Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Sights of Sandakan: Culture and Heritage

Sights of Sandakan: Culture and Heritage
by Kristin Cosgrove

Famous as a gateway to Sabah's amazing eco-tourism sites like the Kinabatangan River, Sandakan has more to offer than nature. As the second largest city in Sabah and former capital of British North Borneo, the city offers heritage and culture buffs plenty of sightseeing opportunities.

By far the most poignant of the sites to visit in Sandakan is the Memorial Park, the site of the Mile 8 POW camp.  Being from the United States and a generation or two removed from World War II, I was unaware of the historical importance of Sandakan in relation to the war and deeply moved by what I learned here.

The Japanese took hold of Sandakan in 1942 and established a POW camp there with prisoners brought from Singapore, all British and Australian soldiers, in order to build an airstrip.  In 1945, after 3 years of life in horrific conditions, the surviving 2,400 POWs were marched by the Japanese to Ranau, 260km away. Those who could not make the journey were shot, and 500 died along the way.  The rest perished at the camp in Ranau. Only six prisoners survived to tell the tale, two by escaping during the death march and the other four from the camp at Ranau. 
"...a memorial to those prisoners of war who suffered and died here, on the Death Marches and at Ranau.  This memorial also commemorates the suffering and sacrifice of the local people."
Sandakan War Memorial
"Lest We Forget"
A pond greets visitors to the park, adjacent to the exact location of the war camp. The lily pads and reflections of the trees set a peaceful and somber mood for a stroll along the pathways to the visitors centre. 

Once inside the centre, our group was silent, enrapt by the information boards, the photos of everyday life at the camp and the informational video describing the wartime atrocities at the camp and along the trail of the death marches.

Upon exiting the centre, a lovely wooden walkway lead us to the former site of the Big Tree, a huge tree which could be seen from miles around. This tree was in the center of the camp, very near to the guardhouse and the site of the “cage”, an appalling version of solitary confinement. After the war, the tree was cut down and this memorial erected. 

I highly recommend this as the most important place to see during your visit in Sandakan. It is quite near the city and takes 45 minutes to an hour to stroll the well-kept grounds and read the information provided on plaques along the way.

Reason to Visit: A moving tribute to fallen soldiers, beautiful and peaceful grounds.

Phone: +6089 275400 / 217343

A trip to Sandakan’s waterfront wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Central Market. This multi-story wet market sells everything you could need including dried fish (tons of it!), clothing, pearls, bags, produce and meats. The highlight is, of course, the fresh seafood. Early in the morning the boats dock, bringing their bounties with them to sell. It's fun just to wander through and check out the day’s catch, which the fisherman are proud and eager to show off. If you want to take some amazingly fresh seafood back home with you, the locals will pack it for you to take on the plane.  

Reason to Visit: Glimpse local life, grab a bite, and take home the freshest of fresh seafood.

Take home some fresh seafood!
This beautiful church is part of the Sandakan Heritage Trail and is said to be the first stone building in Sabah, constructed over the course of 30 years beginning in 1893. The stones come from nearby Buli Sim Sim and were delivered by prison labor. Each block weighs approximately 140lbs! The stained glass windows were installed in 2005 in commemoration of the Australians and British soldiers who died in WWII at the Mile 8 POW camp and on the death marches to Ranau. 

Reason to Visit: Historical site and beautiful stained glass. 

Phone: +6089 215860 / 274830
Email: cirfu@tm.net.my

Puu Ji Shih Temple was completed in 1987. Gorgeous views from the balcony are second only to the massive amounts of golden filigree inside, making this temple a standout from the many I’ve seen since in South East Asia. Western eyes may be shocked to see the copious use of the swastika adorning seemingly every surface of the temple. Those exposed to Eastern religions know this is a commonly -used ancient symbol in Buddhism symbolizing auspiciousness and prosperity.

Reason to visit: Stunning views, inside and out!  

For more information on Sandakan and things to do and see there, visit the Sabah Tourism Board's official website by clicking HERE.


  1. wow look at the big fish and fresh crabs..
    very nice

  2. i don't think i've ever been to sandakan before, but i hope to someday =)