The world’s third largest island of Borneo has an exotic and adventurous image with its impenetrable rainforests supporting a multitude of amazing plants and animals. Borneo is home to the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the oil rich sultanate of Brunei. Sandakan, just two-hour’s flight from Kuala Lumpur or forty minutes flight from the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, appeals to travellers who want to get close to nature. Visitors can’t do this in Sandakan itself but the city is the base for regional wildlife excursions to various natural areas. Seeing Orang Utans at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of the city is the most accessible attraction while the dedicated will want to explore more remote areas.
Sandakan’s city centre is worth visiting despite many of its historic buildings being destroyed by allied bombers near the end of World War II. After the war, Sandakan ceased to be the state capital and it moved to what was then called Jesselton but now Kota Kinabalu. Another grim reminder of the war is the Sandakan Memorial Park situated on the former Tamba Rimba Prisoner of War Camp on the outskirts of the city. The notorious camp is infamously known as the place where the ‘Death March’ commenced.
This cruel exercise ended in Ranau with just six survivors from 2,434 prisoners who were forced by the Japanese through the jungle until few remained. Tucked away in the hills surrounding the port city is the home of one of the colony’s best known authors, Agnes Keith. It was here that she who wrote the book, Land below the Wind. Also located in the lofty heights of Trig Hill are several of the city’s leading tourist attractions. Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple on the summit above Tanah Merah shines in the early morning light. Built in 1987, it’s a dazzling red and gold structure adorned with threatening dragons and swastikas.
Sandakan Central Market is one of Malaysia’s most colourful markets due to the presence of many local ethnic groups as well as itinerant Filipino and Indonesian workers. Some of these people live in one of several water villages that extend into Sandakan Bay.
The city’s main attraction is the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre located in virgin forest at Sepilok on the outskirts of Sandakan. It was established in 1964 to rehabilitate once captive or orphaned Orang Utans and viewing platforms provide an excellent location observe and photograph the animals in their natural setting. Visitors need to appreciate that Sepilok has been established to save and rehabilitate animals and that it is nota zoo. Three kilometres away, the Rainforest Discovery Centre is another area that is attracts visitors especially for its elevated rainforest canopy walkway high above the forest floor.
Sighting animals is always difficult in the rainforest for many reasons but mostly be- cause many animals are small and camouflaged. Sepilok’s forests are home to many bird species and if the canopy signage is any indication, it is birds that you will mostly see here. However, you need to be very patient and, if possible, seek assistance through using binoculars. Many birds are most active at dawn and dusk so unless you can organize your visit at similar times, do not be too disappointed if you just see distant movement. Keen birdwatchers from around the globe flock to Borneo to get a glimpse of some 54 endemic species that call Borneo home.
Further afield, it is possible to visit Turtle Island National Park and get close to turtles laying eggs. Back on land, the Kinabatangan River, centered on the village of Sukau, is two hours’ drive from Sandakan. The land adjoining the river sup- ports Malaysia’s largest forest-covered floodplain with most nature tours being focused on cruising along the Menanggol River. The brown waters of the Menanggol are only 30 meters wide and surrounded by a dense canopy of emergent trees and vines. Travelling up the river is like passing through a tunnel deep within the forest. Wildlife concentration here is probably one of the highest in Malaysia with the main attraction being Proboscis Monkeys who live in the riverine trees. From the comfort of small boats, visitors enter the monkeys’ habitat and, if lucky, observe them swinging from branch to branch. Found only on Borneo, the Proboscis Monkey is easily identifiable by its distinctive large red nose. The river is also a haven for monkeys, macaques, gibbons, crocodiles, civet cats, otters and an extensive bird list including hornbills.
Sandakan’s English Tea House and Restaurant could easily be the setting for a Somerset Maugham novel as diners can reminisce about the colonial past while dining on superb food and good wines in a magical setting. There are two dining options here – inside or under a garden gazebo overlooking a croquet green. Bermuda grass, the stuff you want to roll across, has been laid for the croquet green – yes, this is truly one of the last outposts of the Empire. Not surprisingly, English dishes dominate the house specialties – Shepherd’s pie, roast beef and, bangers and mash. For those who crave lo- cal cuisine, try the Borneo chicken curry and Tea House tandoori. The restaurant specializes in deliciously and unashamedly fresh scones, clotted cream and jam for morning or afternoon tea.