Jeevitha Brama Kumar shares her trip to this Malaysian Borneo city famous for its seafood, as well as wildlife reserves.
“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 American author Agnes Keith penned the quote, she was illustrating a habitual scene from her study room which overlooked much of the view that inspired her 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 eight 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 II. It has a population of over 300,000 and is the second largest city in Sabah state after Kota Kinabalu, boasting an exponential economic growth which can be attributed to Sandakan’s trading activities as a port town.
Home away from home
Finding the right accommodation is always challenging given the rising numbers of hotels, and serviced apartments made popular by 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 four-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 only 2km away from the second largest town in Sabah. Everything about the place was right, its cleanliness commendable, facilities up to standards with amiable staff, so much so that returning here again did not become a second option. The hotel’s 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.
Foodie adventure in Sandakan
1. Restaurant Double Eight Seafood (Budget)
If you are not a local, chances are you wouldn’t even know about this tiny establishment next to the Celcom shop in Jalan Buli Sim Sim. The highlight is Chinese breakfast, whipping up dim sum, wanton noodles and others the Sandakan way. The flavour infused in their dishes are unlike the ones in West Malaysia, owing to their fresh catch of the day and unique local influence.
2. Restaurant H84 at Jambatan 8, Sim Sim (Budget)
Sim Sim is a water village comprising stilt houses along the coastline and is connected to land by several bridges labelled according to numerals. Most residents are fishermen who set up restaurants in their own kitchen, offering fresh seafood and delicious local dishes. One of the hidden gems is H84, located close to the famous Sim Sim seafood restaurant. From its plain exterior, it is almost impossible to guess that behind its main door leading to the kitchen, is a family run restaurant packed with locals. This restaurant is accessible from either bridge 7 or 8.
3. Restaurant Seafood Sim-Sim 88
This restaurant has become synonymous to the quaint town of Sandakan, garnering popularity for its mouthwatering and sizeable portions. This stilt house-turned-restaurant has been booming since its humble establishment, drawing people from around world to savour the local flavours. Another winning feature of this restaurant, which is accessible from bridge 7 and 8, is its spectacular view of the sea during sunset where the sky interplays with brilliant hues of orange.
4. Kenalanmu Seafood
Sandakan’s seafood scene is ubiquitous and reasonably priced compared to Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu and Peninsular Malaysia, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that there are many popular seafood restaurants strewn across the town. Kenalanmu is far from other well-known establishments, but offers good value. I spent about RM60 for one vegetable and three seafood dishes for two persons.
Sandakan’s Forest Reserves & Sanctuaries
1. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
These intelligent primates known as the ‘person of the forest’ or orangutan are natives of Borneo and Malaysia. They are considered the most arboreal and solitary of all great apes. Dominant males have distinctive cheek pads whereas younger males are appear similar to females. Their main diet consist of fruits, vegetation, barks and insects.
The centre was established in 1964 as the first official orangutan rehabilitation project for rescued orphaned baby orangutans from logging sites, plantations, and illegal poaching. Residents are sheltered, nurtured and trained to survive in the wild before being released. The sanctuary is located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve covering 43sq km.
From the main entrance, the wooden boardwalk will lead you to an enclosed air-conditioned viewing area with multiple-tiered benches. However, picture quality won’t be at its best as your view is obstructed by glass panels. For a better shot of these endangered species, head to the open deck during the feeding times (10am and 3pm), and with some luck you might be able to see them out in open air.
Entrance fee for a Malaysian adult is RM5. The ticket allows double entry on the same day.
2. Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Just across the Sepilok rehabilitation centre is the Bornean Sun Bear conservation centre, a non-profitable organisation founded Dr Wong Siew Te, a wildlife biologist who championed efforts to rescue endangered sun bears from deplorable conditions.
The world’s smallest bears, they weigh up to 70kg with an average height of 150cm and are known to be reclusive. Amid the lush forest reserve, there were a handful of sun bears within sight, scouring the grounds for insects, fruits and berries. Their long claws can rip open tree barks and termite nests while their long tongue allows them to reach into bee nests for honey, giving rise to the name, honey bear.
They pace the grounds slowly, and when they sit upright, one can’t help but notice the orange bib-like patch on the chest, akin to a rising sun as their name suggests. It is hard to imagine that these shy and beloved bears are dwindling in numbers due to deforestation and illegal poaching. Female bears are often killed so poachers can take her cubs away and sell them as pets.
We can make a difference by educating ourselves on various conservation efforts to protect these species from extinction. Currently, there are 42 rescued bears in this sanctuary and volunteers are given the opportunity to be hands-on in the upkeep of the centre, doing tasks such as cleaning, food preparation and feeding. Entrance fee is RM5.30 for Malaysian adult, RM31.80 for non-Malaysians.
3. Labuk Bay Proboscis Sanctuary
Amid the expansive Semawang mangrove forest is the Labuk Bay Sanctuary for proboscis monkeys endemic to Borneo. Passing through an oil palm plantation, the road leads into a remote mangrove forest — casting doubt on the existence of the animal in such an isolated location.
There were hardly any vehicles at 2pm, which made me wonder if I was even at the right place. I followed the boardwalk surrounded by mangroves towards the feeding platform. When we finally arrived, it was a sight to behold as we got up close and personal with the endangered monkeys. Although a portion of the mangrove forest was turned into a plantation, the idea of commercial gains were dropped when the habitat was discovered. Here, you can witness the proboscis monkey swinging from tree to tree and finally settling on an open platform to feed on plants, fruit and water provided by the sanctuary. There are two platforms with different feeding times — Platform A: 9.30am and 2.30pm daily; Platform B: 11.30am & 4.30pm daily.
Proboscis monkeys have distinctly large nose and a reddish-brown coat. Like the orangutans, they are under threat by means of illegal poaching and habitat loss.
Tea and After Hours
1. Agnes Keith House and English Tea House
Perched on a shaded grassy knoll is an iconic attraction of Sandakan’s heritage trail. Agnes penned her three-part biography when she moved to Borneo following her marriage to Harry Keith, an Englishman who was the agriculture and conservator of forests director under the British government. Agnes and her son Henry George Newton were imprisoned in Kuching, Sarawak, during the Japanese occupation. Upon release, they found that their home had been destroyed during the war. The house was rebuilt in 1947 as the first timber structure in Sandakan. The double-storey colonial has been open to the public since 2004, offering a glimpse into the family’s life during colonial times with its preserved architecture.
Adjacent to Anges Keith House is the English Tea House and Restaurant. Built in 2002 as a means to complement the heritage attraction, the tea garden’s colonial theme runs from the architecture to the food. Guests are treated to delicious English tea served with scones, pastries, and sandwiches. It also comes with a magnificent view of Sandakan bay. A tea set for two costs RM25.
2. Ba Lin Roof Garden Bar and Bistro
When equating nightlife to a sleepy town like Sandakan, one of few places that comes to mind is located on the rooftop of a seemingly obscure hotel. NAK is a family-owned hotel named after Ngui Ah Kui, a clerk turned Member of Parliament. By night, the rooftop of this 24-room hotel turns into a haven for party-goers with its contemporary bar and bistro concept serving up Western dishes. This two-storey bistro has indoor and outdoor seating with an amazing view of the city. From the entrance on the eighth floor into the indoor setting, a spiral staircase takes you up to the rooftop where a square verandah with cozy pillows occupies the middle portion of the bar where guests can mingle.
I came to Sandakan with an open mind and by the end of the journey, I left with a contented heart. Somehow there is a sense of eloquence and nostalgia in the day-to-day life of its people, coexisting 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.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. airasia.com
About Jeevitha Brama Kumar
A doctor by profession, I have been trotting the world on a shoestring for almost a decade with the aim of exploring and understanding cross-cultural differences. Travel is perhaps among the best education I have received and my travels have shaped me into the person that I am today.