It's not much to look at, but the city of Sandakan is an important port city and served as the capital of British North Borneo from 1883 to 1946. During World War II Sandakan was bombed to the ground (both the Allies and the Japanese bombed it), and when the colonialists returned the capital was moved to the town of Jesselton, which was renamed Kota Kinabalu.
Sandakan's strategic location saw it occupied by Japanese forces in 1942 and held by them till very late in the Pacific War, with Australian forces liberating it in October 1945. It was in the Sandakan region that the Sandakan Death Marches occurred. Australian and British POWs (many of whom had been captured during the fall of Singapore) were transported to Sandakan to build an airstrip in 1942 and 1943. In early 1945, following the allies destroying the airport by aerial bombardment, the Japanese commander decided to march in a series of three marches over 1,000 POWs inland to the town of Ranau, some 260 km away. By the end of July 1945, less than 50 of the POWs were still alive.
Today, Sandakan is best known as the gateway to spectacular eco-tourism destinations like the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and safaris along the Kinabatangan River. The city itself has a few minor attractions like the Agnes Keith House, and most visitors pause only one day here to find an ATM and have a hot shower before heading out into the wilderness.
Travel agencies are plentiful and every hotel has one, but for non-biased information try the government Tourist Information Centre in the city centre. Ask for a complimentary "Sandakan Heritage Trail Map" to do your own walking tour of minor attractions like temples and WWII memorials.
There isn't much to the Sandakan city centre. Anything a traveller may need -- guesthouses, banks, pharmacies, internet cafes, 24-hour restaurants -- can be found crammed into the blocks lining the waterfront by the Sandakan River.
The long-distance bus station for transport to Kota Kinabalu or Semporna is an inconvenient four kilometres north of the city, but minivans to Sepilok can be found near the waterfront.
Tourist Information Centre: Wisma Warisan building on Lebuh Empat, T: (89) 229 751, 08:30-16:30 Monday-Friday