I want to tell you about this beautiful place in my home country. A place so pretty, so full of wonderful lives, thrilling experiences that leave deep imprints in your heart. It's a place you can never forget for its charm stays forever in you, blooming and manifesting in a way that you can never forget. In time, the tropical sun, the scent of the sea breeze, the warmth of people, the mysterious lives below the sea will only grow more fondly inside you; and you will find yourself missing and wishing to return to this paradise again and again.
Believe me when I tell you how stunning this place is, because I have visited the place with a heart and never came back with one. I happily left my heart and soul at Semporna, Sabah.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="630"] A common sight at Semporna.[/caption]
As a Malaysian Diver, I have always been told that I should dive in Sabah, because we have one of the best dive sites in the world namely the island of Sipadan. I kept hearing stories about how the place is so wickedly wonderful because you would not only be dazed by the many thriving underwater lives; you would also be threading on dangerous waters, whether it's on the land or under the water. Since you know, the currents there have been known to be strong and the security on land isn't that good with all the terrorism going around. But the adrenaline rush, the thrilling thoughts that you might not live to tell another story would all be worth it in the end.
Back to my long awaited vacation, we planned this trip a year before and managed to grab some good deal from Air Asia, costing approximately RM150 with return flight, from KL to Tawau. We had prior transport arrangement from Tawau Airport straight to Semporna. It was a 45 ~ 60 minutes drive to the small jetty town.
There are plenty of taxis/vans in the airport for rental, so you don't have to worry about getting to Semporna if you don't have any other arrangements beforehand. Most hotels will include the transportation in the package, so be sure to verify yours.
We stayed in a simple and thriving town called Semporna with Borneo Global Sipadan Backpackers Lodge & BGB Country Tours & Travel. It is the place where all the tourist would step foot on as it's also the nearest to all the beautiful islands on the nearby oceans. Almost all the people who are going to the islands would depart from its jetty.
There are plenty of diving centres, backpacking hostels and hotels in town and they cost slightly cheaper than staying on the many islands out in the nearby oceans. So if you are on a budget like me, you could choose stay in Semporna. There are plenty of dive centres around that will bring to the islands for diving or even snorkelling, island hopping if you don't have a license.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="630"] Look at all the houses built on the sea.[/caption]
We chose to stay on the mainland instead of the islands because of the limited budget and also the perks of having varieties of food. On islands, you are subjected to whatever limited choices you have there, and it's pretty much impossible or else pricey to pay some boat taxis to bring to another islands.
Besides I have to warn you that you might not find anyone who's willing to travel on boat at night because of all the terrorism going on in the area. In terms of our accommodation, the room was fairly simple. We had everything we need, a place to stay and shower and just chill for the night as there weren't many night activities around and really not advisable to hang around at night. Though we all felt that the rooms could use some maintenance, most of the facilities, furnitures and beds were really old and in need of restoration.
They have plenty of chinese, western or malay eateries; and there's a market in the morning where you could see the locals selling tons of exotic seafoods. If you want to experience how locals go on with their lives, Semporna is a great place to stay and experience their culture.
On the first day itself, we were welcomed by the locals' warmth hospitality. Since it was already late for any dives on that day, our trusty host arranged us for a Borneo Semporna Proboscis River Cruise Excursion. It was long boat drive into one of the many national parks in Sabah to hunt for these wild proboscis monkeys and fortunately, we managed to spot a few of these evading creatures. Our dinner was nothing short of amazing. It was a BBQ Seafood dinner. The portion was generous and the taste was fresh and delicious. All of us on the excursion left with a satisfactory experience.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="630"] Sneaky proboscis monkey. Spot the huge nose?[/caption]
And to be honest, I have known that people on East Malaysia are far more friendlier than those on West Malaysia especially those working in the tourism industry. Still, the amount of sincerity and warmth displayed by these locals surprised me, I have probably never experienced such hospitality from the many times I travelled around West Malaysia before. Not that I am complaining, I am just really happy that at least I don't need to an "ang moh" to receive these kinda treatments from my own fellow Malaysians. West Malaysians need to learn some of the attitudes from these locals in Semporna.
Another issue that kinda worried me when I visited Semporna is the security issue. Before I flew over, there was a series of kidnapping. I almost cancelled it because of the pressure from my parents. I have been hearing that it is potentially safer to stay on the mainland because the islands are easier to invade.
The thing about Semporna is, it's difficult to differentiate between the locals and the immigrants from Philippines. I have heard stories from the locals that these people literally float on a small wood plank for days to arrive here, to escape from the poverty from their own country in search of new opportunities. There are plenty of illegal houses built on the seas that most of these people live in.
The impoverishment is obvious in this town, you could see it everywhere and these people are living on a minimum wages. So my advice to you is dress modestly, don't flaunt your riches because mainland or not, it's better be humble, safe than sorry. Don't make the same mistakes as those tourists from China. Based on the way they dress and spend extravagantly, it's really no wonder they have been targeted. So if you are visiting, don't do that; just don't bring troubles upon yourself.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="630"] The jetty for people who want to head out to all islands. Surrounded by the houses built on sea.[/caption]
Also, on the way to the other islands from Semporna's jetty we noticed that there were a lot of people farming seaweeds on the surface of the oceans. I supposed it was a good income for these sea people, though I must say that these activities also caused plenty of other problems, like pollution. There were rubbish floating everywhere, plenty of plastic bottles, bags and those non-biodegradable waste which we assumed they were being thrown thoughtlessly into the water by those living on the water.
There is another problem from this seaweed farming apart from the increase in number of people living on the sea; is the number of sea turtles invading these farms. Seaweed is like their natural food so naturally they are attracted by the sheer amount of vegetations growing in the area.
This however poses another problems for those farmers who rely on these plants for a small amount of income, so they resort to killing because to them, sea turtles are pests and apparently they can destory the seaweed farm overnight. There has been controversies on this matter because some people blame it on the farmers; others point finger at the those commercial fisheries.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="630"] A lot of people live on the sea, relying on fishing and seaweed farming for a living.[/caption]
Either ways, it's a big loss. These animals can smell the blood of their own species and they will avoid the areas instinctively. I supposed there will be less sighting of these wonderful animals in the future.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="630"] Heading out for our dives![/caption]
For the next 3 days in my 5D4N Vacation consisted of only diving, diving and diving, and we had our dinners around the town. The chinese foods were excellent. And the seafoods were so fresh and so cheap, do yourself a favor, forget all your diet plans and eat to your heart's content. The diving spots were stunning, but I will have to save all our guilty pleasures for the next post. ;)
So, believe me when I tell you how stunning this place is, because I have visited the place with a heart and never came back with one. I happily left my heart and soul at Semporna, Sabah.
Stay tuned for my epic story! And also all the information you need. ;)
Check out this companion piece: Travel 2014: Diving in Sipadan, Sabah.