Most people don’t spend a lot of time in Sandakan, or they skip over it all together. Before we arrived, I could understand why people would do that. The main sights of the region are clustered together in nearby Sepilok, and most guidebooks don’t focus must on this city, the second largest in Sabah.
Sandakan used to be the capitol city of Sabah, or British North Borneo as it was known back then. And like any capitol city, there is a lot to be discovered here. There is war history, literary history, fantastic architecture (both European and uniquely Asian), and of course, lots of food.
We didn’t know much about Sandakan when we arrived, and we were so pleasantly surprised. We went on a half day tour with Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventures who took us all the main sights and offered local insight and history, as well as to some sights that would not normally make it on to the general tourist itinerary.
Sandakan War Memorial
It’s a part of the war you seldom hear about. Growing up in North America, our history lessons around World War 2 focus primarily on Europe. Even Dan, from Australia, had no idea that one of the largest loss of Australian lives during the war happened in Borneo.
We learned so much about the war history in Borneo, and it touched us so deeply, that I am going to publish an entire post on the subject next week.
We started our Sandakan city tour at the War Memorial. Set where the POW camp was situated, this lovely landscaped park presents a relaxing and beautiful atmosphere – a stark contrast to what it must have been for the 2,400 Australians who were imprisoned there.
In the middle of the parklands is a small museum and memorial which documents the war in Borneo, the conditions of the POW camp, the Sandakan death march, and the lives of the prisoners.
Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple
Even if you are not a big fan of touring temples, you should still make a point of visiting this one. This grand and beautiful temple is situated on top of a very tall hill, offering one of the best views of Sandakan and the harbour that you will find anywhere in the city.
The temple is a fair drive up a steep and windy hill. The best way to see this temple, other than taking a taxi, is with a Sandakan city tour.
The Oldest Church in Borneo
Sandakan was the original capital of Sabah, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the oldest church in Borneo is located in Sandakan. St. Michaels and All Angles Church, is one of the few brick buildings left in Borneo, and miraculously survived the war years. Our tour took us to view the outside of the church, and the beautiful stained glass windows, but if you want to go inside you will need to purchase an admission ticket.
The Home of Agnes Keith
I had never heard of Agnes Keith before we pulled up to her home on the Sandakan city tour. Agnes Keith is a famous American novelist we were told. She wrote three very famous books about Borneo. I was ashamed that I had not done more research before our arrival.
We quietly walked through the cool and dignified old wooden home. The walls decorated with stories from Agnes’ life and quotes from her books. The first thing I did when back in Kota Kinabalu, was buy the Agnes Keith trilogy from the museum book shop. I was not disappointed. I strongly recommend the Agnes Keith books for anyone planning a trip to Borneo.
The Sandakan market is like markets in most South East Asian destinations. Busy, chaotic, and smelly. Here you can buy everything you need, and you would be especially in luck if you want to buy some seafood. This is where the fishermen come to sell their goods every day. Everything you find here is super fresh and super local.
The Floating Village
I had recently visited a floating village in Brunei, but this was Dan’s first experience with this unique way of living. The houses in the floating village are connected by a series of walkways. The mostly large, grand looking homes stand above the water on stilts. I can imagine how relaxing it would be, to lounge in your hammock on the porch of one of these homes, enjoying the fresh sea breezes.
The houses all have electricity and are connected to the water mains, despite not being built on dry land.
Houses here can apparently be modified and enlarged, but at the moment, no new ones are allowed to be built. As we wandered down the boardwalks, I said to Dan, “Let’s quit our jobs, buy one of these houses, and open up the coolest hostel in Borneo.” I’m still totally committed to that idea!
The Night Market
We concluded our tour at the night market. This wasn’t a scheduled stop on our tour, but we had some time before we were due to meet our hosts at the best seafood restaurant in Borneo. We knew that we had a big meal ahead of us, so we can to resist the temptations of the night market. Here you can pick your vendor, pick your fish, gave it grilled to your liking and then top it with your choice of condiments, toppings, and sides. Dan could barely control himself. I lost control all together when we came across the moon cake vendors (pancakes with sugar and peanuts inside).