Sandakan is at the neck of a bay on the northeast coast of Sabah and looks out to the Sulu Sea. It is a postwar town, much of it rebuilt on reclaimed land, and is Malaysia's biggest fishing port; it even exports some of its catch to Singapore. Sandakan is often dubbed 'mini Hong Kong' because of its Cantonese influence; its occupants are well-heeled and the town sustains many prosperous businesses, despite being rather scruffy as a whole. It is now also home to a large Filipino community, mostly traders from Mindanao and the Sulu Islands. Manila still officially claims Sabah in its entirety - Sandakan is only 28 km from Philippines' territorial waters. Large numbers of illegal Indonesian workers have made Sandakan their home in recent years, further adding to the town's cosmopolitan atmosphere.
New developments are slowly encircling the generally charmless heart of the town, with bright, cheery blocks on the outskirts and the new Sandakan Harbour Square on the waterfront with a few fancy shops, a gleaming new hotel and smart promenade pointing the way to a more attractive future for the city.
Ins and outs
The airport is 10 km north of town. There are daily connections with KL, KK and several lesser destinations in Sabah. Minibuses travel from the airport to the station at the southern end of Jalan Pelabuhan. From the long-distance bus terminal 5 km to the west of town, there are connections with KK, Tawau, Ranau, Lahad Datu, Semporna and several other destinations. Boats from Zamboanga in the Philippines call into Sandakan twice a week.
Sandakan is not a large town and it is easy enough to explore the central area on foot, although it does stretch some way along the coast. Minibuses provide links with out-of-town places of interest.
The privately run
Tourist Information Centre
should be the first port of call for any visitor to Sandakan. Despite limited resources, Elvina Ong is an absolute goldmine of information about Sandakan and its environs. She is extremely well organized and can help tourists arrange tours. It was opened by the owner of the
, but it provides impartial advice.
The Sandakan area was an important source of beeswax for the Sulu traders and came under the sway of the Sultans of Sulu. William Clarke Cowie, a Scotsman with a carefully waxed handlebar moustache who ran guns for the Sultan of Sulu across the Spanish blockade of Sulu (later becoming the managing director of the North Borneo Chartered Company), first set up camp in Sandakan Bay in the early 1870s. He called his camp, which was on Pulau Timbang, 'Sandakan', the Sulu name for the area for 200 years, but it became known as Kampong German as there were several German traders living there and early gunrunners tended to be German. The power of the Sulu sultanate was already waning when Cowie set up. In its early trading days, Europeans, Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Javanese, Dusun and Japanese all lived here. It was an important gateway to the interior and used to be a trading centre for forest produce like rhinoceros horn, beeswax and hornbill ivory, along with marine products like pearls and sea cucumbers (
, valued for their medicinal properties). In 1812, English visitor John Hunt estimated that the Sandakan/Kinabatangan area produced an astonishing 37,000 kg of wild beeswax and 23,000 kg of birds' nests each year.
The modern town of Sandakan was founded by an Englishman, William Pryer, in 1879. Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian consul from Hong Kong who founded the Chartered Company with businessman Alfred Dent, had signed a leasing agreement for the territory with the Sultan of Brunei, only to discover that large tracts on the east side of modern day Sabah actually belonged to the Sultan of Sulu. Overbeck sailed to Sulu in January 1878 and on obtaining the cession rights from the Sultan, dropped William Pryer off at Kampong German to make the British presence felt. Pryer's wife Ada later described the scene: “He had with him a West Indian black named Anderson, a half-caste Hindoo named Abdul, a couple of China boys. For food they had a barrel of flour and 17 fowls and the artillery was half a dozen sinder rifles.” Pryer set about organizing the three existing villages in the area, cultivating friendly relations with the local tribespeople and fending off pirates. He raised the Union Jack on 11 February 1878.
Cowie tried to do a deal with the Sultan of Sulu to wrest control of Sandakan back from Pryer, but Dent and Overbeck finally bought him off. A few months later Cowie's Kampong German burned to the ground, so Pryer went in search of a new site, which he found at Buli Sim Sim. He called his new settlement Elopura, meaning 'beautiful city', but the name did not catch on. By the mid-1880s it was renamed Sandakan and, in 1884, became the capital of North Borneo when the title was transferred from Kudat. In 1891 the town had 20 Chinese-run brothels and 71 Japanese prostitutes; according to the 1891 census there were three men for every one woman. The town quickly established itself as the source of birds' nests harvested from the caves at Gomantong and shipped directly to Hong Kong, as they are today.
Timber was first exported from this area in 1885 and was used to construct Beijing's Temple of Heaven. Sandakan was, until the 1980s, the main east-coast port for timber and it became a wealthy town. In its heyday, the town is said to have boasted one of the greatest concentrations of millionaires in the world. The timber-boom days are over: the primary jungle has gone, and so has the big money. In the mid-1990s the state government adopted a strict policy restricting the export of raw, unprocessed timber. The hinterland is now dominated by vast plantations of cocoa and oil palm.
Following the Japanese invasion in 1942, Sandakan was devastated by Allied bombing. In 1946 North Borneo became a British colony and the new colonial government moved the capital to Jesselton (later to become Kota Kinabalu).
Sandakan is strung out along the coast but in the centre of town is the riotous
, which is the biggest and best in Sabah. The best time to visit is at 0600 when the boats unload their catch. The
along the waterfront, near the local bus station, sells fruit, vegetables, sarongs, seashells, spices and sticky rice cakes.
, near the government
building at Mile Seven on Labuk Rd, between Sandakan and Sepilok, stands on the site of a Japanese prison camp and commemorates Allied soldiers who lost their lives during the Japanese occupation. Each year on ANZAC day (24 April) crowds of former servicemen and their families come to the memorial park to commemorate the lives of those that died In the bloody conflict in Sabah. The Japanese invaded North Borneo in 1942 and many Japanese also died in the area. In 1989 a new
was built in the Japanese cemetery, financed by the families of the deceased soldiers.
Anglican church is one of the very few stone churches in Sabah and is an attractive building, designed by a New Zealander in 1893. Most of Sandakan's stone churches were levelled in the war and, indeed, St Michael's is one of the few colonial-era buildings still standing. It is just off Jalan Singapura, on the hill at the south end of town. In 1988 a big
was built for the burgeoning Muslim population at the mouth of Sandakan Bay. The main Filipino settlements are in this area of town. The mosque is outside Sandakan, on Jalan Buli Sim Sim where the town began in 1879, just after the jetty for Turtle Islands National Park, and is an imposing landmark. There is also a large water village here.
There are a couple of other notable Chinese temples in Sandakan. The oldest one, the
is just off Jalan Singapura, on the hillside. Originally built in the early 1880s, it has been expanded over the years. Nearby is
, which becomes a particular focus of devotion during exam periods since one of its deities is reputed to assist those attempting examinations. The
, further down the hill at the end of the padang, was completed in 1887. The three saints are Kwan Woon Cheung, a Kwan clan ancestor, the goddess Tien Hou (or Tin Hau, worshipped by seafarers) and the Min Cheong Emperor.
is a commercial licensed enterprise, set up in 1982 when the government made the estuarine crocodile a protected species. The original stock was drawn from a population of wild crocodiles found in the Kinabatangan River. Visitors can see around 2000 crocs at all stages of maturity waiting in concrete pools for the day when their skins are turned into bags and wallets and their meat is sold to local butchers. There are numerous other animals to see here at their mini zoo including snakes, civets and sun bears. The farm, at Mile 8, Labuk Road, has about 200 residents. To get there take the Labuk Road bus.
(Ibu Pejabat Jabatan Perhutanan), next to the Sandakan Golf Course, contain an exhibition centre and a well-laid out and interesting mini-museum showing past and present forestry practice.
is a loop which supposedly takes in the historical gems of this scruffy town including a good lookout point; the walk should take a leisurely 90 minutes. The tourist office has trail maps. It starts off at the town mosque and nips up the 'stairs with 100 steps', a nice shady climb with good views from the top where young local couples gather to whisper sweet nothings to each other and smoke clandestine cigarettes. It's rather dark here at night, so lone travellers are advised to climb in the day. A couple of tourists were mugged here in 2004.
From here the trail passes through
. Inside the grounds, there's an
serving scones and pastries on manicured lawns. From here, the trail takes in the Goddess of Mercy Temple, St Michael's Anglican Church and ends up at the
, a rather slipshod affair with some early photos of the town and an unexplained mannequin dressed in a kilt. There is, however, a good wall photo of Sandakan razed to the ground taken in 1945.
Pertubuhan Ugama Buddhist
(Puu Jih Shih Buddhist temple) overlooks Tanah Merah town. The US$2 million temple was completed in 1987 and stands at the top of the hill, accessible by a twisting road that hairpins its way up the hillside. The temple is very gaudy, contains three large Buddha images and is nothing special, although the 34 teakwood supporting pillars, made in Macau, are quite a feature. There is a good view of Sandakan from the top, with Tanah Merah and the log ponds directly below, in Sandakan Bay. The names of local donors are inscribed on the walls of the walkway.
This dive resort is on a near uninhabited island, 90 minutes by boat from Sandakan in the Sulu Sea.
Famed for its 200-m rust-coloured sandstone cliffs on the south end, with a beach at the foot, this island is within easy reach by boat, but there isn't a great deal to do here. There are plans to develop the island for tourism in the near future. The island was used as a leper colony before the Second World War and as a prisoner of war camp by the Japanese. Agnes Keith was interned here during the war.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF