Posted by: James Shannon | April 7, 2011

Sandakan: The Potentially Awesome Place I Never Really Got A Chance To Know

The sun sets on a perfect day from the dorm window @ Scuba Junkie … I’m pretty sure that’s the rain cloud that drenched my dive mates and I earlier though! *shakes fist*

After floating through an underwater dreamworld off the coast of Mabul Island, my time in Semporna had come to an end … during the time that I waited for the weather to break, I explored around town, surfed the net incessantly, ate the local food, etc…

Speaking of food, I found this shelf of decadent pig products in the dusty back corner of the most modern supermarket in Semporna … welcome to the Islamic world!

With my dream snorkeling trip behind me, it was time to begin an epic trip to the island of Labuan. Have no idea what’s I’m talking about? No worries, most travelers don’t either. It’s off the beaten track, but apparently it has alot of WWII history, great beaches on the west coast, and duty-free alcohol …. and dark chocolate! *drool*

But first, the epic part of the epic trip … travel in Borneo is extraordinarily slow, owing to narrow, twisty two lane roads that see heavy downpours everyday and slow tankers filled to the brim with freshly squeezed palm oil (the plantations are EVERYWHERE in Sabah!)

My first leg took me to the city of Sandakan, the second largest in Sabah, as a way of breaking up what had been a 12+ hour journey on the way to Semporna. I got in, and surprise surprise, it was POURING. Not hard to imagine when you consider that it had been raining for ten days straight, and deadly mudslides had covered large tracts of the city just 4-5 days prior to my arrival…

By the time I got to downtown Sandakan however, the clouds practically parted, and all of a sudden, it was a glorious afternoon/evening.  Shot from the roof of my hostel (Sandakan Backpackers)

Sandakan Harbour … from here, tours leave to outlying islands, a protected haven for nesting sea turtles.  I thought about going there, but the tour operators wanted an egregious amount (well above $100 a night) to stay on the island … Thailand this place is not!

Sticking to the plan of getting out the next day for Kota Kinabalu, I set out for the bus station to purchase my ticket for the next day … this is the street in front of my hostel, it actually part of a very smart and neat harbourfront development meant to bring in the tourist dollars … it felt very welcoming to me, such a shame I was departing so soon!

Overall, Malaysia has impressed me with its cleanliness, modernity, and its solid infrastructure … even here in Borneo, in spite of its more unequal distribution of wealth compared to the mainland, roads are generally in good shape…

Remnants of mudslide damage that swept through town several days before my arrival … the power of nature on display.

Local kids play basketball near an apartment complex … if you look closely at the court, you can see leftover muck and water from the mudslide.  I had pics from the city streets also, but they didn’t turn well at all, unfortunately!

Sandakan was quite the interesting place from initial impressions — it’s a shame I HAD to leave the next morning … why was that, you wonder?  Because I made a travel mistake that stems from habits more applicable to short-term travel: making accommodation reservations … multiple reservations in a short time span.  Because of this, I was hamstrung by money put in deposit and I had to move on to avoid losing it.

When you travel long term, you can let things flow, and stick around in a place if it resonates with you … instead, I got too rigid with my plans (and a little scared of being shut out of places due to Chinese New Year) and missed out on what could have been a mind-blowing culinary experience, or a playful date with orangutans (Sandakan has a refuge for them just outside of town), and so forth.

Oh well, I lived and I learnt.

Next time you’re in a place, and it calls out to you, SLOW DOWN and hang out there for a while.  It’s what travel is all about, in my humble opinion.

Next up: Labuan … financial hub, home of cheap booze and chocolate, war history, and a black hole on the travel map that most backpackers seem to avoid like the plague…



  1. As always, James, your blogs are very entertaining and amusing ! Oh and the pics are really great for the camera you have. Think of what you could do with a really high powered one !!

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