Sandakan Heritage Trail

Sandakan Heritage Trail

Historical treasure hunt

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A good way to get a feel for the city of Sandakan is to pick up a map and follow the self-guided Sandakan Heritage Trail. There’s a few hills and a few (okay, 100 stairs), and not that much to see, as much of Sandakan was destroyed in World War II. It’s a pleasant two-hour (or more) walk, however, and the added bit of history makes it interesting.

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Go early morning, as the midday sun can be scorching. We followed the trail (almost) in the opposite direction to the official map, so we could take a break at the English Tea House near the end of the walk, and walk down the One Hundred Steps, as opposed to up. Either direction, you’ll still be walking up steep hills.

Unfortunately, Sandakan Heritage Museum is not well maintained. : Sally Arnold.
Unfortunately, Sandakan Heritage Museum is not well maintained. Photo: Sally Arnold

The walk begins at Masjid Jamek, Sandakan’s oldest mosque, built in the 1890s by Indian merchants. We wandered up, and even though we were dressed respectfully, felt a bit like a pork chop. We weren’t made to feel unwelcome, but it seems they don’t get many foreign visitors. Better to see from the street. It’s not that beautiful or interesting, but a good landmark to start the walk.

Passing the William Pryer Monument, we headed to the Sandakan Heritage Museum (daily 09:00-17:00) within Wisma Warisan. William Pryer (1845-1899) is regarded as the founder of modern Sandakan. Unfortunately, the museum suffers from neglect. On the ground floor, an exhibition documenting colonial “adventurers” Martin and Osa Johnson who travelled to Borneo from 1920 till 1936 and made a series of sensationalist Hollywood films. Upstairs there’s not much to see, but there are some interesting photos of old Sandakan. Give it a miss if you’re in a hurry.

Nope, not the United Kingdom. : Sally Arnold.
Nope, not the United Kingdom. Photo: Sally Arnold

Instead of turning up the One Hundred Steps at this point, we visited Sam Sing Kung Temple (Three Saints Temple) (daily 07:00-15:00) at the back of the Padang Sandakan. Built in 1887, this smokey, incense-filled Chinese Taoist temple is one of Sandakan's oldest, and worth a step inside. Worshippers in the temple include fishermen praying for protection, and hopeful students seeking success in their exams. One small statue of a deity is surrounded with beer, cigarettes, and piles of fake money—we’re not sure where he fits into the Taoist pantheon.

Continuing up the hill, you could be forgiven for thinking you are back “in the old country” when you see the quaint stone architecture of St Michael and All Angels Anglican Church. It was “founded” in 1888 along with the neighbouring school, although the foundation stone wasn’t laid until 1893, and took another 30 years to complete. The church avoided major damage during the bombings of World War II and during that time many prisoners of war spent the night here before being sent to Sandakan camp (now Sandakan Memorial Park). One can only hope that the familiar facade held some comfort. The lovely contemporary stained glass windows were donated by Australians to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. The church is open to visitors 08:30-16:30 (closed Sunday, Tuesday and holidays). Entry is 10 ringgit (buy tickets from the building opposite).

The Goddess of Mercy or Kuan Yin Temple. : Sally Arnold.
The Goddess of Mercy or Kuan Yin Temple. Photo: Sally Arnold

From the church, follow the walkway down to Jalan Singapora. Continue uphill to the Goddess of Mercy Chinese Temple (Kuan Yin Temple) (open: 07:00-16:00). This 1868-built temple is older and smaller than Sam Sing Kung Temple, however the historical ambience is somewhat diminished by modern renovations. The temple caretaker is very friendly and enthusiastic though. From here we took a short detour to Sandakan’s Christian cemetery, dating from 1883. Historically interesting, but we were reluctant to walk through the long grass—looked like snake country to us.

Next stop on the trail, Agnes Keith House, is an appealing colonial wooden villa turned museum, former home to the American writer Agnes Keith who wrote several accounts of life in Sabah. This is one of the more interesting points on the walk for travellers interested in history or architecture (daily 09:00-17:00).

The dead centre of town. : Sally Arnold.
The dead centre of town. Photo: Sally Arnold

Not officially on the trail but worth a stop all the same, is the English Tea House next door to Agnes Keith House for a refreshment. We then continued along Jalan Istana towards the Chinese and Japanese cemeteries. We only made it to the Chinese cemetery, which was huge and worth a look, but the paths are very overgrown and it was difficult to continue. It's good for birdwatching here as well.

Returning to the covered One Hundred Steps (tangga seribu), the stairway will lead you down to the centre of Sandakan. We were warned not to walk the stairs alone or at night, but on a bright sunny day there were a few people about and it didn’t seem a threatening place. Despite the lack of much “heritage”, and no real information at any of the sights, we enjoyed the treasure hunt aspect of Sandakan Heritage Trail. Take plenty of water as there are not that many shops along the walk.

Reviewed by

Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.

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These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.


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