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Part 6: Danum valley, Semporna, Sibuan, Mabul

Map of Malaysia
13.12: Munich -> Bangkok
14.12: Bangkok -> KL
15.12: KL
16.12: KL -> Langkawi
17.12: Langkawi
18.12: Langkawi
19.12: Langkawi
20.12: Langkawi -> KL
21.12: KL -> Kuching -> Kota Kinabalu
22.12: Kota Kinabalu -> Sandakan
23.12: Sandakan -> Labuk bay -> Sukau

24.12: Sukau
25.12: Sukau -> Gomantong caves -> Lahad Datu
26.12: Lahad Datu -> Danum valley
27.12: Danum valley -> Semporna
28.12:  Sibuan
29.12: Mabul
30.12: Semporna -> Tawau
31.12: Tawau -> KL
09.01: Melbourne -> KL
10.01-11.01: KL
12.01: KL -> Bangkok
13.01: Bangkok -> Munich

27.12: Danum valley -> Semporna
Sipadan Inn, Semporna. This is a newly built hotel, with free WLAN access in the rooms. Centrally located near the waterfront in the "tourist area" of Semporna. The room is nice, has A/C, a TV, table, mirror, chair, cupboard, tea&coffe corner with water boiler, attached bath with hot shower. No telephone, but I never use the telephone of hotels in Malaysia (always use the mobile phone or Skype for calls). Finally a decent hotel after so many jungle places.
Weather: overcast and some light rain in the Danum valley in the morning. The weather improves substantially when we reach Lahad Datu. Still overcast, but much brighter and no rain.

After breakfast I start walking to the canopy around 9:20am. Am walking along the main road, which is the shortest and fastest way to get to the canopy. I don't get far, because after a while the road becomes a mud and water pool. If I cross that, my shoes will be completely wet and full of mud. By the way, while walking I hear something big in the trees above. Definitely bigger than a bird and from the noise of broken twigs it probably is an orang utan. But I look very carefully and can't see anything. The animal must be hiding behind the leaves.

So I walk back to the reception and run into my guide of yesterday. I ask if perhaps somebody can bring me by car to the canopy and pick me up one hour later (will pay for that). Well no, no car is available. But the guide says that he knows a way to the canopy along the trails which is not so muddy, and he will bring me there because he has nothing to do at the moment. So I follow him.

We rush a bit, because it is already 10am and I will check out at noon. The trail is indeed less muddy than the road, but still full of mud. While walking through the forest blood-sucking flies chase me. Shortly after 10:30am we arrive at the canopy. At 11:20am, we get back to the hotel, this time along a different track. This one is more muddy than the previous one and very slippery. Have to be very careful where I put my feet. Overall the status of all trails is very poor - they are not well maintained, very slippery and full of mud.

Once back at the reception the staff informs me that I will not get a refund for the night I didn't spend in the hotel. This means essentially that this night at the Borneo Rainforest lodge has cost RM 1260 in total. The staff asks again if I want to stay until tomorrow, but I've had enough of this place and just want to get away from it. I get back to the room and take a shower, the second of today. Then I start removing the worst mud from the shoes and then pack my stuff. I then have lunch and at 1:30pm the driver picks me up and starts driving back towards Lahad Datu.

The drive takes two and a half hours. During the drive we spot an orang utan on a tree several hundred metres away, a macaque monkey and some birds. We reach the bus station at 4pm. The minibus to Semporna is already full, but there is a guy from Semporna who is about to to go back and is waiting for some people. We settle on RM 70 for the drive.

This guy drives like a small Michael Schumacher, passing by the red traffic light and overtaking whenever he likes. At 6:15pm we arrive in Semporna. The place is good, meaning that there is a good backpacker tourist infrastructure in place (hotels/guesthouses in different price ranges, restaurants catering to westerners with Internet access, travel agencies, shops etc.).

In the evening I enquire at two scuba diving operators about trips to the islands. They leave at 8am, back at 4-5pm, are run by westerners (go figure) and cost RM 100 if you only snorkel, RM 200 if you dive. If you want to leave later, you have to charter a boat and this will cost more (RM 200 or so). Mabul island is not so nice, I'm being told. No nice beach etc.

28.12: Semporna -> Sibuan -> Semporna
Sipadan Inn, Semporna.
Weather: overcast in the morning in Semporna. The sky opens up at 10am, then we have mostly sunny blue skies with some clouds and clouds layer. The sky closes up again after 3pm. No rain.

I wake up at 7:20am, then rush to get ready. Shortly before 8am I'm in the office of Sipadan Scuba, a scuba diving operator offering daytrips to the islands for RM 100 (snorkeling, if you dive it's more expensive). I register for the trip to Sibuan island which leaves at 8:30am. The mask, snorkel and fins cost another RM 20. There is still some time left, which I use to buy some food and drinks at the opposite store. This is supposed to be my breakfast, but as I later find out Sipadan Scuba do not offer the lunch, so I have to live on this until the evening (there are no shops on Sibuan island).

At 8:30am we head to the boat and then leave for the island. The boat is very fast and at 9:25am we reach Sibuan. This is a dream of an island, a long and narrow strip with vegetation in the middle (forest, coconut palms) and long sandy strips at both ends.

On the island there is a small village of sea gipsies, stateless people with no nationality. There are 107 men, women and children, no shops, no schools, no doctors. I don't dare to imagine what happens when one baby or child gets seriously sick. Actually the children should technically be Malaysian nationals, because they were born on Malaysian territory, but there is no birth registration office and people have no ID cards, therefore they officially do not exist and have no nationality. I'm also told that they are nomads, who travel from island to island from time to time.

There is a small military base at one end of the island. While walking around the island (it takes around 20 minutes to round it) I spot a machine gun position manned by Malaysian soldiers. This is probably to prevent accidents like the kidnapping of tourists in the year 2000 by Filipino insurgents.

In the meantime it's around 10am. I spend the rest of the day hanging out on the beach, swimming in the sea and snorkeling. The boat makes a series of taxi trips for the divers to specific places around the island. The sea water looks beautiful turquoise blue, but when you dive you notice that it is actually quite dirty. Visibility in the waters around the island is limited to less than 10 metres. The beaches themselves are not spotless and could benefit from some cleaning.

Around 5pm the boat leaves for Semporna. I take a shower and then bring my clothes to a laundry (they bill by kg - RM9 for 1kg which is quite affordable). Then I check for a trip for tomorrow. Sipadan Scuba are going again to Sibuan, so I head to Scuba Junkie. They have daytrips to three different islands and I chose the trip to Mabul. Cost is RM 100 and that includes the snorkelling equipment and a lunch. They leave at 8am.

29.12: Semporna -> Mabul -> Semporna
Sipadan Inn, Semporna. For the second day in a row the room servíce has forgotten to clean my room.
Weather: overcast in the morning in Semporna, then the sky opens up, but there are still lots of clouds in the sky. The sky gets overcast again in the late afternoon. No rain.

I get up at 7:20am and am in the office of Scuba Junkie at 8am. At 8:15am the boat of Scuba Junkie leaves Semporna and arrives in Mabul on the southern coast at 9am.

Mabul is a small island, a bit bigger than Sibuan. There is a village on the southern side complete with a school. The village houses extend on stilts into the sea, rendering the beach below unusable. On the northern side of the island there are a number of resorts which essentially cover almost all of the north side. At the southeastern tip of the island there is another resort which occupies the only good beach of the island ("trespassing" not allowed). The seawater on the small stretches of beach available for swimming is very shallow and the seaground is covered with coral, making it impossible or too dangerous to walk through to swim. To sum it up, Mabul has no usable beaches, unless you are staying in this (probably very expensive) resort at the southeastern tip of the island.

There is one, or maybe more than one, backpacker guesthouse (no A/C, basic rooms) on the southern side of the island where the boats dock. I didn't check what the resorts of Mabul cost, but they look like places in the RM 300-500+ range; somebody on the Scuba Junkie boat mentions a price of RM 690 per person and night in one of the resorts. So essentially Mabul has either very cheap&basic or very expensive accomodation.

Most of the beach on Mabul, except that of the resorts, is dirty and full of stuff. The seawater immediately surrounding Mabul is very dirty. Large patches of dirt float around the island. While swimming it was disgusting having to go through this water. I think I have even spotted a piece of shit floating around in the water. I do not dive or snorkel, but from above you can easily see that underwater visibility must not be too good.

So what is Mabul good for? Well, if you stay in this resort at the southeastern tip you probably have comfortable (and expensive) accomodation and a decent beach. And if you dive, Mabul is the closest place to Sipadan island. The only other option besides staying in Semporna and making day trips to the islands by boat, which is a bit tiring and not suitable if you are travelling with small children, is to stay on Mataking island (beautiful island according to the photos I saw in the web). Possibly there are other resorts on other islands in the area I'm not aware of.

Personally I wouldn't stay in Mabul, because I don't like the island. There are a few resort with an artificial level of cleanliness, but the rest of the island is a dirty mess, with poor people living in shantytowns. There is no nightlife except that of your resort, no public cafes or bars, no shops etc. You are essentially stuck in your own resort, if you want to avoid the mess.

When we arrive to Mabul in the morning I decide to get out of the Scuba Junkie boat and have a look at the island. The boatsman tells me that I can only get back on the boat at 1:30pm, when they anchor for lunch on the opposite side of the island. Not yet knowing what a mess of an island Mabul is, I get out of the boat thinking of exploring the island and spending the remaining time relaxing on a beach and swimming a bit.

By 10:30am I have finished exploring very thourougly the island. I have now three hours to kill, because there is no decent public beach and I can't swim. On the other hand I need a place in the shadow, because the sun is very strong and I will likely get sunburnt if I stay all the time in the sun. So basically I spend the next three hours under the shadow of gazebos. I go back once again to the village, then return to the northen side of the island where I "camp" in the gazebo of a long jetty, At least there are no insects and there is some breeze.

Shortly after 12pm I spot a white-headed sea eagle floating around, then landing close to me. After a few minutes a second eagle lands next to the first one. Good photo opportunity, wasn't imagining of finding interesting wildlife here.

At 1:40pm I finally join again the boat, which has anchored in a nearby pier. At 2:45pm the boat leaves and goes to the opposite side of Mabul (the southern one). Here I try to swim, but the current is extremely strong, like being in a fast flowing river. It is so strong, that I am unable to maintain the position and am sucked with the water westwards. I manage with some effort to get back on the boat and with the boat I go to the opposite side of Mabul. There I swim again. The current there is weaker but still strong enough to be uncomfortable. And the seawater is very dirty. So after perhaps half an hour or so I get back on the boat. At 4 something pm we head back to Semporna. In the evening I don't do much.

Copyright 2009 Alfred Molon