Less than an hour’s flight from Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, is the town of Sandakan, the gateway to the famous Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, Turtle Islands and Kinabatangan wetlands. One of the riches and most accessible wildlife regions in all of Southeast Asia, the Kinabatangan is home to a plethora of birds and animals like the unique proboscis monkey, found only in Borneo.
“Sandakan” is derived from the Suluk word “sanda” meaning, to pawn and “kan” being the suffix. So “Sandakan” means the place that was pawned. Who pawned it, and to whom, remains a mystery.
The town of Sandakan, once claimed to have the greatest concentration of millionaires anywhere in the world its heyday as a timber centre, began on its present site in 1879, after an earlier settlement accidentally burnt down. The region had been known for centuries for its pearls, camphor, bees’ wax, sea cucumbers and edible birds’ nests, attracting traders from the nearby Sulu Sultanate and from as far as China.
A group of English businessmen, who bought the rights to the northern tip of Borneo from the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu, formally established British North Borneo in 1881. Sandakan was made its capital in 1884, and remained so until its total devastation by allied bombing at the end of World War II, when the capital was transferred to what is now Kota Kinabalu.
Sandakan, lying on a narrow strip of land between steep hills and the waters of the Sulu Sea, bears little evidence of its early history as a result of war-time bombing. Traces of the colonial period can be seen in the quaint stone church, St. Michael’s and All Angels, begun in 1893 and looking like a typical English country church.
Another link with the past can be found in Agnes Keith’s house, lived in by the Curator of Forests, Harry Keith and his American wife from the 1930s until the Japanese Occupation in 1942.
Agnes Keith’s book on life in pre-war Sandakan popularized the old seafarer’s name for Sabah in its title, “Land Below the Wind” (referring to Sabah’s location just below the typhoon belt). Their two-storied wooden bungalow, built on a ridge overlooking the town, was destroyed during the war but reconstructed faithfully when the Keith’s returned in 1946.
Puu Jih Shih Buddhist temple
Sandakan’s oldest temple, built in the 1880s and dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, is an inconspicuous building set on hillside above the town, with the nearby Sam Sing Kung temple popular during school exams since one of its deities is believed to assist those attempting to pass exams. For an unrivalled panoramic view of Sandakan Bay and a look at its newest temple, a visit should be made to the extravagantly ornate Puu Jih Shih Buddhist temple, on the hilltop above Tanah Merah south of Sandakan town centre. Built and decorated in 1987 at a cost of around US$2 million, the temple is a blaze of red and gold, with writhing dragons, gilded Buddhas, hundreds of gleaming lamps and the fragrance of burning incense.
No visitor to Sandakan should miss exploring the Central Market, where a fascinating mixture of people rub shoulders as they bargain for tropical fruit and vegetables, sarongs and seashells, spices ans sticky rice cakes. The fish market, Sabah’s largest, offers a stunning array of seafood.