Mabul & Sipadan (3 – 6 Sept)
You could walk around Pulau Mabul in 20 minutes and across it five. It is that small. But being an obsessive photographer, I took more than 2 hours to wander through the 3 extremely posh resorts and 3 extremely poor Bajau fishing kampongs that surround this tiny island. Two and a half days here yielded 580 photographs and only about 40 were of the resorts.
The resorts are simply exclusive, uppity, sanitised and boring. Two of them are constructed on stilts and extend about 200m from the shore. The clear waters below the ‘open-concept’ wooden bungalows is really enticing and unlike the Bajau fishing homes, waste from toilets here do not drop directly into the sea. All units come with deck chairs on a spacious patio that overlooks the open Celebes Sea or Pulau Mabul. I checked out the prices of one of them - Sipadan Water Village and it was ONLY RM$1300 per PERSON per DAY for the smallest bungalow! Another resort even had 2 moutainbikes to each bungalow so that the guests need not walk down to the island. Ironically, that one was called SMART resort…so smart that they had forgotten that mountain bikes would make quite a din when they rattle the wooden planks on the walkway. These 3 resorts are thankfully clustered at one end of Mabul. The rest of the island is where all the action is.
The 3 fishing kampongs fortunately still dominate the island and the 2000 or so friendly Bajau villagers and children really make Mabul marvellous. As in KK’s Kampong Air, I was constantly waylaid by happy children who were just so eager (and occasionally a little over-enthusiastic) to pose for a shot. Very few of them asked for money. They were just excited to have a brief encounter with a stranger who showed so much interest in them.
The most popular photo pose was with the two fingered ‘victory’ sign ‘strategically’ placed right in front of their faces or pointed straight at my camera lens. This made photography more challenging as I had to get an angle where I could avoid those obtrusive fingers and capture their facial expressions. The other favourite hand sign was the ‘Spiderman-web-slinging’ one with the thumb, index and little fingers outstretched and the middle and ring ones tucked in (Incidentally, there were quite a few kids with Spiderman T-shirts on). The facial expressions and mannerisms of these kids were so varied I felt I could spend an entire day on photography. As soon as you whip out your camera to shoot some kid, others quickly gravitate, all wanting to be in the photo. The alpha males and females would inconsiderately push others aside and come as close to you as possible. On several occasions, I had to employ my rusty discipline master skills to get these jokers to stand aside so as to photograph the masses.
The general feel is that these children were poor but contented. They seem to be resourceful enough to occupy themselves and were pretty much left to their own devices. The myriad of activities these children were engaged in was certainly fascinating and amusing. Some girls were playing ‘masak masak’ beneath a house, another group found interest in an ugly green caterpillar on a twig, some boys sat around a plank and entertained themselves with tiny ‘Power Raider’ cards, another mixed group were in a small boat pretending to be fishermen or sailors, one baby was sitting naked in the sand, one big group of young girls were swimming beside a jetty, a group of older boys were playing volleyball (which sounded that it definitely needed pumping), one boy was helping his father paint a fishing boat, some girls had their soft toys and clothes laid out on a sheet, two young girls were collecting morning glories by the beach, three boys were reeling fishing lines around plastic coke bottles, a group of boys were chopping coconuts with parangs, now and then you will find a really young, half-naked (lower half!) child wandering beneath a house or peering out of a window or from the raised porch, some children were taking a shower in the open. Older kids were expected to take care of the younger ones. The kampong experience was very authentic indeed!
I took an evening stroll around the villages to find out how the folks ended their day and was glad to bump into a group of 15 of more young vivacious boys who organised a relay race amongst themselves. In two rows, the first boy in each row raced against the other to touch a pole and back to pass the turn to the next bloke in line. They were so engrossed in this little race of theirs that they failed to notice me in a corner photographing and filming them. It’s amazing how much these kids were enjoying themselves in this simple game which I fondly remember playing in my childhood days. I think this is quite rare back home nowadays where toys and games are more complex. Unfortunately, it is the simple and physical games like these that make you very fit. Not too far away were another group of girls doing their own thing. Looks like this sexual segregation is not just found in Singapore! Eventually, someone in the crowd picked me out and I ended up taking a group photo of them. An older girl came up to me and asked in halting English if I would bring the photos the next time I came to Mabul. I told her that it may only be in a couple of years and she just said ‘OK’. So if any of you reading this decide to go to Mabul, please contact me so I can pass you the photos.
The adults were hardly supervising the children. The men were probably at sea fishing and the women cooking or doing domestic chores. The children were running free! That’s something you definitely don’t see back home. We saw groups of men building 9 metre long fishing boats which were all of a standard design. It was quite a treat observing them marking the planks, chaffing, nailing, waterproofing and painting their very important and functional D&T project. Their tools seemed primitive with the chain saw as the only piece of mechanised equipment I saw. There were smaller boats with outriggers for the older children to navigate the island and its surrounding reef. We spotted two named ‘Bee Gees’ and ‘Linkin Park’. I saw a woman stuffing sea-urchin shells with grains of rice. The urchin meat, according to an Australian guy we met, is a delicacy best eaten raw…The sting from the urchin is extremely painful he says. The old folks here seemed pretty weathered but satisfied. Some manned ‘mama’ shops selling snacks, toys and some very dubious concoctions of drinks. These tightly meshed ‘mama’ shops looked like they were designed to keep out pilfers. There was only a small window where the goods could escape from. Rubber tubes snake through the sand, bringing mildly saline water to several manual pumps in the village. Like Tioman, Mabul is dotted with 3 storey coconut trees. Unlike Tioman, there isn’t a ‘Beware of Falling Coconuts’ sign on every one of them.
Water is a big issue on this little island. There is some sort of rain water catchment system lining the roof of every house. In the compound of the only school, there are several huge blue plastic water-tanks to store rainwater. This makes sense as the newly constructed school has the largest roof coverage and hence the greatest potential of collecting rainwater. The Mabul Kampong experience was motivating enough to get me up at 6am one morning to see how life began. I wandered aimlessly off the main paths and stumbled across a small well. Soon the villagers were trooping down the path with their children all armed with containers to be filled with the days supply of semi-fresh water. ‘Minum?’ I asked one guy and he shook his head. The salt content was still too high to be drunk straight off the well. The hole in the well was roughly the size of a small pail. Filling all those bottles and tubs would take some time which they do seem to have plenty of.
Some houses are so incredibly small that the house is actually one big room where the all cooking, sleeping and living is done. Some houses are more luxurious with fluorescent lights, radios and TV sets. All houses are made of wood and the poorer families have woven bamboo panels for walls. Most of the cooking is still done over an open fire. There is no proper layout and the haphazard housing gives it a wonderfully adventurous maze-like quality.
On a realistic note, village life on Mabul is certainly not Utopian. In the morning, you can see women and children raking the trash on the sand. Children and adults alike are prolific litterbugs. Along some stretches of beach, the accumulation of garbage is simply atrocious. Rubbish is also burnt in heaps in the backyards. Sewerage goes straight from the bum into the sea (It is a mystery why the waters surrounding the island is still so clear). Even the cat population here see, to be in pretty bad shape. We actually saw a cat coughing rather badly and several others had lacerations or smarting eyes. Some parts of the kampong really reeked of rubbish. There is some effort at recycling plastic bottles and tin cans but generally, the Bajau folks have a long way to go in the cleanliness and hygiene department.
We stayed in Lyn’s longhouse, which was like the resorts built over clear water with a common porch cum jetty, which gave you the vast view of the sea with Sipadan in the distance. The shallow fringing reef extended about 400m from the longhouse before plunging down into the deep sea. Karen and I took an interesting stroll at low tide to the rocky edge of the reef where we saw a sea snake. Along the way, there were countless starfishes which we carefully avoided treading on. For RM$60 per person per night, we had 3 basic meals and the cheapest place on the island to sleep in. The company at the longhouse was great and we had many pleasurable and educational conversations over meals and on the porch with an Italian, some Aussies, a Brazilian lady and her son (who is living in London) who is the most opinionated 13 year old I have ever seen! This is something the Singapore educational system must learn from the Brits. The longhouse stay was fantastic (despite the slightly saline baths) except for the mozzies which irritated the hell out of us on the second night. Having coffee in the evening on the porch on comfy chairs while watching the locals going about their activities is incredibly relaxing. The sea breeze cools down your body after dinner and you wind down to the sound of the lapping waves and splashes of boys taking their evening dip. Above, the stars were out and the crescent moon was so remarkably thin, it looked brittle!
Sipadan - Only one place like that in the world!
Sipadan’s snorkelling greatness arises from its unique geology. The tiny island, even smaller than Mabul is actually an independent 600 metre limestone pinnacle arising from the sea bed! (where Mabul is actually the peak of an undersea ridge which is connected to the mainland) This means that you can swim about 10 metres from the shore and you will be at the edge of what is known as ‘The Drop’ - an intimidating underwater cliff that plunges 600m into the darkness below. Swimming out of the shallow reef into the deep dark waters initially feels really suicidal. You really do expect some huge sea creature to emerge from the eerie darkness and gobble you whole! So you hover at the edge, and peer out and down into ‘The Drop’. The visibility fades quickly at the edge and you can see the faint outlines of the corals and shelves that line this magnificent and perfectly vertical underwater wall. Your eyes get attuned to the darkness and you can now vaguely see the bigger fishes that dwell below the shallow reef. Some of them are probably longer than a meter. You remain very still, trying hard to spot even bigger fishes and your marine disaster imagination really does some serious mental damage! Where are the sharks?? Then you spot them…grey and ghostly, barely visible, you see them cruising about 8 meters directly below you and then they disappear into the depths. They are about a meter and a half in length. Fortunately, we have heard enough assurances that the white tip sharks do not attack humans. When you finally gather enough courage, you propel yourself over the edge, half-expecting to fall into the black depths below but you fly forward and the adrenalin thrashes through your body as you look in awe of the massive wall of life that seem to extend sideways and downwards forever. Soon you realise that your legs are dangling over a chasm of shadows and that something big, nasty and hungry could just nip you from any direction and you swim like hell for the safety of the reef! The experience is delightfully terrifying! For me, this is the best part of Sipadan!
Sipadan is the BEST snorkelling site I have been to, easily surpassing Perhentian and Redang (Tioman is totally hopeless). It is like swimming amongst a permanently suspended confetti of fish. There are thousands and thousands of fish of all shapes, colours, sizes, races and religions all around you and I am not exaggerating! It totally blows you away and instantly made the RM$300 (two days of snorkelling) worthwhile! All of you who love snorkelling and diving ABSOLUTELY MUST COME HERE!!
The first creature I saw when I hit the water was an octopus the size of a handball. It saw me too and scrambled for a nearby rock and camouflaged itself so perfectly that if I hadn’t seen it move, I would never know that it was there.
The second crazy experience happened below the jetty where hundreds of 40 cm long jack fish reside. I swam in the middle of them and they just encircled me. It is dazzling to be in the middle of a tornado of silver fish. After a while you get quite giddy and would want to swim out of it.
Next was the turtle-mania. In Perhentian, we went quite ecstatic after 5 or 6 turtles. In Sipadan, we lost count of how many we saw. The largest one I saw was almost 2 metres in length! They are really very curious and will glide up to you and ‘check you out’ with their sleepy eyes. We swam alongside several turtles till they got sick of us. We also saw them on the reef where they were sleeping with their heads tucked under some corals. Really funny sight. You can be swimming along the edge of the cliff and you turn and suddenly see this huge turtle rising form the blue depths to the surface to breathe. It is really impressive! There was this one who just squatted in the reef about 4 metres beneath the surface and released a long stream of bubbles from its nostril for a couple of minutes. They seem to enjoy cutting into your path. You quite a surprise when you turn your head and there is this metre long turtle crossing your path. The thing about being underwater is that the world becomes much more three dimensional and things come at you from every direction and given the frontal orientation of the human eyes our field of vision is very limited. And you will never catch a turtle in water.
We saw a giant clam which was slightly over a metre in length. It had a bluish-maroon interior and clamped itself shut when touched.
Some corals were 4 times the size of your average dining table.
We also saw a few Nemos, a Dory and several Bannerfish.
There were 3 Angelfish that were always around the jetty.
We also saw the Unicornfish which had a horn protruding out of its forehead. Fortunately it was not a big fish.
We were on the boat landing on the beach and we all got a big thrill when we saw a school of 1 meter long bumpheads swimming out of the shallow reef. As the name implies, the fish had a very visible lump on its head!
Along the edge of ‘The Drop’ you can frequently see ‘expressways’ of fish moving along the edge. And if you just let the current push you along, you find yourself drifting through schools of different kinds of fish as you move through the different portions of the reef. It is very relaxing to drift with the current and very challenging to swim against it. Fins do make a big difference and a wet suit would make you keep you warm, protect you from sunburn and make you more buoyant. It’s great fun when you dive underwater with the fins as you can go really fast and see the marine life around the corals close-up.
Another interesting thing we did was to follow the divers below. The amazing visibility allowed us to see them clearly from the surface even though they were about 10 metres below us. It was also a fine sight to see their bubbles rising and dividing when they exhaled.
We did not do the dive course in the end as we felt that another 3 to 4 days there was too much for us to take and we should save the RM$2000 for now. Sipadan is not too far from home anyway. We had seen so much and were contented with what we had just experienced.
In April 2000, terrorists from Abu Sayyaff attacked Sipadan, overpowered the lone policeman and scooted 20 hostages off to the Philippines for a 5 month holiday. Today, there is a strong military presence in the area. We saw gunboats and helicopters and Sipadan is now a military outpost. No one can stay on the resort anymore which is excellent for the marine life. Tourists are restricted to a small stretch of beach where we had our lunch and snacks as we suffered some really out-of-tune karaoke wailing from the army guys which could be the real reason why the pirates and kidnappers do not come to the island anymore. When they are not destroying our ears, they are enjoying a game of pool by the beach. Innovatively, they use numbered golf balls on the table. Well, I guess they will do their job should the need arises.
There was another kidnapping at Sipadan but since the hostages this time round were all locals, it did not make international news. Piracy and terrorism is very real in this part of the world.
Read This If You Want To Go To Sipadan
If you intend to go to Sipadan, book your tour with Uncle Chang, who has a shop near the jetty just next to Dragon Inn. They are reasonably priced, provide excellent service and food and most importantly have the necessary permits and bureaucratic connections to get you to Sipadan. Some unfortunate divers at the longhouse booked with a company called ‘Skuba Junkie’ and were told last minute that they could not go to Sipadan and had to settle for somewhere else.
At 110kg, John must be one of the roundest dive instructors in the world. This 35 year old Sabahian Chinese chap is simply great to be with not just because he is always stuffing us with local kuehs and goodies when we are off the boat but he’s bursting with friendliness and good humour and takes good care of his divers and snorkellers. We were pleasantly surprised when we had all our gear handed to us in duffel bag with our names on it. Gear on our previous trips meant just the snorkelling mask, but with Uncle Chang and John, we had fins, fitting wet suits and booties! John, being fluent in a variety of languages and dialects and armed with his salesman background, mingles well with everyone on board. He gave an extra day of free dive instruction to the 13 year old Mika (the youngest diver who is trying to get his mum to buy a PSP (Playstation Portable) from Singapore) and told us loads about Mabul and the marine life at Sipadan and how it compared to the other sites he’s been to. Having studied and worked in Singapore for 8 years, he realised that the quiet Sabah life was better for him and has been making a living as a dive instructor for the past 10 years. Getting RM$2300 a month for working almost everyday (only 4 off days a month) sounds a tad measly but as John puts it ‘It’s not a job, its my hobby.’ We happened to bump into him at Mee Hiong, a fabulously cheap local Chinese restaurant, where you can get a steamed fish (which was superb), lamb chops, two vege dishes (their shu zi cai is now my favourite vegetable), rice and 2 drinks for RM$33, and John introduced us to his Filipino wife whom he met on a 10 day holiday to Philippines. He was supposed to stay with his friend but there was not enough room in his house, so he bunked in with his neighbour and guess who he got to know. They sustained their friendship through letters and phone calls and a year later, John went over and married her. Today, they have two kids, a round 8 year old boy who looks just like John and a 3 year old daughter. They were at Mee Hiong to celebrate his son’s birthday and they brought their neighbour’s daughter along. John also introduced us to an topless saronged elderly ‘mad’ English teacher who taught him in the village school and who heartily ate the extremely bitter stomach portion of our steamed fish. John asked me to guess what was the one thing that drove him crazy. I guessed it was love and I was right.
Thanks for reading, here's a 81 photograph treat!