Sandakan @ Sabah, Malaysia : Our Travel Journal (Part 1)-As we see it

Written by @joehairie
(Photos by unless stated otherwise)
Special Mention: Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan, Borneo Sandakan Tours & Air Asia. 


Located on the north-eastern coast of North Borneo (Sabah), Malaysia, Sandakan is the second largest town after Kota Kinabalu city. Dubbed as the ‘Little Hong Kong’ and has great links to the past, this town is easily accessible by air or road, from major towns in Sabah.  We traveled to this town recently and produced this Travel Journal, presented to you in separate entries. It is about how we see this town according to our own perspective, as travel bloggers. Much has been written about this town, from the history to the food trail and adventurous activities but still many will skip this town when they tour around Sabah. Honestly, we want to change that perception. Being Sabahans, we think that Sandakan has much better offerings for visitors to Sabah.

‘Little Hong Kong’

Our two cents


Historically speaking, the Chinese came to Sandakan in the early part of the 19th century, before William Pryer founded the town in 1882. In the early days, there were mass recruitment of laborers from China for developing the Sandakan area. They came in by tongkang through Hong Kong, the shortest route to Sandakan in those days. Some went back to China through the same route. Thus Sandakan was well known to the people of Hong Kong in the old days. They were the ones who started calling Sandakan “Little Hong Kong”. In long run, if that ‘Little Hong Kong’ still need to be relevant, we both think that certain feature must be looked into and kept as treasures, like forever. Remember how the Hong Kong movies in 1980’s and 1990’s depicted the common lifestyle in super cramped apartments?


Tamara Thiessen (2008), Wong Dany (2014) and Hutton, Wendy (2004) academically published their thoughts about Sandakan and generally they referred Sandakan as the ‘Little Hong Kong’. It might be due to a strong presence of ethnic Chinese migration from Hong Kong (mainly Cantonese and Hakka), as some people claimed and proven in the records as well. For us, it is about how Sandakan still looks like Hong Kong in the olden days. We have seen some of the features, right here in Sandakan. In the early 90’s when Hong Kong was still under the British, we actually went around up to the villages and parts of the city in Kowloon, for example. We felt the same thing here in Sandakan. Not only that is obvious that Chinese influences are everywhere, the old buildings resembles older Hong Kong blocks in the early 90’s.


In the olden days (well, parts of Hong Kong still are), there were like many old buildings that housed the people and they were all cramped to smaller apartment units, a fact that is unique for Hong Kong due to its size. Unfortunately, more spaces are being given to developers to build larger commercial buildings or high-end condominiums. In some parts of Hong Kong, we can still see that especially in Kowloon. There’s no need to re-visit the past as it is being featured here, right here in Sandakan! A haven for photographers. Though it looks a bit run down, we still think that the blocks have sentimental values.


Our hope is to see that these amazing buildings (by the blocks) are kept forever, not being touch by the on-going development of Sandakan Town. Once it’s demolished, it will be quite shameful to use that ‘Little Hong Kong’ name. That feature is the only way to tell people how Sandakan resembles that Hong Kong faces before the hand over by the British to the Chinese Government. The Sandakan Municipal Coucil must be playing active roles to ensure the longevity of such unique buildings. Though some maintenance and overhaul are needed to beautify the town, do keep the buildings intact to its original position.


Hong Kong waterfront is quite famous among the visitors and Sandakan has one unique waterfront as well, located at the Harbour Square. The sea, islands and movements of all the little boats resembles Hong Kong faces in the olden days. While the Sandakan waterfront itself is not that grand as one might be seeing in Hong Kong, it is at least ably to remind us how sea transportation was crucial during the historical migration of Cantonese and Hakka people. It changed Sandakan forever, it gave the distinct features up to this day.


Sandakan is Sandakan and Hong Kong is rapidly developing, two different places in two countries. We both prefer that Sandakan stay as it is now. Though development is important, keep that sentimental values, preserve the ‘features’ given by the older generations. Perhaps new looks are needed but do not ever disturb the originality aspects of it. There are many influences left by the Chinese, the British and even the Japanese here in Sandakan. Those are the important features, ably to bring us to the past, ponder and learnt from mistakes. That will help us to move forward with greater visions in balancing the traditional and modern values.

The British and Japanese Invasion era

File:Sandakan Sabah St-Michael-And-All-Angels-00a.jpg
St Micheal’s and All Angels Church @ Sandakan

Sandakan is famously known for its history and all the links to the British and Japanese presence even before World War 2. The British came to Sandakan, followed by the Japanese in their quest to conquer Asia. The Australian troop were somehow involved as most of them were brought to Sandakan from Singapore by the Japs, forced to do some labor work. And then it was the March ordered by the Japs themselves, the poor Brits and Aussie soldiers were forced to walk to Ranau (Death March Route), while few escaped, sadly most of them died due to injuries and lack of food. Decades later, the War Memorial Park was built to remind all of us how sad the incident was. We have no intention to drag our readers into the details of it. If you must read it, click this LINK. The Chinese, British and Japanese had one same influence, they completely changed and transformed Sandakan to what it is now. A town, full of stories from the past and now in the present days, it actually shapes the way the locals daily life.

Sandakan War Memorial

The People 

The locals

Today, Sandakan is populated by various ethnics and not surprisingly by some migrants from the Southern Philippines. Some people are jokingly refer Sandakan as the Litlle Philippines instead of the Little Hong Kong.  True or not true, we both do not wish to elaborate on that. The presence of  various ethnics in Sandakan is actually giving the town some mixtures and contrasts, of different values.

The colors of Sandakan and its people

Generally, the people in Sandakan are friendly and polite. We mingled with some locals. They all represent Malaysian harmonious life, colorful and vibrant that makes visitors ‘happy’ and feel safe to go around. Though there were some unfortunate incidents that involved kidnappings around Sabah eastern parts, it does not necessarily jeopardize the safety of visitors. Security forces are all over to ensure everything are in order.

Happy Kids at Sandakan Central Market

We felt safe here, all because of one thing, the locals. They were very nice to us and treated us fairly. We love how they work so hard to ensure the growth of this town. Each plays individual role bringing some good changes to the economy overall. Socially and following the trend, people of all ethnics were happily scattered all over, playing that Pokemon, even at the Memorial Park!

Happy locals at the Infinity Pool @ Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan

We were greeted with smiles wherever we went, from within the Hotel that we stayed, even on the narrowest alley of Sandakan Town. We went out even late at night to get some Teh Tarik and nothing bother our safety. Sandakan is just 28 kilometers away from the International Waters, the border that separates Malaysia and Philippines. We constantly worried about our safety before we came to Sandakan. How wrong we were then. There is nothing to worry about here.

Hard working kids, helping their elders!

Food Trail by SabahEats

Sandakan is one food haven, that’s for sure. To every place you go in Sandakan, from the hotels to restaurants, from Central Market to the popular Sim Sim area, you will find amazing and delectable foods. Seafood here is generally cheap and is served in most eateries. Do note that Sandakan is not only about seafood, more are on the offerings for you to choose! Due to time constraint, we actually did not have enough time to do our own food trail. However, there is one good blog, introducing Sabaheats that did a recent trip to Sandakan and amazingly discovered some pretty good places for you to have your meals. We trust this bloggers of, not only given that they are our friends but especially for their high quality and precise write ups. Click the link below to read Sabah Eats entry about their awesome food hunting!

Sandakan food Trip 2016 – Rediscover old foods and new cafes

Image from

Our Preferred Brands in Sandakan

Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan

We came here with one main reason, to discover the best that our preferred brands has to offer. We will be publishing some lengthy and in-depth writings about two specific brands, the brands that we completely trust ably to give you the best when visiting Sandakan. One is a hotel and the other one is a tour company that will surely be offering the best for your itinerary. Should you decide to visit Sandakan, do engage with the services offered by Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan and Borneo Sandakan Tours. We recommend these brands as we personally have been using their services. In the next coming entries, read our articles in regard to these two brands and their top notch services.

Borneo Sandakan Tours


This is the introductory article to our Sandakan Travel Journal. Series of articles with specific titles in regard to our trip to Sandakan can be read in the following entries. Our trip to Sandakan was made possible by BIG Air Asia, Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan and Borneo Tours Sdn Bhd. 


Evans, S.R. (1991) Sabah (North Borneo) under the Rising Sun Government, Singapore: Tropical Press.

Tamara Thiessen (2008). Borneo. Bradt Travel Guides.

Tregonning, K.G. (1965) A History of Modern Sabah 1881-1963, Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press.

Wendy Hutton (1 January 2004). Sandakan: History, Culture, Wildlife and Resorts of the Sandakan Peninsula. Natural History Publications (Borneo)

Wong, T.K.D. (2000). The Chinese in Sabah: an overview, in The Chinese in Malaysia, eds K.H. Lee and C.B. Tan, Shah Alam, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 382-405. Image referred and retrieved on September 19, 2016.


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