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  • Writer's pictureRick

East Malaysia Day 9: Seeing Orangutans & Sun Bears in Sandakan (山打根)

I was kicked out of dreamland at 5am, by traffic noises outside Hotel AeCOTEL, and unable to get back into my last dream. I had chosen the room because it had a “park view” and paid extra for it instead of the “city view”. Turned out that the park was across a trunk road. If only there was a room with “no view”.

There were very few options for breakfast at 7:30am in the old town, other than Sandakan Central Market. I searched on Google Map and found Kedai Makanan King Cheong which was opened since 6am. I made my way to the coffee shop along Lebuh Dua.

King Cheong was a kopitiam-style restaurant with stalls selling various food stuffs from dim sum to noodles, buns, toasts, etc. I ordered their kon lo (dry-tossed) noodle with deep-fried pork (Sandakan-style) and a cup of kopi-o. A tray of dim sum were presented to me and I picked a dish with 2 pieces of meat dumplings while others were 3 pieces. I did not know that I had selected a special Sandakan dumpling that had century egg in it until I bit into the spongy egg with a familiar taste — westerners would say “weird taste”. The deep-fried pork was as good as barbecue pork.

After breakfast, I went to search for the "Sepilok 14" bus to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at the bus terminal but to no avail. I went into San Da Gen Kopitiam (三大羹) to ask, since they had a sign that said “Tourist Information”. The staff pointed at a row of orange-stripe minivans just opposite the cafe and said to take the services heading in the direction of Sepilok. That was pretty vague.

As I walked past the minivans, outside Centre Point Mall, a driver came down from a No. 19 minivan and asked if I was going to Sepilok. I said “yes” and he motioned for me to board the minivan which was bounded for Gum Gum. I did a check on Google Maps and realised what it was all about. Any of the minivans that were operating in the vicinity of Sepilok could ferry passengers there sort-of like a special request. No. 19 to Gum Gum did pass by the small road leading to the Sepilok centre. I asked for the fare amount before getting on the minivan — it was RM10. The minivan departed at 9am with just 2 passengers onboard.

Time was really elastic as the driver would wait for some passengers along the way as those he knew they would be taking his minivan — pre-booking? Anyway, I was the only passenger going to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and arrived at 9:53am.

The signboard across the road at the main entrance said “Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre” but the orangutan centre was located further down the road and on the right side. On the left was the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

I went to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre first because there was a feeding session at 10am. The entrance fee for a foreigner adult was RM30 and extra RM10 for a camera (free for phone-camera). Camera with telescopic lens above 400mm would need to pay a fee of RM1,000. Before going into the rehabilitation area, all visitors must deposit all belongings in the lockers provided, except the ticket and phone or camera (and passport and wallet).

Inside the compound, I followed the signs to the feeding area. A number of spectators were waiting for the orangutans, to come for their food, under a hot sun. Several macaque monkeys were already surrounding the bananas and trying to scare off two wild orangutans that appeared from among the trees. I was surprised to see that the orangutans were intimidated by the monkeys. I tried taking photos with my phone but it was unable to get good quality photos — that was why it’s free!

After spending some 20 minutes here, I backtracked to the nursery area to see more young orangutans from within an air-conditioned shelter. Despite closer in distance, I still could not take good photos. Then I exited the orangutan centre. The ticket was valid for the whole day, I could come back for the afternoon feeding session if I wanted to. But so long as I was armed with a phone, it would be useless.

I collected my belongings from the lockers and crossed the road to Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. The ticket was RM50 per foreigner adult.

There were 2 observation platforms to see the sun bears roaming around the compound. Close to noon time or after they were full after eating, the sun bears would go to sleep or hide from the sun, so it would be better to visit the centre earlier. I took less than 2 hours for both centres.

There was no bus from Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilation Centre to the old town (or waterfront area) at 12:30pm — whatever information that I had gathered online about “Sepilok Bus 14” to and from the centre was not up to date or the service might have been suspended. I e-hailed a Grab car to San Da Gen Kopitiam for RM34. The journey took slightly less than 30 minutes.

San Da Gen Kopitiam (三大羹) was highly-recommended by netizens to visit when in Sandakan, so I decided to dine there. Most of the dishes in San Da Gen Kopitiam were unusual, they were Malaysian delights alright but with some twists — for example, nasi lemak served with either lamb shank, oxtail asam pedas or slipper lobster. Eyeing the ondeh-ondeh cake in the pastry shelf, I ordered a mee siam with a hot Americano. The  mee siam had lots of ingredients, good tasting and not spicy even after adding in the chilli. The coffee was thick, aromatic and non-bitter — one of the better-tasting Americano coffee I had so far.

I added on the ondeh-ondeh cake after finishing the mee siam. It did not resemble any of those ondeh-ondeh cakes that I had tried before but it certainly tasted familiar with grated coconut and gula melaka and not overly sweet. San Da Gen was a great cafe, I would want to come back again before leaving Sandakan.

I did another round of going through the streets of the old town, to the shopping mall, the waterfront, the “Little Hong Kong” creative art lane, etc. I bought some cut fruits and preserved fruits, topped with plum powder, from a fruit shop at the art lane for just RM3. It was a tasty treat after combing the town under the hot sun.

I was back in Hotel AeCOTEL, took a cold shower and planned for what to do after Sandakan. I made bookings for accommodations and flights till the end of the trip. After returning to Kota Kinabalu from Sandakan, I would stay for 3 nights for Sabah's harvest festival on 30th and 31st, relax on Saturday, revisit Gaya Street Sunday Market again on next Sunday morning before flying to Kuching in Sarawak. After 4 nights in Kuching, I would fly to Senai Airport in Johor. All my flights were in the afternoon and they were getting more expensive due to last-minute bookings. I had to seal my itinerary for this trip before prices of the air tickets escalated beyond my budget.

I went out for dinner at around 6:40pm. Most of the shops in the old town were already closed and some streets were totally desolated. I went to MOMO Oriental Kitchen, which I spotted in the afternoon. I browsed through the menu for quite a while and finally decided on a roasted chicken rice, specifying chicken thigh, a baby kailan with oyster sauce and kiwi soda. After ordering, I looked at the decorations in the restaurant and a brief introduction on how Momo Oriental Kitchen came about. It said that the first original restaurant was named “Momo Coffee Shop” in… Singapore!

I had gone through the menu a couple of times and found some of the dishes to be familiar yet did not realised they were Singapore food until I read the introduction — probably because there were Thai and Malaysia food as well and Hainanese chicken rice could be found across Southeast Asia. The roasted chicken rice tasted the same as in Singapore alright, but should be using locally-bred chicken — oh, Singapore’s chicken were from Malaysia too. The baby kailan dish was only RM6.90 (about S$2) yet it was a rather big portion with slices of carrot and straw mushrooms. I always missed out on fruits and vegetables when on food hunts, this was a good opportunity to eat more.

I left the restaurant at 8pm and had to walk through the already deserted streets back to the hotel. Even though Sandakan was a safe place to travel, it would still not be advisable for a solo traveller to walk down dark and deserted lanes in alien places. I took a slightly longer detour by following a trunk road where there were more lights and vehicles moving about.

Outside the hotel, I saw a pub just next door — no signboard outside and camouflaged behind wooden boards. I was very sure I heard terrible singing the night before and suspected there was a pub or karaoke lounge nearby but not expecting it to be this near. The pub, or lounge, was one reason why vehicles were stopping and starting their engines, especially heavy motorcycles, below my room.

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