Introduction of Sandakan

Sandakan is one of those places whose names have a magical ring, promising all kinds of exotic surprises. The commercial centre of the large northeast district bearing the same name, Sandakan not only has an intriguing past but is the gateway to the rich wildlife of Sabah. Within less than a couple of hours of the town lies an incredible variety, both on land and in the ocean, including a forest reserve where orangutan are helped to re-adjust to life in the wild; islands where endangered marine turtles come ashore to lay their eggs; limestone caves where a rare delicacy, birds' nests, have been gathered for centuries; an island paradise in the Sulu Sea offering exciting scuba diving and Malaysia's largest freshwater swamp forest or wetlands, along the Kinabatangan river, which is teeming with wildlife. This guide focusses on Sandakan town and the nearby Sepilok area, famed for its Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, as well as Labuk Bay, where it is possible to view Borneo's unique proboscis monkey in a swamp setting. It also includes the resort island of Lankayan, north of Sandakan and part of the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area. (Separate guides in this series cover the Turtle Islands and the Kinabatangan, including Gomantong Caves.)

History of Sandakan

Sandakan 1940During the early 1870s, the east coast of Sabah was under control of the Sultan of, who also ruled what is now the southern Philippines. The first European settlement in the area was founded by William Clarke Cowie, a Scottish gun smuggler from Glasgow, who received permission from the Sultan to establish a small trading base. Cowie called his settlement Sandakan, which in Tausug (Sulu) means " the place that was pawned ", but it soon came to be known as "Kampung German" after the large number of Germans who also set up posts there. The settlement was part of the lease Austro-Hungarian consul Baron von Overbeck acquired from the Sultan of Sulu in 1878. After the lease was purchased by von Overbeck's British partner , Kampong German was accidentally razed to the ground on 15 June. The new British Resident, William B. Pryer, decided not to rebuild the village but to move to Buli Sim Sim on 21 June 1879. He named his new settlement Elopura, which means Beautiful City . A few years later, the name was changed back to Sandakan. The name Elopura still refers to a region of Sandakan.

In 1883 , the capital of the British North Borneo Company was moved from Kudat to Sandakan. In the mid-1930s, Sandakan's timber export reached the record figure of 180,000 cubic meters, making it the largest timber-exporting port of tropical wood in the world. At the height of the timber boom, Sandakan boasted that it had the highest concentration of millionaires anywhere on Earth.

Sandakan 1942The Japanese occupation of Sandakan during World War II began on 19 January 1942 and lasted until a brigade of the Australian 9th Division liberated it on 19 October 1945. The Japanese administration restored the name Elopura for the town. One of the many atrocities of World War II was the Sandakan Death Marches, when Japanese soldiers decided to move about 6,000 prisoners of war in Sandakan 260 km (160 miles) inland to the town of Ranau. The prisoners who did not die en route to Ranau were crammed into unsanitary huts; most of those survivors either died from dysentery or were killed by prison guards. When the war ended, Sandakan was totally destroyed, partly from the Allied bombings and partly by the Japanese. As a result, when North Borneo became a British Crown Colony in 1946, the capital was shifted to Jesselton, now known as Kota Kinabalu, (often just called 'KK' locally).

Sandakan remains Sabah's second most important port, after Kota Kinabalu. The port is important for palm oil, tobacco, cocoa, coffee, manila hemp and sago exports. Sandakan is also one of the most bustling towns in East Malysia.

Sandakan 1948In recent years, more businesses have shifted their operations away from the town centre to the suburbs due to the presence of illegal immigrants in the town centre. In January 2003, the Sandakan Harbour Square, an urban renewal project, was launched in an attempt to revive the town centre as the commercial hub in Sandakan. It will feature a new central market and fish market, a 4-storey shopping mall, and an 160-room, 5-star hotel. It is to be built in three separate phases and is due for c ompletion in 2008.

However, Sandakan residents encounter a serious electrical power and water shortage since decades ago. These two major problem has never been solved even though it has been promised all the time by either the politicians or the state government during elections. The electrical power often fails whenever it is thunderstorm or heavy rain.

Sandakan 1940

Sandakan 1952

Sandakan 1960

Sandakan Town Board 1969


Sandakan 1948

Sandakan 1955

Sandakan 1965

Hospital Duchess Of Kent 1970


Sandakan 1952

Sandakan 1960

Sandakan 1965

The Old Central Market