Sandakan market: Inspiring people to look beyond a guidebook

The new Sandakan Market in Malaysia
The new market in Sandakan

Getting told off by a backpacker …

After seeing my article Sandakan the next big tourist destination, I got a mouthful from a backpacker in Sandakan. Again, apparently “there is nothing to do here

As readers here know, my journey looks beyond popular tourist attractions. Yes, a visit to Speilok or Labuk bay I will take, they’re really are not out of my way. Yet, even with when going to some of these places, this group of backpackers also murmured disapproval about my “definition of independent travel“. Seemed like I was in the dog house, again.

Thankfully, Martin from Germany was a little better than most of his friends and accepted my challenge on a return to Sandakan.

Come back to the market with me, and look beyond the “travel channel”.

Taking a tour, beyond the bus

Sandakan Market is a new(ish) three-story building near the end of the city proper by the docks. From the dock area you can look out across the bay to the ultra modern looking Mosque in the distance.

We arrived just in time to see one of those private mini tour buses drop some people off. They rushed up the first set of steps and started clicking their cameras. Minutes later; they looked bored.

As is typical with a lot of  “tours” these days. They were simply left out at a destination, and not shown around. Most people looked like they weren’t quite sure what to do by themselves.

Apparently, I am wrong

One of the gangling teenagers took out a iPod, but his head phones on and sat on the steps outside. The parents tore past the stalls inside and looked equally unimpressed. After snapping a few photos at a vegetable stall, they then went back to hovering around the parking area, waiting for the tour bus to return.

Martin laughed, shrugged his shoulders and basically told me off.

Sleepy fishermen in Sandakan
Fishermen taking a break in Sandakan

Explore & say hello is my answer

We walked around to where the local Sandakan fishing boats were unloading a fresh haul. Friendly smiles went up from the older folks sitting around.

“You take picture, good picture.”

Martin looked uncomfortable.

No need to ask me twice. Pots and baskets of fish and fruit were being transported on small fishing vessels to the nearby islands. In a lot of dock areas in the world there’s an element of some bad characters. But here, people were all smiles.

“Why I should I want to take photos of these people?” snarled the German.

Inside we walked through the meat section and made a point to say hello to anyone who basically looked in our direction. The Malaysian smile and warm greetings came from all angles. Is there any better attraction to a place than friendly people?

Meat at Sandakan Market
Meat at Sandakan Market looks better than in most markets around the world

“The meat is so bad here, not clean.”

“Where do you think they got the food for you to eat last night,” I rebuked

Putting local Malaysian hospitality to the test

Ascending the stairs I showed Martin the main eating area. He scowled.

I sat down and had a massive meal of fresh chicken and squid won ton soup with tapioca and a coke for 4 ringgit. The night before I had pumpkin chicken plus a drink in downtown Sandakan for 13 ringgit. The market food was better too.

“At 4 ringgit, I will buy you lunch Martin.”

The German was hungry, I could tell. But his ultra clean upbringing had him choking on instinct vs exploration. He ate a BBQ stick. And, I got a, “not bad.”

Local people vs the German backpacker

Local people curiously sat around us and were full of conversation between themselves. The key to joining in, was that we had to speak and greet to them first.

Their biggest question was why I was photographing my food and why Martin was not eating his.

One girl laughed and said that is why I am fat, and Martin is skinny like her. (public note, I am not fat, honest!)

I laughed and played my trump card.

“So who you like more. Fat, strong man? Or skinny German full of bones?”

The girl laughed and pointed in my direction. For the first time Martin laughed. And then, ordered come squid won ton …

Introducing The Longest Way Home

Again, the questions came about why I was photographing the food here. I answered that I am running a feature on my website about great food from Sabah Malaysia.

“Why you don’t go to the big restaurant?” A man asked.

Fresh Vegetables at Sandakan Market
Fresh Vegetables at Sandakan Market, who's the lady selling them?

“Is expensive,” I replied.

Another man laughed out loud. “Yes, only the tourist and rich eat there.”

“Exactly,” I replied again. “This is where the real people eat the real food of Sabah.”

The people around me all smiled widely and nodded in appreciation. Martin, then broke into the conversation and we spent over an hour talking with the people there and tasting their great food.

Who cares, it all comes out the same?

What’s the point of writing all this down in my journal? Well, no matter the town. Or how boring it might seem. If you don’t interact, or at least say hello. You’re missing out, at least in my book. If you don’t smile or say hello, you don’t know who you are missing a conversation with.

Question: What would be better to see here, the above photo of a vegetables stall, or a smiling person?

So, yes, you know what’s missing.

There were a bunch of people back at a “resort” condemning my ideas. Why condemn a place, or experience, before you have explored it properly?

I teased Martin about featuring him here. Like most Germans he took it seriously. But, like most Germans he was also honest enough to admit he just learned something today.

Go beyond the guidebook

Instead of doing a quick run around in Sandakan market taking photos of hanging meat, or rows of vegetables, I would encourage everyone to stop and chat with the people working there. Everyone here knows the word “hello.” Bar, it seems for the occasional package tourist and backpacker.

I know this is not to everyone’s taste. Some people just want to see Orangutans, an air-con van and a leaflet outlining the main points of a tour. Fair enough, off you go.

But to those who hang around complaining there is nothing to do, or say that a place is boring. I encourage you to put your preconceived ideas of a “good time” aside. Forget the generic glossy brochures, tourist websites and tour guide spiel. Grasp at the unknown, take a chance at doing something different; conquer your fear and say hello to something new.

Such small steps can make such a positive impact to any journey. So yes, looking for something to do? See a bunch of people doing nothing? Why not challenge them to some discovery that goes beyond what they are used to?

Coming Soon:

Going to an old windy house for a step back in time …

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25 Replies to “Sandakan market: Inspiring people to look beyond a guidebook”

  1. HAHAHAHAHAHA…I think the girl is right. Especially when I think about your previous posts; the food posts :D

    my answer : a smiling person ;)

    btw, say hello to your german friend. Well, based on my reading..i think u gonna stay here longer..yes? no?

    1. I think the girl confused fat, with muscle. Hard to tell under a shirt ;)

      But yes, a smiling person makes all the difference.

      Will, do. Just going out now to test somethings out and make a choice about staying longer or not. I think it’s time to move soon …

  2. I still feel bad that I did not properly respond to an elderly Greek gentleman sitting at a cafe. He asked me a question in Greek (of course) and I was so dumbfounded that I shrugged my shoulders, smiled and quickly left the cafe. I chalked it up to a long day of cycle touring, thirsty, couldn’t find the nearest campsite, etc.
    I blew it and he must of thought I was just another ignorant tourist.
    I shall not do that again – next time, I will really try to communicate with anyone who cannot speak English nor me who cannot understand theirs.

    1. It’s not always possible to be nice to everyone all the time. This is especially true in any walk of life. In travel, when tired, hot etc, sometimes you just need some alone time. I usually just make an excuse, and honestly tell someone I’m really hot, tired etc, and need to go. This works especially well if they look the same. But if someone is asking for help, directions, or looks in trouble, I will always make the time.

  3. I like to use food to strike up a conversation with strangers. Before I board a train or bus or visit a new place I usually buy candy, nuts or something small to munch on and offer it to the people around me. That usually gets a few smiles!

    1. Ha ha, yes, sharing food is always a good way to make people smile. The local bus driver made a lasting impression on me by sharing sweets en route to Sepilok. I usually carry polo mints ;)

  4. It’s all a question of how you perceive the world around you. Sometimes i don’t know what tourists are looking for. The most interesting thing to do in a foreign country (or in life) is the observation of everything that’s going on around you. And, of course, in Malaysia, taste the great food as well, he Dave! ;)

    1. I know nothing about eating too much in Malaysia … nothing ;) But yes, observation is one of those things that many people lack. And, it makes a difference. Tourism, is so vast and relevant to individuals needs. I’ve seen husbands and wives fight when on a trek in Nepal. Surely they both knew what would be involved, but no. It’s really amazing what people don’t and do get. Cotton wool for many is a must!

  5. Another great post! We noticed the same travelling through the old market in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. Some tourists were bored and wanted to go back to the resort.
    We smiled a lot, thoroughly enjoying our experience, which encouraged the local guide to show us around and share his life and culture. Fab.

    1. Thanks Victoria. It’s great to learn you interacted in the markets. Some people find markets too overwhelming. I don’t know about the one in Sharm el Sheik, but the Sandakan one is very quiet. There’s no need to be afraid. Others, where the touts come out to play, I can understand people running away. Then again, I guess some people only go to these place to say they’ve been there, and really just want to relax by a pool.

  6. I love markets, not the touristy types, just local ones. If there’s a new one, in a new country, and you don’t visit, you are really missing out. Great post.

    1. It’s also amazing to see how many travelers don’t talk to each other … I don’t know if it’s a sign of the times, or something to do with “I’m on holiday, and don’t want to see anyone else from my world out here”

  7. ahahaha! so where’s the smiling local?
    and i definitely agree to your points!
    we asians love food so you see most of us in the wet markets. buying food, eating, having a good conversation.
    on your other posts about malaysia and “backpackers’ I THINK most people equate backpackers with caucasians carrying a backpack with an LP guide book. a big hahahaha!

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