A fishbowl smack in the middle of the Sulu Sea

by Jon Burbank

SANDAKAN, Malaysia — The last thing I ever expected to find in Sandakan was the Doraemon Drinks shop.

Yet here it was, with that cute, roly-poly 22nd-century robot cat grinning over the door. Of course, I snapped a picture of my 8-year-old son, a diehard fan (as I am), sipping a drink under the sign.

A few minutes later we found a bookstore with a stack of Doraemon comics in which our hero spoke Malay. “He’s very popular. Everybody knows him,” the shopkeeper assured us.

Sandakan is a small city in Sabah, the Malaysian state at the northern tip of Borneo, not exactly the media and cultural crossroads of the world. During World War II, Japan captured Sandakan after brutal fighting and there was a notoriously horrific prison camp on the town’s outskirts, so you might think things Japanese would not be big favorites around here.

Yet here was Doraemon, and Doraemon’s wide grin was equaled by the smiles local residents gave my Japanese wife and son wherever we went.

You can easily walk around the whole of downtown Sandakan in about 15 minutes. We had a great time meandering for several hours, people watching and poking in stores.

The central market is right on the edge of the harbor. A fleet of wooden ships, both fishing vessels and ferries, crowded the quay. Sandakan sits smack in the middle of the Sulu Sea, known for its pirates and now its tourist-kidnapping terrorists.

The smell of fish filled the market even though most of that day’s business had finished. We dodged thin wiry men pushing cartloads of empty bushel baskets back to quay-side. The men squinted through a haze of smoke from ubiquitous cigarettes, dangling from their mouths. They weren’t unfriendly, just no-nonsense.

The street market was just the opposite. Under dozens of brightly colored umbrellas shopkeepers beckoned and laughed. A small boy presented roasted corn with a grand flourish, then withdrew it with a smile. How about grilled fish? Roast chicken? Banana tempura? Jellies in fluorescent shades of green and red? Bowls of noodles made to order on the spot? It was market as theater at its best.

At the time of the Japanese invasion Sandakan was the capital of British North Borneo: a prosperous, growing city. The occupation and the subsequent heavy Allied bombing destroyed the town. After the war Kota Kinabalu became the new capital and now has a population of over 500,000. Sandakan has about a 10th of that.

At least Sandakan retains some character, something that Kota Kinabalu totally lacks. Just a couple of kilometers from this central market we found Sandakan’s most interesting neighborhood.

Well out in the bay about 100 homes stand on pillars. Generations ago, Chinese families migrated here and, unable to purchase land on shore, built houses over the water. With independence, the problem of just who owned the area came to a head. Finally the government granted the families ownership of the land, or rather ocean that their houses are built over.

All vehicles stop at the shore. A wide plank walkway leads out about 50 meters from the shore to the houses. The walkway narrows to a width adequate for two-three people. As we walked around, it seemed as close as you can get to living in a fishbowl. Most houses had louvered glass windows from the waist up. Privacy was out of the question. You could see everybody’s business: who was cooking what, who was napping, who was playing cards or mah-jongg, who was singing karaoke, who was working and who wasn’t.

People waved to us from their living rooms. Kids jumped up shouting hello. A woman held out her fry pan to show what she was cooking. Other people ignored us, concentrating on their television’s soap opera or martial arts movies. It made those crazy shows that put 10 people in a house and cameras in every room almost seem restrained.

Sandakan’s most famous attraction is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, about a half hour out of town. Founded in 1964, the center rehabilitates orangutans kept as pets (or offered for sale as pets) to live in the jungle again.

It’s a lengthy process taking years. An orangutan’s jungle life is as much acquired skills as it is natural instinct. Visitors can watch the twice daily feeding at stations on the edge of the center’s 4,000 hectares of jungle. The feeding stations are “half-way houses” for orangutans living in the jungle, but unable to feed themselves yet.

Visitors aren’t allowed to bring food and are cautioned some orangutans are “quite naughty.” There’s a famous story of a tourist stripped by a “naughty” (and hungry) orangutan a few years ago. When an orangutan brushes by you on its way to the food you realize there’s a lot of power behind those adorably benign faces.

Visitors also get a chance walk through a bit of fast-disappearing jungle. Domestic and international pressure is slowing the logging pace in what remains. Now palm-oil plantations, a habitat unsuited for orangutans, cover the land.

Still, there is some jungle with orangutans and even elephants roaming free, and many ecotours to help you see them with Sandakan the jumping-off point for most. Just don’t neglect Sandakan on your way. It’s too much fun.