Visiting Sandakan–Borneo’s charming entrepot

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by Rob Kay and Kurt Stewart

Sandakan is a port town and an entrepot to the wildlife refuges of the fabled Kinabatangan River. (See our recent article, Adventures along Borneo’s Kinabatangan River: A Malaysian Wildlife Holiday). There’s no question that most visitors to Sandakan are strictly passing through and are not going to be in town too long.

market girls
A pair of vitamin sellers at the Sandakan Market

We strongly suggest that if you’re heading to the river, don’t be in a rush. Otherwise you’ll miss out on Sandakan’s ample charms.  In short, we think Sandakan is well worth spending an extra day or two exploring.

In addition to the Memorial Park, which we covered in part 1 of this series, there are three other venues that you should definitely not miss. All are a bit off the beaten path, so you won’t be inundated with other visitors.

The first steps we would take are in the direction of The Sandakan Heritage Trail which is a comprehensive walk that covers the town’s most important and culturally significant sites.

The walk begins at the 100-year old Masjid Jamik, a mosque originally built in the 1890’s as a place of worship for the Indian Muslims in Sandakan. Muslims

sought refuge here during the Second World War, and the venue even acted as a hiding place for a few Europeans.

The next stop is the Pryer Memorial, a granite structure erected to honor the founder of Sandakan, William Burgess Pryer. It seems a bit incongruous that Pryor, a Brit, would have founded a town in Malaysia but at the time it was a British Colony and he had permission from the local Sultanate. By chance Pryer and his wife who were on their way to Sabah met Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal in Hong Kong. Rizal shared with Pryer the plan establish a Filipino settlement in Sabah for those dispossessed of their lands. The plan never saw fruition but Pryer did establish the town on the 21st of June 1879.

Following the Pryor monument, you will then climb the Stairs with a Hundred Steps which will lead you to a beautiful view of Sandakan town and bay. It also brings you to the famous Agnes Keith House.

Agnes Keith Museum and Tea House

Kieth house
The Agnes Keith Museum, a rebuilt version of the author’s home is not to be missed.
Not politically correct today, this movie poster of the Keith book was evocative of the times.

Agnes Keith is not a household name but in the mid-twentieth century she was a well-respected writer in a unique time and place.  During this period, Keith, a native of Hollywood, California, captured the experience of colonial life in North Borneo. She was married to a high ranking British colonial official and lived a fairy tale life portrayed in her autobiographical book Land Below the Wind. However, her fairy tale turned into a nightmare with the outbreak of the War.

Her second and most arguably her most popular book, Three Came Home, depicts the hardships of her time as a prisoner in Japanese POW and civilian internee camps in Borneo and  Sarawak. This work was subsequently made into a film (of the same name) in 1950 with superstar Claudette Colbert. (The sensationalist poster of the film, pictured at left, would certainly not fly today for many good reasons but is an illustrative period piece).

Perched on a hill, her original home (really a mansion) was devastated during WWII. However a replica has been constructed and turned into a museum bursting with memorabilia from her storied life. Literary fans and others who want to understand a semblance of life in colonial Malaya will not be disappointed.

You can purchase copies of her books for a about USD $20. Ouch!

There’s a small entry fee for the museum.

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The wet market has something for everyone.

After seeing the Keith home we strongly suggest you pair your visit with lunch at the charming English Tea House which is, not coincidentally right next to the museum. With stunning views of the waterfront and shaded outdoor tables, they offer fine teas from around the world, scones and fresh cream, delicious cakes and pastries.  If you’ve never had a traditional English tea and scones, there’s no better place to try.

Sandakan Central Market

Sandakan Central market (pasar umum) is a relatively new three story edifice, situated in an area called ‘Old Slipway’.  It’s an absolute must for foodies and a great way to connect with locals. The market stalls open from 3am onwards and the whole market is buzzes with commerce.  Every conceivable type of seafood (as well as produce ranging from betel nut to starfruit) is there as well as market stalls for noshing local delicacies.  Give yourself a good hour or two and take the time to converse with the sellers.

Sim Sim Seafood Restaurant

sim sim
The seafood (with some poultry thrown in) doesn’t get any fresher than at Sim-Sim, a short taxi ride from the center of town.

You don’t get more authentic than this informal collection of food stalls located in the heart of the Sim Sim stilt village about two kilometers from the center of town. This outdoor eatery is more a loose grouping of plastic tables at dockside where the daily catch is unloaded and prepared for mostly locals. Food inexpensive and fresh—you can watch the fish, squid and other delicacies grilled right in front of you. Just take a seat and point to what you want on the grill.  You’re not going to spend more than USD$5 for an incredible meal that includes local greens and other side dishes.

Getting There

Our visit to Sandakan began in Honolulu on a Hawaiian Airlines flight to Seoul. From Korea we flew to Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia. (Note that AirAsia also connects to Hawaiian from Tokyo and Osaka). Flight time between Honolulu and Seoul was about 9 hours. The link between Seoul and Kuala Lumpur was about 6 1/2 hours.

AirAsia, based in Kuala Lumpur, may not be familiar to many Americans. However, the travelling public in Asia has come to rely on this low-cost carrier which offers rock bottom prices, good quality service and modern aircraft. Much like Southwest Airlines, customers get bargain fares but any extras such as food or even water must be paid for separately.

The company, known as AirAsia Group, operates scheduled domestic and international flights to 100 destinations in 22 countries. From “KL” we flew Air Asia’s domestic system to Sandakan, which brought us to the east of Sabah state, one of Malaysia’s eco-tourism hotspots. Flight time from KL to Sandakan was a little over two hours.

AirAsia — The discount carrier has routes throughout Asia. AirAsia will soon be flying from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu.

The Airbus A-320 to Sandakan had two rows of very tightly packed seats, three seats across. It was an all-coach flight with two kinds of service, “Premium” and “Standard” (coach) class. If you’re over 6’ tall we’d suggest getting the Premium seats. It’s inexpensive to upgrade (only 30 or 40 ringgit–about $10 or $13) so it’s well worth it for the added leg room.



Photos by Rob Kay

Kurt Stewart is a freelance writer based in Malaysia. Rob Kay is a Honolulu based writer and public relations consultant based in Honolulu.

Contact Kurt at or Rob at

Rob also writes about firearms for Hawaii Reporter and is the author of How to Buy an AK-47.
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  1. Sandakan is the town of Malaysia this is a very nice place and tourist always find the different good places. Basically every student has a different type of talent just like singing, dancing, cricketer and doctor etc. When start the school session then the not focus on proper study but with the passage of time adopt the interesting field and try to reach the final destination.

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