While Sandakan isn’t the culinary capital of Kota Kinabalu, there’s still good eating to be had. All of the Malay food groups are covered: Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western, so if you’ve been upriver or are just plain sick of buffet fare, you’ll have plenty of choice.
Simple restaurants line the waterfront serving no-frills Malay favourites such as nasi goreng, curries and stir-fries. Most have nearly identical menus and prices (6.50-18 ringgit for mains), and My Harbour Restaurant is one of the few serving beer. The ambience is lovely at night when the fairy lights are turned on, even if the waterfront is a bit stinky.
The upper levels of the Sandakan Central Market start buzzing early. Elbow in for some tasty cheap eats: You’ll be hard pressed to spend more than five ringgit on a meal. Malay food is on the first floor, with many point-and-pick selections and Chinese is on the second, with several one-dish stalls—look for the queues of locals. Best for breakfast or early lunch.
For more of a gastronomic local experience, head over to the stilt village of Kampung Buli Sim Sim. At bridge eight walk to the end of the pier and take your pick from the tanks of fresh seafood at Sim Sim Seafood 88. You won’t have to wait long for another haul to come in straight off the boats. Seafood is sold by weight, and you just pick from the pictures for cooking style. It’s plastic chairs and fish scales, but the sea view is pretty. A taxi from town is 10 ringgit.
Up on Trig Hill, Tropical Garden Steamboat is a fun night out. Get there early for sunset, and to secure a table. This popular buffet-style steamboat is excellent value at 28 ringgit per person (13 ringgit for kids aged three to 10), and all the fresh seafood you can eat, but you’ll have to cook it yourself. Choose from a selection of stock bases—the tom yum is good—and pile it on in. The price includes soft drinks, fruit, ice-cream and coffee or tea. Beer is available at an extra charge.
For Sandakan’s most stylish sundowner, Ba Lin Roof Garden on top of NAK Hotel is the place to mingle with other tourists and hip locals. Two levels of cool: the rooftop for views, or chill on comfy chaise seating below. Western food includes thin-crust pizzas (from 22 ringgit), their signature sticky NZ lamb (35 ringgit) and more fusion kaffir lime fish and chips (20 ringgit). There’s coffees (5-10 ringgit) and cocktails (16-24 ringgit), and 15 percent off during happy hour from 14:00 till 20:00 for house spirits. Brunch isn’t bad either. Service is a little slow, but hey, you’re there to relax.
Enjoy a pint and a sea view in comfy leather chairs, play a game of pool or catch up on the footy at pub-style Best Brew at Four Points Sandakan by Sheraton. Happy hour 15:00-21:00 is two for one, otherwise it's expensive.
You’re likely to walk past Kedai Makan Nam Choon, and possibly quickly, but we recommend you don’t. Take a seat in this grotty looking local restaurant and order the nasi ikan (5.50-25 ringgit). Don’t be put off by the unappealing brown sauce, spoon on the ginger mixture from the jar on the table, and enjoy this delicious, slightly sour Teochew-style fish. Lunch only.
Take a break from the heat and drop into air-conditioned The Boss Fast Food & Juice House for a frozen dessert or a refreshing fresh juice. Mixed fresh fruit with milk freeze (6 ringgit) will cool you down, or there’s a fun “clown party” for the hot and irritable kids (8.90 ringgit). They have a branch at Mile Four too.
For breakfast fare, roti canai is hard to beat. This simple Malay flaky, stretchy bread with a spicy curry dippy sauce is best washed down with a hot kopi or teh tarik. Go to Restaurant Zakaria III opposite Hotel Sandakan for the best in town (believe us, we’ve tried many). They have enticing looking other food, but have the roti first.
Relive the colonial heyday of Sandakan with a spot of tea and scones (27.20 ringgit) and a game of croquet at the English Tea House & Restaurant. On the grounds of Agnes Keith House overlooking the city, it’s a jolly good spot for a Pimm’s No.1 cup (18 ringgit) too. Staff sport starched black and white uniforms and serve British classics like shepherd’s pie (36 ringgit) and bread and butter pudding (10.50 ringgit). The set menus are good value.
The local night scene is happening at Mile Four (Batu Indah) heaving with karaoke bars and nightclubs, about eight kilometres west of town. A taxi will cost about 20 ringgit.
Ba Lin Roof Garden: Jalan Pelabuhan Lama, Sandakan; T: (089) 272 988; F: (089) 272 879; email@example.com; www.nakhotel.com; open daily 07:00-01:00.
Best Brew: Four Points by Sheraton, Harbour Square, Sandakan; T: (0892) 44 888; ; www.fourpointssandakan.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; open Sun-Thurs 17:00-00:00; Fri-Sat 17:00-02:00.
English Tea House & Restaurant: 2002, Jalan Istana, Sandakan; T: (0892) 22 545; www.englishteahouse.org; email@example.com; open daily 10:00-20:00.
Kedai Makan Nam Choon: Block A, Lot 2A, Sandakan (opposite Santos Market); open Mon-Sat 06:00-15:00.
My Harbour Restaurant: Lot 94-96, Block HS-10, Harbour Square, Jalan Pryer, Sandakan; open daily 08:00-21:00.
Restaurant Zakaria III: Opposite Hotel Sandakan; open daily 06:00-22:00.
Sandakan Central Market: Jalan Pryer, Sandakan; open daily 06:00-18:30 (most stalls closed by 15:00).
Sim Sim Seafood 88: Bridge 8, Kampung Buli Sim Sim; open daily 06:30-22:00.
The Boss Fast Food & Juice House: Lot 1, Block 13, Sandakan; T: (089) 221 555.
Tropical Garden Steamboat: T: (089) 225 540, (0128) 165 670; Taman Chong Tain Vun, Jalan Trig Hill, Sandakan, open daily 18:00-22:00.
Most hotels at Sepilok have their own restaurant, but you’re not restricted to only eating where you stay; we’d suggest you venture out and try a few other places.
The Nest at Sepilok Forest Edge Resort has one of the most innovative menus in the Sandakan region, serving fusion Sabahan cuisine. The friendly waitstaff are happy to explain the dishes and help you choose. We tried hinava (15 ringgit), marinated raw fish which was fresh and piquant; chicken and pineapple curry (22 ringgit), and much more interesting than it sounds; and our favourite was the banana flower with minced prawn (13.20). Western dishes including pizza are also on offer, but try the local specialities for some imaginative jungle fare. Service was a bit slow, but the lovely open air-jungle restaurant is a pleasant place to linger.
Sepilok Nature Resort’s restaurant, The Lake Bistro & Bar has aced it on the ambience stakes. This picturesque lakeside eatery is perfect for whiling away a few hours. Sit undercover, or enjoy the outside deck. In the evening, fairy lights romantically illuminate the lake. The menu spans the West and Asia. We tried the fish fillet (24.50 ringgit), Western-style fish and chips, as well as ginger fish (20.50 ringgit), a Chinese-style dish. Both were tasty and well presented. The delicious sago gula Melaka (8.50 ringgit), sago pearls with coconut milk and palm sugar, left us wanting seconds (it was large enough, we were just greedy). The bistro offers a large specialty tea selection, as well as cocktails and wine.
If you’re hungry and after a quick feed, cheap and cheerful Kafeteria Sepilok in the grounds of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre serves sandwiches from six ringgit and noodles and rice dishes from eight ringgit. Ice-cream, cold drinks and other snacks are for sale. Open daytime only. Alternatively, Banana Cafe at Sepilok Jungle Resort has a similar menu for a few ringgit more and remains open in the evening.
Banana Cafe at Sepilok Jungle Resort: Jalan Rambutan, Sepilok; (089) 533 031; www.sepilokjungleresort.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; open daily 07:30-22:00.
Kafeteria Sepilok, Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: Open daily 08:00-16:00.
The Lake Bistro & Bar: Sepilok Nature Resort, Jalan Sepilok, Sandakan; T: (089) 673 999; (089) 535 001; sepilok.com; open daily 07:00-22:30.
The Nest: Sepilok Forest Edge Resort; Jalan Rambutan, Sepilok, Sandakan; T: (089) 533 190; (0165) 233 190; sepilokforestedgeresort.com; open daily 10:30-22:30.