Land Below the Wind by Cruise
Set amid lush tropical rainforests, these days Sandakan is most famous for its eco-tourism — there is an orangutan rehabilitation center, rainforest discovery center and Turtle Islands Park, all in or around the city. What I didn’t know before I spent a day exploring the city, however, is that it has a rich, fascinating colonial history that has left an indelible imprint.
By the end of the 19th century, Sandakan was one of the wealthiest towns in the region thanks to its timber. A group of British businessmen that had bought the land from the sultans of Brunei and Sulu established British North Borneo in 1881. Sandakan was named the capital in 1883, and, by the mid-1930s, the city was said to be home to the highest concentration of millionaires anywhere in the world.
Driving through the streets 80 years later, I found this rather hard to believe — many houses to the left and right of the main road seem neglected and run-down.
There are plenty of coastal fishing villages completely built on mangrove stilts, where one house can be home to three generations, crammed in one or two rooms.
“In earlier times, it was mostly fishermen and sea gypsies who lived in these villages,” said Ayrul, my tour guide. “They spent most of their time at sea. They believed in an old saying — the sea is for the living, while the land is for the dead. They only came to land to bury the dead.”
Nowadays, however, it is not only fishermen living in these quarters. The cheap accommodations have lured other townsfolk to settle there.
Sim Sim fishing village, which faces Sulu Sea, is a wild jumble of lodgings. There is electricity but no sewage system and no privacy whatsoever, it seems. The tiny houses’ walls are so thin that if someone watches television, their neighbor next door can follow the plot of the whole show without a single glance at the screen.
Simple eateries are scattered throughout the village, where the mostly Chinese inhabitants hunker down for a quick bowl of noodle soup or engrossing games of mahjong — a favorite local pastime, according to Ayrul.
The wealth of Sandakan vanished during World War II, when most of the city was destroyed in bombings.
But if one takes a closer look, there are still traces of a rich colonial past to be found throughout town, including many surprisingly well-preserved buildings.
St. Michael’s Anglican Church, first established in 1888, is one of the few buildings in Sandakan that survived destruction during the war. The roof was damaged, but the foundation stood firm during the bombings.
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