• Photo: asnida / Shutterstock


Borneo's forbidding interior made it less attractive to early traders and explorers than neighboring areas, so what is now the state of Sabah remained unexploited by the British until the late 19th century, although traders long visited for exotic items such as bird's nests (for the celebrated Chinese soup). In 1963, Sabah joined Sarawak, Malaya, and Singapore (which later seceded) in forming the Federation of Malaysia. Known as the "Land Below the Wind" because it's south of the typhoon belt, Sabah occupies Borneo's northern tip. It shares its southwestern border with Sarawak and the rest of its southern border with the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. Today vast tracts of forest have been replaced by oil-palm plantations, and a sizable portion of remaining forest land is protected in national parks or conservation areas.

On the shore of a deep bay, Sandakan was the capital of British North Borneo and one of the most important towns in Southeast Asia from the 1880s through the 1930s. But Japanese occupation during World War II and allied bombing virtually destroyed the town, and the capital was transferred to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in 1946. Sandakan enjoyed a revival in the 1970s as the center of the region's logging industry. Logging has since declined, but Sandakan is still worth visiting for its rich history and proximity to some of Borneo's most accessible wildlife attractions. Sandakan's downtown, much of it built on landfill, is squeezed between a steep promontory and Sandakan Bay. In recent years, this city of 450,000 (counting its extensive suburbs) has begun redeveloping its downtown waterfront into a shopping and nightlife hub. Its working harbor area for passengers and cargo is 6 km (4 miles) west of downtown.

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