A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December

Sandakan’s Heritage Trail

We argue on the side of the road and I send the kids around the corner so they don’t have to hear it. The kids have pissed Nani off all morning with various antics but mainly because she wrote our hostel address on pieces of paper in case they got lost and they thought it was silly. Then I got in trouble because I hadn’t taught them to respect her properly. I offer to take them on a walk and she can have some down time but she wants to come. I’m worried that if she comes she’s going to be a bear with a sore head and it will ruin something I’ve looked forward to for months. “So it’s all about you then?” she’s says. Now I’m getting pissed off and there aren’t going to be any winners here. She says that she will calm down if I sort the kids out and keep them on a leash – if they die it’s your fault kind of thing. I agree and we patch things up a bit.

Up the 100 steps we go (the kids count around 121) alomg the Sandakan Heritage trail and out of the concrete jungle to Agnes Keith House on the hill. I had read the beautiful story The Land Beneath the Winds and loved reading about pre war Sandakan and her story as wife of Conservator of Forests Harry Keith. I had read snippets of the book to the children months ago.

Here are my thoughts on our visit to Agnes Keith House

We walk through the English Tea Garden after hearing a peacock calling and crossed the croquet lawn to investigate. We found a male peacock. Apparently he had a girlfriend but she got sick and was taken away to recuperate. He and I both have woman problems I guess.

Back down the hill and we’re at Sandakan Museum. It’s a funny museum because aside from recreated palm, bamboo, rattan traditional model houses from various tribes there wasn’t much to see. Most of it was reading posters about adventurers, hunters and explorers Martin and Osa Johnson who explored much of Borneo. It was exciting though looking at photos of their journeys up and down the mighty Kinabatangan River and all the tribes and wildlife they encountered.

My tourist map is about A6 size so I have trouble finding the chinese Sam Sing Kung temple the oldest building in Sandakan. I know I’m near it but feel like I’m circling a bit. Near the sports ground a bunch of kids – most likely illegal immigrants’ children, are playing soccer. We join in and make it Australian Socceroos v Malaysia for a penalty shoot out. Lachie bangs the first one home and we defend a few corners well, but fittingly they prevail and we wave goodbye spying the temple at the back of the soccer ground.

We take our shoes off and shelter from the burning sun inside the temple. There is a dour lady selling incense and fake money to be burned and she seems to hesitate before a cursory nod. I disable flash photography – it doesn’t seem appropriate and I try and capture a sense of the place. It does seem a little dark and mysterious. It seems to be more of an ancestral worship temple more than just worshipping Buddha. I sit for a bit of a rest and a think but Nani wants to go. She says the incense smoke is getting into her lungs. I have a sniff and it doesn’t seem too bad but don’t want mama bear back so we move on.

Across the road we negotiate a teksi to the War Memorial. This is main reason for my being in Sandakan. I have been captivated by the plight of the 1500 or so Aussie POWs stationed here during WWII (some 900 British soldiers were with them). The memorial is a large park beautifully designed at the location of the original camp. Some original artifacts still remain. A central building tells the shocking stories of brutality, attempted escapes, the cage, work on the airfields and the death marches. Of all the soldiers that were in Sandakan only the six Aussies that escaped into the jungle during the death marches survived to tell the story.

I nearly cry as I relate to the children;

I think that of the men who did not arrive, they were all shot. Those who could not march in the morning would fall out and go to a spot when we moved out, after which we could hear shots all the time. Chaps who dropped out of the march would be accompanied by a guard who would come on later, alone … In the morning, when the men were too weak to stand, we used to shake hands with them and say goodbye as they more or less knew what was going to happen.

We lost more men on the 250 km death marches to Ranau from here than in Burma and its a story that needs to be told.

Aussie spirit does shine through though. One POW said he determined to get out of his bunk each day to try and annoy at least one Jap. He says he would never let them win and that even though they beat his body, they won’t break his heart or mind. Others sabotaged the constructions they were put to work on. Tools and supplies mysteriously disappeared. Crews that had to dig out unexploded bombs weighing up to 500 pounds while guards would take cover. They would put lifting logs under them and ‘accidentally’ stagger towards the guards who would yell and point where to take them.

The kids are very sad and deeply affected as they read the accounts, and quotes and watch a slide show of the faces of the POWs. Lachie says he doesn’t want to visit Japan anymore and Oscar is angry. He says he wants to fight someone. I try and explain the best I can.

Back at the entrance, we take a minute silence – Lest We Forget.

On the way back into the city we stop the taxi driver to buy Durian. I don’t really know any westerners that can handle this fruit. The saying goes that it “smells like hell tastes like heaven” but most foreigners think it smells like shit so forego the tasting. The roadside hawker sniffs a good one out and overcharges us before hacking the thorny green outer rind open with a cleaver and deftly transferring the yellow custardy flesh covered seeds into a polystyrene tray. I try and hold the bag tightly to avoiding stinking out the teksi but it’s not possible. We get dropped off at another memorial in town (most buildings ban durian) and stuff our faces. The smaller two reckoned that they didn’t want to eat it but they have a go and end up asking for more.

After a dinner of steamed whole fish, belacan kang kong and Tom Yum soup at the waterfront we wander back to the square outside the museum as the churches of Sandakan have a Christmas celebration. St Mary’s choir are fairly serious and Calvary Charismatic have a lively drama in Malay – something about Sunday Christians not being very committed and then some real deal Christian with a samurai sword turns up and turns the heat up on everyone including the devil (wearing a Slayer T-shirt). Our favorite is the little kids from Sandakan Baptist. They’re really cute. Our kids were given balloons and a little gift box of cakes. Sitting on the ground listening to some carols was a great way to spend the night.

For me, the temple was a bit of a dark and grim place. The christmas concert was bright and happy and told of Jesus love. The war memorial, sandwiched in between was absolutely heart wrenching. I wonder where those poor diggers thought God was, or did they think they were already in hell? Then I decide not to think about it because these kind of questions never seem to have a satisfactory answer.


6 responses to “Sandakan’s Heritage Trail

  1. kemmy December 15, 2011 at 10:40 am

    I know the Japs did a monstrous amount of atrocities during the ww2 but don’t forget to teach your kids what colonialism by the British did too. They may have been more subtle in some ways but the after effects are just as damaging and continue to be. The politics they played to their advantage continue to cause civil wars and poverty in those countries that they occupied.

    • John December 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      Kemmy, I suppose I’ve seen the effects of colonialism a little on our own indigenous people in Australia and it was devastating. I guess it’s hard to compare the two though. One may be exploitative, but the other seemed to kill so many people for the sake of killing… In Malaysia, I don’t really see the effects of colonialism now. Maybe because of the way the country was federated and handed back to the Malaysian people they have charted their own course politically, economically and even racially.

  2. Tracy Brandis-Gray December 15, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    It really does bring to home the supreme sacrifice our Australian diggers paid for freedom, reading the stories about Sandakan is always difficult. My Uncle Billy was at Sandakan along with Don McKenzie and Jack Rudwick for a few weeks before being transported to Kota Kinabalu for their trial. In one way going to KK was a better option, at least their deaths were quick not like the rest of the soliders in the camp at Sandakan.

    • John December 18, 2011 at 3:22 pm

      I guess that’s one way to look at it Tracy. I did note that one of the Sandakan escapees actually suicided after escaping, so it seemed their hell continued even after finding freedom in the jungle.

  3. Kevin December 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm


    My name is kevin, and I am one of the backpackers who started
    Just saw your blog on the Thorn tree travel forum. I have been to Indonesia myself, but never to Borneo.

    I love the way you tell your story and I would really like it if you could consider writing your own travel guide on about your trip ( if you want to see what a guide about indonesia looks like you can see mine here

    Your guide about Indonesia would be a perfect addition to mine ;).

    If you don’t know the concept : Basically, you write your own personal travel guide, and when it is finished you receive your a free/full color copy of your guide at home.

    We already have a few pretty nice guides on the website if you want to check it out.

    Don’t hesitate to contact me on if you are interested, I would really like to read your guide 😉

    Good travel anyway !

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