Semporna & Mabul Island, Malaysia

April 15 – 19, 2009

I arrived in Semporna late at night, which was annoying because I didn’t know where I was going and didn’t want to have to figure it out in the dark. But because Semporna is the launching off point for scuba trips to Mabul Island (where I was wanting to go), the world famous Sipadan Island, and others…there were still people outside and the residents are used to tourists. They’re also used to taking advantage of tourists (like the taxi driver who offered to drive me into town for 40 ringits even though it probably should have costed 4). I decided to walk instead. Walking rather than driving may seem like an unsafe idea, but in this place taxis are just dudes in unmarked cars and it’s never easy to tell if they’re legit or not. So I really did feel better walking.

Just as I started walking, another car pulled up and started driving slowly next to me. Assuming he was a taxi, I got closer to tell him I was just going to walk. But as I peeked in the window, he pulled his penis out and started making kissing noises. eek. I screamed at him really loud to make a scene and he sped away. But it’s a good think I didn’t really need a taxi because I might have just gotten in the car without thinking to question it. I know bad experiences like this can happen anywhere, but this one left me kinda shaken up and wanting to leave Semporna as soon as possible.

Since I really couldn’t get any further that night, I settled on the Dragon Inn, a sprawling, water village-type hotel. Maybe the regular rooms are nice, but the dorm room (where I stayed) was pretty awful. The stagnant water the room was floating over, combined with the flourescent lights and wooden slats for flooring, made an excellent environment for mosquitos and crappy sleep. I crawled onto a bottom bunk so I could drape a sheet down, put in earplugs, wrapped a bandana over my face, and slept as best I could.

I woke up at 6am. Not really by choice but because I couldn’t sleep anymore. And since I knew the office for Uncle Chang’s (the scuba company/guesthouse that I wanted to stay with on Mabul Island) would open at 7, I headed that way. As luck would have it…they did have space for me (most people made reservations for this trip far in advance), but I’d have to hurry - as they were only sending one boat out to the island that day (at 7:30). One of the employees offere to drive me to the ATM so I could get some cash out in time to hop on the boat. And luckily I made it back just in time. So it turned out to be a really good thing I woke up early. Otherwise I would have had to charter a boat to the island alone (very expensive) or just stay in Semporna with the mosquitos and creepy dude and make day trips from there. And judging by the zero pictures I took in Semporna, you can see how I felt about the place. I definitely didn’t want to stick around longer than I had to.

Anyway, Uncle Changs was definitely the most commercial place I supported in Sabah. It was very clear to me that this company was focused on making as much money as possible and less concerned about providing quality accommodation or food. But it was still the cheapest place to stay on the island. And if you want to snorkel on the reef, staying on the island is a cheaper, prettier, and more relaxing option than basing yourself in Semporna and taking day trips to the islands each day.

When our boat arrived at Mabul Island, we all sat around eating fried noodles and coffee while we waited to check in. I met Emily, a 19-year old English girl spending her gap year between high school and college by traveling around the world. She also started her trip in October and was traveling alone. I really liked Emily. She was friendly, talkative, and interesting. She reads thriller books, comes from a privileged family who owns a yaht and goes on 2-month family skiing, sailing, or scuba diving vacations each year, and she would soon become a dentist (specializing in dental implants). With my stories of vegan potlucks, buying my clothes from thrift stores, and not shaving my legs, I could tell she thought I was a crazy hippie. And even though we are very different people, we got along great and had lots to talk about. From what Emily told me, it sounds like she’d grown up a lot in the past year - and traveling had definitely played a huge role in this. She said it has opened her eyes to a lot of things and made her more accepting of different types of people.

Anyway, Emily had her own private room and since I booked last minute, I was supposed to be in a 4-bed dorm room even though we were both paying the same price (60 ringits) per night. Emily ended up inviting me to share her room with her, so I took her up on it. It was still more fun to have the company. We got to talking and found out that she was in New Zealand around the same time that I was. She even knew Sam (the English schoolteacher I traveled around with for a few days) because she met her at a hostel in Christchurch, which we calculated was exactly a day or two after Sam and I parted ways. Small world.

Uncle Chang’s was basically a collection of ghetto looking wooden shacks built on stilts over the water and connected by wooden planks. It looked like most of the rooms were in various stages of completion, but since they probably don’t ever take a break from housing tourists, they won’t ever finish them. It looked like our room will eventually have a bathroom attached, but at the moment it only had a wooden closet with some plumbing supplies and boards thrown on the floor. Our key didn’t seem to ever want to unlock the door, so it ended up being easier just to stick our arms through the window to unlock it instead. And in the end, we just stopped locking it all together since so many people had seen us unlock it that way.

One night there was a terrible storm and we both woke up worrying that our shack would fall apart. We stayed up talking about the things we would try to save if that happened. My scarf and bandana that were hanging outside had sadly already been swallowed by the ocean. And my poor shoes (which had finally just dried from Danum Valley) were now soaking wet again. I had a hard time falling back asleep that night. I had to pee really bad, but was pretty sure that if I crossed the wooden plank leading to the bathroom I’d get blown into the water. So I never went.

It was still stormy the whole next day, which made for some nice photos.

At Uncle Changs, meals were included in the price and served buffet style at set times of the day. I notified the cooks in advance that I was vegetarian, so they said they would accommodate. The first day of food was pretty good. While everyone else ate fried eggs for breakfast, they gave me a giant plate of stir fried mixed vegetables with lots of garlic. And for dinner, they made sure I had enough vegetables (like green beans, eggplant, and cabbage). But the next three days, it was all crappy. I was consistently served one of 3 things for every single meal: boiled cabbage, sweet baked beans (that were basically just dumped from a can onto a plate), or cold, greasy french fries – all served with a smirk from a very unenthusiastic girl who was doing the cooking. It’s not that I was getting worse treatment for being a vegetarian – the food served to everyone else was also unappetizing. The giant bowl of white rice they offered at every meal was more like a mush than rice. And the chicken wings they served for dinner had been sitting uncovered in the heat all day long. Once Emily saw them pick up a few raw wings that had fallen on the floor and gotten covered with ants back onto the pile waiting to be cooked. There was clearly no love in the food. None at all. Instant coffee and white bread was available all day, so sometimes I just made a meal out of that (the chunky peanut butter that one of the birders gave me in Danum Valley turned out to be a life saver!)

OK. I don’t want to bash on Uncle Chang’s too much. While I didn’t agree with the low quality of service for such a high price, I did have a great time. And the company had some positive points as well. The staff, for example, were fabulously friendly (well aside from the ones serving the food).

And they seemed to really enjoy being there. Which makes sense seeing as their job consists of hanging out in the sun, meeting foreigners, and swimming in the water all day. Some of them are in a band together and we got to hear them perform one of the nights I was there.

I really loved their drum kit made of buckets!

When these guys weren’t playing music, you’d see them up late chatting and drinking bottle after bottle of rum. One night Emily and I joined them, but we couldn’t function too well in the morning. These guys though…they’re immune! After each night of heavy drinking, they’d manage to wake up early and lead multiple snorkeling/diving tours (some drive the boats, some lead snorkel groups, and some serve as dive masters). It’s kinda impressive, but also kinda scary. But they do manage to lead these trips successfully day in and day out…so I guess they know what they’re doing.

The best part about Uncle Changs is that they offer multiple snorkeling trips to reefs around Mabul Island. These trips are included in the price and you basically just get to tag along wtih the scuba divers if there’s room in the boat.

I went on quite a few of these free trips. And once I made friends with the staff (they all called me “Cris”), some of them were really helpful - snorkeling with me and pointing out things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Like cuttlefish!

The scuba guides really did touch a lot of stuff though! I noticed it – and so did other people I talked to. The current was really strong in some areas, making it difficult to stay still long enough to get a good picture. After a while I gave up and just enjoyed floating and looking at everything as it passed by. The staff members however (the ones who should be most knowledgeable about protecting the reef) had a different solution. They just grabbed onto the coral or stood on it to stabilize themselves!!

The scuba divers also had complaints. One lady saw a few of the staff members picking up button starfish and tossing them around to each other.

Another couple was taking pictures of nudibranchs (colorful sea slugs) and they were shocked when the dive instructor started picking them up and placing them in a neat little composition so they could get a better photograph.

And another girl noticed one of the dive masters poking things with sticks. She said that at first she thought they must be conducting some sort of study. But after the third or forth time she saw them do it, she realized…nope – they were just poking things! When I asked one of the guys about this later, he said “You can make the animals sick if you touch them with your hands.” I suggested that the best idea would be just to not touch them at all…but I’m not sure the message resonated.

This is only one of the environmental problems that came to light during my trip to Mabul Island. Better education is definitely needed….or the reef is really going to suffer.

Another huge risk to the reef is that the island is trashed. Not just a little bit of trash. I mean trash everywhere!!

There are many reasons for this. But basically, the island is tiny (it takes about 20 minutes to walk around it). And stuffed onto this tiny island are 2 large resorts, 3 or 4 guesthouses/dive operations, and several overpopulated villages. There is no way this island can possibly sustain any more development.

I don’t know what the best solution is…but something needs to happen. Mabul Island is supposed to be part of a National Park, but out of all the islands that make up Tun Sakaran National Park, Pulau Sipidan is the only one that authorities go to great lengths to protect (no accommodation is allowed on the island and the number of diving permits is capped at a certain amount of people per day). Because Pulau Sipidan is considered to be one of the world’s top dive sites, there is a long waiting list to get a permit to dive there…and people pay a lot of money for these permits. But because there’s no development and a smaller number of visitors, their high expectations are met. The island remains pristine and swarming with sea creatures. I don’t understand why all the islands in this national park aren’t being protected! It would benefit everyone to do so.

It’s not that Mabul Island doesn’t have fabulous snorkeling. It does! And I’ve heard it offers a more diverse array of small, colorful creatures than Sipidan (which is famous for larger animals like sharks, barracudas, and sea turtles). It’s just sad to think that, due to dive master incompetence, pollution, and the locals overfishing with cyanide and dynamite, all this amazing underwater wildlife is at risk.

I saw lots of amazing fish at the reefs around Mabul Island and I tried to identify them in the fish book afterwards. Here’s a list of what I saw:

And here are some photos.



puffer fish

triggerfish, which are known to be quite aggressive (biting snorkelers who get too close)

crocodile fish

christmas tree worm

giant clams


But even though I saw amazing stuff, it’s terribly depressing swimming out to a reef and finding things like a diaper, a plastic bag, a tire, a coke can, batteries, a toilet! And it makes you walk away from the island with a much less rosy picture than you had when you were looking at the web sites and reading the tourist brochures. The island is beautiful and it’s easy to make it look nice in pictures. But there are deeper issues (like the glaring environmental problems) that obviously get glossed over on promotional sites. At Uncle Changs, I spoke to a group of scientists who were there to conduct a study on the state of the reef. After a few days of observations, they said it’s not looking so good. And unless the government does something about it (which they aren’t at the moment), it will only get much worse.

It’s obvious that the makeshift villages scattered around the island are the ones generating most of the trash. But because most of these people (the majority of them Filipinos) aren’t even legally supposed to be there, the harmful effects of treating the island as their trashcan is the least of their worries. With such an unstable existence, they’re just trying to focus on surviving one day at a time. And clearly not much thought is given to how their actions today will impact the future.

To make things worse, because these people are basically ignored by the government, they don’t seem to have a waste management system. And I would think that any outsider trying to advise them, would probably be taken as a threat rather than a help.

It’s a shame…because it’s obvious that these people know how to organize themselves. Once I watched the village work together to prevent a giant coconut tree from collapsing onto a house. One man climbed up the tree and tied a rope near the top, one man sawed at the tree trunk with a chainsaw, two men pushed on the tree from one side, and about 15 men pulled on the other side with the rope. More and more people from the village came to help or provide moral support. When the tree finally fell, everyone cheered and clapped. It looked like hard work, but they were all having fun doing it. And all the structures in place currently are probably products of a similar community effort - like the school, the mosque, and the cemetary.

I just wish the community could have the same sort of enthusiasm and initiative to organize a waste cleanup project. I can’t imagine that they enjoy living over piles of garbage.

And to compound this problem, each couple has about 15 children! No joke. I met a guy on the island who spoke a tiny bit of English. He has spent his whole life on Mabul and has 8 brothers and 6 sisters. I said “Wow that’s a really big family.” He just shrugged.

But…the birth control issue is another thing all together. When you walk through these shack villages and see swarms of little kids running around, it’s very clear that the island has a massive overpopulation problem.

But it’s also very clear that these are beautiful, friendly people. Even more than snorkeling, I loved walking through the villages and saying “hello” to all the villagers smiling and waving. I loved watching a huge cluster of people of all ages (from elderly ladies to naked babies) eating lunch together under the shade of a hut. And I loved watching the hoards of children play, endlessly entertained by simple games like hopping over car tires or drawing tic tac toe boards in the sand with sticks. Of course when you walk by, their game playing stops and instead they follow you around saying “Photo. Photo.” They get so excited to see their images on the lcd screen.

Once Emily and I were sitting in the water and some little boys started paddling up to us on styrofoam rafts. My camera was already a huge novelty, but when they saw that I could actually take their photos underwater, they were thrilled!

Anyway, while there are far too many kids on Mabul Island, all of them are incredibly charming. And it’s immediately obvious that it’s the children who run the island. You know the big fish the resorts serve at their buffet dinners? It was caught and delivered by 6 year olds in a boat. I saw this happen. Or the coconuts you bought at the market? They were picked by any number of village kids.

When we weren’t playing with children or going on diving or snorkeling trips, Emily and I spent our time hanging out at the resorts on the other side of the island. And we discovered the perks of each resort, taking advantage when we could. Sipidan Mabul Resort had the nicest stretch of beach with some great shady spots free of trash. They also had nice showers right on the beach (so instead of waiting in line while everyone at Uncle Changs shared 2 trickling water faucets, we could use one of the 4 showers they had – with strong water pressure and free body soap). The other resort – Sipadan Water Village Resort had free wifi, a decent library of books and magazines, and a happy hour where they even give you free peanuts. Its funny how the small things start to matter so much. I was a big fan of the free peanuts.

I intended to stay on Mabul Island only 2 nights, but I ended up staying 4. The day I finally left, our boat departed in the afternoon and everyone staying on the island went to the dock to wave goodbye.

Apparently a Sea gypsy festival (Lepa Lepa) was going on in Semporna and I was told I wouldn’t be able to find any accommodation. I thought I’d have to take a night bus back to Lahad Datu (not that place again!), but I ended up getting a space again in the crappy dorm room at the Dragon Inn. Most of the festival was already over; the concerts and regatta happened the day before I arrived. So all I really got to see of the festival was swarms of loud teenage boys with trendy jeans and slicked back hair, a huge traffic jam, and lots of street vendors selling glowing necklaces and light up devil horns.

Two of the dive instructors were also in town for the festival. We had a snack at a coffee shop together while using my computer to look at pictures. Then they took me to the bus station to help me buy my ticket.

It’s sad making friends who aren’t travelers, because you know you probably won’t ever see them again unless you go back to visit their country (and honestly Semporna isn’t high on my list of places to return to). One of the guys really wanted to give me his Uncle Chang’s shirt as a memory, but he didn’t have another shirt to wear home. So when he walked me back to my place, I dug through the only shirts I was willing to give away that weren’t dirty. He had 2 choices: a plain tan one or this yellow one with a tiger patch that I sewed onto it. He said that one made him look too much like a ladyboy, so he chose the tan one. But we took a lady boy photo anyway.


*Another massive problem on Mabul Island is shark finning.

Here are some articles worth reading about that:

*If you look at the About page on Uncle Chang’s web site, it says “My team and I are committed to the environmentand to sustainable ecotourism.” While they are doing some great things (like employing locals), I’m not sure I believe all the talk about the company’s concern and respect for the environment. I could be wrong, but I didn’t see it. Maybe they can do more?

*One night, Emily and I wandered around the island looking for a bottle of rum we could pour into our cokes. We kept asking people in the villages if they sold any, but they all said “no. no.” Eventually a guy took us aside and explained that since it’s a Muslim island, selling alcohol is illegal. He said he could help us buy it from the black market, but we would have to be very hush hush about it. We’d give him the money first and wait on the beach for him to return with our bottle. This whole thing was kinda absurd to me. For one thing, we had seen our dive masters consume copious amounts of this stuff daily….so how secretive could the rum really be? For another thing, who were they afraid was going to come and bust these black market operations? There actually was a police station on the island, but during the 5 days I passed by it, it always seemed to be a party of guys talking and playing cards and I never once saw them leave their post. And really, if the police were going to enforce any kind of order, shouldn’t the bigger issue be that all the No Littering signs are being completely ignored? Anyway, I thought maybe he was just going to try to steal 8 ringits from us…but it was a funny situation, so I figured I’d give him the money just for the sake of seeing what was going to happen. He did end up returning with our rum – but after all that “hush hush” and “black market” talk, he wasn’t very secretive about it. Since we had been sitting on the beach waiting, a small group of children had already formed around us and he just marched right up and handed the bottle to us in front of all the kids. What if they were spies?!? :) We still owed him 4 ringits, so he walked with us near our place and I waited outside with him while Emily went to our room to get the rest of the money.

*This hammock is made from plastic bags!

*In case you didn’t know…

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