Malaysian Borneo: Diving Mabul and Sipadan

From River Kinabatangan we had a pretty easy journey down to Semporna (where we were heading to Scubadive).

The driver who had collected us from Sepilok, took us from the river to a lay by on one of the main roads where ‘his friend’ one of the local coach drivers picked us up on the local bus which was going to Semporna. This took about 4-5 hours.

When we arrived in Semporna, our main mission was to go and try to find Sipadan diving passes. If you have researched anything about Sipadan you’ll probably know these are pretty difficult to find, and there are loads of rumours about certain dive shops and whether the passes are legitimate or not. Also most of the diving passes come with accommodation packages as well, so anyway it was all a bit of a nightmare trying to arrange.

So we set off from the bus, sticky, sweaty, tired….the usual! and now semporna is not exactly the most glamorous of places which surprised us considering its the gateway to one of the most highly regarded dive spots in the world. There is a lot of poverty and as soon as we started walking through the town young children were clawing at us for anything, even the water I was drinking.

We traipsed around a load of the dive shops and eventually decided what to do….I won’t go into every boring detail but in the couple hours of walking back and forth we had to go through a fish market and by the harbor, anyway I started to feel really rough and starting throwing up on the side of the street. Danielle was really good, and checked me into the closest hotel which had a private bathroom sent me upstairs and carried on sorting out booking the diving trip! I was pretty useless in all of this.

But the next day we headed off to the island of Mabul where we were staying in the ScubaJunkie resort for three nights. Luckily I was feeling a bit better, and it was my 26th Birthday woop! I was too ill to dive that day but we just chilled out which was nice.

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So the next day we started our PADI Advanced open water course. We wern’t really planning on doing this but as we really wanted to enjoy Sipadan it was recommended as its quite a deep dive (with the open water you can only go to 18m but with the advanced you can go to 40m).

Our instructor Phil was really great, and again we were lucky as it was just the two of us in the group. In this course you learn a lot more about buoyancy, getting your weight right, navigation and you get to pick a couple of specific dives. We picked the night dive and drift dive. The night dive was terrifying and I almost had a panic when we first went into the water, but I clung to Danielle the whole time and survived!

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After three nights, when the course was finished we went back to Semporna and stayed in a hostel for a couple of nights.

We had managed to find a Sipadan pass but not with accommodation which meant we had to stay in Semporna and get the boat from there. The company we used were a ‘local’ company, so run by Malaysians. A lot of the dive shops are run by Chinese, Brits, Americans. It was really good, a tad dis-organised but all the equipment was decent! and we had a great guide who spoke really good English.

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From one of the most beautiful (underwater) places in the world to Kuala Lumpur. Follow us on the last part of our amazing journey. 

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Indonesia: Bandung and Jakarta

Bandung

From Yogyakarta we went to Bandung which was an 8hr night train. This time we paid the much more expensive 350,000 IDR pp executive tickets as we couldn’t face the economy over night. This was definately the right choice as the seats reclined and had lots of leg room, however they kept bright clinical lights on all night so make sure to take an eye mask!

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Bandung is meant to be really good for cheap shopping however we didn’t really find this the case and only bought Danielle one t-shirt!

Bandung was a bustling city from sunrise to set.  It had some type of stall lining every street, they are most famous for their tshirts. It was challenging for us to shop as their super cheap stalls were mainly local clothing and the huge malls were incredibly expensive, think Westfield type of shops and tags.

We did take advantage of the western culture of Bandung.  We had a Dunkin Doughnuts breakfast,  KFC lunch and Pizza Hut dinner. Very naughty but after a month of fried rice for every course a change was needed.

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Jakarta

From here we went on to Jakarta by train in economy again as it was only 3 hours.  This time it was great. The seats were in twos and were individual rather than a bench. There was a charging station and tray for every seat. Sounds like a normal train right! We don’t even have chargers in the UK sometimes.

From the train we tried to get an Uber but they cancelled twice as the traffic around the station was awful. We ended up getting in a bemo type taxi (a scooter with two seats and a little cover).  It was a fun ride as we could skip loads of traffic but he got lost about three times and in the end kicked us out as he couldn’t cross the main road. We walked the rest of the way.

We had 24 hours here so not much time to do anything and I (Danielle) had to get yet another PhD application in.  We did however find an amazing restaurant. The food was Indonesian but in a funky style and they did these amazing milkshakes.

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Our hotel was nice for the price but people were allowed to smoke inside and in the eating area which means it smelt disgusting as well as giving you sore lungs.

Then next day we managed to get a grab taxi to the airport. The traffic was so manic it took about 30 minutes just to get onto the main road. Just as we were starting to get a good flow we were being bibbed at and harassed by a taxi behind us, he even drove between the two lanes to get by the side of us.  We had no clue as to what was going on. In the next breath we were pulled in by the police.

It appeared that the grab car was driving in the taxi lane, he ended up with a ticket and a fine. In all this time Lara and I were panicking about getting to the airport on time as it had already taken so long to get to that point. The taxi man gave us the international money sign and said toll road.  After agreeing as we needed to get there he stopped at a toll card vendor and said 50,000IDR.  We realised he didn’t have his own card so instead of just us paying the tolls he wanted us to buy his card and weeks worth of tolls for him! Needless to say we were pretty ready to be leaving Indonesia…we had had some great experiences here but also a lot of stresses, we would just say be careful if you are a female travelling alone. It is still a very masculine dominated environment.

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Toll roads are usually about 10,000IDR per car per road and are a good idea if you want to get anywhere quickly. If you have loads of time you can go the long slow route.

Thailand to Malaysia – Krabi Town to Langkawi

We only stayed in Krabi Town one night as there isn’t too much to do here. There is a good night market and a boots so a great chance to stock up on decently priced sun cream!! From Krabi Town we got a local bus, 50B, to Ao Nang, and stayed the next 3 nights in a lovely little guest house. The mother and son owners were very friendly. Ao Nang is quite small but has a nice beach and some good night market shopping.

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On one day we got a small boat, from Ao Nang beach, to Railay beach. Costing 200B return. Railay beach is on a small peninsula which is only accessible by boat. It’s a really beautiful boat ride across and beach to explore. We just about managed to have a quick swim and relax before a storm set in! Not the best timing but it meant we had a chance to explore and dani decided to get a bamboo tattoo from a placed called ‘bamboo bar’. She literally sat at the bar while the guy proded her ankle with a bamboo needle 😳. When in Thailand eh!!

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So our last day in Thailand came around pretty quickly and on the 26th we got the bus and ferry to start our Malaysian adventure in Langkawi. We bought the bus and ferry ticket from our hostel for 800B each.  On to Malaysia we go!

We left at 0600 and got to Langkawi about 1600 so was a pretty long day! So… after reading all of the blogs, it is possible to go from Thailand to Langkawi in one day, however check your tickets, the timings, and the season before you try this.

Malaysia – The Perhentians

The Perhentians…

We then made our way to Penang airport, a nice 0430 start to the day! We boarded the tiny little propellor plane ✈️ …both slightly nervous! But got to Kota Baru in no time. It then took us an hour drive in a Grab taxi to the Kuala besut ferry terminal. This cost 65 MYR. The ferry ticket to the perhentian kecil island is 70 MYR return, there are also some extra costs; island entrance fee: 30 MYR and another little taxi from the speed boat to the beach: 2 MYR. From the boat we trudged along the beach, now in the swealtering sun, and found a little shady area to dump our bags whilst we wondered around looking for accommodation and dive schools. We eventually ended up going to ‘Oh lala’ dive centre and chalet. After a boiling swim in the 30deg water and our classic vegetable fried rice lunch, we passed out for the rest of the day after having only a couple hours sleep the night before. 😴

The next day we started out PADI open water course. We were really lucky as it was only Dani and I in the group, our instructor was a lovely girl called Lucy who was from Buckinghamshire. She was really great and calmed us (me) down a lot….Danielle will probably remember my sobbing the night before about getting a PE or having to go into a decompression chamber. But I’m still here to tell the tale! and have definitely caught the diving bug. We did all our skills tests not far from kecil island and then we got to do a few bigger dives; lots of reef, and an artificial wreck (three sunken police boats).

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On our last day we got to explore the island a bit more which we hadnt had time to do yet so busy with the course. We walked across to the other side of the island…after getting lost and passing through what seemed to be the islands dumping ground! One big lesson we have learnt this trip is things are not always how you imagine,, and when your looking at peoples instagram getting jealous the photo will not always represent whats going on.

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Anyway we eventually did manage to cross the island and reach the beach and much more expensive resorts and found a lovely little cove to have a swimbo.

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The day then came when we had to leave the lovely perhentians, say goodbye to Lucy and everyone at ‘oh lala’, the tasty ‘no name’ we had had everyday for lunch and elly a lady who worked at one of the front restaurants who was always looking after us!

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Someone obviously didn’t want us to leave as the heavens suddenly opened, the storm was so rough the boats were about to be cancelled…but in true asian style they thought they’d give it a go. So we all crammed onto one of the speed boats, buckled up a life jacket and clung onto each other making man over board plans, but credit to our driver, who had been on the phone most of the journey he got us there in one piece! That night we stayed in a lovely little guest house run by a malaysian couple who gave us lunch and took us to a local restaurant for dinner. In the morning we got a flight from Kota Baru to Kinabalu, Borneo. Now this part of our trip was a bit if a surprise addition so we hadn’t planned it quite yet!

Next to Borneo…

Malaysia – Penang

…Penang!

We took the ferry which took about 3 hours and cost 70MYR each. We then could walk from the pier to Georgetown where all the hostels are. For the first two nights we stayed at art hostel 1921, the third night at love lane in 54 and for the last one an air bnb near the airport. The hostels were both pretty shitty but the cheapest we could find! The reason we changed was because the second one was slightly cheaper but we wish we hadn’t! It was so bad. If you’re ever in Penang don’t go to love lane inn 54 whatever you do, it was so dirty and the owner was an arse.

Georgetown is a really nice relaxed place, there isn’t tonnes to do here but have a good walk around and enjoy all the street art and great local food! If you like Indian you’re in luck.

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There are a few day trips you can do from town, one day we went to Penang hill and the botanical gardens. You can either get the furnicular up to the top of the hill or walk. We decided to walk, take water with you and be prepared for a decent hike. It took us about 1 1/2 hours up and an hour down and was pretty much vertical the whole way. There are places to rest along the way, in the Malaysian heat you really need these. It’s worth it to get to the top though and it felt good to have achieved the climb!

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After getting down we had a lovely cool down walk around the botanical gardens which are free to get in to. We also saw a few white eyed monkeys outside the gardens which was really cool as we hadn’t seen these anywhere else in Asia!

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The other day trip you can do from Georgetown is Taman Negara, unfortunately we didn’t have time for this but heard good things about it from lots of different travellers.

Next stop the Perhentians…

 

Malaysian Borneo: Sabah and Mt Kinabalu

We arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and went straight to our hostel to dump our bags then out for local food. This part of Malaysia had a real mix of cuisines, mostly great cheap chinese and indian food. We then tried to plan what we were doing for the next couple of weeks, after a lot of research we decided on four main loctions; mt kinabalu, sepilok, river kinabatangan and sipadan. Before we left Sabah we were so lucky to be able to go a meet up with Nova, who works in Rustic Borneo, We had first met Nova all the way back in Vietnam when we did the Sapa trek. She really helped us plan our Borneo trip. So after chatting with her, we collected our bags….a cheeky pizza hut and went to the bus stop.

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Mt Kinabalu

From about half a mile from Rustic Borneo is a bus stop with  load of different shuttle buses going to a load of destinations just shout out your destination and someone will point you in the right direction. It was about 60ringit and took 3 hours to get to Mt Kinabalu.

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We stayed at a hostel called D’villa Rina Ria Lodge it was a very basic room with bunk beds squashed together but all you needed for a night and the views from the restaurant area were incredible. Danielle also wants me to write that the room was really cold and there were massive spiders in the bathroom….but we were in the mountains!

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Now we couldn’t afford to do the summit trek as its around 300GBP and you have to book it 6 months in advance but there are a load of trails in the park you can do, these were really fun rainforest treks!

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Malaysia – The Perhentians PADI open water ⚓️

All along long beach are several dive shops. In fact the whole beach is just made up of either snorkelling or diving outlets. So why did we pick oh lala? A French run place needless to say, with a friendly female manager called Jan. Really nice, very straight talking and typically French. All the dive shops are pretty much the same price for PADI open water courses (1050 rm + 3%card fee), which included x3 nights accommodation in their rooms.  The only exception was a place called Turtle bay divers…they’re a bit cheaper and don’t have a card fee but they don’t have any accommodation. When you work it all out though it ends up pretty much the same money wise. So the shops with the chalets just take out the hassle of wondering around looking for accommodation: unless you stay in the expensive resorts you can’t book anything before getting to the island.

So we had a look at the accommodation, it’s all very basic. The main reason we went with Oh lala was that they offered us a private room rather than a dorm (for 20rm each rather than 40rm each as we were diving with them), which was nice as we were there for a few days.

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So we started our course in the afternoon on the 5/5/17. We were both nervous… Lara nearly backed out after having researching all the fun injuries one can sustain underwater. Eventually we both agreed to do the first session to try it and could see how we felt after that. Our instructor was a girl called Lucy from Buckinghamshire, we were very lucky she was absolutely lovely and it was just Dani and I in our group so we had lots of support! The first session incorporated skills in the shallows, with our SCUBA kit but just on our knees so we could have come up easily if needed. The hardest part was flooding our masks, at first I had no idea how to clear it and just had a tonne of salt water in my eyes. I finally understood that you can’t clear it while your still holding it off your face so got the hang of it… Dani found it a challenge too as she has a sensitive nose which kept letting in water making her choke whilst under water, not a good move. After a few struggles though we both managed to complete the skill session and then went into a proper dive, maxing at 11m deep! We saw some beautiful coral and fishies at a spot called Batu Nisan.

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The next day we did a tonne of theory in the morning; videos and questions and then quizzes with Lucy. Dani was a pro and got a solid 💯 on everything!

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In the afternoon we had a whole session of skills. So this was mainly on our knees and then some stuff a bit deeper like swimming around without a mask off at around 6m. Again Dani fearing for her life whilst trying to get her mask off, snuffing up yet more water but managing to survive and getting it second time around.

The next day we finished the rest of our theory videos and quizzes with Lucy and did the final exam which we both passed woo!

Then we went on a dive to D’lagoon which is not too far from long beach, still on kecil island. It was a nice dive; more coral and fishies.

Then for our two bigger dives on our last day,  we need to reach 18m to finish the course. The fist dive was to Tanjung basi which was a really cool dive and we saw tonnes of trigger fish and x4 black tip sharks 🦈. The afternoon dive was called Polis wreck which is an artificial wreck where they sunk x3 old police boats 🚣 to create some a new habitat where coral would grow. Here we went to 18m! We saw loads of creatures including three bright yellow box fish which we were told was very unusual for that spot.

So now we are qualified PADI open water divers and can go alone (without an instructor, but with a buddy) and dive… not that we will just yet!

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*TIP , THERE ARE NO CASH POINTS ON THE ISLAND! So to avoid the fees get as much cash out as possible.