After taking a diving refresher course in Thailand when my sister Lilli was traveling with us, I was determined to find the best diving in Southeast Asia. It only took a minute to Google “the best scuba diving in the world” and find Sipadan Island at the top. And it certainly didn’t hurt that some of the dive lodges boasted overwater private bungalows – ok maybe not exactly like the ones you’re picturing in Bora Bora or the Maldives – more like a poor man’s Bora Bora – but hey, it was good enough for us backpackers!
Known for an incredible variety of sea life along the steep underwater cliff walls and the exciting Barracuda Point, we were more than intrigued. Then, realizing we could actually afford to stay in one of those overwater bungalows, I easily got Whitney on board with heading off the beaten path. Now, if you know me then you know once I decide on something I become determined to make it happen; just think, it only took one Google search to put Sipadan Island on our list!
Leading up to our arrival, I scoured the internet looking for the best options for this diving excursion. Through research I found that the government has significantly regulated diving in Sipadan to protect the ecosystem and marine life and even closed down the resorts on that particular island in 2004 ordering the resorts to relocate. Next, the government issues only 120 dive permits a day divided amongst 12 local dive resorts. These resorts are primarily on Mabul Island, which is the closest inhabitable island to Sipadan and where most of the original resorts had relocated. As I searched through the variety of resorts, from bare bones shacks to 5-star luxury escapes, it became clear that in order to secure a Sipadan single day dive permit we would have to stay at one of these island resorts for a minimum of 4 nights. And usually, these would need to be booked well in advance. Trying to maintain our backpacker budget, I skimmed the reviews of each on Tripadvisor and emailed a number of companies. Having nothing but a few pictures and mixed reviews, we settled on the Billabong Resort, paid our deposit, and anxiously awaited for this Bornean side trip to begin.
We took off from the cool rainy Hanoi, Vietnam for the warm waters of Malaysian Borneo. Ecstatic to get back to some warm weather, we were grinning from ear to ear as we boarded the plane to Kuala Lumpur. As I mentioned, this jaunt was taking us somewhat off the beaten path, so once we landed in Kuala Lumpur, we changed planes to land finally in Tawau. From there, we took a 2hr van ride to the poor fishing town of Semporna located on the southeast coast of the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo. This town was to be our stepping off point to get to Mabul Island for the next few days and we were more than ready. Our driver dropped us off near the hostel we had booked and we lugged our bags a couple blocks until we found the tiny sign over the doorway. Keeping it super cheap at $16/night for the two of us, we booked the most basic room we could find (with AC of course) to spend the short night.
The next morning we met at the Billabong office, paid the remainder of our bill and met our captain for a ride out to Mabul Island. When I think about the people that live for diving with their faded shorts, scruffy hair, and little cares in the world, this is one of the places my mind goes. Anyway, we boarded the boat for the hour long ride to our all-inclusive dive resort. Looking out over the calm waters we viewed the stilt houses and fish farms lining the shoreline with fishermen in their small boats moving about. We took our pictures of the tropical landscapes leading into the sea and finally felt the warm sun bearing down on us. It felt like we were beginning our vacation.
We neared Mabul Island on the northwest side passing a majority of the accommodations on the way to ours. Each resort was built out over the shallow sea where it was just deep enough to bring the boat. We eventually passed under a small arched pathway into the center of the Billabong resort. We were met by a couple staff members that gave us a quick intro and helped us to our own private bungalow.
In brief, Mabul Island is a tiny 10-Hectare (about 10 soccer fields) size island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo that is home to two native villages: the Kampung Musu and the Kampung Mabul, both Muslim groups sometimes considered refugees who live a sort of nomadic lifestyle surviving as fishermen selling their catch of the day in the town of Semporna.
Beyond the two villages, there are the variety of tourist resorts and even a small military installation. The occasional soldier dressed in full military gear and armed with his powerful assault rifle regularly patrols the island keeping everyone safe. It looks intimidating at first, but knowing they are there to protect the tourists from something as frightening as a kidnapping (like the one that occurred from Sipadan in the year 2000) was definitely reassuring.
Now, with our feet on the island we immediately took off to explore. Leaving the relatively new bungalow resort, we followed the shaky wooden planks onto shore and were immediately immersed in the first of the two native villages on the island.
I’ll say of the two, this one is the slightly more civilized one with a few shops, schools and a large Mosque. Still though it was a trip back in time as we passed the makeshift shacks, children running around beneath the buildings and passing a young man carrying his live chicken which will probably end up on the family dinner table later that day. As we circled further along, we encountered a small turtle farm to snap a handful of pictures and then wandered back to Billabong for lunch and to check into our private bungalow.
With our resort package price, we were guaranteed a full day (3 dives) at Sipadan and an additional 3 dives in and around Mabul Island. Also, as with most of the of resorts on the island, they are all-inclusive of meals and only have power from 6pm to 6am to charge up, and don’t expect to find any internet if you’re on a budget.
Who needs internet when you have these views?
As for us, we were here to dive and since we were too excited to wait for a new day, we opted for a quick afternoon dive on our very first day. We sorted out our gear and headed out. Then with our tanks on and gear ready, we rolled into the water and sank down to view the incredible reef wall. Surprised by the strength of the current, we hardly paddled or even swam in the water and simply drifted by the reef wall viewing an unbelievable variety of sea life. Of note, the strong currents can be frightening, so just keep breathing and let the current carry you along.
Returning to the dock that very first evening, we were in awe at the incredible views for sunset on the end of the pier. We cleaned up a bit and rushed out to see the incredible colors highlighting the western sky. Turns out, there was no need to rush as we happened to be the only tourists sitting on the deck that evening. Either way, we soaked it in and looked forward to the sunsets that would bring each of the coming days to an end.
On our second day we had the opportunity to finally use our Sipadan Diving permits and headed out to the remote island we had only seen in the distance. We neared the pier, disembarked from our dive boat and checked in with the small military installation controlling the area. Once registered, it was back to the boat for our first dive off Barracuda Point. We slowly rolled off the boat and into the sea. A few small adjustments to our gear and down we went to see it all. The visibility wasn’t so good due to the varying weather in the area, but even so, we saw more sea life than I have ever seen before. From the bright corals to the tiny fish, to the larger sea turtles and sharks swimming about, I couldn’t believe it.
At one point the reef disappeared in the distance as we followed our guide out over deeper water. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge shadow and next thing I know we were surrounded by an enormous school of jackfish moving in unison. I paddled toward the school watching as the school gracefully moved away as if I were some powerful predator. Little did they know, I was just trying to get a few good pictures.
From there, we took the boat further around the island to our second dive spot on the western side of the island. We were told that the dive group from the previous day had been lucky enough to see a huge whale shark swim by and we hoped for the same. It didn’t actually happen, but we were so caught up in the variety of corals covering the entire sea floor that we may not have even been able to see much else. The colors layered the ground and so many bright colorful fish were stationed above many of them as if they were showing off their homes. It was incredible to say the least.
We had lunch back on shore next to the military base as heavy rain rolled in.
Diving in the rain isn’t so bad except for the reduced light and some stirring of the sea floor limiting visibility. Even so, we still went for our third dive not too far from our first dive spot at Barracuda Point. This time we dove further down until we were resting at the opening of a giant underwater cave. That feeling of something lurking in the darkness definitely gets to you, but we managed to keep our cool and slowly moved along from there. The rain let up sometime while we were under water and the few rays of sun peeking through the clouds lit up the colors underwater as we drifted along the reef.
The air was dry when we finished our day at Sipadan and rode back to Mabul Island. Exhaustedly we cleaned up for dinner and grabbed a couple lounge chairs to catch another breathtaking sunset.
The next couple days we took time to relax on this remote island. We wandered through the villages, took a self-guided tour of the 5-star resorts including the gorgeous Mabul Water Bungalows on the southeast corner of the island, and even volunteered on a beach clean-up project near one of the poor villages. We felt so far from the world as we knew it and enjoyed every moment of it. We were able to find a little internet at the Scuba Junkie resort and took advantage of that to check in with the rest of the world. Other than that we just relaxed.
We did get in a couple more dives on our last few days, one of which was at the artificial reef built at the Mabul Bungalow Resort which definitely makes that 5-star resort even more appealing. Even as an artificial reef, the variety of sea creatures calling it home already was so unbelievable. At the end of each day we relaxed on our balcony soaking up that evening’s sunset.
Then, leaving Mabul Island on our last day was its own adventure. We made it safely to shore with our captain steering the boat with his head out the side window since it was essentially impossible to see through the front. We spent another short night in the same dingy hostel and caught a bus to Sepilok the following day (with a box of live chickens on board of course).
Overall, with our budget we couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I will admit that the accommodations we had were just fine and the food was a bit bland. However the setup and the atmosphere were certainly a vacation from everything we had experienced lately. I did have some concerns with the aging dive gear and felt a little woozy from the scuba tanks as if there were some fumes mixed in our tanks. In the end, though, I would return with a little more money and splurge for one of the nicer places and try for a time of year when the weather is clearer. The diving itself tops every place I’ve ever been and I wouldn’t want to miss it.
As for checking off another item on our bucket list, there is now a check next to “staying in an overwater bungalow” on this poor man’s Maldives adventure.
Next up: Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary!