As the second largest town in the North Eastern region of Borneo, Sandakan is well-known for its impenetrable Borneo jungle, colourful traditions, exotic birds, and for being the foremost historic town of Sabah.
On a recent trip to Sandakan, we had the opportunity to explore on foot through the Sandakan Heritage Trail, where we learnt about its diverse cultural and historic background and visited various sites that tell the history of Sandakan.
To my surprise, Sandakan was once known as ‘Little Hong Kong’ due to a strong presence of ethnic Chinese migration from Hong Kong – mainly Cantonese and Hakka – and we also saw that most of the old buildings are similar to the buildings built in the early years of Hong Kong.
Our trail began at the Sandakan Central Market where dozens of hawker stalls offer affordable food and items ranging from wet to dry, fresh veggies, fruits as well as seafood.
We then headed to Masjid Jamek, the town’s oldest mosque that has stood at the hillside in Fourth Avenue for more than 100 years.
Proceeding westwards along Fourth Avenue, we witnessed various memorials including the William Pryer Monument and the Sandakan Liberation Monument. William Pryer was the founder of modern Sandakan in 1879, and he is honoured in the attractive stone Pryer Monument in front of the Tourism Information Centre.
Next, we took a short walk to the Heritage Museum where on the ground floor is the ‘Safari in Sandakan’ that showcases Martin and Osa Johnson’s photographic legacy of British North Borneo.
We were told that Martin and Osa Johnson were American adventurers, and their film documentation of Borneo during the 1920s and 1930s left the world with the incredible glimpse of an amazing part of Malaysia.
Meanwhile, displayed on the first floor is the history of Sandakan from pre-war to post-war, while there are also various artefacts on display.
After a long walk, we took a lunch break at San Da Gen Kopitiam – prominent for its UFO Tart and the Salted Egg French Toast – before continuing our day at Puh Ji Shih Temple, which is five km from town and stands over the adjacent Sandakan Bay on the Tanah Merah hilltop.
It was built in 1987 and is the largest Chinese temple in Sandakan. As we drove uphill to the temple, we saw rows of statues. We were amazed with the panoramic views of the bay, and the temple grounds are lush with tropical plants.
After spending half an hour at the temple, we proceeded to Agnes Keith House, our final destination. The building has been restored and turned into a heritage house by Sabah Museums and the Federal Department of Museums and Antiquities. The house is where American author Agnes Newton Keith lived with her husband and family from 1934 to 1942. It was destroyed and rebuilt after World War II to its current form.
There, she wrote the famous books, The Land Below the Wind, published in 1939 and Three Came Home in 1946. She is also the author of White Man Returns, later in 1951.
The house became the first government permanent timber building to be built after World War II and was forever referred to as the ‘Agnes Keith House’.
The Keiths permanently left Sabah in 1952. The building, furnished with reproductions of colonial-era furniture and antiques, highlights the life of Agnes and her family.
To keep in the colonial spirit of things, The English Tea House & Restaurant is located next door.
If you are adventuring, love wildlife, history and culture, Sandakan can be on your bucket list. With attractions ranging from its amazing history to an abundance of gorgeous rainforest and wildlife, be sure not to give it a miss. In addition, now you don’t have to drive all the way there, as Royal Brunei Airlines (RB) has expanded RBLink services to Sandakan.