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Known as a centre for destructive palm oil—some 32 million tonnes of the stuff per year is produced in the surrounds—and a reputation for pirates, Lahad Datu has seemingly little to entice travellers. The sleepy coastal town however is the kick-off-point for adventures into some of the richest wildlife areas found anywhere in, well, anywhere.

Almost halfway between Sandakanand Semporna, Lahad Datu faces the sea on the east coast of Sabah at Darvel Bay, with Mount Silam at its back and the magnificent Danum Valley Conservation Area to the west and Tabin Wildlife Reserve to the east.

The riches of palm oil are evident in Lahad Datu. Photo taken in or around Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

The riches of palm oil are evident in Lahad Datu. Photo: Sally Arnold

Danum Valley Conservation Area is one of the world’s special places: 43,800 hectares of mostly virgin rainforest bursting with mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Danum Valley is a protected area and you can’t just wander in. There are two places to stay, the high-end and highly regarded Borneo Rainforest Lodge, which offers the ultimate in jungle luxury, or Danum Valley Field Centre, the down and dirty research facility that also welcomes, well, you (and us).

Tabin Wildlife Reserve is another wildlife hotspot, graced with animal-attracting mud volcanos. There’s a good chance of sighting elephants and orangutans here, but only one spot to stay.

The Danum Valley is a key attraction in the area. Photo taken in or around Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

The Danum Valley is a key attraction in the area. Photo: Sally Arnold

Mount Silam is in the Sapagaya Forest Reserve, home to the Tower of Heaven, a perhaps appropriate name for a lookout as the views are divine. The reserve is Lahad Datu’s most accessible to visit too, both physically and financially.

Lahad Datu town is split into two main areas, the town centre on the bay and Fajar, a small commercial centre near the airport, about a kilometre uphill from the port. This is where you’ll find the offices for Borneo Nature Tours, which run the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL) at Danum Valley and the Danum Valley Field Centre. Across the road in the airport terminal is the local office for Tabin Wildlife Holidays, which manage accommodation at Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Fajar is the bus terminal for buses passing between Sandakan and Semporna (although buses with the destination of Lahad Datu terminate in town). There’s an ATM, convenience store, pharmacy, restaurants and a business hotel, so no need to venture into the town centre.

Something fishy at the markets. Photo taken in or around Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Something fishy at the markets. Photo: Sally Arnold

The main commercial part of town doesn’t have a great deal of appeal, but it’s not without some charm. The streets are wide and relatively clean, and a large market and neighbouring fish market hold some interest. There’s a small modern Chinese temple, and to the west of town a large stilled village inhabited mostly by migrants. From the grubby seafront the colourful floating homes of the Bajau Laut “sea gypsies” can be seen dotting the bay. Hotels are mostly aimed at business travellers, doing their palm oil deals, but a couple of friendly guesthouses will keep the budget conscious happy. Being a seaside town, seafood weighs in heavily when it comes to the restaurants, and good Malay food abounds.

We were a little apprehensive to visit Lahad Datu due to a series of recent kidnappings but, like everywhere in Sabah, found the locals warm and welcoming—we were told these incidents happened far out to sea, and the town was safe. However, it’s a good idea to check the current security situation before you plan to stay.

Just hanging out. Photo taken in or around Lahad Datu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Just hanging out. Photo: Sally Arnold

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As Lahad Datu is a business town, banks and ATMs are aplenty, but many operate only from 06:00 till midnight. The post office is on Jalan Teratai, and the police station is on Jalan Kastam Lama, between the town centre and Fajar. Lahad Datu hospital is 2.5 kilometres west of the town centre (T: (089) 895 111). Several large supermarkets will have you stocked up for all your jungle supplies.


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Lahad Datu.
 Read up on where to eat on Lahad Datu.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Lahad Datu.
 Read up on how to get to Lahad Datu.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
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