February 2, 2011
The city of Sandakan in the Northeastern part of Sabah is often referred to as the gateway to an ecotourism paradise. I was coming to Borneo for that paradise, so I didn’t really have much interested in spending much time just checking out the gateway, but I decided to spend one day doing a city tour of Sandakan. It is the second biggest city in Sabah and used to be the capital, but now Kota Kinabalu on the Northwestern side is both the largest city and the capital.
There is plenty to see in the city, but I chose to just stick to a tour of the highlights. First stop on the tour was the Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple. The temple is a little over 20 years old and is built high on a hill that overlooks the city center and the Sulu Sea. I had lost track of how many temples I had visited at that point, and I didn’t feel the same beautiful spiritual presence that I experienced at some the temples at Mount E’Mei in China. If you have never been to a Buddhist Temple it is worth a visit though and it provides a nice panoramic view of the city below.
Our next stop was at the city market located in a large warehouse building with food on the bottom floor and clothes on the second floor. The second floor is just a lot of knock off clothes that reminded me of the Silk Street Market in Beijing. We were hoping to find some interesting local crafts, but none were to be found. The bottom floor is all different types of food that is purchased by the locals, but it wasn’t a particularly amazing market. My dad really enjoyed the fish section in the back, but it was a little smelly for my taste.
My favorite part of the tour was our visit to the Kampung Buli Sim Sim, also known as the floating village. This fishing village is completely built on stilts over the water and is a very common site in Malaysia, especially in Borneo. The water below the stilts was disgustingly polluted, but the houses themselves were actually pretty nice. On the outside they are painted in the traditional bright Malyasian colors, which I first saw in the Malay area of Cape Town. We were invited in to two of the homes who also had craft shops and the inside of the houses were much nicer than they seemed from the outside and everyone was very friendly, especially the children.
Our last stop was the Agnes Keith House, named for the American writer Agnes Keith. Agnes and her husband lived in the houe from 1930-1952 and Agnes wrote several books about Sabah and the people there. She was the first person to really put Borneo on the map and did for Borneo at that time what many say Kipling did for India- sparking people’s interest in the wild jungle. My dad and I aren’t really museum people so we had a quick look through and then had a great lunch next door at the British Tea House, which overlooks the water.
If you have a very short time in Borneo and want to focus on the wildlife the city is nothing spectacularly out of the ordinary, but if you have a half-day it is fun to see it and experience and learn about a new culture.