No trip to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo should be without a visit to Sandakan on the east coast. Most people will arrive in Sabah at Kota Kinabalu and then make the 5 hour bus journey eastwards where wildlife and adventure await!
Kota Kinabalu has received a huge increase of tourism in recent years, as budget flights from Peninsular Malaysia and even Indonesia have became more and more affordable. Kota Kinabalu is a great city in which to begin your adventure in Borneo, although the good stuff lies further east towards Sandakan and Sepilok. Luckily for us, there are plenty of transportation options in getting from A to B, and the most common option is certainly to use the bus.
Buses to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu run regularly from 06.30 to 20.00 and are operated chiefly by Sida Ekspres and Tung Ma Express. I used Sida Ekspres, and found them to be reliable and trustworthy. I had expected something of a rough ride, as I didn’t know what the roads were like in Sabah, but overall the journey was comfortable. The journey time of 5 hours is similar to what I experienced between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and also Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. There are no commercial train lines in Sabah (or anywhere in Borneo I think), but you can fly to Sandakan from KK, and even from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia ply the routes, and usually with very competitive fares. However, the backpacking spirit in all of us will probably just lead us to take the cheapest (and tackiest) option, and this is by long distance bus. I paid 40 Ringgits (about £8) for my ticket to Sandakan.
The journey was an opportunity to check out some of Sabah’s great scenery from the window seat. My bus had a 2-1 configuration, and this is common in lots of other countries, although I presume some buses in Sabah may be a simple 1-1 configuration instead, so in this respect I got lucky. As a solo traveller, I was perfectly happy to be sitting on my own, although the rest of the bus was full – and they were very loud! Let’s just say that I was happy I didn’t need any sleep, as I don’t think I would have got any on that journey! There were no refreshments on board the bus, and this was something of a let down, as I think I have read reviews of this bus journey before where the Sida Ekspres staff distribute sandwiches and snacks like nasi lemak bungus during the journey. Still, it wasn’t too much of a downer.
After pretty much exactly 5 hours, we arrived in Sandakan around 1pm. Sandakan’s long distance bus station is just 4km north of the city centre, and a taxi from A to B costs just 15 Ringgit (you could also catch a shared minivan costing as less as 1 Ringgit, but surely NOBODY is that stingy?). Incidentally, local bus #14 to Sepilok departs from the minivan terminal near the waterfront by Gentingmas Mall. Buses from Sandakan to Sepilok depart between 9am and 2pm, and the fare is 5 Ringgit per person (journey time is 45 minutes). But Sepilok should wait a few days, and in the mean time you should concentrate on enjoying everything you can find in Sandakan.
Most of the attractions you will encounter in Sandakan are wildlife based, and although there are opportunities to see flora and fauna in the wild (such as on the Kinabatangun River located nearby), the key places to visit for the wildlife are Turtle Island, and the Bear and Proboscis Monkey sanctuaries. It is possible to book a return ticket with Sida Ekspres for the journey back to Kota Kinabalu, but I only purchased a one way ticket, as I didn’t know how long I was going to stay in this part of Sabah. When you are ready to head back to KK, just head to the Sandakan Bus Terminal again, where you will find a clearly-marked ticket counter promoting the journey (the prices should be near identical to what you paid on the outbound journey).