Semporna – the “Secret” of Sabah

Have you ever heard the name Semporna, which is quite unpopular with travelers outside Malaysia – even with Peninsular Malaysian?

A part of Semporna

The town’s name means secret in Bahasa Melayu and it’s literally a secret at the southern tip of state – Sabah. For those who is found of beaches, turquoise water and diving, this is a true paradise not to be missed.

Semporna has the bluest shade of water I have ever seen

To know more about Semporna, have a “deep dive” at this article with me and you may find helpful information for your next vacation.

Where is Semporna?

Semporna is a little town at a tip of state Sabah, a state with more autonomy than other states in the Peninsular. Located in a far away land from the main hub of transportation, the town itself requires some effort to reach. Far as it seems, it offers travelers with diverse submarine life and a number of islands surrounding with magnificent crystal clear water. You may also hear about Pulau Sipadan (or Sipadan Island) somewhere. It’s undoubtedly an island of the Semporna archipelago, to be ranked as one of 10 best diving sites in the world.

The island Omadal in Semporna archipelago

In case you don’t prefer diving but just a simple relaxing vacation or just demand some snorkeling trips, Semporna still offer you more than what you expect.

How to get to Semporna?

By the time of this post published, the most convenient and economic way to reach the town, is by airplane. Malaysia Airlines, Malindo (now known as Batik Air) or Air Asia do have frequent flights every day to connect Kuala Lumpur and Penang. An en route to Semporna from Kota Kinabalu is also a smart choice if you opt for Mt. Kinabalu first.

The only airport in the area is Tawau airport in Tawau town. Catching Grab or Taxis from the airport does not take less than 1 and a half hour to reach the jetty, which will transfer you to other resorts or islands. Price varies depends on time and services but not more than RM 120 for a 4-seat SUVs. If you stay with a full board package from resorts, they do offer you pick-up service from the airport.

Kapalai Sipadan – the most luxurious resort in Semporna

From the Jetty to islands or resorts, there is not any ferry or scheduled boat but chartered boat or speedboat from the property you book. Price is shared among those who wish to travel with you and definitely, the more, the cheaper.

What to do in Semporna?

Coming to Semporna, as stated above, whether you are a diver, a family or a solo backpacker, you do have many options with different packages. While most couples or familes choose to relax in water bungalows and resorts surrounding (or in Pulau Mabul), other divers and backpackers are more likely to choose homestay and hostel in the town, or on Pulau Mabul – the most popular rest besides the town. Either offer you different sense of Semporna, but you still can combine both diving and relaxing if you wish for.

Marine life of Semporna
  • Bohey Dulang

For me, there is no reason to skip the Bohey Dulang, Pulau Matabuan and Pulau Pom Pom (though in fact, I did not have enough time to cover the Pom Pom).

The Jetty of Bohey Dulang

With Bohey Dulang, you need to hike a quite steep jungle-path-hill to reach the top. But please, wait until you are rewarded with a magnificent view of the lagoon once you are on top of the island. The fresh feeling beats all your effort to conquer the top. Looking down on the Jetty, you will sea those tiny people about to perform a journey as you with the background of a satisfying blue shades of water around.

From the top of Bohey Dulang

Take note that if it rains heavily a day before or at the time you reach the jetty, hiking activities may be rejected by the officer there for the sake of your safety. Please also bear in mind that the island is a conservative marine park, any littering or damage is prohibited and fined.

  • Snorkeling or Diving

After Bohey Dulang, It’s time for a Snorkeling or diving around the reef under some islands. Not a diver myself, I bought a snorkeling package from my resort and it’s worth every penny. There are quite variety of fish including clownfish and starfish with healthy corals that you can easily enjoy just by using the gears. Some tour includes a simple lunch on the boat after the 1 or 2 first snorkeling to chase away the hunger. But don’t be surprised as it consists of some fish, plain rice and stir-fried cabbage only.

  • Pulau Matabuan

My snorkeling tour did drop me off on an is land named Matabuan. It’s not really outstanding but provide a chilled moment on a long sandy beach at the tail end of the island. You can sit there, enjoy the wind or bath in a small natural lagoon itself.

The sandy tail of Pulau Matabuan

The sandy strip looks exactly like those to be found in Maldives and it’s a plus in the tour that I haven’t seen anywhere else during my other trips in Malaysia.

  • Pulau Mabual and Sipadan

From my point of view. A trip to Semporna won’t be complete without a stop in Pulau Mabul and/or Sipadan (if you are a diver).

The life of Sea Gysps – or The Bajau Laut on Mabul island

Pulau Mabul may be the only resting point for those who perform long diving trip in Sipadan (with a dive shop and some permits to be prepared definitely) along the route to Sipadan – not to mention the top rated Kapalai Sipadan resort if you have the budget for it.

But to me, the island is, more than what you can expect, of a local lifestyle among those who live on the island. Semporna, besides home of some Malaysian, is the base for the infamous Bajau Laut ethnic group that makes up a minority of Semporna’s population.

And with my eager to explore the island, I did find it so emotional for the life of locals there. They live with the least condition inside a small island without much knowledge about environmental protection (by the amount of garbage found nearby).

Children on the island only have one school to learn (as I heard, they must transfer to Semporna or Tawau for high school), that’s why you may not find adolescent but children aged around 10 and adults on the island. The vibe of the island reminds me of Vietnam in 80s with so many challenge on electricity, fresh water and other conditions.

These kids play with us during our stay in Mabul
They are young but really eager to talk to “strangers“ that they don’t have many chances to meet
On a small path in the island, it’s not hard to spot these paths around the island

If you have any chance to visit the island, please bring some food, clothes or anything helpful to the people and the children there. They do appreciate your kindness as from what I have learnt from their eyes during my last time there.

But anyway, Mabul is still worth a visit

While on Mabul, you may have a package to snorkel in Kapalai Sipadan resort for RM 30 per person. It’s a precaution to enter the premise but the water around them for snorkeling only. And yes, there is no way to explore the resort except for having a reservation. In fact, I was quite disappointing about the news, but even the coral reef and schools of fish in the snorkeling trip, do satisfy me a lot. I must say that snorkeling around Kapalai Sipadan resort is the best of all I have done during that 5 days 4 night trip. Explore your self and prove me wrong!

Where to stay in Semporna?

Some of the best resorts to be named, as Lato Lato Resort – the one that I stay during my first half of the trip, Egang Egang resort or Nusakuya. Do not forget the Kapalai Sipadan Resort, the most expensive and luxurious in the area.

  • Lato Lato Resort
Lato Lato is the best I can recommend in Semporna (not on Mabul)

For Lato Lato Resort, they offered me a package of 2 snorkeling trip, a full board room with free lunch and dinner everyday for 3 days 2 night, pick up service from The Airport, a return boat transfer to the resort and finally a room of 2 for only RM 600, a deal that can’t be missed! But do note that we travel in a group of 6 with 3 rooms. This may be the reason for this rate.

Their food is not really tasty but consists of what you need for a day of snorkeling. Crabs, fish and diced chicken (sometimes curries, some time deep fried) are what to expect for both lunch and dinner. Free low of drinks like tea, coffee and Milo are offered the whole day, so do not worry of a thirst.

The room is basic, somehow noisy at night when waves hit the wooden pillars of the boardwalk surrounding the property, but you have a privilege of having the whole ocean yourself instead, which resembles those high end resorts in Maldives.

  • Uncle Chang Lodge
Uncle Chang Lodge

For Pulau Mabul, choices of homestay/backpacking hostel is also widespread from Seahorse Sipadan Lodge to Uncle Chang – where I always recommend for their excellent service with a budget or Mabul Backpackers.

A praise for the staff of Uncle Chang Lodge though their information is really not much (you should search for their shop on Facebook and WhatsApp’s them to reserve the room). A large room of 2 with queen beds for 2 night, a full meal board (not better than Lato Lato at all), a single snorkeling trip is offered at RM 350 per person for a group of 6. The rate is to be better understanding of the remote location and inconvenient transportation for food and other utilities.

There will be a Chalet like this for up to 4 persons, depending on your group

Despite not being as gorgeous as Lato Lato, Uncle Chang is quite lively and friendlier. The staff there always welcome guess by live show every night with some assistance of negotiating when you buy seafood from Bajau Laut.

How the Chalet looks like, taken when we checked out

Speaking of seafood, there are plenty of Bajau Laut people selling lobsters, giant squids, shells and coconuts around the island. They use a wooden handmade boat to move. Though they offer a high rate, the seafood themselves are so fresh that I bet you can’t find them elsewhere. You may want some help of the staff from Uncle Chang to negotiate the rate with them. For our case, 12 Sea Crabs for RM 100 or 4 middle lobster for RM 100 is a huge plus point of the whole trip.

Some of seafood sold by Bajau Laut on Mabul island

And far more beyond that..

Semporna is my first recommend when someone asks me about the best beaches to seek for, in Malaysia. This is not only because of the sceneries itself but also the price, the service and everything. To know more about Semporna, please have them a visit and you may find your heart left in Semporna just as me.

Good luck!

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