Sandakan, The Bridge of Borneo's Snout
'There is a mental energy in this room, discharged and accumulated from the past, which seems to exhilarate you when you enter it. Not only is it a good place to work in, but it is a good place to stop while the bathwater runs, or when dressing for dinner or waiting for breakfast, for there is always something unfinished to be gone on with there.'
When Agnes Keith penned the above quote, she was illustrating a habitual scene from her study room which overlooked much of the view that inspired her beloved novel 'The Land Below the Wind'. There were no embellishments around it, just an alluring lucidity shrouded by a heart of darkness that has captivated the attention of the world.To many, Borneo, an antipode to the Amazon rainforest, is an intrepid island brimming with rich wildlife, a place of discernible adventures and excitement.
I looked at the clock to see it timed at half past 8 and as I stepped out of the terminal, a whiff of cold air rushed against my countenance. Although it was one of the smallest airports I have seen, its presence was distinguishable simply because there were no other competing structures around it. I waited for my ride and soon hopped into a black Toyota Hilux with incandescence and a heart that was lighter than air itself. I peered outside the tinted window to see darkness completely shrouding a town that is much aloof than its bustling counterpart, Kota Kinabalu.
Sandakan, a town located at the Eastern coast of the state was once the capital city of British North Borneo before World War 2. It has a population of over 300,000 and is the second largest city after Kota Kinabalu, boasting an exponential economical growth which can be attributed to its port town status.
Home away from home
Finding the right accommodation is always challenging given the rising numbers of hotels, and serviced apartments made popular by reputable booking websites. So when it came to winnowing out accommodations based on comfort, affordability with uncompromising standards, it was rather obvious that Sabah Hotel became the best choice.
The hotel is a 4 star establishment with a resort like element set against the backdrop of Sandakan's heart of darkness. From the congenial smile of the receptionist to the comfort of the reasonably priced rooms, I found myself tucked away in a prolific rainforest that exudes serenity and peace with the irony of being located only 2km away from the second largest town in Sabah.
Everything about the place was right, its cleanliness commendable, facilities up to recognized standards with amiable staffs, so much so that returning here again did not become a second option. The hotels reputation is further augmented by its efforts in championing the continuum of wildlife reserves, chiefly the Sun Bear conservation centre as it is one of its sponsors. In a nutshell, this hotel has the perfect concoction of foliage and luxury coupled with a cause that is endearing and vital to the sustainability of ecotourism.
From Dawn to Dusk, 24 Hours in Sandakan
Foodie adventure in Sandakan
1. Restaurant H84 at Jambatan 8 SimSim (Budget)
SimSim is a water village comprising of stilt houses built along the coastline and is connected toland by several bridges labeled according to numerals. Most of the inhabitants are fishermen who have set up restaurants in their own kitchen, offering fresh seafood and delicious local dishes at a variable price range. One of the hidden gems is restaurant H84, located close to the famous SimSim seafood restaurant. From its simple and plain exterior, it is almost impossible to have ventured a guess that behind its main door leading to the kitchen, there is a family run restaurant packed with locals rather than tourists. This restaurant is accessible from either bridge No 7 or 8.
2. Restaurant Seafood SimSim 88
This prolific restaurant has become synonymous to the quaint town of Sandakan, garnering popularity for its mouth watering and sizeable portion of seafood. This stilt house turned restaurant has been booming since its humble establishment and draws many tourists from all over the world to savour the local taste of Sandakan. Another winning feature of this restaurant is its spectacular view of the sea during sunset where the sky interplays with brilliant hues of orange, impressing upon its revelers. It is also accessible from bridge no 7 and 8.
3. Restaurant Double Eight Seafood (Budget)
If you are not a local or been there long enough, chances are you wouldn't even know about this small-time establishment located right next to Celcom telecommunication store off JalanBuliSimSim. It is popular amongst the locals for their local Chinese breakfast, whipping up Dim Sum, Wanton noodle and other local favorites the Sandakan way. The flavour infused in their dishes are unlike the ones in Peninsula, owing to their fresh catch of the day and unique local influence.
4. Kenalanmu Seafood
Sandakan's seafood scene is ubiquitous and reasonably priced compared to its capital and peninsula Malaysia, so it doesn't come as a surprise that there are many popular seafood restaurants strewn across the town. The restaurant we visited was named Kenalanmu, one of the many competing seafood restaurants in the city, and though its popularity is far from other well-known establishment, the quality and taste is unyielding at a price that is less injurious to your wallet. I spent around RM 60 for 3 seafoods and 1 vegetable dish that was catered for 2 persons. Check out the website below for pictures and the exact location of the restaurant.
Sandakan's Forest Reserves & Sanctuaries
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
This is a place where the line between men and apes becomes less apparent as we strive to understand and safeguard a primal species from our Hominid family. These intelligent primates known as the 'person of the forest' or 'orangutan' are natives of Borneo and Malaysia. They considered the most arboreal and solitary of all great apes. Both male and female differ in physical appearance; dominant males have distinctive cheek pads whereas younger males are similar to females. Orang Utans hands are similar to humans in that they have 4 long fingers and one opposable thumb. Their main diet consist of fruits, vegetation, barks and insects.
The sanctuary was established in 1964 as the first official orangutan rehabilitation project for rescued orphaned baby orangutans from logging sites, plantations, and illegal poaching. The orphaned orangutans are sheltered, nurtured and finally trained to survive in the wild before being released.
The sanctuary is located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve covering an area of 43 sq kilometres.
The ticket price for a Malaysian adult is RM 5 and it is best visit during feeding time at 10am and 3pm. The ticket entitles you to visit the sanctuary twice all on the same day.
From the main entrance, the wooden boardwalk will lead you to an enclosed air-conditioned viewing area with multiple tiered benches where the Orangutans can be observed from a safe distance but be mindful that picture quality won't be at its best as your view it obstructed by glass panels. For a good view and shot of these endangered species, head to the open deck during their designated feeding time, and with some luck you might be able to see them out in open air.
Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Situated just across the Sepilok rehabilitation centre is the Sun bear conservation centre, a non-profitable organisation founded Dr Wong, a wildlife biologist who championed efforts to rescue sun bears from deplorable conditions and provide a conducive rehabilitation centre for these bears.
They are the world's smallest bears, weighing up to 150 pounds with an average height of 5 feet and are known to be reclusive. Amidst the lush forest reserve, there were only a handful of sun bears within sight, scouring the grounds for insects, fruits and berries for food. Though timid in size, their long claws can rip open tree barks and termite nests whilst their long tongue allows them to reach into bee nests for honey, giving rise to the name, honey bear.
They paced the grounds at a glacial pace, protected from dangers of illegal poachers and deforestation and when they stood erect, one can't help but to notice the orange bib-like patch around the chest, akin to a rising sun as their name suggest, the short muzzle and the sleek and shiny black fur. It is hard to imagine that these quiet, shy and beloved bears are dwindling in numbers due to deforestation and illegal poaching. Female bears are often killed so that the cubs can be sold as pets.
For just RM 5.30 as Malaysians we can make a small difference by educating ourselves on various conservation efforts to help protect these species from extinction. Currently, there are 42 rescued bears in this sanctuary and volunteers are given the opportunity to be involved hands-on in the upkeeping of the center such as cleaning, food preparation and feeding.
Labuk Bay Probiscus Sanctuary
Just off the beaten track, amidst the extensive mangrove forests of Semawang, is the Labuk Bay Sanctuary for Probiscus monkeys, a native of Borneo. At first glance, the oil palms estate from which to road eventually leads into a remote mangrove forest casts a sense of dubiety on the existence of the Probiscus in such an isolated location. There were hardly any cars going in at 2pm which made me wonder if I was even in the right place after all. Surely, I must be since I had already paid RM 15 for the entrance fee.
I followed the rickety boardwalk surrounded by mangroves towards the feeding platform and when we finally arrived, it was truly a sight to behold as humans were allowed such up-close encounter with these monkeys that are endemic in Borneo. I then began to understand that, although a portion of the mangrove forest was turned into an oil palm plantation, the idea of commercial gains were soon dropped when the owner discovered that this was their natural habitat. Here you can witness the Probiscus monkey leaping from tree to tree and finally settling on an open platform to feed on plants, fruit and water supplemented by the sanctuary. There are 2 platforms with different feeding time; Platform A: 9.30am & 2.30pm daily, Platform B: 11.30am & 4.30pm daily.
The Probiscus monkeys, also known as the Dutch men have distinctly large nose and a orange brown coat. They are currently under threat by means of illegal poaching and habitat loss for which they have been aptly placed under the endangered list.
Agnes Keith House and English Tea House
”Six-degrees north of the Equator, in the heart of the East Indies, lies Sandakan, the tiny capital of British North Borneo. In Sandakan in 1941, there were 15 thousand Asiatics, 79 Europeans, and 1 American. I was the American. My name is Agnes Keith. I was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. My husband is Harry Keith, a colonial official of British North Borneo. Borneo became my home when Harry and I were married. And it was in Sandakan that I bore one child, and lost another. And it was in Sandakan that we waited - 45 white men, 24 wives, and 11 children - through the anxious days of 1940 and '41. Certain only of one thing: that sooner or later, Japanese guns would join in the thunders of war, and Japanese troops would come down through the East Indies. The men waited because it was their duty; the women because it was their choice."
Agnes Keith; Three Came Home
Perched on a shaded grassy knoll is an iconic attraction of Sandakan's Heritage trail, a series of landmark monuments in Sandakan town that forms an indelible part of its history and culture. Agnes Keith is an American author who penned her 3 part autobiographical account of her life when she moved to Borneo following her marriage to Harry Keith, an Englishman who was then the Director of Agriculture and Conservator of Forests under the British government.
Both Agnes and her son were imprisoned in Kuching during the Japanese occupation and when they were finally liberated, they came to know that their home had been destroyed during the war. The house was later rebuilt in 1947, being the first timber structure in Sandakan and there they remained before leaving Sabah in 1952.
The double storey colonial villa is now a heritage house and has since opened its doors to open in 2004, offering a glimpse into the life of Agnes and her family during colonial times with its preserved architecture and footprints.
Adjacent to the house is the fairly new English Tea house, conceptualised in 2002 as a means to compliment the historical attraction. The basis of the tea garden is purely colonial from its architecture to the food menu. Guests are treated to delicious English tea served with scones, pastries, and sandwiches. It is certainly a true fine dining experience with a magnificent view of Sandakan bay. A simple delight tea set for 2 will cost around RM25.
Ba Lin Roof Garden Bar and Bistro
When equating nightlife to a sleepy town like Sandakan, there are only a few places comes to mind and one of them happens to be located on the rooftop of a seemingly obscured hotel to those who are not familiar with its historical significance. NAK is family owned hotel, named after Ngui Ah Kui, a clerk turned member of parliament and has 24 rooms with different price ranges and levels of cosiness.
Overall it is an affordable budget hotel but come night, the rooftop of this old hotel turns into a night haven for party goers with its contemporary bar and bistro concept serving up delicious Western meals. This 2 storey bistro has both indoor and outdoor seating with an amazing view of Sandakan city from the top.
From the entrance on the 8th floor into the indoor setting, a spiral staircase then takes you up to the rooftop where a squared veranda with cozy pillows occupies the middle portion of the bar where guests can mingle at their own casual pace.
Their multi tiered seating also offers incredible vantage point of the entire city as you sip on your choice of poison and order off a newspaper themed menu. Balin is indeed a hidden gem, providing a glint of excitement and rush to this slow-going town.
I came with an open mind and by the end of the journey I left with a contented heart. In many ways, Sandakan is dissimilar to the capital city with its more backdated lifestyle that hasn't seen a rapid evolution since the post colonial days. Although times have changed and advancements are deemed necessary, it is always baffling to witness how a city could prevail with minimal modernisation, surrounded by a vast rain forest.
Somehow there is a sense of eloquence and nostalgia in the day to day living of its people as they strive to coexist with nature symbiotically, preserving and nurturing one another to achieve that fine balance in our ecosystem. It serves as a poignant reminder that at times, the best way to appreciate what we have is to slow down and take a step back from our hurried pace, into a chapter that has truly stood the test of time.