Sandakan is the second-largest town in the state of Sabah, East Malaysia, on the north-eastern coast of Borneo Island by a beautiful, natural deepwater bay facing the Sulu sea. The town had a population of 347,334 as of the 2000 census. It is the administrative centre of Sandakan Division and was the former capital of British North Borneo. At one time, timber was the major export but this is now supplanted by the oil palm industry.
"Sandakan" is derived from the Suluk word "sanda" meaning, to pawn and "kan" being the suffix. So "Sandakan" means the place that was pawned. Sandakan is known as the gateway for ecotourism destinations in Sabah. To the west of Sandakan (about 20 min drive) lies the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, which is the world oldest and largest Orang Utan Rehabilitation centre. Turtle Islands Park is about 1 hour away from the town, Sukau in the upper reaches of the Kinabatangan River where primates, especially the proboscis monkeys (endemic only to Borneo) are easily sighted and Gomantong Caves is south of this town.
Sandakan is also infamous as the site of a World War II Japanese airfield, built by the forced labour of 6,000 Javanese civilians and Allied prisoners of war. In 1945 the surviving prisoners were sent on the Sandakan Death Marches; only about 10 of them survived the war.
History William Clarke Cowie, in the early 1870s, a Scottish from Glasgow ( some say he's an adventurer , engineer or gun smuggler), delivered guns and ammunitions to the Sultan of Sulu. He did this for protecting territory of the Sultan against the Spanish conquerors. In return, Cowie was granted permission by the Sultan to set up base, the first European settlement in the area, on Pulau Timbang, in Sandakan Bay, where a small Suluk village existed. Cowie called his trading post "Sandakan", which in Tausug (Sulu) means "the place that was pawned", but it soon came to be known as "Kampung German" after the large number of Germans who also set up posts there. The settlement was part of the lease Austro-Hungarian consul Baron von Overbeck acquired from the Sultan of Sulu in 1878. After the lease was purchased by von Overbeck's British partner Alfred Dent, Kampong German was accidentally razed to the ground on 15th June 1879. The new British Resident, William B. Pryer, decided not to rebuild the village but to move to Buli Sim Sim on 21st June 1879. He named his new settlement Elopura, which means Beautiful City. A few years later, the name was changed back to Sandakan. The name Elopura still refers to a region of Sandakan. In 1883, the capital of the British North Borneo Company was moved from Kudat to Sandakan.
In the mid-1930s, Sandakan's timber export reached the record figure of 180,000 cubic meters, making it the largest timber-exporting port of tropical wood in the world. At the height of the timber boom, Sandakan boasted that it had the highest concentration of millionaires anywhere on Earth.
The Japanese occupation of Sandakan during World War II began on 19th January 1942 and lasted until a brigade of the Australian 9th Division liberated it on 19th October 1945. The Japanese administration restored the name Elopura for the town. One of the many atrocities of World War II was the Sandakan Death Marches, when Japanese soldiers decided to move about 6,000 prisoners of war in Sandakan 260 km (160 miles) inland to the town of Ranau. The prisoners who did not die en route to Ranau were crammed into unsanitary huts; most of those survivors either died from dysentery or were killed by prison guards. When the war ended, Sandakan was totally destroyed, partly from the Allied bombings and partly by the Japanese. As a result, when North Borneo became a British Crown Colony in 1946, the capital was shifted to Jesselton, now known as Kota Kinabalu, (often just called 'KK' locally).
Sandakan remains Sabah's second most important port, after Kota Kinabalu. The port is important for tobacco, cocoa, coffee, manila hemp and sago exports. In recent years, more businesses have shifted their operations away from the town centre to the suburbs due to the presence of illegal immigrants in the town centre. In January 2003, the Sandakan Harbour Square, an urban renewal project, was launched in an attempt to revive the town centre as the commercial hub in Sandakan. It will feature a new central market and fish market, a 4-storey shopping mall, and an 800-room, 5-star hotel. It is to be built in three separate phases and is due for completion in 2008. However, Sandakan residents encounter a serious electrical power and water shortage since decades ago. These two major problem has never been solved even though it has been promised all the time by either the politicians or the state government during elections. The electrical power often fails whenever thunderstorm or heavy rain occur.
Present day Sandakan and Place of Interest
There are daily flights from KLIA (KUL) or Kota Kinabalu (BKI) to Sandakan airport (SDK) by both Malaysia Airlines (MH) and Air Asia (AK). At Sandakan airport, there are two main options to get around this town, the easiest is by taxi or a number of public buses.
As Sandakan was almost totally destroyed in World War II, there are few surviving buildings of any age. Some of the main sights today include:
Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple - completed in 1987, this fiery red and gold temple overlooks the town centre. Don't miss the panoramic views across the town and huge bay from the great Puu Jih Shih Buddhist temple.
Sam Sing Kung Temple - completed in 1887, it is the oldest building in Sandakan.
St Michael's and All Angels Church - this beautiful granite church was built in 1897 (Probably the oldest stone building in Sabah) and is one of Sandakan's few surviving pre-war buildings.
Sandakan Mosque - completed in 1988, it lies next to the bay and Kampung Buli Sim Sim.
Kampung Buli Sim Sim - stilt fishing village on the original site of Sandakan town.
Sandakan Memorial Park - built on site of the Taman Rimba prisoner-of-war camp.
Japanese Cemetery - housing a memorial to the Japanese war dead on Borneo.
Sandakan Market - one of the largest and busiest in Sabah.
Agnes Keith House - two-storey home of local author and her husband Harry, the Curator of the North Borneo Museum, from 1930 to 1952. Mrs. Keith wrote several books about Sabah and its people, including Land Below the Wind, Three Came Home, and White Man Returns. The house has recently been restored after a number of years of neglect.
The English Tea House - fine restaurant on the hillside above Sandakan.
Crocodile Farm - located 12 km (7.5 miles) out of town, it houses more than 2,000 of the reptiles in concrete pools.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary - a perfect Proboscis monkeys observation spot for any tourist who wants to have a closer look at these very rare monkeys.