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Sandakan, more than just a gateway

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More often than not when it comes to planning for a holiday in Sabah, many of my friends would have the markets in Kota Kinabalu, the greenery in Kundasang or the pretty islands off Semporna in mind. Sandakan is often not the automatic first choice and despite there is more awareness these days, it is still behind as far as tourism is concern particularly among local tourists.

Honestly, when I was given the chance to explore Sandakan for a couple of days last December, I did not know what to expect. I knew that Sandakan is famous for being the entry point to the fantastic wildlife adventure of Kinabatangan River Safari, but I wasn’t too aware of what else this small city has to offer besides being a transit gateway.

As I was there covering Sandakan Airport’s 1,000,000 passenger milestone celebration (click here to read on this from my previous post), the awesome guys at Sandakan Tourism Association (STAN) thought it would be a good chance to show me around as well. While they were very kind to provide me a team of personal tour guides, the views and opinions on Sandakan expressed  in this post are my own. With that in mind, here’s my little story on what Sandakan has to offer.


** The Sandakan Death Marches –  A horrifying history **

It may not sound as the perfect start to a holiday, but the Sandakan Death March is such a big part of the city’s history and my wife and I were eager to learn more about this horrifying story hence visiting the Sandakan Memorial Park was the first item on our list.

Located not too far from the airport, Sandakan Memorial Park was built to commemorate the suffering and eventually death of British and Australian prisoners of wars (POWs) that were imprisoned in Sandakan by the Japanese army during the Second World War between 1942 until 1945.

The POWs’ main task was to build a military airfield and the site of the memorial park was part of the POW camp. As the war progresses, the Japanese decided to move the  1,900 POWs from Sandakan to Ranau by foot, a distance of around 260km through thick jungle.

Through the marches, majority died in the jungle either because of sickness or killed. Only 6 survived the ordeal by escaping along the route. Local villagers also helped in rescuing the POWs and all this and a lot more touching stories were well documented at this memorial park.

We were the only visitors at that time and although the information area was quite small, we could easily spend 1 hour or so absorbing all the history and getting better understanding of what has happened and how in a war, no one wins.

The fact that the POWs were building an airfield made me a bit more curious. Was it the current airport? Was there any part of the airfield still around today?

Thanks to friends in STAN, Malaysia Airports and CAAM, I was able to make a quick detour to find answers to these questions.

Within the restricted compound of the airport, we were able to see this. It was here that the marches started.

And the old runway in which it was the site of the old airfield.  On the top of the photo is the new and current runway.

Being an avgeek and aviation blogger, I still believe there are stories to tell about this airport and its significance towards the history of Sandakan so I’m making a point to return to SDK one day insyaAllah and go deeper in documenting these stories from an aviation perspective.

** A Preview of Sabah’s Wildlife **

On a more brighter side, Sandakan is also the place you want to be to experience Sabah’s wildlife. Yes, the must sees and must dos of Sandakan are mainly associated with the iconic Kinabatangan River Cruise (must add this into my 2020 checklist!), but around the city itself you get to enjoy a preview of what Sabah and Sandakan have to offer in terms of wildlife.

Located just a short drive from the city are a few conservation centres that visitors especially families can enjoy seeing the famous sun bears, orang utan and Proboscis monkeys in action.

First up was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Established in 1964, this Centre has an important mission to rescue orphaned baby orangutans from logging sites, plantations, illegal hunting or those irresponsible people that kept them as pets.

I particularly love the nursery building. Comfortable way of enjoying the sights of the Orang Utan.

As development and plantations expands significantly over the years throughout Malaysia, the centre’s role is becoming more important to preserve the Orangutan and preparing them to be part of the wildlife.

The outdoor feeding platform is also a nice way to see the Orang Utan in action.

The beauty of all these Rehabilitation Centres is that it is located within a jungle ecosystem, so just look around and you might see more then what you came for.

See anything interesting?

Next door is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

This private run facility is a good effort to conserve the world’s second-most endangered bear. With around 40 sun bears within the facility, spotting one is really based on luck.

The sun bear is the smallest of the bear species so they are really a cute sight!

After a couple of hours in Sepilok, we drove for another 75 minutes to the other side of Sandakan greater area to visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.

You cannot come to Sandakan without seeing the Proboscis Monkey!

And photographing them proves to be quite a challenge.

But totally worth it when you get it right.

Want to enjoy all looking at unique wildlife without being too adventurous? Sandakan has it all. Want more? Head over to the river cruise.

** Heritage & Culture **

Had enough of wildlife? Sandakan also has its fair share of important and interesting sites with rich historical past.

Located on a high hill in the city centre, Puu Jih Shih temple should be your first destination for 2 reasons — to appreciate the aerial view of Sandakan as well as it is a good place to take photos. Of course if you are a Buddhist, you would be able to pray here as well.

The view of Sandakan from the temple.

Back at the City Centre, a good spot to start exploring the city’s heritage trail is the 100-year old Masjid Jamek.

The Malaysia Fountain, remembering the independence of Sabah on 16 September 1963.

While the fountain is to celebrate the departure of the last Governor of British North Borneo from Sandakan, the British influence on the city remains until today. Enjoying a cup of tea and scones at the English Tea House and Restaurant would create some fun and instagrammable memories of your trip to Sandakan.

We did not get to visit a lot of the heritage sites but we were able to do what we do best in exploring a new city — wandering around randomly.

And that took us to Sandakan Central Market. Here you can get some souvenirs or the must-buy ikan bilis.

Pasar Malam, always a good place to shop and dine like locals. Go find one if you are there.

View of Sandakan centre.

** Seafood, Makan & Chill **

If you are the type that just would like a weekend getaway to relax and enjoy good food minus all the sightseeing, then Sandakan could also be a good option.

“You cannot leave Sandakan without eating the Seafood”.

I was reminded of this by Mr CK Teo, the President of Sandakan Tourism Association so I am glad that we tried it a couple of times.

The famous Sim Sim 88 restaurant. While the cheap price is not quite a surprise (the seafood lunch we had below costs us around RM100), the best part is the cooking style is delicious and seafood is very fresh.

Another round of good seafood dinner, this time at Empire Seafood hosted by our lovely guides.

And if there is one place that I highly recommend for a good makan, it would be the San Da Gen Kopitiam.

This old-skool meets hipster café offers not only good local cuisines at affordable price but pretty looking setting for a nice relaxing time.

Top of my recommendation list — the UFO tart. I even came here before flying home to bring some back to KL only to finish eating it at Sandakan airport.

And speaking of relaxing, Sandakan has a range of hotels to choose from depending on your budget. We stayed at the Sabah Hotel which is one of the oldest hotels in Sandakan so you can’t go wrong as far as good hospitality and spacious rooms.

A special thank you to STAN and Sabah Hotel for having us. Hopefully this post helps to convince more visitors and travellers to include Sandakan in their travel plans to Sabah. I had a wonderful first visit and already planning for a second one, that’s for sure.

Azuan Zahdi

Malaysia's first aviation blogger. AzuanZahdi.com started in 2006 and has been my little online space where I document my travel and aviation stories. Opinions on AzuanZahdi.com are my own and not the views of any organizations I am attached or affiliated to.

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