Turtles, platform-turned-hotel-and-dive-site, black tip sharks, underwater caving
A few days after my birthday I found myself in the beautiful Mabul Island. I was there for two reasons – to dive, and to go for what I think would be my last travel with M before she gets married in a few months!
Upon being there for almost a week, I came up with a conclusion; this place ain’t famous for nothing. Strangely enough, talking to the locals found that Malaysians don’t really frequent here as much as international tourists do, perhaps due to some bad rep the islands had been getting in the past from terrorist activities (remember that guy who got kidnapped in Sipadan with a ransom? Scary!). In any case, the islands are so beautiful that one can instantly overlook all the army guys patrolling the area frequently.
Sipadan Island - courtesy of a friend's drone! #ilovetechnology
Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai islands are located in East Sabah, Malaysia, the closest airport being Tawau Airport. It takes an hour by road from the airport to the jetty, and then another hour of boat ride from the main land to Mabul Islad.
All three islands are seemingly un-bothered by the fast-paced life of the outside world. Pretty much everyone is there to dive. Mabul is more popular for the micro-animals - think weird looking, alien-like shrimps and slugs of all colors imaginable - whereas Sipadan is where you see the big players, like whale sharks, giant garoupas, manta rays, and a few different species of turtles. Exhibit A: I saw a turtle bigger then myself! (and I always love it when I’m the thinner one! #vain)
One of the diving spots in Sipadan. I can imagine what my Dad would say - "sedapnya kalau masak gulai"
A picture of a micro-God-knows-what-but-its-cute
Bumphead fish - also need some dental work (braces)
When booking diving packages here, I would recommend taking unlimited dives. We were diving 3-4 times a day for days, and yet I'm pretty sure I have not seen everything it has to offer. Often it felt like I was crashing a giant, endless sea-world party – there were so many turtles I eventually lost count, barracudas and bumpheads and some other weird looking fish that also looked delicious, lobsters and stingrays and giant eels – I was the stranger.
Maybe that’s the whole appeal of diving. You get lost in a world that is not yours, and you’re only there to observe for a change, not to participate. Maybe that’s the addiction.
Own toys and rented toys!
If you’re like me (me = amateur diver with minimal photography skills), best to be safe and not too carried away with things. When we went for an underwater cave expedition, I admit that it made me uncomfortable. To make matters worse, the Divemaster's torchlight gave out right when we were in the cave and it was momentarily pitch black (first picture). I mean, isn’t this exactly the intro to a bad horror movie where the entrance collapses and we’re all trapped inside and the oxygen runs out and I’m forced to kill someone using a broken shell fragment in the name of survival?? (but I wouldn’t kill M. She promised to buy me a birthday gift for less than RM100)
The irony - reading about a city while staying by the beach
Local village scenes around Mabul island - check out those sea urchins!
The island itself is amazing to explore on foot. Sipadan is much smaller than Mabul, and Mabul has local villagers who live on houses made on stilts by the sea. My favorite thing to do when arriving in a new place is to always go for a nice long walk around the local neighborhood, and avoid touristy watering holes. If you’re friendly enough you’ll make fast friends who will give you free fresh fish, and they were such nice people to invite us over to try the local sea urchin (you hear that Michelin? Ours was free and not a gazillion bucks). I've never actually had sea urchin before, and I thought it tasted... well, brine-y.
When traversing through local community at a new place it's always best to keep and open mind and have a big smile on your face! Nobody likes a tight-ass diva.
And try not to look too surprised to see a lot of kids running around stark naked and one kid with a cigarette pack.
A plate of Tuna 'Kilau'
A local delicacy that is a must-try would be a dish called ‘kilau’. There are versions of this everywhere in every seaside place in the world. It’s basically raw fresh fish tossed in lime, chilies, onions and simple seasoning. We had a tuna ‘kilau’, and it was zingy, fresh, light and supremely tasty (above picture). We also had some fried barracuda and weird-looking stir-fried snails at a local restaurant. The latter was oddly chewy, like an overgrown squid.
The Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai islands are truly gems of Malaysia. It's such a pride to know that we have such paradise in our own backyard. Just make sure your insurance covers ‘terrorist abduction’ and you’re good to go. Haha ok kidding. It’s one of those places that celebrates the ease of a simple life, with friendly people and just good old beautiful nature.
Will I ever go back? Abso-freaking-lutely.
Me with the oh-so-popular fish tornado-swirl!
Lima Island. Beautiful on land and in the sea.
Beautiful long beach.
Gorgeous delicate corals.
It’s always easy to say that you love the sea, the beach and the island. But you have to stay long enough at one to see whether you really love it, or you’re just a tourist looking for something new. A weekend might be fun, but a week? Maybe you’ll grow tired of it.
I had to go to Redang Island to look at some rock outcrops (I’m a geologist), and I stayed there for a week. During the week I have concluded that the way outsiders see the island and how the locals see the island is completely different. We think of it as a retreat, as an escape and as an exciting place to venture to. The locals see it as home, which means the beach is not that exciting and the sea means a lot of hard work and a source of income.
Redang consists of a chain of islands, the main one being of course, Redang Island. I was there on a work assignment, and since my job is to observe fresh undisturbed rocks we had to go into the unchartered territories around the islands (which are the best parts, in my opinion). Redang Island is largely accessible by boat or plane, but to get around the islands you’ll have to hire a boat. My favourite island would have to be the Lima island, named for the five small hills that make up the whole island. The island itself is spectacular, and the corals below the emerald green sea surface – breathtaking!
If you’re looking for a livelier side of a beach vacation then you might want to head to Long Beach, which is the noisier part of Redang. There are shops and a more extensive choice of resorts as well as a dancefloor, but personally I felt like it was too noisy, what with the over excessive booming of club music and all.
Redang is a great place for a weekend retreat, although I spent about a week there, so I had enough time to soak it up for as long as I wanted. I just hope that unlike most of other beautiful locations in Malaysia, it will not be too industrialized until it turns out to be just another touristy location with contaminated nature and too many people.
Where to eat: If I’m being honest, I mostly ate the hotel food. But if you take a walk down the common road you’ll see local seafood restaurants and small stalls selling seafood-associated goods, like Keropok Lekor which is amazing stuff!
Pretty nice waterfront area
My kid brother who didn't want to leave the beach ever
Sunsets by the beach. Gorgeous!
Fresh seafood being prepped for the night market
It’s sort of a waste if you live in a country made famous by its tropical beaches and islands, and you don’t spend enough time at these places. Sun. Sea.Waves.Jellyfish stings. What’s not to love?
A few days back my family and I went to Pangkor Island. It’s a small island located in the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, and often forgotten when compared to the much more famous chain of islands in the East Coast. The last time I visited the island was ten years back, and as soon as I stepped foot out of the bright pink local cab, I was glad to see that it has not changed much at all.
We stayed at Nipah Bay, a slightly more crowded corner of the island, but much preferred by tourists due to the variety of resorts, restaurants and night markets. When you walk around the small stretch of street you notice immediately that there are two main groups of people there – the locals and the tourists. The tourists are wide-eyed, excited people walking up and down the beach in the bright sunny day. The locals are laid back motorcycle-riding people who seemed the least bit interested in all the commotion.
The beach in Nipah Bay is a long stretch of white sandy beach with harsh high waves. Along it, there are small modest restaurants, shops selling beachwear, and a number of chalets overlooking the sea. The room rates are pretty reasonable, although one shouldn’t expect a five-star treatment. As the day goes by you’ll see locals sitting by the beach with boats and snorkeling gear, in case any of the tourists would like to go snorkeling at the nearby Coral Island, or simply hire a boat ride to sight see the whole side of the island.
As the evening approaches you’ll see a drastic change in scenery. As the beach settled down (people don’t really swim around this late in the evening) and the tide rises, people sit around and watch the glorious sunset while the street starts hyping up with the stalls for the night market. The West Coast of Malaysia has the best beach sunsets, because the sun sinks directly beyond the horizon of the sea, and one could sit there for hours and watch the sky turns color and the seawater sparkles against the sun.
Nightlife here isn’t really much, and most of it is centered along the street where the night markets and restaurants are. Fresh grilled seafood at cheap prices, local delicacies like fried noodles jumbled up with clams and shrimp, fish satay – you’ll never go hungry. We sat around the hotel café and watched a Japanese guy sing, and although he had a pretty nice strum on his guitar, the same cannot be said for his voice. I saw my Dad wince when the Japanese dude started to yell out those high notes.
PulauPangkor is a great place if you’re looking for a short weekend trip on a budget, just to relax and kick back. You can get to the main jetty through the main highway, exiting into a countryside road with a pretty nice view, and the ferry trip from the mainland jetty to the island costs about RM10 both ways, taking about twenty minutes to get to the island.
Where to Eat: If you’re adventurous you should try the local food at the night market. They’re dead cheap and quite delicious. If you want a proper seafood meal then the local restaurants have a lot to offer. Or, if you’re too damn lazy, most of the resorts have their own café and restaurant too.
At one of the Dutch streets
This reminds me of my late grampa's house - bicycles and everything!
Jonker street - where you'll be just as ripped off as the next white dude.
My friend checking out old photographs on sale.
The waterfront at night.
This in an old traditional house in Merlimau, Melaka. It's about 200 years old, and the tiles and wood are still the original ones. Talk about amazeballs architecture.
Now doesn't she look like a true blue Malay chick?
Two of my girlfriends are getting married, and another just turned a quarter of a century – this called for a quick weekend trip to anywhere! ‘Anywhere’ turned to be Melaka, or Malacca as the white dudes would call it. A beautiful tourist city, with old Dutch buildings made with red bricks, waterfront cafes and the ancient local Chinese buildings.
One of us made hotel bookings online, and upon our arrival we noticed that it was right next to an old graveyard with gravestones spotting the grass right to the side of the road. She said that none of the reviews said anything about a graveyard (no surprises there) and everybody had that same look in their eyes as we were all reminded of chilling stories on haunted hotels and murderous hotel receptionists. But the hotel turned out to be quite spectacular! The interior designs were beautiful, and the showers had fancy taps that let’s just face it, we’ll never use all of them.
The city center is a whole different world altogether. I would divide it into three different areas – the Portuguese cluster, where one would find most souvenir shops, old churches, total rip off for local things. Then there’s the Nyonya community cluster, where you’ll find old chinese buildings, chinese cafes and most massage parlors. We tried walking into one, but it looked like a whore house that we decided to not lie there and catch herpes as we are being rubbed. Other massage parlors looked decent and clean, and very much cheaper than the ones in Kuala Lumpur. The third section is the Melaka river, where boat cruises speed back and forth and small interesting cafes are open along the river. This area is especially beautiful at night. The yellow lights, sparkling river and the Italian style cafes made me feel like I am at a slightly ghetto-er part of Venice.
The great thing about travelling with your girlfriends is that you are excused to pig out without having to look dainty while doing it or powder your nose right after, which is something you would only want to do when there are guys around. We tried everything from local Malay restaurants selling the most awesome asam pedas to a dutch café that served tender beef stew in a large bun and melt-in-you-mouth flourless brownies, to trying out a laksa at an artistic café that claimed to be ‘one of the top 50 places with the best laksa in the country’, fried durian rolls and cendol from street vedors and finally, a local nyonya restaurant with one of the best fried fish I’ve ever had.
The tip is: Wear a maxi dress. It makes you look pregnant instead of bloated from pigging out, which if you ask me, is a better choice. At least people won’t point at you.
Asam Pedas Selera Kampung - Right opposite the Tamingsari Tower.
This place apparently is one of the top 50's best laksa outlets in the country. Right in the middle of Jonker walk.
The laksa. Really, really good. Really.
See? Top 50!!
The Dutch Harbour cafe - by the river. A small cafe with about 20 seats only. Great food.
Oh no. I miss this beef stew.
Red Arrow marks the road trip route.
I’ve heard of thugs. Those guys were the ones who’d rob banks or other people in a dark alley. But here in Lahad Datu, there are actually such people like vegetable thugs. Vegetable thugs, I had learned, would come barging in at a market where public civilians are selling their grown produce. They would come with a lorry, barge in like one of those homo sapiens you see in movies about uncivilized cave people, take the vegetable and go sell it off somewhere else. My friend and I learned this the hard way. We were spending our last morning of a week-long fieldwork in East Sabah at the local market, just to check out the early morning scene. My friend, and avid photographer, was taking pictures when the crowd suddenly went berserk with a Vegetable Thug scare.
Now the way to explain the scenario is pretty simple. Imagine those videos of that awful tsunami catastrophe. When people started running in every direction at the market, I thought it was another tsunami (based on the fact that the wet market was by the sea, you can hardly blame me). So the natural thing to do was, well – run with them. My friend was too panicky that she couldn’t really run, but when she saw me joining the chaos she screamed, “Is it an earthquake? Wait, don’t run, we should stick around and see what happens!” which is weird because dude, if it’s an earthquake, the last thing I want to be buried in is a wet market filled with vegetables and rats.
That was one of the highlights of the trip. I’ve always imagined thugs to be huge and tattooed and bad-ass, but vegetable stealing is hardly…macho.
We went snorkeling around Semporna at the many, many tiny islands. Many of the natives who live in the islands were still around, and the kids seemed to be having an amazing time, playing by the beach with their dogs and the sand. The funny part was when were studying the rocks formation in one of the villages, one of the adult locals approached us and asked, “Are you guys in search of gold?” Even funnier was the fact that some of them also taught we were studying the earth around there because an earthquake is coming.
East Sabah is lot less modern than the West, where Mount Kinabalu is located. The people seemed to thrive on living on local produce, working their own land and spending their days living a laid back country life. I suppose that’s why they always have longer life spans than us city dwellers. I would definitely come here again if I am looking to escape the city world for a weekend.
Semporna. People come from all over the world to dive here.
Moments before the Vegetable-Thug scare at the wet market.
One of the islands around Semporna. A must visit if you're a fan of the sea.
I look for any excuse to go on a trip. A promotion on a travelling package? Sure, I’ll go. Your cat got sick? Sure, I’ll visit especially if you live by the beach. A good friend getting married? Hell to the yes!
We went to Terengganu to attend a wedding of a friend, on a weekend in the middle of the monsoon season. Nobody goes to Terengganu during the monsoon season. It rains and pours and floods, the beach is moody and the snorkeling islands are shut down. But the thing is, I like the unconventional. And I like lots of rain. Nothing says adventure quite like traveling down a strange road and finding new things to see that are not too touristy. While getting splashed in the face with acid rain.
We decided to pay a visit to the Islamic Civilization Park. It was the talk of the town because of its controversially high budget, but I’ve also heard some good reviews. Plus it was either that or we’ll have to visit a Batik Factory House, which to be honest, should only be reserved for when you’re 70 with no teeth.
The ticket costs RM15 (what a rip-off!) and once you’re in, you’re allowed to ride the bicycles around the park instead of walking. The park was filled with miniatures of historical mosques around the world, and the built were intricate enough that you almost feel like you’re seeing the real deal. There was the Masjid al-Haram, of course, and al-Aqsa, Grenada mosque, and the Taj Mahal, among others. Each mosque was accompanied with a description on when it was built, why it’s significant etc. If you’re too broke (right I am right now) you should give this park a try. It made me feel inspired to save money and travel again and see the real live mosques. They looked magnificent enough in miniature, so I am sure it’s even better in person.
After that we went to the beach anyway, because a visit to the East coast is never really complete until you visit a beach. That’s like eating an ice cream Sunday without the hot chocolate fudge. The beach was dark and cloudy, and it definitely gave a different nostalgic effect compared to a bright sunny beach. The former reminded me of sharks and Godzilla, while the latter reminded me of…Baywatch. Those hideous red bikinis. Yeesh.
Cycling around the park. At the back is the first mosque in Nigeria, built entirely of clay.
Now doesn't she look like she's in Istanbul? (minus the horrendous plane ride, airport tax, and currency exchange)
Sad, moody beach. It literally started pouring minutes after these pictures were taken.
Seeing a gigantic peaceful turtle has the ability of making me want to be a vegan. Until of course, I come across TGI Friday's all you can eat steak buffet.
I went for a weekend getaway with some friends at Perhentian Island. Beautiful place. Reminds you that nature can offer you simple pleasures in life, while charging you 8 bucks for a glass of orange juice. I have a simple formula when it comes to travelling. It's 20% location and 80% company. Somewhere between the laughs, seasick-barf, overpriced souvenirs and frantically trying to find a good angle for underwater photoshoots (answer: there isn't any) it felt sort of surreal and dreamy. Like all good things always are.
I was free-diving around and saw turtles, sharks, a dugong which turned out to actually be a friend, and a whole landscape of underwater forests. Later in the evening we walked by the beach and had dinner on the sandy galore of lights and music and water crashing the shores. Then we sat around by the water and did nothing. Boy oh boy I forgot how wonderful it is to do nothing sometimes.
There is a village, a whole community living on the island. The kids go to school by the beach. Adults owned boats instead of cars. They don't have shopping malls, or bowling alleys or posh restaurants. Yet I can totally see that by the time I'm forty and subscribing Xanax (let's hope not!) the kids in school are playing at sea with the fishes and playing kites at the beach. Suddenly the city life doesn't sound so great anymore.
Pulau Perhentian is great. Sometimes amazing nature and relaxing therapy is really just at your backyard.
Note: Thank you Zul and Abdullah for perfecting my skin-diving skills! I almost look like I'm not choking from the water pressure nowadays. It makes the photos a LOT better!
Another note: For more photo stalking, go here.
Hiking in the wee hours of the morning-it was already heating up.
The Columbian guy. I searched everywhere but couldn't find a clear picture of his face!
We finally arrived!
I went on a job assignment in Bintulu, Sarawak (that's in the Borneo Island). It requires me dressing up in yellow coveralls and a hard hat, and I will have to hike across a chain of hills and mountains that were hardly visited by people for about 8 kilometres. I should've probably had a premonition of what this was going to be like.
It was a two-hour drive from the city, and we moved out as early as 5 am. I saw the sun rise ahead of the road. That we would have to walk to reach the place for seismic acquisition, not seeing anymore civilisation until the end of the day.
Our guide was a Columbian guy. He was about 40 years old, and he spoke neither English or Malay. On the other hand, English and Malay were the only languages that I speak. "How long have you been in Malaysia?" I asked in an effort to break the language barrier. "Malaysia? Very nice," he said. His smile was so enthusiastic I didn't have the heart to ask again. So I just gave him a thumbs up.
Before we started hiking, I asked him, "How long is this hike?"
"Uno kilometre!!" Or at least that's what I heard, until I realised that it was about 8 kilometers going back and forth.
Hiking is fun. But you know what else is fun? Hiking with a Columbian dude who had the stamina of a 20 year-old, with two guards holding a shotgun because apparently pirates are around this side of the world and they like to rob companies like us for metal and expensive equipments. And then there are the labourers, natives from the Borneo island who would walk past you with 20kg-heavy equipments on their backs and they're smoking homemade tobacco while you're holding on to your hurting sides because your one-litre drinking water is too much to carry. I began to think that if the world comes to an apocalypse and I was forced to run into the jungles and survive, I would probably die in less than twelve hours.
The crazy hot sun made me feel like I would never make it home. The dehydration made me hallucinate that the sweaty drilling staff looked like Tarzan. And the hunger made me realise that the Columbian dude looked exactly like Mr. Potato, his head stapled to the cylinder of crispy potato chips.
I love my job.
At Manukan Island. From left Hana, Zaza, me and Mimi
Note: These rascals go crazy for Pringle chips. Particularly garlic-flavored
We had a big fat breakfast at the hotel and the van came to pick us up to go to the jetty for the snorkeling trip. We took up island hopping so it was the Manukan Island first, and then off to Sapi Island. Manukan is a relatively quite big island, big enough that one could get a pretty good trekking exercise in the small jungle. The fishes were okay, but we spent most of the time on the boat whilst Mimi and Zaza went parasailing. It looked pretty exciting and I was almost tempted to do it to, but once they landed back on the boat I asked them and Zaza said. ‘I could’ve fallen asleep up there,” so I didn’t.
At the Sapi Island the fishes were much better. Hana discovered that these fish go absolutely wild for Pringle chips, so there we were, four bimbos snorkeling through the clear waters with a disposable camera and a can of Pringle chips. I saw a Nemo too! When we were done snorkeling we walked around the beach and did – well what else? Camwhoring. It amazes me sometimes how most women will do anything to get some pictures while most men totally despises that. Funny fact, eh?
We went back late in the evening, all extra-tanned, and that night we rented a car and took a drive to Bukit Padang which was about 15 minutes away. There was this really nice seafood restaurant called Restoran Nelayan, and not only were there unlimited choices on seafood, there were also cultural shows (which I volunteered to be one of those blank-eyed tourists who tries a hand at Cultural demonstrations and looks stupid afterwards). Note here that it is unforgivable to not try this one particular dish called ‘Crab in Salted Egg Yolk’. Oh dear Lord forgive me for the calories I’m not counting.
“Gosh, I’m such a looser,” I said jokingly after trying to shoot a balloon with a traditional shooter (sumpit) twice and failing.
“No!! You no looser!” Said the dude in the cultural outfit. Geez, talk about making sure tourists have a good time. I guess they took it rather seriously around here.
Me trying the sumpit. Some happy tourists from China enthusiastically cheering at the background.