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Gay friendly guide to Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysia

Stefan Arestis
Gay friendly guide to Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysia

Sandakan is a coastal town in the Sabah region on the Malaysia side of Borneo Island.

We spent a few nights in Sandakan as a base for exploring some of the gems of Sabah and discovered an exciting small city, with a plethora of great seafood!

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WHERE IS SANDAKAN?

Sandakan is the second largest town (after Kota Kinabalu) in Sabah, East Malaysia on the Northeastern side of Borneo island:

Map of Malaysia and Sandakan
Map of Malaysia, Borneo and Sandakan

During the colonial times in the nineteenth century, it was the capital of British North Borneo and a strategic commercial and trading centre.

Japan occupied the area during the Second World War and was completely destroyed by Allied bombings. The British got it back after the war and developed the fishing industry as part of the Reconstruction and Development Plan.

Hence the excellent seafood reputation!

Sandakan seafood is one of the best
Yes this entire seafood platter is all for greedy Sebastien

WHERE TO STAY IN SANDAKAN?

There’s a variety of decent places to stay in the area, but our favourite was the Four Points by Sheraton (now closed, last updated 16/7/20), a well known landmark and the only international brand. It is located right in the heart of the city, overlooking the sea and only 20 minutes away from the airport.

The view from our window across the Sandakan Bay was a great way to start the day.

The view from our room at Four Points by Sheraton
Stefan enjoying the view from our bedroom at the Four Points by Sheraton in Sandakan

We also enjoyed staying at Four Points because of the 24 hours gym and swimming pool facilities, as well as the excellent buffet breakfast.

Sebastien breakfast at Four Points by Sheraton in Sandakan
Sebastien tucking into his buffet breakfast at Four Points in Sandakan

Prices for rooms at the Four Points by Sheraton start from 195 Ringgits (£30/$46) a night. Check prices now.

WHERE TO EAT IN SANDAKAN?

Sandakan is well known for having some of the tastiest seafood in Sabah and the Sim Sim Seafood restaurant one of the best places for it. It’s a short taxi ride away from the centre and serves up some of the tastiest fresh seafood we’ve ever had.

We recommend their soy sauce steamed groupers. You pick the grouper fish when it’s still alive and it's then cooked and served immediately. THAT'S how fresh it is!

Freshly made steamed grouper
Seb and Jason enjoying soy sauce steamed grouper at the Sim Sim Seafood restaurant in Sandakan

The Best Brew Pub at The Four Points is the only place with a live band. It has some great western food like caesar salad, burgers and beef ribs, with an incredible view of the sunset over the bay.

Dinner at The Best Brew
Dinner with a view at The Best Brew at Four Points by Sheraton in Sandakan

Our favourite dessert in Sandakan was the popular UFO cake, which you can only find here. It’s a meringue-like custard tart with a caramel flavour. Check out any of the small eateries in the downtown area for these yummy prizes.

UFO desserts in Sandakan
UFO fun in Sandakan – boy did we love these little desserts!

Another local dessert we enjoyed in Sandakan are peanut pancakes, which you can find in the local markets. They are in fact made using actual peanuts as opposed to peanut butter and taste gooooood!

Peanut pancakes treat in Sandakan
Tucking into some tasty local peanut pancakes with our friend Jason at a local market in Sandakan

Our foodie adventures in Sandakan also led to a new fruit discovery: the tarap.

Tarap is a fruit you can only find on Borneo Island because they are too fragile to export. They look a little bit like a smaller durian on the outside, but the taste (and smell) once opened is totally different. Tarap are more like a mild jackfruit, with a creamy flavour.

Food fight over tasty tarap fruit
Stef and Seb fighting over the very tasty tarap fruit, native to Borneo island

ACTIVITIES IN SANDAKAN

There were plenty of things to do in Sandakan, which didn't involve food! Here's some of our favourites:

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1. Relaxing by the impressive infinity pool of The Four Points

The pool at The Four Points was one of the best infinity pools we’ve encountered. It is high up and west facing, offering some of the best sunset views across the Sandakan Bay.

It costs 50 Ringgits (£8/$12) for walk in guests to use the pool, which includes 1 drink.

Stefan at Four Points by Sheraton infinity pool
Stefan admiring the view of Sandakan Bay from the infinity pool of Four Points by Sheraton

2. The Sandakan Heritage Trail

The Sandakan Heritage Trail is a comprehensive walk through the main historical sites of Sandakan, like the 100 years old Masjid Jamek mosque, the Pryer Memorial statue honouring William Pryer, the founder of Sandakan, restored colonial buildings like the Agnus Keith House, and many more.

William Burges Pryer
William Burges Pryer, the founder of Sandakan

3. The Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple

The Puu Jih Shih temple is one of the finest Chinese temples in Sabah. It was undergoing renovation when we visited in August 2015, but still had a calm and serene atmosphere.

It's located on top of a hill, so even if you have temple fatigue, it's worth visiting just for the views.

The Buddhist Puu Jih Syh Temple in Sandakan
Peace and serenity at the Buddhist Puu Jih Syh Temple in Sandakan

4. Run To Give Marathon

If you’re in the city during October, check out the annual Run To Give Marathon hosted by Four Points. It’s an excellent charity initiative to raise awareness for breast cancer and funds go to the Sandakan Kinabalu Pink Ribbon.

This year’s event is on 11 October, featuring 5km and 10km runs.

Run To Give Marathon poster
The Run To Give Marathon poster at Four Points by Sheraton in Sandakan

ACTIVITIES AROUND SANDAKAN

There's lots of fun day trips from Sandakan, particularly around Sepilok, which is only around 45 minutes drive away:

1. Sun Bear Conservation Centre

  • The Sun Bear Conservation Centre is where these very cute small bears are rescued from appalling conditions and treated so they are ready to return to the forest one day.
  • They are the smallest bears known to man and nicknamed honey bears because they love honey so much. This is similar to Sebastien's nickname of Pooh Bear because he's always caught red handed with his face stuck to an empty pot of honey.
Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok
The very cute sun bears grazing away at the Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok

2. Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre

  • The Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre is a non for profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of wild orang utans and their rainforest habitat.
  • They rescue orang utans which have suffered, been separated from their mothers or lost their home due to deforestation. Like the sun bear centre, they are taught the skills they need to survive in the wild, then released when ready.
  • Orang utans are native to Borneo island and the two words, orang utan, literally mean “persons of the forest”. They have 98% same DNA as humans: watching them interact whilst eating was astonishing to see how similar they are to us.
Orang Utans in Sepilok
Sebastien on the left just goes face down with his food whereas Stefan on the right is more pensive and social at meal times

3. The Rainforest Discovery Centre

  • The Rainforest Discovery Centre is excellent for bird watching, with more than 250 species sighted.
  • If you're here in August, look out for the annual Rhythms of Rimba Festival, organised by Future Alam Borneo. We attended and had an awesome time enjoying great music in a rainforest environment, complete with the intermittent tropical rain.
Dancing in the rain at the Wildlife Music Festival
Dancing in the heavy rain at the Wildlife Music Festival in Sepilok

For more about our adventures through Malaysia, please check out our Malaysia travel video:

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Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor, and author of the gay travel blog nomadicboys.com. As a travel nerd, he has explored more than 80 countries across 5 continents. What he loves the most about traveling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends, and learning new cultures. His advice about LGBTQ travel has been featured in Gaycation Magazine, Gaycities, Gay Times, Pink News, and Attitude Magazine. He has also written about gay travel for other non-gay-specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post. Stefan is also a qualified lawyer, having practiced as a commercial property litigator in London for over 10 years. He left his lawyer days behind to work full time on Nomadic Boys with his husband Sebastien. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

Leonard Lau

Saturday 16th of November 2019

This is a lovely read. I was born and brought up in this lovely town and now live in Sydney Australia. I try to go back more to reconnect with my childhood growing up friends!

Stefan Arestis

Saturday 16th of November 2019

Thanks Leonard! Great to hear :)

Rina

Tuesday 19th of January 2016

Yes Ufo Tart or our people call Sandakan Ufo Tart is the famous dessert in Sandakan. Thanks visit our beautiful Sandakan. ?

Nomadic boys

Tuesday 19th of January 2016

Thanks Rina :)

Vanessa

Tuesday 3rd of November 2015

Sign me up for "UFO" desserts - that sounds absolutely delicious! The more I eat Malaysian food, the more I fall in love. PS - That breakfast looks nuts!

Nomadic boys

Tuesday 3rd of November 2015

Thanks Vanessa xx

Mar

Monday 2nd of November 2015

Hello boys! Actually I had never heard of Sandakan, strange right? Since I live in Singapore! But now I know where to go to visit the orang utan rescue Center. As always you look like you had a lot of yum! These ufo cakes looked awesome ?

Nomadic boys

Monday 2nd of November 2015

Ha ha ha thanks Mar - UFOs are wow :)

Oliwia | The Ollie

Sunday 1st of November 2015

We had to skip Sandakan on our Sabah tour, but we have been Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre and it was just amazing. I also wrote a post about it and about palm oil, how to not buy it and do not help to ruin rainforests. Thanks for some info about Sandakan, maybe next time we will have more time :)

Nomadic boys

Sunday 1st of November 2015

Oh god the palm oil industry is disgusting! But then checking everything that has palm oil in it we felt like complete hypocrites!