Sabah occupies the northwest corner of Borneo and lies between the Philippines and Brunei. About half the size of Sarawak in terms of land area but about equal in terms of population, Sabah is covered mostly by rain forest, mountains, or land deforested by timber companies. The roads are just as poor as those in Sarawak but there are fewer navigable rivers, which means people have to get around by road or air because there are few other choices.

Sabah covers 73,710 square kilometers (29,388 square miles). It is home to 2,500 tree and plant species, 600 kinds of birds and 200 mammal species, including about one forth of the world’s orangutans. Ethnic groups found in Sabah, include Kadazan, Malays, Chinese, Bajau and Murut. Although Muslim Malays make up the majority of the population conservative Islam has not made much headway here. Most of the power is in the hand of the state government and the logging and palm oil concerns.

Home to 3,120,040 people, Sabah has a population density of 42 people per square kilometer. The capital is Kota Kinabalu. There are two rainy seasons May to October and November to April, with dry season of only a few weeks while the winds change direction. Rainfall totals between 254 and 520 centimeters a year. The wettest months are November to January.

Like Sarawak, agriculture, timber, rubber and palm oil are the main employers. Even though Sabah’s rain forests have been heavily logged they are the most likely of Borneo’s rain forests to survive. Sabah welcomes around 400,000 visitors a year. Most are attracted by the state’s beaches, coral reefs and rain forests. Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia maintain separate customs and immigration offices, so travel to the Borneo States must be treated as an international journey. All long-term residents of Malaysia must obtain national identity cards (Ics).

If you like coral reefs and rain forests, it is hard to come up with a better place than Sabah. Will Ford wrote in the Washington Post: Sabah is “known for its national parks both on land and in the water. The Danum Valley, one of Borneo’s most famous lowland rain forests, lies just a five-to-six-hour drive from Semporna, a fishing town and dive mecca in the Coral Triangle that features many coral reefs, most notably the one at Sipadan Island. On the west coast of Sabah lies another pair of marine and terrestrial animal havens: Kota Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park, home to one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks and a wide variety of endemic animal species. The Kinabatangan River winds in between the two coasts, which planes can traverse in an hour.” [Source: Will Ford, Washington Post, October 13, 2016]


Labuan(160 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu) is a federal territory of Malaysia not a city or state or part of Sabah.. It is made up of Labuan Island and six smaller islands, and is located off the coast of the state of Sabah. Labuan's capital is Victoria and is best known as an offshore financial centre offering international financial and business services via Labuan IBFC since 1990 as well as being an offshore support hub for deepwater oil and gas activities in the region. It is also a tourist destination for people travelling through Sabah, nearby Bruneians and scuba divers. The name Labuan derives from the Malay word labuhan which means harbour. Labuan is often referred to as the pearl of Borneo. Labuan Tourist Information Centre, Lot 4260, Jalan Dewan Jalan Berjaya, 87007 Labuan, Wilayah Persekutuan Labuan, Malaysia, Tel: 6087-423-445, Fax: 6087-423-446

Labuan is officially called the Federal Territory of Labuan. Home to 85,272 people Labuan covers an area of 91 square kilometers and has a population density of 937 people per square kilometer. There are two main water villages on Labuan-Kampung Bebuloh and Kampung Patau-Patau which are mainly inhabited by Brunei Malays. The houses here, which are built right at the water's edge, are made of wood and sit on high stilts, joined together with a maze of wooden walkways. Visitors are free to roam around the vicinity of the water villages and observe the humble lifestyle of a predominantly fishing community. Almost every house owner here has his own boat. The houses can be quite large and they all have cool decorated verandahs.

The Tunnel in Labuan was once a site busy with coal mining activities for more than half a century from 1849 through 1911. This expansive network of underground tunnels is one of many important historical landmarks in Labuan. Operated by various British companies for 64 years, it was during the administration of the New Central Borneo, that an 8-mile long railway track was installed from here to Victoria Port to facilitate the export of coal, resulting in a flourishing coal mining operation here. However, an unfortunate string of mining accidents led to the closure of the mine in 1911.

Today, what still remains in the area are pits and tunnels dug long ago, old bricks and pieces of rail tracks and rusted cables strewn on the ground. Visitors may enter a low tunnel with the help of a short rope and emerge from the top, although this should only be attempted with great caution. Across the road next to the Chimney, is a vertical well that is 10 feet wide, measuring some 100 feet deep. Entrances to more tunnels, which are yet to be explored, can be found at the bottom of this well.

Peace Park at Layang-Layangan is situated close to Surrender Point, the place where the 32nd Japanese Southern Army surrendered to the 9th Australian Imperial Forces on 9 September 1945. The Japanese arrived at Labuan on January 1, 1942, less than a month after they had started their campaign in Malaya at Kota Bharu. They took formal possession of the island on the 3rd, having faced no resistance.

The Peace Park was built as a memorial and also as a renunciation of the horrors of war. It is dominated by the memorial mound which is surrounded by landscaped gardens and pavilions. Small ponds with stone bridges and park seats are all Japanese-inspired. A bronze plaque commemorating the surrender is mounted on a stone slab near the entrance.


Sandakan (320 kilometers northeast of Kota Kinabalu) is sometimes called “Little Hong Kong” because of large Cantonese population and it physical setting is similar to that of Hong Kong. The former capital of North Borneo, it is a modern city sprawled along Sabah's east coast, with a population of about 200,000.

Sandakan is located on the eastern coast of Sabah facing the Sulu Sea only 28 kilometers from the international border with the Philippines..Not far from the town, there are the three Malaysian Turtle Islands: Selingaan, Gulisaan and Bakkungan Kechil. The nearest islands to the town are Berhala, Duyong, Nunuyan Darat, Nunuyan Laut, and Bai island.

Places of interest include the Sandakan Heritage Museum, the Agnes Keith House, the Chartered Company Memorial, Chong Tain Vun Memorial, Japanese Bunker, Malaysia Fountain, Marian Hill, Mill Hill Dam, North Borneo Scout Movement Memorial, Sandakan Japanese Cemetery, Sandakan Liberation Monument, Sandakan Massacre Memorial, Sandakan Memorial Park, Sandakan War Memorial and the William Pryer Memorial. The oldest religious buildings are the St. Mary's Cathedral, Parish of St. Michael's and All Angels, the Sam Sing Kung Temple and the Jamek Mosque, which was opened by a Muslim cloth merchant from India, known as Damsah, in 1890.

During the little publicized Sandakan Death in March, 1941 more than 2,700 British and Australian soldiers were forced to march through the steamy jungles of Borneo only to be shot when they reached their destination. Six men escaped---they survived by eating birds and monkeys as well as bugs and crawfish---but only one man survived the war.

The prisoners were brought to Sandakan in 1942 to build an airstrip. As war went against the Japanese, food and medical supplies ran short and disease spread. Towards the end of the war, the Japanese feared an invasion and decided to move the soldiers inland. Those that couldn't keep up were executed on the spot. When rice supplies ran low prisoners were killed so there was more food for the Japanese soldiers. According to one war crime testimony, a Japanese sergeant told one group of condemned prisoners, "There's no rice, so I'm killing the lot of you today. Is there anything you want to say?"

Turtle Islands Near Sandakan

Turtle Islands (1½ hour speedboatride from Sandakan) are breeding grounds for green and hawksbill turtles. The peak season is between July and September. The islands — Selingaan, Gulisaan and Bakkungan Kechil — are a little difficult to get to. Glenn Kessler wrote in the Washington Post: “After a few days of visiting orangutans and monkeys, it was time for giant sea turtles. At Sandakan, a coastal town about a half-hour away, we boarded a boat for a bumpy 1 ½ -hour ride to Selingan Island, near the line in the Sulu Sea that separates Malaysia from the Philippines. [Source: Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, January 6, 2008]

“Every night, the 450-pound turtles come to this tiny island to deposit their eggs. Female turtles always return to the island where they were born to lay their eggs, even though they may have swum thousands of miles around the globe and don't start giving birth until they are between 30 and 50 years old; they can live up to 75 years. The island covers only a few acres, so we hung out on the beach and swam with tropical fish while we waited for the sea turtles to arrive in the evening. The number of people who can visit the island on any day is strictly limited, and the few cottages are spartan.

“At night, park rangers led us out to see the turtles as they pulled themselves up onto the beach, dug holes and quickly laid their eggs. In the dark, I nearly stumbled across one five-foot-long giant as she laboriously maneuvered through the sand to get back in the ocean. The turtle we saw laid 94 eggs in 10 minutes, all of which are collected by rangers and reburied in the sand behind fences to increase their chances of survival during the 60 days of incubation. Then we saw a hundred or so newly born turtles -- barely the size of the palm of my daughter's hands -- rush into the ocean. Since fewer than 1 percent of the turtles make it to adulthood, only one of the turtles could expect to return to the island a few decades from now to lay her eggs.”

Caves Near Sandakan

Agip Batu Tulung (800 meters from the Kinabantangan River in Kampung Bati Putih, about 40 kilometers from Kota Kinabatangan, two hours from Sandakan) is a set of caves hidden on of a 40-meter-high cliff that house the remains of a 16th century tribal people who settled along the river. Inside the caves are wooden coffins with carvings of snakes, lizards and buffalo. The people were buried with gongs, elaborate jats and other valuables. The skeletons and valuables have been removed. There is a museum but it is seldom visited and reaching the caves requires some difficult climbing.

Gomantong Caves (accessible from Sandakan) are home to over one million bats and birds-nest-soup swifts. The caves are located in dense jungle and reached by a 10 minute walk from a bus and car park. During the bird-nest gatherings season, visitors can watch the collectors scramble up the nests along 100-meter-high walls on frail-looking laddders.

The floor is covered by a thick layer of bat and bird guano and is full of cockroaches and the odd poisonous centipede that feed on the droppings. Fortunately, a platform-like path has been set up for tourists to walk on. Nothing can be done about the smell however. Visitors are advised not to look and talk at the same time lest something unpleasant drop in their mouth.

Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve and Rainforest Discovery Centre

Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve (in Sepilok, Sandakan) is the home of the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) and the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is one of Sabah’s popular environmental education (EE) centres. Aside from orangutans, over 200 species of birds and a variety of wild plants can be found within the 5.666 hectare reserve.

Night walks along the trail offer visitors a chance to catch a glimpse of wildlife that have made the rainforest their home, such as the mouse deer, civets, tarsiers and various insects and birds. Take a stroll through the forest or walk along the 147- meter long canopy walkway and enjoy a spectacular view of the beautiful rainforest — 28 meters above ground. The Plant Discovery Garden, boasts 250 species of native orchids in bloom.

Getting There: By Car: When in Sandakan, you could opt to drive or use local transportation. If driving, go along Jalan Labuk from Sandakan Town. Turn left at the Mile 14 roundabout (with the large Orang Utan statue). Drive along until you see the large, pictorial RDC road sign and turn right. Drive for about 500 meters to the RDC car park. EE Program Coordinator: Address: Rainforest Discovery Centre, PO Box 1407, 90715 Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia, Tel: 6089-533 780/ 533781

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center (20 minutes from Sandakan) is Malaysia’s main orangutan center. Located in Sepilok Forest Reserve, a small park with virgin rain forests, it provides a home for orangutans that have strayed into logging camps or have been rescued from captivity. They are trained in a similar fashion as orangutans at other rehabilitation centers. The best times to visit the park are at 10:00am and again, at 2.30pm when the apes emerge from the forest for their daily ration of bananas and milk. Watch as the orangutans are fed from a platform in the centre and then returned to roam freely in the forest where they can fend for themselves.

The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre was set up in 1964 to rehabilitate orphaned baby orang utan. Under the administration of the Wildlife Department of Sabah attracts tourists and researchers alike, giving them the opportunity to watch the orangutan up close in their natural habitat. A boardwalk leads you to a viewing gallery and feeding platform where the apes are fed. Feeding time also attracts long-tailed macaques to the area. While orang utan rehabilitation is still the primary goal at Sepilok, it also focuses on public education on conservation, research and assistance on other endangered species such as the rhinoceros.

Sepilok takes care of about 30 babies and has 60 older animals.

Getting There: If you are not on any tour, public buses and taxis are available from Sandakan town. From the local bus stand next to the Sandakan waterfront market, board the blue bus marked 'Sepilok Batu 14' (Sepilok-14th Mile). The 30- minute bus ride will take you directly to the rehabilitation centre. Regular buses, marked 'Batu 14' or higher, will drop you at the turn-off to Jalan Sepilok. However, you'll have to walk 1.5 kilometers to get to the Orang Utan Centre.The last bus leaves Sepilok to Sandakan at 4.30pm. The Labuk Road Bus Company vehicles depart from the front of the Sandakan Town Council (Majlis Perbandaran Sandakan or MPS) from 6.00am onwards. Fares are RM2.10 one way, but it will only stop at the junction to the Centre. You will have to walk about one and a half kilometers in. You can hire a taxi for a return trip for about RM100.00 negotiable. The distance between town and the Centre is approximately 23km.

Opening Hours: Security Gate: Daily from 8.00am till 5.00pm; Reception & Ticketing Counter: Daily from 9.00am till 11.00am and 2.00pm till 3.30pm; Exhibition Hall: Daily (except Fridays) from 9.00am till 4.30pm; Centre: Daily from 9.00am till 12.00pm and 2.00pm till 4.00pm Fridays 9.00am till 11.00am, 2.00pm till 4.00pm. Admission Rates. There is an entrance fee. Use of Cameras, camcorders, camera phones etc will be charged RM10.00 Address: Batu 14, Jalan Labuk Sandakan Sabah, WDT200, 9009 Sandakan Sabah Tel : 6 089 531180, Fax: 6 089 531189 Email :, website: Sabah Tourism Office, Tel: 6088-248 698/ 211 732

Visiting Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

There is some accommodation at the park. Many people stay in Sandakan and visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center as part of a day trip. Visitors are restricted to walkways. Some orang utan have become familiar with people but touching them is strongly discouraged, and while the apes are naturally shy and gentle, the more mischievous ones may try to grab your camera or hat, in which case you should call for a ranger as trying to wrestle the 200 pound apes may not be a good idea. For the more adventurous, there is trekking through mangrove forest. As this is under the Forestry Department, you will have to get a permit from them before trekking the 5 kilometers trail which runs through Sepilok Laut. You can also arrange for a boat return or accommodation in chalets in the forest.

Glenn Kessler wrote in the Washington Post: “ We stayed at the Sepilok Jungle Resort, a simple but friendly hotel in a spectacularly beautiful setting with a constant hum of insects and frogs and just a five-minute walk from the center.” Orangutans “have solitary lives, and it is rare for visitors to see them in the wild. But at the Sepilok center, twice a day bananas are placed near a viewing platform, attracting a few orangutans that swing from the sky by hanging on long ropes or vines from the high canopy of trees. [Source: Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, January 6, 2008]

“Suddenly, a few feet away from us, one of the orangutans decided he was in a mood to mate. The female seemed rather bored by his amorous activities, nibbling on a banana while the male grunted about. The tourists standing with us started to giggle, and then began laughing loudly. Our 14-year-old son, Andre, understood immediately. It took our 10-year-old, Hugo, a few more minutes."What's so funny?" Mara asked. Near the orangutans, we also visited a preserve of rare proboscis monkeys, which exist nowhere in the world but Borneo. The males, about 2 1/2 feet tall and weighing 50 pounds, have giant noses, potbellies and constant erections, perhaps because they usually have 10 or so mates.”

Lahad Datu

Lahad Datu (reached by daily one-hour flights from Kota Kinabalu) is a town on the Dent Peninsula on the east coast of Sabah with a population of around 30,000 people. It is surrounded by cocoa and palm oil plantations and has a port primarily used for exporting timber exporting, and an airport for domestic flights. Ming dynasty Chinese ceramics from the 15th century have been unearthed. Just east of Lahad Datu is the village of Tunku, a notorious base for pirates and slave traders in the 19th century. In September 1985, a dozen or so armed foreign pirates from the neighbouring Philippines landed on this town, killing at least 21 people and injuring 11 others.

Lahad Datu also has several palm oil refineries that service the the huge palm oil plantations around the town. Lahad Datu is linked to other towns and districts via Federal Route 13, which is part of larger Pan-Borneo Highway network in the east coast of Sabah. Lahad Datu is served by many different methods of transportation. Taxis, buses and minibuses are abundant and provide connectivity around the town and other districts such as Sandakan and Tawau.

Getting There: MASwings flies five times daily between Lahad Datu and Kota Kinabalu (BKI). For anywhere else, you’ll need to connect via Kota Kinabalu. By Road: Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu (7 hours) Sandakan to Lahad Datu (4 hours)m Tawau to Lahad Datu (4 hours) Long-distance buses between Sandakan, Semporna and Tawau pass Lahad Datau at the terminal in Fajar, just west of the Danum Valley offices. To Semporna, buses depart 10:30, 15:00 and 17:00 (2 hours; 22 ringgit). Dyana: (089) 855 494. Buses direct to Lahad Datu terminate in the city bus station near the corner of Jalan Bunga Raya and Jalan Pantai.

Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Tabin Wildlife Reserve (1½ hour drive from Lahad Datu) embraces 120,500 hectares of dipterocarp rainforest and is home to various endangered wildlife such as the Borneo Pygmy elephant, the Sumatran rhino, Tembadau and exotic birdlife. Covered in euryspecies lowland rainforest, Tabin nurtures a colossal number of tropical plants; some of which are rich in medicinal and therapeutic values.

Tabin is also known for its mineral-rich bubbling mud spings and salt springs. Its salt-licks are a good place to spot wildlife and birds. There are 23 kilometers of hiking trails in the rainforest.long the way, there are campsites for overnight stays. There is nice accommodation and a lodge in the park, You can hang out at Sunbird Café and try pakis, made with tender tips of wild fern, and have coffee and regular foof while enjoying the spectacular view of the forest and the river nearby.

Prices: Day Visit, RM570.00; 2 Days / 1, Night (Lodge ), RM1780.00 (Twin share), RM2270.00 (Triple share); 3 Days / 2, Nights (Lodge), RM2500.00 (Twin share), RM3260.00 (Triple share). Rates are based on minimum 2 person and twin-sharing basis. Rates include permit, accommodation, meals and guided activities as per itinerary, schedule return transfer. Children age 5 — 12 years old enjoy a 50 percent discount on extra pax rate provided he/she stay in twin-share room with two paying adults and do not utilized extra bed. Full adult rate applies if extra bed utilized.

Getting There: From Lahad Datu, a 1:15 hour drive, part of it on gravel road, will take you to Tabin. Contact: Tabin Wildlife Holidays Sdn Bhd, Lot 11-1, 1st Floor, Block A, Damai Point, Jalan Damai, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Tel: 6088 267266 (reservation and inquiries), Fax: 6088 258266, E-mail:, Website:

Danum Valley: Good Place to See Flying Snakes and Frogs

Danum Valley Conservation Area(northeastern Borneo, 83 kilometers south-west of Lahad Datu) is blessed with a startling diversity of tropical flora and fauna. This vast Eden-like basin is home to orangutans, gibbons, mouse deer and the beautiful clouded leopard, banteng, Asian elephant and even an extremely rare Sumatran Rhinoceros. It is a good place to see king cobras and flying lizards, frogs and snakes. Some 270 species of birds have been recorded in the area.

Danum Valley Conservation Area covers 438 square kilometers of undisturbed land it is regarded as one of the richest conservation areas in the world with over 200 species of tree per hectare thriving on it. It is also recognized as one of the world’s most complex ecosystem, The Danum Field Research Centre is located within the kilometers forest reserve.

Danum Valley also boasts one of the first eco-resorts in Sabah, known as the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. This comfortable resort has a restaurant, bar and comfortable chalets overlooking the Danum River. Jungle treks, river swimming, bird watching, night jungle tours and excursions to nearby logging sites and timber mills are some of the activities offered here. There is a 300-meter-long and 27-meter-high canopy walkway which offers a peek into abundant animal and bird life in the forest canopy.

The Danum Valley Conservation Area also has beautiful waterfalls and rivers including Sungai Purut 7-tiered pools — one of the most spectacular waterfalls and pools found in Danum Valley Conservation Area. There are some nice pools that are leech-free and safe for swimming. Visitors can also visit an ancient Kadazandusun burial site, complete with belian coffins (log coffins made from belian and merbau wood) and ceramic spirit jars. Three burial sites have been discovered in Danum Valley — two near the field centre and one below the cliff, overlooking Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

In the evening, visitors can go on a wildlife watching night drive in an open jeep. Depending on luck, wildlife photography enthusiasts will get an excellent opportunity to catch snapshots of the elusive wild inhabitants of the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Be more enlightened about nature and wildlife by watching an educational video and slide presentations. Those planning extensive wildlife photography are recommended to stay for at least 3 days to have better success at finding wild animals frolicking about. Please pre-arrange with the travel agent regarding your booking.

Getting There: The journey from Lahad Datu takes two hours, with the first 15 kilometers being the main Lahad Datu-Tawau road. The rest of the ride is on an unsealed but well-maintained private logging road. Sabah Tourism Office, Tel: 6088-248 698 / 211. For bookings and enquiries contact: Borneo Nature Tours S/B (KPL 3719), Block D, Lot 10, Ground Floor, Sadong Jaya Complex, 88100 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah P.O.Box 1162, 88817 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Tel: 60 88-267637 Fax: 088-251636, E-mail:, website:

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (three hours by bus from Sandakan) is a good place to spot proboscis monkeys, orangutans, elephants, hornbills, crocodiles, monitor lizards, and other wild animals. Centered around the Kinabatangan River, the largest river in Sabah, it is largely occupied by coastal mangrove and swamp forests, jungles and lakes and has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Borneo. One a good day you can see 10 different species of primate.

Kinabatangan River originates in the Borneo highlands and is 56 kilometers long. It is one of the few truly wild rivers left in Southeast Asia. The river is up to 300 meters wide and turns milky brown in the rainy season. After storms the river can be quite dangerous. Eddies, floating debris. and waves capsize boats. Occasionally barges show up pulling rain forest logs. The park is under threat from logging and palm oil plantations.

Kinabatangan draws about 10,000 visitors a year, The nearest town is Sukau. The high season is in July and August. Many visitors stay in eco-lodges like the Sukai Rainforest Lodge and do boat trips along the Kinabatangan River. Many of the boats use electric motors so as not to disturb the animals. Boat trips can be arranged further up the river where there ai also lost of wildlife, including long-tailed macaques, bearded pigs, civets and gibbons. Living along the river are fishermen, prawn gatherers, and tribes that still stay true to their hunting traditions.


Semprona (off the eastern coast of Sabah) is famed for dazzling blue water and for being the home of large numbers of Bajau Sea Gypsies There are hundreds of stilt homes set in shallow water, where seaweed is grown on monofilament lines and sold for canned pet food. The homes sometimes are washed away in heavy storms.

Semporna is in the Tawau Division on the east coast of Sabah and is home to around 35,000 people. It is located at the tip of Semporna Peninsula around Lahad Datu Bay (also known as Darvel Bay), and is visited by tourists as a base for scuba diving or snorkelling trips to Pulau Sipadan (Sipadan Island), some 36 kilometres southeast of town.

The majority of the population is Bajau, many of whom live in sprawling stilt villages over the water on the outskirts of town. Thousands of Bajau Laut (also known as Sea Gypsies or Pala'u) people live on the sea around Semporna. They are one of the few nomadic seaborne peoples of the world, and spend most of their lives on boats, making a livelihood from the coral reefs in the area. For some Bajau Laut people, the only time that their bodies spend any extended time on land is when they are buried after death. The main ethnic minority populations in Semporna are the Kadazan and Chinese communities. The majority of Chinese people in Semporna are from the Hakka dialect group.

Semporna is also known for the Regatta Lepa traditional boat races which occur annually in April. Semporna was also the location of the finish line of Eco-Challenge: Borneo, held in 2000. Off the coast is a marine park called Tun Sakaran Marine Park, also known as Semporna Islands Park. It was gazetted by Sabah Parks in 2004. Semporna is the gateway to diving in world-renowned island paradises like Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking, Sibuan, Mantabuan, Siamil and Pom Pom among others. Visitors to Semporna are mainly sunseekers looking for relaxation or watersports activities such as scuba diving or snorkelling.

Getting There Most travellers take a flight to Tawau from either Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabalu then travel overland by taxi (Tawau airport to Semporna town at RM 80-100). By Bus: From Kota Kinabalu there are direct buses from Inanam station to Semporna or Tawau and take 8-10 hourrs and costs 75 MYR one-way for westerners. Buses departs 7:30am and 7:30pm. From Sandakan: there are four direct buses to Semporna run by Sida Express at 7 am and 1.30pm and Dyana Express at 7:30 am and 2 pm (5-6 hrs, 40 MYR). If you miss the direct bus, you can also try taking a bus to Lahad Datu (at least 1:00pm, 18RM), and from there take a minibus to Semporna (leaves when it's full, 24RM).

Mabul Island

Mabul Island (accessible by boat from Semporna) is located in the clear waters of the Celebes Sea off the mainland of Sabah and is surrounded by gentle sloping reefs two to 40 meters deep. Covering some 21 hectares it is considerably larger than the nearby Sipadan Island and is home to the Bajau Laut tribe of Sea Gypsies.

Diving is the main activity on this island, and it can be done all year round. Marine life that can be seen here include color-changing cuttlefish, deadly blue-ringed octopus, spike-fin gobies, frogfish, moray eels, sea horses, exotic starfish, fire gobies, crocodile fish, pipefish and snake eels. There are over eight popular dive spots, each with its own speciality. Three resorts cater to scuba divers — two are on the island itself while one is on a converted oil rig platform about 500 meters offshore. All of the resorts provide day trips for their guests to the nearby Sipadan and Kapalai Islands.

Mabul Island is known for its swaying coconut trees is said to be one of the best muck-diving (a term used to describe limited visibility dives at shallow sites with usually sandy bottoms) sites in the world. The oval shaped island is fringed by sandy beaches and perched on the northwest corner of a larger 200-hectare reef. The reef is on the edge of the continental shelf and the seabed surrounding the reef slopes out to 25–30 meters deep. Resorts and dive operators: The Borneo Divers & Sea Sports (Sabah) Sdn Bhd, Explore Asia Tours Sdn Bhd (Sipadan-Mabul Resort), Seaventures Tours & Travel Sdn Bhd, Sipadan Water Village Resort Sdn Bhd

Getting There: Mabul Island, it is a 30-minute boat ride from Semporna and 20 minutes from Sipadan Island. From Kota Kinabalu, take a 55-minute flight to Tawau and enjoy an hour’s drive to Semporna. From here, Mabul is another 45 minutes by speedboat. Be sure to pre-arrange transportation with your respective resort/dive operator. Mabul is only about 15 minutes by speedboat from the famous Sipadan Island.Contact: Borneo Divers & Sea Sports (SABAH) Sdn Bhd (KPL 1510), Address: 9th Floor, Menara Jubili,53 Jalan Gaya, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, Tel: 6088 222226, Fax: 6088 221550, Email:, website: . Also try:Sabah Tourism Office, Tel: 6088-248 698 / 211

Sipadan Island

Sipadan Island (accessible by boat from Semporna or Mabul Island) is one of the world's premier diving sights. A small 30-acre island in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah, formed by an underwater volcano, this scuba diving paradise has lovely coral gardens and 2000-foot drop-offs with hard and soft corals, porcelain crabs, hawkfish, brittle stars, clown fish, puckering sweetlips, lionfish, reef sharks, stone fish, parrot fish, unicorn fish and sea turtles.

Some of the best dive sites are 15 meters feet offshore. Sites that cane be reached by a 10-minute boat ride feature schools of 2,000 barracuda, enormous bumphead parrotfish, damselfish, needlefish, pufferfish and large schools of jacks and hammerhead sharks.

Most visitors stay in basic thatch-roof cottages at the Borneo Dive center of the Sipadan Dive Center. In 1985, divers slept in tents. Today five lodges cater to 300 visitors day. Some of the rooms go for more than $350 a night. Most cater to experienced divers. The peak season is March to October. The dive spots are sometimes crowded. Eight boats sometime hoover around Barracuda Point. Beach erosion and coral damage have occurred..

Jacques Cousteau once described Sipadan Island as an untouched piece of art while divers around the world have voted it as one of the top five dive sites in the world. Rising 700 meters from the sea floor, it is Malaysia's only true oceanic island. It is so small that a 25-minute walk is all that is needed to circle the island on foot.

Sipadan was recognized first for its birds. In 1933 it was declared a bird sanctuary by the Colonial Government of North Borneo and re-gazetted in 1963 by the Malaysian Government. The island’s dense vegetation on Sipadan Island and marine life supports a large variety of birds that including sea eagles, kingfishers, sunbirds, starlings and wood pigeons. Exotic crustaceans including the amazing coconut crab roam the beaches and scurry among the undergrowth.

Getting There: Sipadan is a bit difficult to get to and it wasn't even developed until the early 1990s. Visitors take a 45 minute flight on a 737 from Kota Kinabulu to Tawau, then travel an hour overland to Semporna for a one hour speed boat ride to Sipadan. Sipadan is a 30- minute speedboat ride from Mabul Island. Often the speedboat from Semporna stops at both islands. Contact: Borneo Divers & Sea Sports (SABAH) Sdn Bhd (KPL 1510), Address: 9th Floor, Menara Jubili,53 Jalan Gaya, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, Tel: 6088 222226, Fax: 6088 221550, Email:, website: . Also try:Sabah Tourism Office, Tel: 6088-248 698 / 211

Abu Sayyaf Kidnapping from Sipadan

In April 2000, members of the Philippines-based terrorist group Abu Sayyaf , using high-powered speedboats, kidnapped 21 people — 19 foreigners and two Filipinos -- from a dive resort at Sipadan. The hostages were brought to the Philippine island of Jolo. Most of the hostages were released in the following months; the last hostage, Roland Ulla, a Filipino, finally escaped in 2003.

On the day of the kidnapping, Six armed kidnappers arrived on boats while the guests at a $250-a-night resort were having dinner. The kidnappers claimed to be police and made the guests swim to their waiting boats. They were brought to Jolo, an island in the Philippines in a 22 hour boat journey. The 21 hostages were comprised of three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese, nine Malaysians, and two Filipinos. They were kept in jungle camps, fed meager meals of rice and sardines, forced to sleep on the ground, and frequently moved and forced to take long hikes to stay one step ahead of authorities. At the time of the kidnapping Abu Sayyaf was already holding 27 other hostages and demanding the release of three Muslim militants held in the United States.

Nine of the Malaysians were released in the early weeks after the abduction after the Malaysian government paid $3 million for their release. Other hostages were taken, including some German, Filipino and French television journalists that were abducted when they went to interview the original hostages. They were captured by an Abu Sayyaf faction that was feuding with one of the main factions over money. Two of the French journalists escaped during an attack on Abu Sayyaf by the Philippine military. Ten Germans were freed when the kidnappers were paid $25,0000. The Jolo faction of Abu Sayyaf was behind this kidnapping. The Philippine military staged an attack on Jolo using thousands of soldiers and elite police backed by helicopter gunships in an effort to rescue the hostages.

In September 2000, the last ten European hostages were released after Abu Sayyaf was paid $10 million to $25 million by the Libyan government, which insisted the money would be used to for development in Abu Sayyaf areas not aiding the military groups. Not long after the hostages were released Abu Sayyaf grabbed some other hostages. Some more hostages had also been taken shortly before the last Sipadan hostages were released.

The release of the last hostages was delayed due to squabbles over the exchange rate between the dollar and the Philippine peso. When they were released they were flown first to Tripoli, where they posed for pictures with Ghadafi. So much cash flooded the Abu Sayyaf region that weapons sold for three times as much as they did earlier and gold, gem and pearl dealers flocked to Abu Sayyaf-held territory.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Malaysia Tourism websites, Malaysia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.