Sandakan and Gomantong Caves

The second largest city in Sabah, home to 400,000 people, Sandakan is basically a less attractive version of Kota Kinabalu. Similarly laid out on a narrow stretch of land between the sea and hilly interior, it was also devastated during WW2, with a only few heritage buildings remaining. There is enough to see to warrant a visit though if you’re in the area, as I was travelling between Sepilok and Sandakan airport.

The clear highlight for me was the sizeable Puu Gih Jih Chinese Buddhist temple, high on the hillside with views over the city. Since the late 19th century there has been a significant Chinese community in Sandakan, most either from Hong Kong or the Hakka area of southern China. The temple was recently repainted, and home to many swastika, in their original peaceful form rather than the distorted (literally as at a 45 degree angle) version notoriously used by the Nazis.

Before the temple I visited the stilt village of Buli Sim Sim, home to some quite appealing homes and restaurants above the sea.

St Michael and All Angels Cathedral is the oldest stone building in Sabah, that somehow survived the extensive bombing of the city in WW2.

The Agnes Keith House and Museum was home to the American author for 19 years. She wrote extensively about life in Borneo, before, during (she was a prisoner of the Japanese) and after WW2.

The Sandakan Memorial Park covers parts of the original camps set up by the Japanese in WW2 to house Australian and British prisoner of war. It’s now an attractive park with a few remains from the camp, a War Memorial which had flowers from the previous day’s ANZAC Day ceremony, and a moving chapel like building telling the story of Sandakan and the Death Marches.

Close to Sandakan, on the way to Sepilok from Kinabatangan River, we stopped at the overpriced (USD15 for entry and photos) but quite impressive Gomantong Caves. They’re home to valuable swiftlet nests, which are harvested for bird’s nest soup, along with bats and unexpectedly crabs. Underfoot was quite disgustingly slippery from bird and bat droppings but it was far less smelly than expected, though that may have been more due to the bad head cold I had.

There was some bonus wildlife spotting on our way out, with my first and only sighting of a red leaf monkey in the branches above.

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