How I got there:
By plane. Air Asia & MAS have flights directly to Tawau on the south coast of Sabah. Internet will tell you there are 2 options from there. One is to take a taxi to Semporna (95rm) or to take a van to Tawau and then a bus to Semporna (10 + 10rm?). The most cost-effective is actually to just walk out the airport gate. Drivers from resort shuttles usually try to make pocket money by taking unofficial passengers in the then-empty resort shuttle. Tawau Airport – Semporna: 30rm, about one hour, private van for myself alone.
Leaving to KK on a 75rm – 8 hours bus ride. Lots of turns and curves, and lots of palm trees to be seen… The bus station is easy to find and is located just behind the Maybank building (look first for the mosque if you can’t find Maybank). A few minutes from the market.
Where I stayed in Semporna:
Scuba Junkie is ideally located halfway between the market / bus station / restaurants and the jetty I used. Dorm costs 40rm for non-divers, 20rm for divers. The place is typical of any backpackers place, with free wifi & breakfast. Showers could be improved, as everywhere. Dorm was pretty quiet, a nice bonus :)
I have heard good reviews for the diving equipment & divemasters, so I’ll probably choose them when I come back. To note: they have permits for Sipadan (now strictly controlled).
What to do in Semporna:
Any reviews I read before arriving talked of the same basics: poor, dirty, filthy and boring. Wow, what a prospect!
My own review: a typical small town on the fringe of Sabah. This does include poor people, who I believe are Bajau Laut. A few kids running barefoot and sometimes asking for money but who drop the matter and start happily chatting with you if you say no. “Trying never harms”… As for the dirty side, well, it could be better but, then, you are not here to judge sternly on people’s way of life. Are you?
The market area is really lively and most people smile at you as soon as you look at them. Semporna actually now ranks one of the top position in my list of friendliest cities. You can virtually strike up a conversation with anyone. And if you don’t speak BM, you will still get your weekly dose of smiles.
Behind the mosque and farther away, you’ll find a village built on stilts. I believe they are Bajau Laut people, please correct me if you know otherwise. A simple “Uncle, boleh jalan-jalan ke?” will be greeted with a smile and a sign to keep on. You’ll find markets standing above the water, kids eager to talk to you, adults waving at you. Not many tourists dare going on the planks. Be one of them!
Entrance to a neighborhood
The Bajau Laut used to live on house-boats but they resettled on the “land” pretty recently, with houses on stilts & whole villages standing above the water. Their lives still revolve around the sea, be it fishing, shells collecting, etc.
A marketplace above the waters
Kids will always gather, smile and play. Don’t be a voyeur, but don’t shy away from interactions. Anytime, anywhere.
I stayed at Singamata House Reef Resort. They offer the PADI + 2-night accommodation for 900rm, one of the cheapest around the area. What’s more, the instructor (Ryan) was very knowledgeable, made us repeat skills multiple times to check we were comfortable with them (at different depths), took every thing at heart. He was a good example of “doing things seriously without taking himself seriously”. I would recommend him any time. His French girlfriend, Alexia, was also a good instructor.
The diving equipement was good. I had a tiny leak on the inflator, but nothing major (I used only 110 bar when my buddy would use 160 anyway), and everything else worked perfectly. All safety procedures were respected as far as I’m aware.
Rooms were basic but clean. Showers could have been improved easily, that’s the only downside of an otherwise lovely resort. The food was really good, and included in the price. Plenty of tables, seats and deckchairs in all corners; colorful fish swimming all around and an enclosed seawater aquarium where you can go snorkeling for an up-close look.
Here is the website for more information: Singamata Adventures and Reef Resort
View of the resort (restaurant & reception of the left)
View on the resort from the restaurant, 8pm. Sun sets really early on this part of Malaysia
Resorts offering permits for Sipadan:
While getting 3-dive days in Mabul is easy, Sipadan is now restricted to visitors and you need to get hold of one of the 120 daily permits awarded. You can either stay at one of the resorts offering some, or choose to dive with them but stay elsewhere. Options are yours, it all depends on your budget.
The list of resorts offering Sipadan permits can be found on this page. You’ll just have to do a bit of research on the price of the dive package and on the reviews (be cautious as some are known to have equipment in poor state)
Come taste the shades of blue