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Sandakan - Gateway to Borneo's Wildlife

By SC Chan

Sandakan, Sabah's second largest town on the east coast, holds a lot of hidden secrets which are gradually being unlocked. It's touted as The Gateway to Borneo's Wildlife.

Englishman William B Pryer founded Sandakan on June 21, 1879. But it was a Scot William Clarke Cowe, who set up the first European settlement on the northeastern coast of Sabah known as Kampung German which was later razed to the ground.

A new settlement sprouted at Buli Sim Sim and came to be known as Elopura - The Beautiful City. A few years later, the name was changed to Sandakan.

World War II saw a lot of destruction to the town and it lost its capital status to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) to the north.

Sandakan's timber wealth has been translated into hotel development. There are the four-star Sabah Hotel and the three-star Sandakan Hotel. A five-star hotel will be built as part of a new urban re-development project - the Sandakan Harbour Square.

The main waterfront street, where the Old Market is situated, is named after Pryer. The hilltop colonial-style house - a former government quarters - in Red Hill overlooking the town of 320,000 inhabitants and its big bay is being turned into a museum to remember author Agnes Keith of Three Came Home and White Man Returns fame.

There is de javu as much for locals as for European tourists with the English Tea House and Restaurant only a stone's throw from the English author's former residence where she and her civil servant husband Harry lived after the last war.

For tourists to be able to see all these and more on foot at a leisurely pace, there is a specially-created Heritage Trail, starting from Mesjid Jamek and ending at the Tourist Information Centre in Wisma Warisan.

The 90-minute trail walk includes such places as the One Hundred Steps up to Red Hill to Agnes Keith House, the William Pryer Monument, Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, the Sam King Kung Chinese Temple and the quaint-stone St Michael's and All Angels Church.

On Fridays, Muslim faithfuls gather for prayers at the town's largest mosque built on the edge of the Bay next to the water village of Buli Sim Sim. Reflecting a multi-racial and multi-religious society, there is also a Hindu temple, the Sri Sithi Vinayagar Temple, in Labuk Road built by artisans and sculptors especially imported from India.

Being close to the seas and a large fishing community means there's an abundance of fresh and inexpensive seafood. The Ocean King Seafood Res-taurant, built on the water at the fa-mous swimming place, Sandy Plain, is a popular seafood eatery in Sandakan, sometimes called The Little Hongkong, and a beautiful bay that looks out to various nearby islands in the Sulu Sea.

Cruise ships call at Sandakan which also has a modern airport with capacity to handle Airbus-type aircraft and has air links with the rest of the world through Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur.

There is a highway that cuts across Sabah from the East Coast to the West Coast, linking the town with Kota Kina-balu that take visitors through a pictures-que countryside.
For the fourth year running, San-dakan will be plunged into a month of festivities in June. Over 30 events are lined up for the Sandakan Festival.

"This is in line with the Sandakan Muncipal Council's vision to make Sandakan a Nature City by the year 2004 and to focus on Sandakan as a tourist destination," the town's de facto mayor Datuk Dayang Adeline Leong said.

"Sandakan is blessed with Nature's rich heritage of exotic wildlife and luxurious rainforest. Rare and endangered animals such as the Orang Utan, proboscis monkeys and the green turtles are all found in this place," she added.

Only 28 kms out of town off Labuk Road is the world-famous Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre.

According to special interest tours operator SI Tours' licensed guide Allde-rine Albert, there is a population of about 200 such primates comprising Bornean and Sumatran species, either roaming freely in the Sipilok forests or under rehabilitation before release into the deep jungles. This is one main reason for the 80,000 foreign tourists visiting Sandakan every year.

Budget-conscious tourists lodge at the nearby 58-room Sepilok Jungle Resort with its sprawling 30-acre ground given to 200 types of planted trees and flowers. The premium group stay at the 17-room Sepilok Nature Resort. There are other choices, including B & B down the road at the entrance off the main road.

Competing or complementing the sightings of wildlife in Sepilok is the Orang Sungai (river people) village of Sukau, about 90 kms from Sandakan or 2 1/2 hours by speedboat, the launching pad for sightings of some of the wildlife, especially the long-nose proboscis monkey, exotic birds and insects such as cicada, on the banks of some of the tributaries of the Kinabatangan River, Malay-sia's second longest after Sarawak's Rajang River.

The 16-room Old Ben Kinabantan Riverside Lodge, owned and operated by award-winning SI Tours, provides over-night accommodation for groups on wildlife sightings while cruising along the main river and its tributaries.

The company owns a fleet of nine speedboats to ferry tourists to the nearby turtle island of Selingan, 40 km to the north of Sandakan and to the wetlands in Lower Kinabantangan.

Two of the attractions are the Ox-Bow Lake and the Sukau Gomantong Caves, famous for its birds nests. The Kinabatangan floodplain is a rainforest wetland - the largest remaining one in Sabah. The river flows for 560 kms through eastern Sabah to the Sulu Sea.

The region is gaining international fame for its biological diversity. It is one of only two known places on Earth where 10 primate species can be found. These include the Orang Utan, and several species endemic to Borneo such as the proboscis monkey, the maroon langur and Bornean gibbon. Nearly 200 species of birds can be found in the Lower Kinabantan. Indeed, Sandakan has come to rival Tawau as Sabah's main gateway to the dive island paradise.

About five years ago, on the heel of its success in Sipadan, Pulau Sipadan Resort & Tours Sdn Bhd picked a small but beautiful island surrounded by a massive coral reef.

It's called Lankayan, about 2 1/2 hours by a twin 250hp speed boat from Sandakan. It's small enough to be private and far enough to be isolated.

Lankayan's exact location is 89 kms to the north of the East Coast town and near the border with the Philippines. This only dive island resort in the Sulu Sea is one of three similar-type island resorts owned and operated by the same company. The other two are Sipadan and Sipadan Kipalai, both of which are down south in the Celebes Sea.

The company also owns and operates Sepilok Nature Resort. According the resort owner-operator Kenneth Chung, present plans include upgrading Lankayan "not to increase the number of rooms but to make it more eco-friendly" and also to bring in new stakeholders to develop the nearby Belian with guidelines of a management plan that forms part of the Segut Island Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA).

"The plan makes it possible to develop a dive island resort in a marine protected area like SIMCA," he said.

Lankayan, only 13 acres in size (it takes only 20 minutes to walk round the island on its white sandy beach.

According to the island resort director Haji Ibrahim Samain, no fewer than 40 dive sites have been found.
"If we go on exploring there will be at least one hundred or more," he said.

Sandakan is undoubtedly the main springboard into the Sabah's heartland and its enchanting island resorts for special interest groups, divers and ordinary tourists.

Source: Sarawak Tribune

Click here to check out various Sandakan tour packages

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