Monday, August 24, 2015

Visiting Sandakan -- Borneo's charming entrepot

Sandakan is a port town and an entrepot to the wildlife refuges of the fabled Kinabatangan River. There's no question that most visitors to Sandakan are strictly passing through and are not going to be in town too long.

We strongly suggest that if you're heading to the river, don’t be in a rush. Otherwise you'll miss out on Sandakan’s ample charms.  In short, we think Sandakan is well worth spending an extra day or two exploring.

In addition to the Memorial Park, which we covered in part 1 of this series, there are three other venues that you should definitely not miss. All are a bit off the beaten path, so you won’t be inundated with other visitors.

The first steps we would take are in the direction of The Sandakan Heritage Trail which is a comprehensive walk that covers the town's most important and culturally significant sites.

The walk begins at the 100-year old Masjid Jamik, a mosque originally built in the 1890's as a place of worship for the Indian Muslims in Sandakan. Muslims

sought refuge here during the Second World War, and the venue even acted as a hiding place for a few Europeans.

The next stop is the Pryer Memorial, a granite structure erected to honor the founder of Sandakan, William Burgess Pryer. It seems a bit incongruous that Pryor, a Brit, would have founded a town in Malaysia but at the time it was a British Colony and he had permission from the local Sultanate. By chance Pryer and his wife who were on their way to Sabah met Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal in Hong Kong. Rizal shared with Pryer the plan establish a Filipino settlement in Sabah for those dispossessed of their lands. The plan never saw fruition but Pryer did establish the town on the 21st of June 1879.

Following the Pryor monument, you will then climb the Stairs with a Hundred Steps which will lead you to a beautiful view of Sandakan town and bay. It also brings you to the famous Agnes Keith House.

Agnes Keith Museum and Tea House

Agnes Keith is not a household name but in the mid-twentieth century she was a well-respected writer in a unique time and place.  During this period, Keith, a native of Hollywood, California, captured the experience of colonial life in North Borneo. She was married to a high ranking British colonial official and lived a fairy tale life portrayed in her autobiographical book Land Below the Wind. However, her fairy tale turned into a nightmare with the outbreak of the War.

Her second and most arguably her most popular book, Three Came Home, depicts the hardships of her time as a prisoner in Japanese POW and civilian internee camps in Borneo and  Sarawak. This work was subsequently made into a film (of the same name) in 1950 with superstar Claudette Colbert. (The sensationalist poster of the film, pictured at left, would certainly not fly today for many good reasons but is an illustrative period piece).

Perched on a hill, her original home (really a mansion) was devastated during WWII. However a replica has been constructed and turned into a museum bursting with memorabilia from her storied life. Literary fans and others who want to understand a semblance of life in colonial Malaya will not be disappointed.

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