Most meaningful experience: Diving in Sipadan, one of the best dive sites in the world. Exploring the island of Mabul where people lived basically and still enjoyed life.
Diving the marine-filled waters of Sipadan Island with Scuba Junkie.
- Feast at one of the Cantonese-run seafood restaurants in Semporna.
- Explore the island of Mabul and play basketball with the locals.
- Trek to the summit of Mount Kinabalu – one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. (I missed it!)
Split into three different countries (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), Borneo is a jungle-swathed island that’s home to protected forests, palm tree plantations and outstanding diving. It’s dominated by the towering mountain of Kinabalu, which supports more than 5,000 species of plants and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to give Mount Kinabalu the time it deserved and would love to return to climb to the summit and spend some time trekking in the jungle. I’d also love to return to Brunei, which is meant to have some great treks as well.
The main focus of my visit was to go diving in Sipadan, an island that lies in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). I flew into Tawau and made the hour-long drive to Semporna, a coastal town that serves as the gateway to the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. It’s home to some great Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants run by Cantonese owners. We indulged at Fat Mom’s where you must try the fried banana cheese!
From Semporna we took a boat to Mabul Island, a former fishing village that’s now become a hub for the local dive industry. While we did some diving around the island, the major attraction in the area is Sipadan Island, which lies further south and is regarded as one of the best dive destinations in the world.
Sipadan is actually an extinct underwater volcano (with only its peak showing) that’s detached from the main underwater plate and has been formed by the evolution of living corals. In addition to hundreds of coral species, it’s home to more than 400 different types of fish, green and hawksbill turtles, manta rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and whale sharks.
Until 2004, Sipadan had resorts on it but the Malaysian Government made a wise decision to move them off and designate it as a national protected area. Today you have to secure a permit to visit, but it was definitely worth it, with the fish exhibiting the brightest colors I have ever seen…and there were so many! We weren’t lucky in seeing hammerheads but the diving was still exceptional.
I dove with Scuba Junkie who run a really tight business and you can book all accommodation, food and dives through them. They’re based on Mabul Island, which is worth touring in itself and easy to walk or run around (I did it six times!)
The island’s economy is driven by the local tourism industry, with some houses well established while others were visibly poor and looked like they would collapse with a puff of wind. I pontificated how such a small island could have such a massive economic divide and how easy it would be to lift these people out of poverty. But perhaps there isn’t a system in place to deal with wealth discrepancy.
One of my favorite parts of the island was the really cool basketball court in the middle where locals were playing in their NBA jerseys. Even 9,000 miles of ocean couldn’t stop one of the greatest American exports from reaching this tiny island off the coast of Borneo!
The people lived a very basic life – if poor. They catered to local tourists and tried there best to make ends meet. The resorts did a good job hiring and employing locals but a large amount of the population was left out. Even with these challenges, people smiled and were thankful to see tourists visiting.