The Sandakan Heritage Trail in Sabah is a must-do for history buffs

The William B. Pryer Monument was erected in memory of the founder of Sandakan. — Photos: Sandakan Heritage Trail

At the mouth of Sandakan Bay overlooking the Sulu Sea in Sabah, lies the chill and unassuming town of Sandakan.

Once the capital of the British North Borneo before it was moved to Jesselton – or what is now Kota Kinabalu – Sandakan was a hub of trade and commerce, to the point that it became known as “Little Hong Kong” due to the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong back in the day.

Now, the place is more known for its nature and wildlife attractions thanks to its proximity to the Kinabatangan River, but if you take the time to dig beneath its surface, you’ll find there’s plenty to uncover for those interested in British colonial history and World War II.

The town barely managed to survive the Japanese occupation and bombings from Allied Forces, and though it has been rebuilt and restored, you can still see glimpses of the past by walking the Sandakan Heritage Trail, which will take you back over 100 years of the town’s history.

Preserving its heritage

Founded in 2003, the heritage trail celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The idea for the trail came about during a historical tourism workshop organised by Sandakan Municipal Council (MPS) in early 2003 and was subsequently launched on June 21 that same year, sharing the founding date of Sandakan in 1879.

Lai says that the trail was first created with the intention of educating the younger generation about Sandakan’s colourful past.Lai says that the trail was first created with the intention of educating the younger generation about Sandakan’s colourful past.

“Although Sandakan Heritage Trail has become a popular tourism product, the original idea was actually aimed at encouraging locals, especially the younger generations, to learn more about our town’s history,” shares Lai King Hang, founder and chairman of Sandakan Heritage Trail.

“When I was called upon to organise the trail, I brought together a few like-minded friends to discover the heritage sites by ourselves first-hand before deciding how we could best map out an easy route for visitors to follow,” adds Lai.

The trail is maintained by a team of volunteers, who work closely with Sandakan Municipal Council, Sabah Tourism and Tourism Malaysia.

“Only by educating the young ones can we ensure that our heritage will not be forgotten,” says Lai.

Tour of Sandakan’s past

The trail, a loop which typically takes about two hours to complete, covers the 10 main heritage sites located around town, and also comes complete with a map. This map is also available digitally.

The first stop is Masjid Jamik, the city’s oldest mosque. Built in 1887, the mosque withstood barrages of bombings during World War II and is still used for prayers today. Next is the William B. Pryer Monument, which was constructed in honour of the first British resident and founder of Sandakan.

The 100 Steps is a set of stairs believed to have been used by the Chinese community in the past to cart produce from their farms in the hills to sell at the open market in town. It’s been revitalised with colourful murals, making it a nice spot for photos.

The Agnes Keith House, the former house of the American author, is now a museum.The Agnes Keith House, the former house of the American author, is now a museum.

The Agnes Keith House, meanwhile, is the former home of the late American author Agnes Newton Keith, now turned into a museum. Keith is known for her three autobiographical accounts of life in North Borneo and is credited with coining the phrase “Land Below The Wind”, taken from her book of the same name, published in 1939. Her other books on North Borneo are Three Came Home (1947) and White Man Returns (1951).

After the museum, you can take a short break at the English Tea House and Restaurant nearby, which has a lovely afternoon tea set and charming hilltop views of the bay.

Continuing on with the trail, the next stop is the remains of an old staircase, found among the ruins of the pre-war Chinese consulate. Following that is the Goddess Of Mercy Chinese Temple, one of the oldest temples in Sandakan. The small temple is somewhat hidden from view – a red arch at its entrance is your only indication.

A popular tourist attraction on its own, the St Michael’s And All Angels Church is the first stone church built in Borneo, and the oldest in Sabah. The Anglican church features a “Window Of Remembrance”, a tri-paneled stained glass window installed in 2005 in memory of the British and Australian soldiers who died in the infamous Sandakan Death Marches.

The eighth point of interest on the trail is the Sam Sing Kung Chinese Temple, initially established as a religious centre for Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province in China.

The temple is also a repository for historical artefacts, such as a bronze bell, which was presented to the temple upon its opening by Fung Ming Shan, the first Chinese Kapitan of Sandakan, and is still in use to this day.

Across the Sandakan town field from the temple is the Malaysia Fountain, built to commemorate the formation of Malaysia in 1963. And last but not least, is Wisma Warisan, set in the same building that was used as the administrative centre during the British era in the 1950s. It is also where the Sandakan Heritage Museum is located – the perfect end to your tour through Sandakan’s past.

For more information, check out the Sandakan Heritage Trail Facebook page.

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