Semporna is not the most welcome sight for a weary traveller: The squalid, reeking, dingy streets do nothing to delight. Thankfully however, the surrounding islands are beautiful and idyllic—worth suffering the town for.
Halfway between Lahad Datu to the northwest, and Tawau to the southwest, Semporna clings to the bottom jaw of Sabah’s dog-head-shaped map. The ramshackle port town has no beach but the islands that splinter off into the Celebes Sea, many the remnants of ancient volcanic rims, have them in bucketloads. Semporna was settled by Chinese traders installed by the British North Borneo Company in the early 1880s. But even then the apparent paradise was not perfect, as the seas were infested with pirates, and kidnapping and raids were rife. The colonial overlords were able to thwart the troubles, then named the area Semporna, said to mean “a place of rest”.
Today the population is a mix of Bajau, Kadazan, Chinese and Malay. Many Bajau Laut (also known as “sea gypsies”) live on the seas and islands around Semporna. These seafaring nomads possess a unique culture with a close relationship to the ocean, but are citizens of no country and officially, they do not exist. Without documents, they can’t legally work and scores live in poverty. Undocumented kids can’t go to local schools, and many can be seen begging on the streets of Semporna. We were saddened to see little kids resorting to glue sniffing. Prospects are not all hopeless, and several schools for the stateless kids have been established. The “invisible” Bajau Laut become visible once a year in April when they celebrate the Regatta Lepa, a colourful flotilla of traditional boats festooned with bunting and flags, topped with umbrellas as they compete for the title of most resplendent. This is Semporna’s biggest above-water tourist attraction.
Sipadan Island regularly ranks on lists of the world’s top 10 dive sites. If you dive, it’s probably on your bucket list. More than 3,000 species of sea creatures have been observed in the warm tropical waters around the island: When you’re diving at Sipadan it’s not a question of whether you’ll see large pelagic species like manta rays, sea turtles, barracuda and sharks, but how many.
As part of the effort to conserve this underwater paradise, the government has banned accommodation on Sipadan since 2004, and the number of divers or snorkellers is limited to 120 per day. You’ll want to book your dives well in advance to secure one of the coveted permits.
For easy access to Sipadan, most divers stay in one of the many dive resorts a quick boat ride away on Mabul Island, a diving destination in its own right. Accommodation is almost all via a package that includes meals, boat rides, and diving or snorkelling trips. Overdevelopment unfortunately means the island is not very picturesque, and save for a few patches of sand cleaned up by the upper-range resorts, it suffers from a huge rubbish problem.
Underwater, however, Mabul is known as a top muck diving site. The shallow, silty water is home to bizarre creatures like pygmy seahorses, nudibranchs, lionfish and octopi. Mabul Island is so small it lacks roads—you can walk around it in an hour. Besides the dive resorts, there’s a fishing village where you’ll find a few shops selling snacks and basic provisions. Anything else, you’ll need to get in Semporna. ATMs don’t exist, and free WiFi is offered, but not always forthcoming.
Although we may have painted an ugly picture of Semporna, change is afoot. New hotels are going up quicker than a leaping sailfish. Many tourists are choosing to base themselves here and dive and snorkel the nearby islands on day trips. Initially this was due to increased security risk offshore, but hotels in Semporna give you a better bang for your buck than on the islands, and you’re not locked into an all-inclusive deal that may include repetitive buffets. There’s a good selection of restaurants in Semporna specialising in fresh seafood, and if you prefer to cook your own, every afternoon the Bajau Laut fishermen sell their catch on the streets. Semporna offers access not just to Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai to its south, but also to the islands in the north: Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Pom Pom and Mataking, which are not often visited from Mabul. If you’re out on or under the water all day, you won’t care much for what the town lacks anyway.
If neither Semporna nor crowded Mabul don’t appeal, and the high-end resorts on outlying islands are not within your means, you may consider volunteering with the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre based on Pom Pom Island.
While Sipadan and the islands of the Semporna archipelago are some of the highlights of Sabah, if you don’t dive or snorkel we suggest you give Semporna a miss. However, if you have arrived early for your aquatic adventure or are looking for something to fill in the safety period between scuba diving and flying, there’s no need to hang around town, as the nearby mangrove wetlands offer a chance to spot some of Borneo’s endemic wildlife on a river cruise. Eight kilometres out of town, Bukit Tengkorak not only enjoys sweeping views of the islands, but is an important archaeological site.
When visiting the area, you may be alarmed by the security presence. Over the last few years, terrorist incidents have occurred, and in response the Malaysian government has established military and police posts on the islands and other tourist destinations. Most travellers enjoy the world class diving here without peril, however as with anywhere, check the current security situation with your government’s embassy before you plan and depart on a trip, and be sure to have comprehensive travel insurance.
Semporna is small, cleaved by the busy local market with the main town and bus station to the west, and along the seafront to the east, hotels, dive shops and restaurants. You’ll also find laundry services, a Giant supermarket and a Guardian pharmacy. If you need to restock on ringgit, there’s an international ATM at the Maybank beside the mosque.
Semporna Hospital is to the north of town (T: (089) 781 522 and the closest hyperbaric chamber is at the Semporna navy base on the way to Tawau (contact Divers Alert Network (DAN) T: (+61) 882 129 242 (Australian number); www.danap.org). The police station is to the west of town (T: (0897) 81 222) and the post office is opposite the market.
By Sally Arnold. Last updated on 19th October, 2016.