Our Malaysian Paradise

Landing at the Kuala Lumpur airport, one of the major cultural differences between Thailand/Cambodia and Malaysia became readily apparent to us. Whereas the Thai and Khmer population is overwhelmingly Buddhist, the majority of Malaysia is Islamic. Though we had certainly grown accustomed to seeing veiled women a few weeks ago, the sharp transition between these two nations made it feel like something new all over again. We had to spend a few hours waiting at the airport in Kuala Lumpur for our flight to Tawau, a small city in the southern part of the state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. We didn’t really know what to expect coming to Borneo. Though it wasn’t originally on our itinerary, we ended up being spurred to come as a result of Dr. Fred Sheldon’s encouragement. Dr. Sheldon, who is the director of the LSU Museum of Natural Science, invited us to spend some time with him at his field site. I was particularly excited about getting to see a real ornithology camp as well as the prospect of diving off Sipidan Island, widely acclaimed to be the world’s greatest dive spot. So, several weeks ago, we adjusted our itinerary so that we would be able to spend about 10 days on the island of Borneo. We were expecting things to be a bit primitive, but once again, Southeast Asia has surprised us. Either we are becoming quite comfortable with traveling and thus our standards are decreasing, or Asia really is just much more developed than our preconceptions had led us to believe, but we have truly enjoyed our time here and haven’t really felt homesick for “western comforts.”

Once we landed in Tawau, we had to take an hour long taxi ride to Semporna, the coastal village that is the gateway to Sipidan Island. The quality of the roads and the sub-tropical flora and fauna really made us think of Louisiana. We had planned to stay in a hostel operated by a dive operator, but when I made reservations over the phone, I apparently did not understand them when they told me that their hostel was on the island of Mabul (about 3 nautical miles from Sipidan, which is about an hour from the coastal village of Semporna). Long story short, we arrived in Semporna late at night to nothing more than a closed dive shop. We checked into another hostel down the road and planned to figure out everything in the morning. When we arrived at the dive shop the following morning, we ended up opting not to stay at their Mabul Island hostel because they only shuttle people back and forth twice a day, which would interfere with Katie’s planned day trip to Tawau Hills National Park as well as make us miss our next bus ride. So, we decided to go snorkeling that day together and I would go scuba diving the next alone. We ended up being quite happy with our decision; the hostel on Mabul was really ugly and we had heard stories later about large rats cuddling up to sleeping backpackers in the middle of the night. It was also really crowded with local buildings. The overcrowding, and the huge amounts of trash, kind of ruined the otherwise idealistic tropical island. We later learned that a very classy (and private) 5 star resort exists on the opposite side of the island. In another interesting twist, an old oil rig nearby has been repainted and turned into a very fashionable boutique hotel for scuba divers.

Years ago, resorts were permitted on Sipidan island, which is just a few miles from Mabul. They’ve since closed due to “environmental concerns.” Little did I know until I arrived in Sabah though, this island has actually been the center of many recent confrontations. Nearly 4 years ago, Indonesia, which compromises the bottom half of Borneo, effectively “sued” Malaysia for control of the island – – the ICJ ruled in Malaysia’s favor. (Scuba divers must pay a fee to scuba dive the sites around Sipidan. I’m sure Indonesia wouldn’t mind having a chunk of this revenue.) Additionally, a decade ago the entire eastern side of Sabah, which is only 50 miles from the Filipino border, suffered from a number of acts of piracy, Sipidan notwithstanding. Though I made jokes about the Malay soldiers who were mostly playing cards on the small base that has been established on Sipidan, about 10 years ago, a few tourists were kidnapped by Filipino pirates. The nearby town of Lahud Datu was literally raped and pillaged by a pirate gang around the same time. Since tourism is a major industry in Sabah, a stepped up naval presence has all but eliminated any present real danger, but it is interesting how recently the area was a source of conflict. On a much more upbeat note, however, the snorkeling ended up being amazing. We saw countless turtles, all varieties of fish, and just the most stunningly colorful coral at depths of less than 10 feet. The day was a bit overcast, so the colors were probably not as vivid as they could have been, but it still was probably the best snorkeling either of us have ever done.

We got totally soaked on our ride in and during the day. It worked out well, though, because we had just run out of sunscreen so we got spared the brunt of the suns’ rays. At the end of the day, we were dropped off in Semporna by the boat and got a wonderful dinner of pizza and beer from a pub in town. The next day Katie and I parted; I went diving and she caught a bus to Tawau to visit the National Park. Fortunately, it was a beautiful, blue-skied day and it gave me the chance to see the coral in an even more striking light. The one bad side about diving here, at the world’s greatest diving spot is that at 22, is I think in some ways everywhere else I dive may be a disappointment in comparison to Sipidan. We also started to joke that the sea turtles were “getting in our way.” I saw dozens of huge, beautiful turtles as well as hundreds of baracudas and schools of small black tipped sharks. Katie’s day proved to be a bit less successful because much of Tawau Hills was dense forest, with little areas of broad clearance, so though she heard birds quite a bit, actually seeing them was a more difficult in the thick overgrown canopy. We rendezvoused back at the hostel in the afternoon and after a quick dinner of some delicious Malay food, we collapsed asleep around 9:00 PM that evening.

We woke up early the next day so that we could catch a bus to Sandakan, about 300 km away. We were hoping to go out with a tour operator for a few days into the jungle so that we could observe some wildlife. The operator, Uncle Tan’s, had told us originally that we would not be able to arrive from Semporna in time enough to leave for the jungle tour on the same day. Fortuitously, they ended up being wrong so we were able to leave a day early and more importantly, add a day to independant travel plan around the Crocker Range with Dr. Sheldon and Mt. Kinabalu park. Our tour was just about 48 hours. We were taken an hour away by truck to the Kinabatangan River, where we then spent another hour on speedboats to the lodge at which we were staying. It was fairly primitive with no running water or electricity; sleeping under the mosquito netting at night felt much like sleeping at Camp Avondale in the dead of the summer, I must say. The tour itself was a little bit disappointing because we didn’t feel like the staff was all that professional but we still nevertheless saw tremendously more wildlife than we could have otherwise. On a nightboat ride we took, the guide would shine a spotlight at Kingfishers, stunning them I presume like a deer in headlights, and we could pull up the boat and observe them from only a meter or two away. We also went on a few (very muddy) treks through the swampy forest where we saw some neat reptiles and insects, as well as a nightmarishly scary looking scorpion. We also saw several types of monkeys (including one orangutan!), hornbills, and some huge lizards (2-3 meters!). With no running water, we were understandably quite dirty by the end of our stay. But when we arrived in Kota Kinabalu via an overland bus on the third day, we had become so used to being dirty, we felt like we almost could go another week longer more and not even notice the difference. Fortunately, the hostel had very nice showers though! Though we had arrived late at night, the hostel had a contract with a very reasonable car rental company that was able to drop off a very nice Viva shortly before midnight so that we could leave early the next morning.

We took off for the Crocker Range the next day. The weather here has been so chaotic. Our driving cycled twice through basking sunshine and torrential downpours as we drove up the coast on the way to the Crocker Range Substation where we were scheduled to meet up with Drs. Shedlon and Moyle, a former student of Dr. Sheldon’s and now assistant curator of birds at University of Kansas. We ended up getting a bit lost along the way, taking our small compact car over roads we likely shouldn’t have, but after a few hours we finally found the station, almost by accident! The ranger substation was a bit of a surprise for me, even though Katie had warned me that the museum’s expeditions are rarely as rough or romantic as they sound. That certainly seemed to hold true with what I saw! This station was equipped with brand new furniture, gas stoves, electricity, and running water. Perched up on a hill, there was a gorgeous view of Palau Tiga Island (site of the first Survivor series) and the sandy coast. Unfortunately, at an elevation of about 400 m and surrounded by rainforest and mountains, the station got the brunt of the rain for the rest of the day. We spent most of it reading our books and watching Drs. Sheldon and Moyle skin the birds that they had already caught in mist nets (guns are illegal in Malaysia so researchers stick to the nets almost entirely). By late afternoon the rain let up so Katie and I got to hike a bit on the trails that surrounded the shelter. We also saw what was in my opinion, likely one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life.

The following morning we got a small personalized birding tour in the jungle around the station and helped collect birds from the mist nets. After having a small breakfast, we took off in our car for Mount Kinabalu National Park. Along the way, we stopped in a small town Dr. Sheldon recommended to us for lunch. The island is not very densely populated (I still keep thinking about the fact that when flying or driving through India, you always saw human habitation) and the parts that have been are kept quite clean and free of litter. It has reminded me a lot of Hawaii; the previous day we saw spectacular, beautiful beaches and today, driving through the most beautiful, lush green mountains. We arrived in the afternoon to the National Park, but our timing also coincided with the start of the afternoon, montane showers. Eventually the rains subsided and we managed to do about an hour of hiking in the cloudy woods. Governmental tour buses drop off backpackers inside the park by its headquarters. Unfortunately for the independent traveler, hostels beds inside the park cost upwards of $40, a huge sum for Malaysia. We drove our car just a few kilometers down the road and managed to pay only a quarter of the park’s cost. We had been a bit unsure what kind of accommodation or facilities we could have expected with Dr. Sheldon the night before, so we had bought cans of sardines, crackers, and other sundries en route to the Crocker Range. Since Dr. Sheldon’s hired Malaysian help cooked dinner for us the night before, we decided to eat our humble provisions in the hostel.

We rose with dawn the next day so that we could bird early in Kinabalu Park. It is a huge birding destination spot for many well-to-doers around SE Asia; we saw a lot of groups with very pricey binoculars and huge tripod-mounted telephoto lens. By 9:30, the heat was starting to set in, so we decided to leave and go about 40 kilometers to the other side of the mountain and check out the Poring Hot Springs. The hot springs area was quite more developed than we had expected. The “hot springs” consisted of copper faucets positioned over individual bath tubs that one can sit in. A little weary of their cleanliness, I only ended up jumping down a slide into a freezing cold swimming pool. Rain cut our time here a little short once again, but we did manage to go walk across a really spectacular canopy walk, some 200 feet off the ground.

Driving back to Kota Kinabalu in the rain, on winding mountainous roads wasn’t too much fun, but we managed to arrive in one piece. Dr. Sheldon had given us the name of a delicious Pakistani restaurant in town, so we went there that evening. Our flight the next morning was at 7 :00 AM so we went to bed a bit early in preparation for our 24 hr journey to our next adventure, the island of Ko Tao off the eastern coast of Thailand!

Pictures from Semporna

Pictures from Sandakan

Pictures from Crocker and Kinabalu are coming!

13 Responses to “Our Malaysian Paradise”

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  2. Volphasani says:

    These are indeed aowseme pic’s and the Lodge is something I would love to wake up to.David, I am not a certified diver, but would like to add it to my list. Can you give a general estimate of the cost for certification in Malaysia? I’m not sure if I should do it B 4 I leave the States or go for it in Malaysia.Thanks

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  10. Yara says:

    Wonderful place, and think is suitable for beinengrs 😛 Hope my first diving experience will take place in 2013. I still thinking where to go, but this corner of paradise is amazing!!! Hope the local dive instructors are not only experienced but also cute 😛 The turtles are amazing and is great that you could approach them!

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  12. Patience says:

    Kevin, it usually cost about RM800-1200 (US$250-400) for the full pakcage to be a certified open water diver here. Check if it is cheaper there or else, do it here when you visit. You will need about 3-4 days to complete your course at any of the islands here.

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