We sadly left the Taman Negara, national park, where we had spent the last six nights, and took a flight to Sandakan, in the state of Sabah, Borneo and gateway to much of Sabah’s wildlife. We had been eagerly looking forward to our visit to Sabah, one of Malaysia’s top tourist destinations. Sabah is also one of Malaysia’s two semi-autonomous states in Borneo, formerly known in colonial times as British North Borneo. It is described as ”The Land Below The Wind”. [Open link for public photos of Sabah]
We arrived in Sandakan at the start of the Chinese New Year.
We based ourselves in a comfortable hotel with a stunning view of the sea and the many islands facing Sandakan – it was excellent value compared to Peninsular Malaysia. Our primary task for the Sunday of Chinese New Year was to get our bearings and check-out things to do in and around Sandakan. Our hotel concierge recommended some tours with a tour company whom they tended to use but we had been alerted to the high cost of tours for foreign tourists in Borneo. We picked up an itinerary from a tour company, then made our own arrangements with an English-speaking taxi driver, with whom we negotiated a rate for the day; it was 50% cheaper before entrance fees and not many of the attractions were chargeable; so a cheeky move, but it worked to our benefit!
With this driver, we did two days of touring, including a very interesting city tour and another for sites outside the city (the next blog).
The Sandakan city tour for us had its extremely sad moments, especially visiting the Sandakan War Memorial Park. This memorial commemorates the Allied soldiers who died during the Japanese occupation and serves as a permanent memory for the two thousand four hundred soldiers who died on the infamous enforced death march in 1944 – they were mainly Australian. It is important to remember that many native Borneo people died supporting the Allies. People from all over the World should be encouraged to visit this memorial, if the opportunity arises, to understand the consequences of armed conflict. It is a beautiful memorial in the form of a park and is most respectful to all of those lives that were lost so tragically and unjustly [open link for public photos].
Another highlight for us was visiting Agnes Keith House, the home of the American author of “Land Below the Wind”. This house was rebuilt along the original design by the State Government as a memorial. The house gives some very insightful glimpses into colonial life and especially to the painful period of the Japanese occupation. Marilyn is in the middle of the book and amazed at how well it is written and vivid are the descriptions of colonial life in Sabah (North Borneo). Agnes Newton Keith went to Sandakan with her husband in 1934. Her husband was Director of Agriculture and Conservator of Forests and also an Englishman and it was he who had persuaded his new, young, wife to write a book about her life and experiences in North Borneo, and that she certainly did! [Open this link for public photos]
Sadly, Sandakan has very few original historical buildings because, in the main, they were destroyed in World War II. One exception, which we enjoyed seeing was St Michael’s Church (over 200 years old) – (open this link for photos).
Other notable sites on our Sandakan city tour included:
- Sandakan (Sabah) Buddhist Mission
- Malay and Chinese water villages, housed on stilts over the sea
- Tham Kung temple (1976)
- Goddess of Mercy Chinese Museum
- The William Pryer monument
Like in Pangkor Island, we were surprised at the large quantity of garbage in the sea, both visible from our hotel room and around the water villages. As it was the end of the monsoon season, we hope that this is the reason that the garbage level in the sea was especially high.
We watched the Chinese New Year celebrations in Sandakan, It was very lively, with floats, dancing in the street and music, plus lots of decorations in the form of colored lanterns,masked dancing people, plenty of noise and excitement and of course, huge decorative snakes as it is the Year of the Snake.
We went back to our hotel for some liquid refreshment and sat outside in the typical balmy tropical evening, staring at the horizon over the sea; it was beautiful, even in the dark.
We had a delightful first couple of days in this “Land Below the Wind”.
Watch this space for more blogs on our adventures in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia!