Situated at the neck of Sandakan Bay, facing the Sulu Sea and towards the Philippines, the commandingly positioned town of SANDAKAN was all but destroyed during World War II. Postwar reconstruction on reclaimed land, worked around an unimaginative grid system of indistinguishable concrete blocks but without the sense of space you find in KK. Today, though, there’s a bracing sense of regeneration focused on the waterfront.
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Sandakan’s main visitor attractions, beyond its excellent accommodation and eating options, are away from the centre. The Sandakan Memorial Park, commemorating the horrors of the Sandakan POW camp is 11km northwest of town, whereas Sandakan’s colonial heritage is mostly concentrated immediately north of the centre on Trig Hill.
Although eighteenth-century accounts mention a trading outpost called Sandakan within the Sultanate of Sulu, whose centre was in what’s now the Philippines, the town’s modern history began in the late 1870s.
The area of northeast Borneo between Brunei Bay and Sungai Kinabatangan had been leased by the Sultan of Brunei to the American Trading Company in 1865 but its attempt to establish a settlement here failed, and in 1879 an Anglo-American partnership took up the lease, naming Englishman William Pryer as the first Resident of the east coast. By 1884 Sandakan was the capital of British North Borneo, its natural harbour and proximity to sources of timber, beeswax, rattan and edible birds’ nests transforming it into a thriving commercial centre.
In 1942 the Japanese army took control, establishing the POW camp from which the infamous Death Marches to Ranau commenced. What little of the town was left standing after intensive Allied bombing was burned down by the Japanese, and the end of the war saw administration Sabah’s shift to KK. Nevertheless, by the 1950s a rebuilt Sandakan profited from the timber boom and by the 1970s had generated such wealth that the town was reputed to have the world’s greatest concentration of millionaires.
Once the region’s decent timber had been exhausted in the early 1980s, Sandakan looked to oil palm and cocoa, crops that now dominate the surrounding landscape.