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Getting around

Part 2: Semporna islands

19.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Lahad Datu -> Semporna
20.8: Semporna -> Bohey Dulang island -> Semporna
21.8: Semporna -> Mataking -> Semporna
22.8: Semporna -> Pom Pom island -> Kuala Lumpur
23.8: Kuala Lumpur
24.7: Kuala Lumpur
25.8: KL -> Dubai
26.8: Dubai -> Munich

19.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Lahad Datu -> Semporna
Hotel Sipadan Inn, Semporna. RM 85 for a room, big enough, with adjustable A/C, LCD TV, table, mirror, e-safe, bathroom with shower (instantaneous water heater). Clean room, a bit basic. Breakfast not included. The room where I'm staying has no window and is on the ground floor next to the reception. A better room in this price class is not available, because the hotel is fully booked.
Weather: overcast in the morning in KK, at noon the sky open up and is mostly blue.

I get up at 10:30am and check out shortly before 12pm noon. In the hotel lobby I notice that the room rate shown is 110 RM. I ask if I can get the Asiarooms rate of 80 RM if I book directly with them (they would not have to pay the commission to Asiarooms). The answer is no, I need to book through the Internet.

So I walk out of the hotel. I need to get some Malaysian cash, a Malaysian SIM card, need lunch and would need to enquire about daytrips to Pulau Mantanani. Due to lack of time I only manage to get the cash (takes a while to find an ATM) and the SIM card.

The SIM card is an Xpax from Celcom (in Sabah Celcom has a better coverage than Digi and I will be at the borders of the coverage areas). The SIM card costs RM 8.50 and I buy an RM 10 recharge. Daily mobile Internet usage costs RM 5 (package has to be activated separately, otherwise it's RM 0.1 (0.01?) per 10KB of data volume.

So I take a taxi to the airport (RM 30, because I'm rushing a bit I don't try to negotiate the price down). Before 1pm I'm at the airport. I check in, then have some food at a McDonalds restaurant. Good number of western tourists waiting at the gate.

The flight on the ATR-72 of MasWings is delayed and takes off only after 3pm, instead of 2:30pm. On board the hostesses serve some snacks and a drink, what a difference from the usual no-frills AirAsia flight.

We land in Lahad Datu at 3:50pm. I take a taxi (RM 10 to the bus station. Initially there is no minibus to Semporna, but after a few minutes one shows up. Some discussion with the driver. For RM 100 he would be willing to leave soon, i.e. I'd have the full minibus for me.

When I'm all set up to close the deal and pay the RM 100 another tourist (backpacker from Ireland) shows up, and now the discussion begins. Initially they want to charge both of us RM 100 (total RM 200), but we end up settling on RM 70 each. Now however the driver picks up four more people, local Malays, so our share should go down. But no, it does not go down, because these Malays apparently do not pay. One of the ladies claims she is a relative.

It's actually very hot in Lahad Datu, due to the strong sun. The minivan has no A/C, shame. Inside it feels like in a Finnish sauna. Only when the minivan picks up speed there is some cooling breeze.

The driver makes a long stop at a petrol station and when we finally leave lahad Datu it's almost 5pm. But then we speedily proceed towards Semporna (driver drives at 100km/h and even a bit faster) and are in Semporna shortly after 7pm.

Semporna looks like a city during Christmas. It's the Hari Raya celebration (the end of the Ramadan fasting period) and all houses have light decorations (chains of colourful light bulbs) on them. Semporna is full

I check in at the hotel, wash myself a bit, then walk into the nearby Sipadan Scuba dive shop and enquire about tomorrow's day trips. They go to Bohey Dulang island cost of the trip for snorkellers is RM 140 (was RM 100 at the end of 2008). This includes the meal and the snorkelling equipment.

At Scubajunkie they are going to Mataking island but I can't book because the office already closed. Later I'm told that tomorrow's boat is full, but I can show up at 7:30am in case somebody cancelled the trip.

After that I look for a restaurant, since I haven't had dinner yet. There are three restaurants, all full, no empty tables. I wander around for a while and finally I manage to grab a table at the Mabul cafe and place an order. After 45 minutes of waiting I cancel the order, because it it now too late to have dinner. Instead I buy some food at the supermarket and eat that.

Semporna is full of people, really crowded. Lots of Malaysian travellers and tourists. Lots of Malays wearing fluorescent pyjamas, must be the attire to wear on Hari Raya. I whatsapp this to Shirley and she jokes 'U can wear it too'. Sure just a minute, let me pull out my fluorescent pyjama and join the masses.

I hope these Malays are not going to take all places on the boats the next few days. But no, why worry, Malays do not go into the water because they would have to wear swimsuits and that would be embarassing for them.

20.8: Semporna -> Bohey Dulang island -> Semporna
Hotel Sipadan Inn, Semporna. Today the hotel forgot to clean my room.
Weather: sunny, blue sky, with some clouds. Hot, no rain.

I get up at 6:45am and by 7:20am I'm in the office of Scubajunkie asking if there is a place on the boat for Mataking. They tell me to come back at 8am... obvious answer, because they can't know before 8am if somebody is not showing up. I should have known yesterday.

So I head to the office of Sipadan Scuba and book the tour to the less exciting Bohey Dulang island. The price is 120 RM because I don't take the snorkelling equipment (otherwise it's 140 RM). Scubajunkie is way cheaper here at 110 RM.

It's 8:25am when we finally start moving towards the jetty. I could perhaps have slept longer.

At 8:45am the boat finally leaves the jetty. I'm together with a group of 16 Italian tourists who are doing a roundtrip across Malaysia. The tour leader is Kate, an American girl fluent in Italian who is working here as a dive instructor. However today nobody of us will do any dive - we're all snorkellers.

Actually we initially drive to the main jetty and wait there until 9am. No idea why, I just wonder why I had to show up so early. Reminds me of the comment "I have never seen 8am in my life" made by somebody in a chat forum.

So we take off at 9am finally and reach Bohey Dulang at 9:35am. Bohey Dulang is a mountaineous island with a peak at 200m altitude according to the camera GPS. There is one good beach, not a big one. From this beach it is possible to get into the water and swim a bit without hitting the corals. There is a path leading to the summit of the island.

Once on the island we all register our name and nationality in a book. Then we have a look at the coral acquarium adiacent to the administrative building.

Around 9:40am we start climbing to the top.I'm wearing beach slippers, because I didn't know that we were planning to climb a mountain. I have to be very careful where I place my feet.

Despite the short distance it takes quite a long time to reach the summit, in fact we are there only at 10:35am. This is because we make three long stops, because not everybody is able to move quickly.

The view from the summit is great. You can see the nearby islands, the ocean and the sky with the clouds.

After a while on the top we get down again. I'm back at the boat at 11:30am and have my meal which consists of a sandwich. I initially take the non-vegetarian one, then switch the vegetarian one when I see that the non-vegetarian one contains a sausage. Bleah! I was expecting a box of fried rice and see what they serve.

Then we are on the beach for the next three hours, swimming and sunbathing.

At 3pm we get back on the boat. The boat now proceeds to a spot a few hundred metres from one island where there are good snorkelling possibilities. We are there for a while, then at 4 something pm head to another island, 4km west of Bohey Dulang.

This is a flat island with coconut trees, where people live, probably sea gypsies or Filipinos. It takes about half an hour to walk around the island. The beaches are not bad, but are very polluted (lots of plastics and other rubbish).

There is a village with these people, the houses are made of wood an leaves. Probably there is no electricity and I wonder where they get the drinking water from. And what they live off. The kids apparently don't go to school. In theory they are Malaysian citizens because they were born on Malaysian territory, but don't have ID cards and therefore no Malaysian citizenship. it's the same situation as on Sibuan island.

At 5:25pm we leave for Semporna, arriving around 6pm. I book a boat tour to Mataking for tomorrow and have a dinner in the evening.

21.8: Semporna -> Mataking -> Semporna
Hotel Sipadan Inn, Semporna.
Weather: overcast in the morning in Semporna. It rains heavily between 8am and 8:30am. In Mataking sunny, blue sky with some clouds and very hot. After 3pm the sky is overcast again.

I'm in the office of Sipadan Scuba at 7:50am, but the boat only leaves at 8:55am. The trip to Mataking island takes almost one hour.

Mataking is a combination of two islands, a big one and a small one, connected by a narrow strip of sand. The big island is about 1.5km long, while the small one is only half a km long. Both islands are long and flat strips of land. On the big island there is a resort and the whole island is sort of a private island.

Kate, our guide, tells us not to walk into the island (into the resort) and stay on the beach. We are dropped on the small island. I walk once around the island and after some stops am back to the small island at 12:45pm.

In the meantime there is low tide and the sea water has receded, making the sand strip between the islands much larger. We have some lunch, again the sandwiches with the sausage. Aarghh... everybody complains.

After lunch we do a couple more stops in two spots around Mataking island, then at 4pm drive back to Semporna. The sky by now is overcast and it's quite fresh in the boat when the boat is moving. We're back in Semporna at 5pm.

In the evening I have dinner and book a boat ride to Pom Pom island for tomorrow.

22.8: Semporna -> Pom Pom island -> Kuala Lumpur
Hotel The Summit, Subang Jaya (a suburb of KL). RM 188 for a big room with a single bed and a queen size bed. This was many years ago a modern and stylish hotel, but it is now very old. The biggest problem is the A/C, which is set to the maximum. There is no thermostat and no remote control. No way to adjust the temperature of the A/C. In fact during the night the temperature in the room drops to 19C - almost refrigerator level for a tropical country. The beds in the room have thin blankets, insufficient for the cold temperatures. The bathroom however is functional and the shower is good (lots of hot water). The room has some furniture, but no safe for valuable things. My guess is that the owner of the hotel is not willing to invest again into this hotel and is just "cashcow-ing" it, i.e. milking it for revenues until it is too old. The hotel is next to a medium sized mall, but far away from KL (23km).
Weather: overcast in the morning in Semporna and some very light rain. Sunny & blue sky in Pom Pom island with some nice clouds in the sky. Back in Semporna at 5pm the sky is overcast, but it doesn't rain.

At 8am I walk to the office of Sipadan Scuba and wait for the trip to Pom Pom island. Since I'm still heavily sunburnt (looks like the sun tan lotion with SPF 20 was insufficient - next time I'll use SPF 50, I don't care about getting a tan), I buy a big hat of straw in the Sipadan Fashion shop for RM 5. This is really huge (looks like a Mexican sombrero), most likely I look funny in it, but at least it will protect me from the sun.

At 8:45am we finally walk to the boat and shortly before 9am we leave for Pom Pom island.

Today the sea is a bit rough and we are riding the waves at high speed in the boat. Lots of bumps, quite painful for the ass. Every now and then we catch a shower of sea water.

On the boat there is the same group of Italian tourists with whom I did the boat trips for the past two days. Apparently they have subscribed a package deal with Sipadan Scuba.

At 9:40am we approach Pom Pom island and less than 10 minutes later we are on the beach.

Pom Pom island is an island with roughly a triangular shape. There are two resorts on it, according to our guide. Each of the resorts has a jetty and offers dive tours. Access to the beaches is allowed, but non-guests are not allowed to enter the resort area.

This is a problem if you want to walk around the island, because one of the resorts has built a wall of concrete parallel to the beach, sort of a dam to prevent the waves from hitting this part of the island (where resort bungalows are located). Walking below the wall at high tide means that you get wet until the waist, so the only option not to get wet is to trespass the resort property.

On the eastern side of Pom Pom there are no resorts, there is no wind and the seawater is more quiet. Here there are also a few trees which provide shadow, very important in a tropical island where the sun is very strong.

Surprisingly there are no coconut palm trees on Pom Pom, except for a few small ones at the resorts, which most likely have planted by the resorts to provide the sort of tropical island setup.

In the middle of the island there is a telecommunications tower probably for mobile communications networks, with if I understand it correctly two cells and a microwave link to the mainland. This explains why there was good connectivity on Mataking island yesterday (it's clost to Pom Pom) and why there is good connectivity on Pom Pom with mobile phones.

I walk once around the island and around 11:30am settle on the western side of the island in the shadow under one of the trees, where also the other tour participants are staying.

Shortly after 12pm Kate (our tour guide today) arrives with today's meal. It's again the same sandwiches we have been eating yesterday and the day before yesterday. The non-vegetarian ones contain a sausage (bleah!) and the vegetarian ones contain some cheese, which also doesn't tast that great. At least today the bread seems to be half-way fresh (was quite hard yesterday).

Since I'm sunburnt I spend most of the time under this tree, only occasionally venturing into the water to freshen up a bit.

Surprisingly at the end of this day Kate will be sunburnt as well, despite her tan. Really amazing, she has spent six months on Malaysian islands and still gets sunburnt. The sun here is really very, very strong.

As time passes the low tide comes and the water gets very shallow. But even at high tide, this part of the beach where we are staying now is not suitable for swimming, because it is still too shallow and you have to walk over sharp rocks and coral to reach the deeper sea. You need some kind of underwater rubber sandals. The better beach is probably on the western side of Pom Pom, where the resorts are located.

Chit-chat with Kate who explains that it's not just Sipadan Scuba and Scubajunkie who organise boat trips to the islands. There are apparently also other operators in Semporna. I also should mention that I have seen a few new hotels in Semporna which I can't remember having seen the last time I visited in December 2008.

Semporna is developing more and more as a tourist centre. The only thing which is still missing now is affordable accomodation on the islands with A/C, because the huts on Mabul are very basic and have no A/C and all other island resorts I'm aware of are expensive. This basically forces people to stay in Semporna and do daytrips by boat from there.

On the other hand, I haven't seen many islands in this area which are suitable for resorts or hotels and have nice beaches. The few candidates are all already covered with expensive resorts. There is nothing comparable yet to Perhentian in this area.

At 4:15pm we leave for Semporna. Again the sea is rough and the boat trip is a rough ride on the waves.

We reach Semporna at 5pm. I go to the hotel and take a shower. Then I organise a taxi for Tawau airport. The cost is RM 100, the same as in 2008. After that I have dinner and pack my stuff.

At 7:30pm we start driving towards the airport in Tawau. Initially we are stuck in the traffic jam. Semporna may be a small city, but it is surrounded by a large urban area extending for a few km. Getting through this urban area takes time, but once out of if the car picks up speed and we reach the airport in Tawau shortly before 8:40pm.

I check-in and proceed to the gate. Have to go through immigration, even if I'm only flying to KL. Somebody has to explain to me what the sense of all this is. Does Sabah want to prevent non-Sabahan Malaysians to enter it?

The 21:55 AirAsia flight leaves on time. The plane is about 2/3 full. It lands in KL LCCT early at 00:15. I retrieve the luggage and take a taxi (coupon system, RM 96.30 because of the 50% night surcharge) to the hotel.

I manage to be in the hotel by 1:30am but sleep after 2am.

Copyright 2012 Alfred Molon