea View Sandakan Backpacker Bed & Breakfast – you cannot; the scooter is ‘broken’. So, you are limited to local Busses / Minivans and relatively expensive Taxis. A Taxi back to the long distance bus terminal (10km out of town) should cost MYR15 if you arrange it yourself or MYR20 if you arrange in through your hotel. Alternatively, you can catch a local 12-seater white minibus from the Minibus Terminal down near Centrepoint Mall for MYR1.50-3.00 (but, allow plenty of time because they stop often and their route is about making money – not getting you to the bus terminal on time).
Waterfront: Try out the waterfront restaurants; it really is a pleasant change to be able to sit and while away some time in such a location. Shopping: Is surprisingly good. Check out the shops and markets in and around Harbour Square. Organised Excursions: I found the Tour Operator excursions to be relatively expensive. Sorry Sabah… but I really do think that you are ‘creaming it’ a little bit. Using my ‘MYR1 = NZ$1 Rule Of Thumb (ROT)’, I couldn’t believe some of the prices. Operators were wanting MYR1,000 (NZ$1,000 ROT) for a 1 day scuba dive trip to Turtle Island and as much as MYR3,500 (NZ$3,500 ROT) for 3 day / 2 night trips out to the nearby islands. These were Solo Traveller rates.
One organised excursion that I did find at a reasonable price is the 3 day / 2 night trip down to the Kinabatangan National Park near Sukau. We booked the trip at the Harbourside Backpacker. It cost MYR440 – which included an ‘add-on’ trip to the nearby caves. The minibus picks you up from your hotel. We were picked up 1 hour early (at 11:30) but pick up is normally 12:30. The drive is normally 2 to 2.5 hours but ours took 3 because we went via Sepilok to pick up two extra passengers (Sander and Sanna from the Netherlands). The resort that we stayed at was the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort (BNSBR).
It was opened in May 2015, so everything was clean and new.
We arrived mid afternoon and had time to settle in before High Tea was served at 15:00. Roti Chanai with tea or coffee.
This is not a zoo so it is ‘more about the journey than the destination”. Be patient and, eventually, you will see a lot of wildlife.
The shower was fantastic.
At 20:00 we had our long trousers on, long sleeves on, leech socks on, torches in hand and were off again on a night trek.
We were back by 21:30 in time for a cold beer.
At 09:00 we were off on a jungle trek.
At 13:00 we were in a car and on our way to the caves.
The drive took 30 minutes.
The caves that we were able to enter were the caves where swiftlets make the black nests that they use in Birds Nest Soup.
We were back at the resort by 15:00 in time for High Tea.
By 08:30 we were back on a minibus heading for Sandakan.
DO IT YOURSELF EXCURSIONS:
Why not be adventurous and D-I-Y!
You can start within Sandakan itself.
There is a walk-able Heritage Trail that starts at the Masjid Jamek Mosque near Hotel London.
If you feel really adventurous, you can take the 3-4km walk out to Puu Jih Shih temple.
Personally, I found this to be the highlight of the trail. If you are only feeling semi-adventurous, you can catch a local 12-seater there and back for MYR1 each way.
Sim Sim Water Village:
You can go down to the Minibus Terminal near Centrepoint Mall and catch a bus out to Sim Sim for about MYR1.
If you feel more adventurous, just take the 20-30 minute walk from Harbourside over the hill (heading east).
You can do the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary (entrance fee MYR60 + MYR10 for own camera) in 1 day. Get to the front of Wisma Sandakan by 9:30am. Ask around and catch a ride out for MYR25. Feeding times are 11:30, 2:30, and 4:30. The ride back is another MYR25. Total cost MYR110 each.
You can do the Urang Utan Rehabilitation Centre (entrance fee MYR30 + MYR10 for own camera), Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (entrance fee MYR32), and Rainforest Discovery Centre (entrance fee MYR16) in 1 day.
Get to the Minibus Terminal near the Centrepoint Mall by 9am. Catch local bus #14 (usually a 12-seater) for MYR6 out to Sepilok. It should get there in time for the first Urang Utan feeding at 10am. Other outbound bus times are 11:30, 14:00 an 17:00.
There is a restaurant here where you can eat for MYR9-11. A small bottle of water will cost you MYR2. These prices are on the high side, so you may want to bring your own.
Here you will find a nice Canopy Walk that takes you high through the treetops. There are also a number of bush walks that you can take. One takes you out to a tree that is 19 stories high. However, please note, we were there for 3 hours and didn’t see a single animal / bird.
In compensation, I took a photo of a photo to remind me of what could have been.
From outside of the Urang Utan centre you catch the #14 bus back to Sandakan. The last bus leaves at 4:00pm – so don’t miss it. The last bus is usually a local 26-seater (MYR6) which stops for locals to get on and off (and, therefore, takes slightly longer to get back to town). Bus times back to Sandakan are 06:30, 10:30, 12:30 and 16:00.
Total cost for the day (with camera) would be MYR100.
As with Pulau Banggi near Kudat, I was tempted to take a trip out to Pulau Berhala.
I asked around and talked to a few of the locals. They put me off. They say that the waters around the island are dirty and there are no good beaches.
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