Malaysia, Mabul, the island of sea gypsies

I wasn’t born with a strong desire to go see far away places. I somehow developed this “condition”, in time, trip by trip. Something that keeps you up, makes you wander and doesn’t allow you to feel fine while staying in one place for long, can be, I guess, categorised as such: a “condition”. So there I was again, on another continent, another country and another beautiful place I have never even dreamt of seeing. And I had more butterflies rushing through my stomach then the Celebes Sea had fish in that morning. Then I heard:

– You can jump here, swim around this area. Watch out, there are some triggerfish nests there… If you see one, you know, the one who attacks it’s actually its mate, and will be probably behind you already. And avoid going over there also, might be some strong currents…. The guy was telling me all these in a hurry, while pointing those places with his finger, as if it was on Google Maps. But was just blue, deep blue sea.

I was listening to the diving instructor’s advices, given briefly and without any sign of concern, while he was in the same time arranging some oxygen tubes on the boat. He had that air that people living by the water gain in time, that confidence. On the opposite, I had no wish to leave that boat and jump in that water. I was the only one left on the boat, all the divers in the group were already down there, in the depths of the sea.

I couldn’t believe it! After all it took me to get there that day, in the most awaited moment I was just getting such cold feet…

This hesitation, sister to fear and brother to panic, made me angry against myself. With a beating heart and a rushed breath I wasted no other second, I climbed the upper edge of the vessel side and I jumped! I had too see with my own eyes if all was said was true: if Sipadan island is indeed one of the last underwater paradises on Earth.

Malaysia, Borneo. Living wild 

After the green paradise of Sri Lanka, I was heading to a blue paradise, in Borneo. I landed in Sabah, province of Malaysia, on Borneo island, in the small town Tawau.

– Hello, so you are going to Sipadan, nice! a guy said to me as he passed by, in the airport. I smiled back, wondering how come he knew…

Outside the airport, I finally found, after a few desperate attempts, the driver who was sent for the new guests of Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge, myself included. I first searched the crowd waiting in front, among tens of people holding sheets of paper with all kind of names, most of them Asian. All except mine. A few people came closer, asking if I was Chang or Young. I was only Desperate. In this chaos, with my phone dead since I had no wifi, completely disoriented, would have been a pain in the… and the wallet to find my way, all alone, to Semporna’s jetty and catch, at 2PM, the last boat that day for Mabul island. Second option was to rent a boat and pay 10 times the price. Happily miracles happen: I saw at last a guy with my name, spelled wrong. The driver was making one last attempt to find me among the few left in front of the airport. He had 2 other people in the van already and two more on the list to pick up. He looked behind again, mumbled something and then he makes us a sign we leave, without much bother. And so, in the van, I met Andrew and his cousin, two Malaysians form Penang, going to Sipadan also and staying, like me, in Mabul.

On our way to Semporna, about an hour drive, we talked about Europe, the countries Andrew visited and how they loved diving. He first got his diving certificate in Mabul, 10 years before. After completing it, he had the one dive permit for Sipadan. He assured me the place is a paradise. He was so excited to be back and fulfil an old promise now that his young cousin has obtain her PADI. They were, of course, surprised I wasn’t a diver, but still going to Sipadan, this Mecca for experienced divers all around the world. As in Europe is not so much to see underwater, definitely not like in Asia, I didn’t had a certificate. But I could see why in Malaysia diving is as natural as riding a bike.

Sabah province, Semporna

The vegetation in Borneo, as far as I could see by the road, was as I expected: dense and wild. After all, Borneo is a green paradise and home of many amazing native creatures  like the slow lorises and the clouded leopards. Semporna, on the other hand, was also a wild place, only this time because of the humans living there. With a majority of muslims, the small town looked chaotic, dirty…. a prelude for what was next in Mabul. That exotic island, mostly known only for being the starting point for Sipadan, is still holding its wonders: the sea gypsies living there, those people I was so excited to finally see.

When the van finally stopped close to the jetty, in Semporna, all I could see were long lines of wooden chalets build on pillars, above the water, housing the offices of too many tours agencies. We entered inside one, built just like the others, with a small porch in the front. About other 10 chalets were built right behind it, going far into the bay, on the sea. I looked down as I walked the bridge and the water beneath was terribly dirty and polluted with all you can imagine made of plastic. Very soon I was going to find out it was even more dirty… A lady inside the chalet, wearing a black hijab, sitting in front of an old and messy desk, full of papers, was yelling to a man, in their language. When she finished that show, she welcomed me smiling and helped me complete the form for my staying in Mabul.

– You have Sipadan too, yes? I confirmed, relieved that my reservation was confirmed.

Next, I was truly introduced to the wild spirit of Sabah: I went to the toilet. Was right next to the office. Inside the very small room: a toilet, a tiny sink and a blue plastic bucket. The bucket served for 2 purposes: for flushing the toilet and to shower in a bucket. I could see the water from the sea beneath, through the small spaces left between the old wooden floorboards. When I got closer the toilet, an unexpected light came from inside it. My eyes just got bigger. Was also the sea beneath, which obviously meant that what goes in the toilet, gets straight into the sea. Directly, no other redirection. I knew about the basic conditions in the area but I didn’t expect this basic.

After coming to peace with this new discovery, I went to the market near by, close to the jetty. All I got tempted by was some durian from a girl who was selling it under a tree, next to that nice sea water. The fruits were smaller then the ones in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. It was the wild type, from the high forests, the one I heard was the best but quite rare. Indeed, was delicious: sweeter and with a stronger flavour of vanilla and caramel.

The Bajau Laut people (sea gypsies)

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

The boat from Uncle Chang’s finally arrived for us, Andrew, his cousin, a few other people and I, we all left for Mabul, a 45 minutes speed boat trip. As we left Semporna, we passed by wide areas with chalets built on water, made of wood and rags or plastics. This is where the sea gipsies, the Bajau, in Semporna, were living. It looked like a big slum, one built on the sea. These people are fascinating to me! They live mostly on water, in chalets or boats, as nomadic divers, using only spears to collect fish and seafood. Some even get land sick when they rarely touch, once in many months, the land. As the sea is their food source, they have wonderfully adapted and became able to do free dives for up to 13 minutes, at depths over 60m. Their spleens got larger to permit this and so turning them into a different new specie then the rest of us. One more fabulous proof that nature’s ways are simply miraculous.

Mabul island

As the boat approaching the island, heading slowly to Uncle Chang’s place, I looked down, at the water. Was crystal clear, in a tempting light blue shade, with plenty of pink star fish on the white sand beneath. Mabul looked like paradise, an inhabited one: white beaches, luxury resorts with beautiful wooden chalets built far from the shore, on the sea, connected to the island by long bridges. The high coconut trees, with huge green coconuts, with their silhouettes turned into shadows on the bright white sand.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

We surrounded the island by boat, none of the resorts we passed by was new to me. I knew them all, already, by heart, from the internet, the research and the tens of emails sent and received while trying to obtain a permit for Sipadan. Uncle Chang’s was the only place to stay that has finally accepted to give me one.

So what makes Sipadan so hard to get to? This tiny island is considered one of the best diving places in the world, like in a top 3. It’s one of the few places left where the underwater bio diversity is still at its highest. It is now a reserve where only 120 passes are offered each day, in advance, for experimented divers only. All these 120 permits are split daily between the diving resorts on the island, the only ones entitled to offer them to customers. The expensive resorts get, of course, more permits. In total are about 8-10 resorts in Mabul. There is no other chance to get to Sipadan unless you are a guest of one of these resorts, for a minimum number of nights, from 3 to 5. The access on the island is allowed only between 6am-4pm

We passed by all those fancy places and expensive resorts and finally arrive in front of, let’s say, the modest area. Uncle Chang’s place was on the poor side of this small island, where the locals, the sea gipsies, were also living. Those on Mabul, I heard after, that day, were actually migrants from the Philippines, who were promised access in Malaysia, years before, an access that never came. So they have built communities on the island they first found uninhabited. Mabul became so their country, where they are living from what the sea offers every day. They are not registered and have no papers. So basically, for the system, they do not exist. They exist only in Mabul and for a few days were my neighbours there.

Mabul, the dangerous paradise

As I looked around, the place, the whole island seemed a peaceful heaven. Nothing like the type of place where western governments advise their citizens not to go to, for life threatening concerns. Still, Mabul is that kind of place, present on every black list. Why? Because years ago, pirates from the terrorist organisation Abu Sayyaf, active around the Philippines waters, have kidnapped tourists in the area of Mabul, demanding money in exchange of their release. The last kidnappings were in 2016, some of the victims being still captive. Therefore the area is still considered unsafe and authorities in western countries are strongly advising against any sort of trips there. Malaysia Government is fighting back, turning the area in a strictly militarised one. I was told that trying to get to Sipadan without an organised group might get you shot.

But in spite all these, once you are there, all the fears are forgotten. And there I was, finally stepping on the pontoon at Uncle Chang’s Lodge, in Mabul. I was actually more concerned about something else: the rats, not the terrorists, after reading some reviews about the place I was going to live for the next days, which people were calling a dump  full of rats in the chalets during the night. The fear of rats but also the care for my budget made me consider, for the 1st time ever, booking a bed in a dorm room. At least, I thought, I won’t be alone to fight the rats in the middle of the night. Besides this, I always wanted to try this: sleeping in a dorm room. I needed this in my life so there it was, the chance to try it, in Mabul.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I made my check in and so I finally met the young woman who was the very person that helped me with the reservation and everything. After all the emails, about 20 of them, we were already friends and I couldn’t have thank her enough for understanding and helping me. The room was more then ok, with 6 beds, no other furniture, a small balcony facing the sea and a bathroom just like the one in Semporna: one bucket, one sink and one toilet. And again, all went straight down, into the sea, with the noise depending on… you know.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

A Chinese girl has joined me to the room also. She didn’t speak much but also didn’t seem the bothering type. In the room we found another girl, so we were 3 in total in a 6 beds room. So I met Louise, an American from California, traveling alone through SE Asia for more then 9 months already. I told her on the spot I hated her for that time luxury. Instead she even offered me her power bank. There is no electricity there during the day.

She was there for a week already and I wanted to hear from her about Mabul. Louise in-firmed all the information I have read online before arriving on the island, about the locals representing a threat for tourists. She assured me the island is 100% safe and people very nice. I was soo excited to get outside. I found my way out of the lodge, among the labyrinth of chalets where the locals lived. No glass windows, just 4 walls made of wood-boards, barely any pieces of basic furniture could be spotted inside. Was easy to see inside every home. Some were cooking, other talking, kids were playing, as in any other home.

A few steps more on the wooden long bridge and I was, at las, touching the white sand of the shore. As I tried to decide which turn to make, two monster lizards came right in front of me. The bigger one was maybe 1,3m long, with a huge tongue, fixing me. I stopped suddenly, thinking what to do next, to run back to lodge or just try to pass by since the island inhabitant didn’t seem to move away any soon. What if it will bite? Are those dangerous? Do they attack? I didn’t remember having read anything about these crawling locals…

While I was busy with all those nonsense, a local man just came, passes by the beasts as if they didn’t existed and sends me the kindest smile, saying: Hello, it’s ok.

I stepped over the biggest lizard’s tail as he did, the animal didn’t bother at all and I continued my way. This was the moment when all my concerns about the locals in Mabul were vanished. Thanks to this man and the warmth and kindness he sent in 2 words and a look.

It took me an hour only to surround the entire island, Mabul was this small. For sure, before people started to move there, it was a pure paradise. Now it still has its charm but garbage too. A few men were burning huge amounts of trash on a beach. I hurried since the air there was unbreathable and dark smoke from the plastic burned was rising high.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I walked through the village where many locals have started small businesses, selling raw seafood, cooked fish, boiled corn or sweets on improvised stalls in front of their modest chalets. In each of those I could again see inside, see those people’s lives. I  tried not to stare and be intrusive, but was impossible to resist to steal a glimpse of true life in Mabul. Tens of kids, the most cute girls and boys you can imagine, were running all around the place, dressed in colourful clothes, some having their faces painted in yello, a Bajau Laut people thing. It’s actually a pounded rice powder paint to protect their skin from sun damage caused by the water’s reflection. Walking among them I have received tens of Hellos, of smiles and seen only friendly faces.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I passed by an area where green turtles nests were surrounded by a gate, to protect them. Some of the stuff from a few diving resorts are very involved into conservation activities and this is one of them. Locals used to get the eggs to eat them. And you can’t blame them the moment you see life in Mabul. So the people from the resorts are paying them 5 times the price they normally get for the eggs. After saving them from becoming an omelette, the eggs are put back in the sand, this time in man made nests where they wait for the miracle of life to happen and release the baby turtles into the sea.

I bought a huge green coconut from a man who has just got them down from the tree. I will never forget the price: 3 Malaysian Ringgit, meaning 0.6 euro. I was in heaven!

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

I then got to the rich side of the island. Not more then a few meters were separating the luxury resorts from the slum of chalets where the locals lived so modestly. I was now so happy with my choice of staying, in the perfect spot of the island.

As the sun was going to reach soon the horizon line, I went back to my chalet, enjoyed my basic toilet and had a bit of a salty water shower, in a bucket. I “survived” this and felt great leaving somewhere far behind what we call comfort zone.

Louise was on the long pontoon, sitting on the stairs very close to the water, watching the sunset next to a huge green coconut. Plenty of colourful fish were wandering chaotically  right next to the steps, chewing on the algae grown on the wooden pillars. The last drops of sunset were spreading an orange-blue shade over that flawless crystal Celebes Sea.

– What a paradise! I exclaimed from a few meters distance, as I came close to her.  I took a sit on a step 2 meters away. She looks back to me and sends that kind of smile that says “now you know it too”.

– Your name is on the board for tomorrow, she said. You can only be sure you will get to Sipadan once you see your name written there. Some people had the permit but changes were made and they were postponed.

1 million pinches could not have made me realised this was true. But it was. In a few hours I was going to Sipadan, one of the top diving sites in the world, for many, the best. All I could feel was that I was blessed, right there, in the pontoon in Mabul island.

Mabul, Malaysia, Sabah province, Borneo

Next: Sipadan, a wonder day with a bit of bad luck