Photo: Time to dive.


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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.

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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”.

Mabul, not the Maldives. Photo taken in or around Semporna and Sipadan Island, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Mabul, not the Maldives. Photo: Sally Arnold

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 ... Travelfish members only (Full text is around 1,000 words.)

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