Sandakan ~ Sabah Borneo

Sandakan 's old town was built along a narrow strip of land in a sheltered bay on the north eastern part of Sabah . Most visitors to Sandakan arrive with an agenda. This town isn't one to visit for the sake of taking in the sights. Early writers regaled the unmatched beauty of Sandakan bay looking out into the vast Sulu Sea. A small expatriate community of 80 or so made a life in this remote jungle town. Wooden houses on stilts lined the coast and large barges floated down from the interior filled with large, precious hardwood logs. timber ready for processing and for export back to Britain and Europe .

sandakan bay - view from the Puuh Jih Shih Buddhist Temple

About a century earlier, this unpopulated land came under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Sulu who ruled the southern islands, (which was later to be part of the Philippines ), as with much of Northern Borneo . The mysterious wild islands in South East China Seas brought many adventurers and fortune seekers from Europe, ready to sacrifice their lives to the unknown in search of riches readily awaiting to be tapped in its natural resources. William Clarke Cowie, a Scottish gun smuggler from Glasgow, received permission from the Sultan to establish a small trading base. He built the first European settlement and called it Sandakan, which in Tausug (Sulu) means " the place that was pawned ".

In 1878, Sultan Jamalul Alam - Sultan of Sulu needed firearms to hold back advancing Spanish colonizers from taking control of the Sulu Archipelago. With limited finances and lack of firearm supplier, the Sultan leased his territory of North Borneo to Gustavus von Overbeck, an Austrian who was the Austro-Hungarian Empire's consul-general in Hong Kong . Overbeck found financial backing from the Dent brothers - Alfred and Edward Dent. With Dents' financial aid, Overbeck managed to procure the firearms and also paid the Sultan an annual sum of 5,000 Malaysian dollars. However, Overbeck could not interest his government to invest in this new land and he later pulled out of the venture. Alfred Dent, his brother and several others later formed the British North Borneo Chartered Company. Unlike Sarawak under the ruling of the Brooke Dynasty, North Borneo was run by a company. even though in 1888, it became a protectorate of Great Britain. The British Administration was only largely in charge of foreign relations.


Work started soon and forests were being harvested for its tropical wood especially so for its hardwood. In the mid-1930s, Sandakan's timber export reached 180,000 cubic meters, making it the largest timber-exporting port of tropical wood in the world.

The harbour was chock-a-block with barges laiden with timber. The Conservator of Forests, Henry (or more affectionately known as Harry) Keith had been in Sabah since 1925. In 1934, he married Agnes Newton who came to live in a modest colonial house on a hilltop, in Sandakan and made Sabah a dot in the world map with having written several books accounts of her life during her tenure in Sabah. Now the Sabah is commemorating her by having restored her home on the hill.


Agnes Keith's House

Agnes and Harry Keith's house sits atop a hill, overlooking the Sandakan Bay. In her first book, 'Land Below The Wind', she writes,' When we sat in that house and looked out through its open doors the harbor of Sandakan.became a background to our entire world. I knew then that was where I wanted to live.' Agnes and Harry lived in their original house from 1934 until 1942 when they were interned by the Japanese and sent to prison camps first on Pulau Berhala near Sandakan and then to the Batu Lintang camp at Kuching. Harry persuaded Agnes to write accounts of their lives in Sandakan and in Sabah to pass her leisure time. Agnes had a books published. First of the trilogy was published in 1939 and became a big seller in America where she came from. The 2 nd book, Three Came Home was her account as an intern in prison camps during the Japanese Occupation and was published in 1946. The 3 rd book, White Man Returns was published in 1951, an account of life in Sandakan - post war.

When the Keith family returned to Sandakan after the war they found their house destroyed, as with the rest of Sandakan town. Sandakan had to be built from scratch again. The retreating Japanese army razed the town and Keith's house, which was occupied by Japanese officers, was no exception. It was rebuilt in 1946-47 on the original foundations to the same design and was the first government permanent timber house to be built after the war.

Agnes and Harry named it "Newlands" and they lived in it until they left Sabah in 1952. After their departure, the house passed through many tenants and in the 1990's was left abandoned to vagrants. In 2001, the Sabah Museum in collaboration with the Federal Department of Museums began restoration work on the house.

Today Agnes Keith's house is a prime example of how, if we put our mind into it . we can produce quality. Unlike many other projects that have all but put our country to shame that has shown such inadequate research and non-commitment placed on those projects.

Although the house is but any other colonial house found ubiquitous some 60years ago. it's now become a rarity as Malaysia surges towards 2020's vision of modernisation. Many have been torn down to make way for development unfortunately. Agnes Keith's house has a story to tell. On the 1 st floor, a well documented account of Agnes and Harry's life is displayed in a series of Perspex sheets and an audio visual room has great video screenings of what it was like in Sandakan during the early 1900's. If you wish to watch the videos, just ask the officer and he will be more than happy to screen them for you.

Opening Hours: 9.00am - 5.00pm everyday

Entrance fee: RM15 Non Malaysians. RM2 Malaysians

Location: hilltop at Jalan Istana. Visitors can either follow the Sandakan trail route. There is a trail up some 100 steps (also known as stairs with a hundred steps) from the old town area. The trail sits right opposite the Sandakan Tourist Information Centre.

Just a hop away is the english teahouse which serves English meals as well as afternoon tea and scones. Those interested in a game of croquet can have a game whilst sipping cold lemonade on a sunny day.

Sandakan War Memorial Park

The Sandakan memorial park is sited on the original POW (Prisoners of War) camp which was set up during the WWII Japanese Occupation in 1942 - 1945. The camp was set up with 2 main sections; 1 section for the British POWs and the other for Australian POWs . The current size of the Memorial Park is only fraction of the original camp. In 1942 and 1943, the prisoners numbered some approximately 750 British and more than 1650 Australian soldiers and civilians. Many were transferred from Singapore to be used as labour to build the military airfield in Sandakan .


In 1945, the Japanese army on realising that they were losing the war and the allies were closing in, marched the prisoners from camp at Sandakan to Ranau, some 250kms away. There were 3 separate marches, the first one began in January 1945 these marches were known as the Death March.. The last March comprised of the remaining prisoners at camp in Sandakan, numbering 537. Invalids at camp who couldn't leave, were shot. There was no account of what happened at camp after the last march. There simply were no survivors to tell the tale. Those who were sent on the Death March were to trek through thick jungle, treacherous routes and some prisoners had no boots. Those who could walk no further, were killed. The march took almost a year to complete. Of the 2700 prisoners, only 6 survived of which 2 had escaped during the 2 nd march and 4 escaped during their stint at Ranau. No British prisoners survived.

The war memorial has a pavilion dedicated to the prisoners of war that spent their days at the camp. The wall mounted displays of documented accounts of the prisoners' lives at the camp, a model of the camp itself and accounts of the death marches is worth the time. The sufferings of war should never be forgotten and for generations who have not witnessed the atrocities of war, it is a gruesome teaching of what must not happen. ever again.

The Park was officially opened on 15 February 1999 .

The motif used in the Park depicts flowers representing people of the three nations who suffered at Sandakan during the Second World War. The design is taken from the stained glass window within the pavilion and is repeated on the granite memorial and decorative gates.

Opening Hours : 9.00am - 5.00pm everyday

Entrance fee: free

Location: Mile 8, Jalan Labuk Utara

The New Sandakan town

After the war, the locals wasted no time in rebuilding the smoldering town. It was devastation - the infrastructure, businesses, homes, families - all in shambles. According to reports, the only buildings left standing was St Michael's Church and part of a barn. The striving fishing trade was non existent, and there were no boats left for fishermen to go out on.

Today Sandakan has expanded from the old town into several suburban areas. Many of the local residents moved away from the main town area as the illegal immigrants moved in. The old town closes early. By 5.30pm, the shops close except for a few shopping malls. If you're looking for areas to shop or pubs for a drink later than that, then head to 4 1/2mile. This is the newer part of town where there occurs some sort of a night life.

The fishing community still exists. The chinese fishing village at Kampung Sim Sim is where the locals go to buy fresh seafood at cheap prices. The famous Sandakan Salted fish can be bought at a fraction of the price in KL or even in KK. Next to the chinese fishing village is the Malay fishing village. The villages sit along jetties that are built out from the seafront. The villagers pay a nominal sum for their lot and if extension of the jetty is required to add more houses, the villagers can apply to the council.

In the old town, there are several seafood restaurants that serve the freshest and cheapest in Sabah. The upgraded Ocean King Seafood restaurant is a little pricier but try the older, more rustic restaurants along the wharf area, where the wooden shophouses are located.

The early activities at the old town area are fascinating. At the central market and the fish market (of which I'm told, will be moved soon to make way for a waterfront development), life starts early. The baskets load of fish will be brought in from trawlers docked at the jetty nearby. All types of marine life can be seen from large rays to hammerhead sharks. Sharks of all sizes and shapes are caught, even the pups and all have their fins sliced off and sold to chinese middlemen and sold as sharksfin delicacy. The rest is ground and made into fish paste.

Outside Sandakan - Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey sanctuary and others


billboard at Sandakan airport's arrival hall

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is approximately 45mins drive from town. The Sanctuary is located in a mangrove area of approximately 470 acres. The owners of this sanctuary actually own the palm oil plantation that surrounds the mangrove swamp. Now, don't we have a catch 22 situation here. So is this place for the sake of conservation or just reaping the harvest of visitors eager to catch a glimpse of these endangered species? With the growing concerns that bio - diesel (ie using palm oil to replace oil for commercial purposes) will ultimately decimate what remaining forests left of this largely raped land we call Sabah, would this remain a sanctuary? Even having said. is it a sanctuary? Or an exploitation? But which way it goes, isn't it a blessing that at least the mangrove still exists for a small gene pool to survive - until some enterprising businessman decides to do away with the remaining piece of precious land.

Getting there: drive along Jalan Labuk and then turn off to SPS 3 at the junction of KM 31 and KM 32 (opposite Consolidated Farm). The sanctuary is then 15km on gravel road from there.

Feeding times are : 11.30am and 4.30pm

For more on the Proboscis Monkey and what is the real story behind the survival of this species and the Langurs head to : http://www.proboscismonkey.org/ . It certainly helps us to help them.

St. Michael's and All Angels Church

St Michael's is the oldest stone church in Sabah. The English employees of North Borneo Company who were posted to this jungle town in 1883 requested for an Anglican church be built for them. Eventually after years of waiting, clergyman William Henry Elton arrived in Sandakan to head the congregation. Prior to this, the congregation met at an outhouse at the Colonial Secretary's House . Elton wasted no time in search of a suitable piece of land where they could build a church for the community. The foundation stone was laid on 29 September 1893 by Governor Creagh whilst waiting for the first stone church to be built, the church sermons were held in a temporary shelter. However, it took more than 30 years to complete.

The building is made of granite stone blocks. The white stones that adorn the windows and doors were imported from Hong Kong. The darker stones were excavated with the assignment of prisoners at a cost of about 1.50 Straits dollar per cubic meter , from a quarry near Kampong Buli Sim Sim. The stone block is 30 cm in length and weighs about 63 kilograms

Sandakan is also the gateway to much talked about Kinabatangan/Sukau nature trips, the Guomantong cave, Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and of course, Selingan Turtle Island . Many visitors fly in from Kota Kinabalu but it is possible to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan or from Kuching to Sandakan . Have a look at our getting there section.

An after thought

Sandakan has gone through a cycle. The colonial heydays of early 1900's, the riches from timber and sorts, The atrocities of war, the lull of a sleepy has-been town and now.. can it be a revival of once a great town . a town which stood as the capital of North Borneo ? The toss up now is between what nature and the jungle has to offer or what the land has to offer for commercial use ie palm oil. For as far as the eye can see, in the past decade .. large areas have been cleared of jungles for its timber and now for commercial plantation. There are only a few protected places left in the area of Sandakan for what once blanketed the entire land. Commercialisation is winning hands down, we cannot reverse the destruction of human greed. not here, not in Sandakan, not in Borneo. Borneo is fast turning into a mythical land only told in stories as are the wonderful, strange animals that live in it.

One day, not very far away.. Borneo will be devoid of the beauty once romantacised by travellers and there will be not a tale to tell.

Sandakan - best time to go

Not during monsoon seasons from November till February. Flooding can be a problem on the kinabatangan river flats and that could be a problem for those who have booked trips to the outskirts of Sandakan.

Sandakan - Getting There

By car

From Kota Kinabalu, there's a road to Sandakan passing by Mount Kinabalu.

By bus

from Kota Kinabalu is possible by air-conditiond coach and mini bus, (travel time : 8 hrs per way to Tawau). From Lahad Datu to Sandakan, there are 4WD taxis, van taxis leaving whenever the seats are filled and also a daily bus leaving at 12.00noon.

By air

Air Asia - flies from Kuala Lumpur; Clark Airport (just outside Manila); Philippines; Bangkok: Thailand to Kota Kinabalu

Mas Wings - flies to kota kinabalu, kudat, tawau. within the state of sabah and sarawak to Kota Kinabalu

Asiana - flies from Seoul : South Korea to Kota Kinabalu

Dragonair - flies from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu

Malaysia Airlines - flies from Kuala Lumpur; Brunei; Guangzhou & Shanghai - Mainland China; Hong Kong - Greater China; Taipei, Gaoxiung - Taiwan Region, Greater China; Tokyo & Osaka - Japan; Cebu & Manila - Philippines; Singapore; Seoul - South Korea; Flies from Australia via Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu

Silk Air - flies from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu

Royal Brunei Airline - flies from Brunei ; Flies from Australia via Brunei to Kota Kinabalu

By rail

none