From “no town” to boom town: Sandakan city, Borneo

Boats at Sandakan, Sabah's dockyard
Boats at Sandakan, Sabah's dockyard (click to enlarge)

Sandakan city in Sabah, Malaysia, an old age port town, soon to be boom town

It’s strange how I find more enjoyment traversing the back streets of Sandakan rather than chill out with the four backpackers zoned out in front of a TV in the budget style hotel … maybe it’s just my current state of mind.

“There’s nothing to do in Sandakan,” is a very common statement to be heard here.

In fact, there’s lots to do in Sandakan, it’s just relative to what you like to see and do. In about 5 years I’m guessing I’ll be the one saying there’s nothing to do in Sandakan. Why?

I say this because I think Sandakan is a boom town waiting to explode into tourist land.

Once that happens, I’ll probably start to complain I can’t get away from all the tourists flocking their in tour buses! But, in the meantime …

Local Fishermen unload their small boat in Sandakan
Local Fishermen unload their small boat in Sandakan

What’s Sandakan like now?

At the moment a few cafes ply the dull waterfront in the Eastern city in Sabah, Borneo. The city streets are a little rough, and the three bus stations are administrated terribly. The large tourist information office needs better lighting. And, actually having some information on Sandakan other than how to get to Sepilok, turtle island and the house on the hill.

After that …  there’s really nothing to do,  even according to the tourist office?!

The city is a based on a grid system and is really quite small and very walkable. Meaning you can get around to all the back streets easily. There’s a ferry service linking it to The Philippines. Albeit over some allegedly dangerous areas in terms of piracy and kidnapping.

The people here are friendly though. But, as usual the locals will warn you away from the Filipino areas and tell you to take a taxi everywhere.

Amusing to me is many people in The Philippines I’ve spoken with told me Sabah was dangerous. I’d like to knock all their heads together in that regard. 

Exploring the real Sandakan … while it’s still there

I was slightly delighted to see the renovated dock in full working use.  Buckets of ice fish and crab were being hoisted up from small boats. Stacked into styrofoam containers and loaded onto small clean trucks. Remnants of a traditional life still eek out though.

Old buildings in Sandakan
Old buildings in Sandakan, not so pretty, unless you zoom in a little! (hint hint, click the image)

A small paint chipped boat was being stocked up with watermelon, vegetables and the odd live chicken in a box. A family was waiting patiently for a ride out to one of the islands. What person would not be happy to sit and watch all this for a morning?

Meet the local fisherman

“What you want?”

Ah, the gruff greeting of a dock worker. Cigarette hanging from the mouth he glared at me with male bravado. Perhaps this is what the average tourist does not like. The truth is the guy is just bored, or is perhaps, a genuinely tough man after years at sea.

“I take photo.”

A simple answer, with a cheesy grin and a raise of my camera. He laughs and gives a thumbs up. He’s not the type to photograph, but the fact I didn’t shy away or back down means a mutual respect.

I spent the morning there. Watching all types of fish come in, get packed, and sent off. Watching local families do weekend shops before heading back out to their island homes.

Not one tourist entering into the market “tours” came out to look around the corner. A shame. They are missing a real side to life here in Sandakan.

“The guidebook” doesn’t even get it

At the opposite end of town the buildings are a little more run down. There’s a nightly open air food area that’s a complete let down.

Sandakan's barbecue market
Sandakan's open air food market - no three-story building here!

A few tourists can be seen looking around here in the evening, unsure if this is the right spot or not.

“It’s written it should be here?”

They are referring to a three-story food court. And are correct, it’s not at this end of town.

Unfortunately, the guidebook author was a little off in their directions, and the three-story food court is actually back by the dock. I’m sure they will say it used to be where the splattering of bbq chicken wing vendors are.

But, according to the people in the area, there was never a 3 story food house in the area.

How to make Sandakan a boom town?

Back at the harbour the rough footpath becomes a blend of terracotta and beige colored stone steps. A part of Sandakan’s urban renewal project. It’s a while off yet. But in the suburban areas high rises are being built. There’s a multi-cinema planned. Rumours of more island tours. And yes, office blocks with tour agencies are starting to appear.

I have little doubt that in 5 years Sandakan’s dock area will no doubt be moved away from it all. Too rough and ready. To real life. The fishermen will find a new place down the coast. A few will remain to deliver to the market the old-fashioned way. A few might pose for photographs.

One of those rare places in travel

I’ve come across many “boom towns”, both before and after the event.

For many people the before is a forgettable boring experience, for many more, the after is an equally horrible commercialized experience.

A rare few cities will hit the cords of getting an equal balance.

Sandakan is one of those rare places you can visit that’s going through this transitional period. That in itself gives the city a unique feel. Will it tip the scales into tourist exploitation or sink into being a forgettable halfway town?

Sandakan will become a boom town, get there now

Sandakan is a gate way to Sabah, Malaysia. A hub linking to Orang-u-tan sanctuaries,  Promiscuous monkey reserves and oodles of rainforest exploration. The administration sees the potential. And, have already begun building the blocks of profitability. Who knows how it will work out.

My advice, go to Sandakan now, before it becomes just another tourist town with nothing but tour buses and backpackers watching TV’s in common rooms.

See a city on the razors edge of change. Where old meets new. Where tradition will be tailored to meet its new profitable touristic vision.

Coming Soon:

Incoming rant:  What’s happened to the ” independent backpacker”, they are paying $130 to see an orangutan! 

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17 Replies to “From “no town” to boom town: Sandakan city, Borneo”

  1. A town on the “razors edge”. I like this. A halfway between tourist town and real life town.

    I guess from reading you prefer the traditional town, but I have to say I think it becoming a town more friendly to tourists will bring it some much needed finances.

  2. Years ago, when I was in the Philippines, a friend brought me to a remote mountain village. It was not yet in the “tourist” maps and my friend requested me, nay, admonished me, NOT to write about where and how to get this village, so as not to attract the tourist hordes. He wanted it to stay as he discovered it. He felt that once tourists get a hold of it, no one can tell what will happen to the place. Tourism can be a boon but for some towns a bane. I hope for the best for Sandakan.

    1. I hear you Michael. I’ve met a few like that too. When I visited Nepal for the first time I didn’t want to write about it for fear of others coming flocking. Crazy I know, but once you find your paradise you seem to get the urge not to let anyone else in!

  3. I think it’s a shame when towns cash in on tourism and then pay by loosing their character and souls. I’ve seen it in Europe. Such a shame. No wonder we keep trying to fly to more remote destination every summer!

    1. Good point about always flying to more remote destinations. It’s not just about having seen things already, sometimes it’s just about getting away from “tourism”

  4. I remember Sandakan well, as I spent 3 or 4 days there a few years back. I actually spent Christmas there and remember having a great Christmas lunch at a seafood restaurant on the far end of town. It sits on wooden stilts over the water.

    I also remember the great views from a few of the vantage points, upon the hills overlooking the city.

    As the world we know begins to get smaller, I’m sure your right and Sandakan will become quite popular. I’ve already seen many advertisements in the Australian papers for package tours to the region.

    Look out, there coming…….

  5. First time commenting here, but a long time reader. Keep up the journey, the writing and effort you put into this thing is what keeps me coming back. You cover places in a way no one else does, or quite frankly is able to do.

    More credit to you, I hope others follow your lead.

    Stay well,


  6. Another masterpiece by you, Dave!

    Most people were also surprised that I stayed four nights in Sandakan, instead of flying to Sepilok one morning and returning to KK on late afternoon.
    I saw a number of the authentic things you mentioned, but was not as brave as you in terms of exploring.
    Did you see the – non touristic – villages on water, yet? Usually guides lead you to one that focusses on tourists, but others are there as well.

    If Sandakan becomes a boom town depends also on the way Sabah and Malaysia develops. As we know there is a slight risk that things won’t develop that smooth in Malaysia in terms of harmony and peace.

    1. Thanks Andreas. Yes, I’ve seen and been to the silt villages on water. And no, I wouldn’t recommend them. There is a lot of crime there. Mainly caused be human beings in survival mode, than for crimes sake itself.

      I think it’s inevitable that Sandakan will develop quickly. Will it happen peacefully? I think it will. Most of the “ethnic” tensions that occur in Malaysia seem focused in Western Malaysia. Sabahan’s want autonomy, but in terms of violence, protests etc, it seems very scaled down. Then again if you ask people on the west if there are problems, few will say there is, the reality is something else though.

  7. I think SDK was once the biggest town in north borneo sometime during the late 1800s and early 1900s due to timber. The Brits even made it the capital before KK. Then perhaps around 1980s it started slowing down and more recently it seems to be rebooming again possibly due to palm oil.

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