There are few reasons why Semporna in Sabah, Malaysia was peculiar to me. First of all, I could meet Sea Gypsies or Sea Nomads which is fascinating ethnic group. Secondly, Semporna island hopping took me to the pristine waters and white sand beaches with incredibly rich marine life. I didn’t expect such paradise islands near Borneo, which for the reason are called Maldives of Malaysia. Thirdly, it’s the most dirty city in Malaysia, sinking in trash. Walking along the port in Semporna city center was shocking with the mess of the streets, water and Sea Gypsy kids running around and begging for money. Moreover, area gained bad reputation due to the kidnapping issues, so that lots of people were asking me, whether Semporna is safe to travel or not. Let me tell you more about my trip to the balmy islands, safety in Semporna and the Sea Nomads.
Kidnapping in Semporna
Just before coming to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah and starting my trip in Borneo, I was traveling in the Philippines. I was surprised that there is no simple ferry connection between Palawan in the Philippines and the north-east of Sabah, which in straight line are within 50 km distance. Instead, I had to fly to Manila and transfer to Kota Kinabalu, which didn’t make any sense for me in terms of carbon footprint I produce as well as money and time I have to spend. I started to dig in information why there is no ferry connecting Palawan and Sabah, even though it makes a perfect logistical and touristic sense.
This is how I learnt about the conflict between those two lands, which is connected with issues of piracy in Sabah. Some time ago, the east part of Sabah belonged to the Philippines, before to the Sultanate of Sulu. The pirates often calling themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”. Obviously, they don’t accept their country is gone from the map of Borneo.
If you look at the map, Semporna is very near islands on the Philippines’ territory and according to the pirates they belong to the Sultanate of Sulu. I am not talking about pirate with a talking parrot on his shoulder, but about uncontrolled groups penetrating the area by boats. Kidnapping in Semporna started in the 70′ and since then there were several detain cases with a ransom demand.
In 2013 there was a big conflict when 235 militants arrived by boats from Simunul and Tawi Tawi islands, on the south-est of the Philippines. They surrounded a village near Lahad Datu and wanted to resolve the territorial claim of East of Sabah. One local man told me that they had almost succeded taking over as the military and police of Malaysia couldn’t decide who will deal with the intruders. I prefer to belive this information is not true. Anyhow, the negotiations finished with death of over 60 people and sending pirates back to where they came from, leaving few claimants to the throne of the sultanate unfulfilled.
Safety in Semporna
Do the pirates kidnap tourists? Yes. All about these not official sultanate and pirates sounds bizarre, but they really make a mess in the east Sabah. While victims of most of the kidnappings in Semporna were Malaysians, there were cases of intercepting foreign tourists. The biggest issue happened on Sipadan Island, where 19 people were kidnapped in a dive resort, including tourists from Europe and Middle East. After this incident in 2000, this area became infamous for tourists from the “Western world”. Three years later, Taiwanese tourists were abducted when men raided three water villas at Pom Pom Island. The stories of people killed or kept in captivation for several months are terrifying. In sum, over a hundred of people were kidnapped in Semporna up to date. However, is Semporna safe nowadays?
Recently safety in Semporna have been improved and after 2013 there was no more kidnapping. Tourism is a great source of income and gives jobs to hundreds of people in the region. Therefore, it’s a high priority for the government to provide safe vacation for the visitors. There are army bases and patrols on the most touristic spots such as Mabul Island, Sipadan Island or Sibuan Island. Moreover, there is Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), special forces to control the safety of Semporna’s coast.
Checking about safety in Semporna, you will probably see government warnings at all times. Pirates may attempt to intercept boats ferrying tourists, but the probability is as little as being victim of a terrorist attack in Paris. Moreover, as in every zone with issues, there are certain areas which are more dangerous than the others. Staying on the coast near Semporna such as Mabul Island or Sipadan Island, you are surrounded by lots of tourists and army. It makes it much safer than heading to Selingan (Turtle Island), and Lankayan, which are more remote.
Sea Gypsies in Semporna
Bajau, Bajo or simply Sea Gypsy live their life on the sea, rarely go to land. Bajau people have no nationality, no identity card, no heath insurance, no fixed house, they are sea nomads.
Long time ago they run away from the islands of south Philippines due to the conflict and oppression. Because they live on the sea, Bajau divers are the best in the world, can spend long time underwater without any equipment. Their lungs adapted with bigger capacity and eyes can see sharper underwater than a regular person. Therefore, there are great fishermen, to feed their families, as well as sell to the locals from Malaysia. The seafaring is their main source of money as they are able to catch sea creatures such as lobsters, crabs, fish, clams, mussels and a variety of seashells.
Sea nomads would rarely or never go to land. However, in recent years, some of them built settlements in the coastal areas, with their houses built on stilts. I have met Sea Gypsies also on the Togean Islands in Indonesia and they looked already settled in, with the mosque and kids going to local school. Sea Gypsies in Sabah seem to be still excluded. Not many Bajau children have access to formal education as they do not meet Malaysian requirements: birth certificate and nationality card.
Moreover, island Gypsies are famous for making their traditional vessels called lepa (lepa means boat in Bajau language). They are made out of wood and decorations full of colors. Every April there is Regatta Lepa Festival in Semporna, which keeps the tradition of making lepa alife. Lepa remains a symbol of particular tradition for Bajau people in Semporna. Vessel was used for daily life of Sea Gypsies but nowadays only few families still have them. During the festival, lepa boats float in the harbour of Semporna jetty and daughter of each lepa family welcomes visitors with the traditional Bajau dance – igal igal. In the end, the most beautiful lepa is chosen as a winner. Planning your trip to Sabah in April, don’t miss the Ragatta Lepa – the carnival of Semporna.
Where can you meet Sea Gypsies?
Bajau people live in the wooden houses standing on stilts atop coral reefs. Some of them live on the boats with the whole families. I saw a few in the Semporna port. You can see houses of Borneo Gypsies near many islands of Semporna: Mabul, Bodgaya, Bohey Dulang, Sibuan, Maiga, Mantabuan, Selakan, Tatagan, Tabbalanos and Omadal.
If you want to meet the island Gypsies, you can simply come to Semporna port. You will surely see kids running and begging for money, man trading their sea food and simple wooden boats passing from time to time. To see the Gypsy village, the easiest is to take Semporna island hopping tour when you get to see Tatangan Village and Sibuan Island, where they live. Thankfully, Borneo Gypsies are not mass tourism attraction yet. Bajau villages are still authentic and remote and no tour operator offers the Sea Gypsies Tour where you can enter their house. Some of them accept tourists passing by and expect you to leave them a gift. To see the others, you would need to rent a private boat.
Semporna Island Hopping
If you want to come to Semporna and don’t go to the islands, it’s a waste of time. The city is dirty and has nothing much to offer, except having a fresh sea food for dinner. Semporna island hopping has been the most popular activity to take for those who don’t dive. The tour will let you see the Maldives of Malaysia, meet the Borneo Gypsies, snorkel and enjoy the perfect beaches. The underwater world in the area is fantastic! Definitely one of the best I have ever seen.
You can choose from 3 general packages and several companies, which run the island hopping tours in Semporna. First one (A), includes 4 islands and briefly is about snorkeling, culture and views. Packages B and C include island hopping on 3 islands and are more about snorkeling but also a bit of time or the beach. I will tell you about each one of them, so you can decide for yourself. You should expect paying around 200 RM, for any of the tours, depending of the operator. The price includes snorkeling mask, lunch box, fees, boat transport and a guide. Please note, that the plan and order may slightly vary from one agency to another.
Island hopping in Semporna package A
- Tatangan Island with the Sea Gypsies
- Bohey Dulang Island – hike to the view point
- Mantabuan Island – snorkeling
- Sibuan Island – more snorkeling and beach time.
The tour started at the Palankong Jetty at 9 am. The first stop was visiting Bajau people near Tatangan Island. As soon as we arrived, they approached us with their small wooden boats to beg for food and money. They use a special facial mask from one type of tree, which works perfectly as a sun screen (in Myanmar almost everyone has it).
I was told to don’t give any money, as it spoils them and they don’t want to work to earn, just become lazy and send their children to beg for money in Semporna. The advice I got is to give them sweets but in my opinion, if their diet is poor in nutrition, sweets will not be a good threat. Moreover, be sure that anything packed in plastic you will give them, will end up in the water. If you want to deliver something to the Sea Nomads, I suggest having some fruit or vegetables without any plastic.
Bohey Dulang view point
Second stop during the island hopping tour in Semporna was Bohey Dulang view point. When I arrived to the jetty, I saw the sign that everyone must have hiking shoes to climb up the view point. It’s a great rule as many people hike for the first time or use flip-flops and twist their ankle on the slippery stones. Keep in mind, we are talking about 20 minutes hike up in the forest which is not demanding.
And what happened? They didn’t let me enter in my sandals which are great for hiking and I was forces to pay for a shoes rental. The hiking shoes they gave me, were nothing else then rubber, in my opinion perfect for searching clams in the mud but surely not suitable for hiking. My feet were sweating because of high temperature with rubber, and I started to feel that my skin is burning before I reached the top. I finally took them off and walked bare feet with hope that I won’t get any fungus from the shoes used by hundreds of people before me.
What made me even more angry, was that some of the shoes Chinese people wore were far away from proper footgear for a forest walk and still they way accepted, when my hiking sandals not. Seriously! I even saw shiny high hills which were accepted… WTF?! The conclusion was that hiking shoes in Semporna are these which cover your toes. If you don’t want to pay 5 ringit for getting feet fungus, bring any shoes that cover your toes.
Let’s finally talk about the view point Bohey Dulang. Apart from the fact, that it’s crowded with Chinese tourists pushing you while taking lifechanging, very important selfies, it’s one of the best view points I have been. Different shades of blue on the water mountains range makes it stunning and worth suffering the rubber shoes and crowd.
Third stop was Mantabuan Island where we had lunch and little sightseeing. Everyone got a box with set lunch including rice, little piece of chicken and banana. The island has pretty white sand and coral reef perfect for snorkeling. The guide has taken me so far for snorkeling along the reef and I saw dozens of colorful fishes and starfish. We had around 1 hour to snorkel or swim around. I belive, it would be possible to stay on the beach and get tan, if you are more interested in that.
The last island was a white sand spit with beautiful coconut trees and few gypsy houses. Chinese tourist don’t move 20 m farther from the boat and follow the instruction of the guide to make photos for 30 min. I was the only one going to see the tiny Sea Nomads village. Few straw houses stand on the beach and this is where you come up close and personal with the Sea Gypsies. You can see their simple life, huts and activities.
After that, the boat moved several meters from the beach for the last snorkeling opportunity. We had 30 min to enjoy the underwater world or stay on the beach. Around 3 30 we started to come back to Semporna and arrived to the jetty at 4 pm.
Semporna Island Hopping Package B
- Pom Pom Island – snorkeling
- Mataking Island – snorkeling
- Timba Timba – snorkeling
This tour is a typical snorkeling tour, but you will also have a little time to stay on the beach. The tour starts around 8 am and lasts approximately 6 hours. Pom Pom Island and Mataking Island are famous for beautiful reefs and turquoise waters. Be sure to encounter spectacular marine life. Mataking Island also houses the ‘Underwater Post Office’, which you can, however, only see while diving. They sank Mataking 1, an old 40-foot wooden cargo ship to create an artificial reef and unique underwater mailbox. Divers seal their mail in a waterproof bag and post it underwater.
Snorkeling tour in Semporna Package C
- Kapalai – snorkeling
- Mabul – resort/snorkeling
- Gusungan – snorkeling
The tour starts at Semporna Jetty at 8 30 and first goes to Kapalai which is a sand spit with perfect waters for snorkeling. Later, you will reach Mabul Island which is one of the most beautiful of Semporna islands. However, recently the resorts started to charge for entering the island, as the tour boats use their jetties. Therefore, expect paying a fee to enter Mabul, which is annoying as you already paid for the package which supposes to include everything.
Mabul Island is the world famous for micro diving and there are several dive centers. The sea turtles come each day near the island, so you can even see them from the jetties. Personally, I would rather suggest taking package A or B for Semporna island hopping and going to Mabul Island separately with spending the night there.
Gusungan is another snorkeling site during the tour, where you will have another 45 minutes. Around 4 pm, you will start the way back to Semporna jetty.
Responsible travel tips in Semporna
Unfortunately, islands near Semporna got hit by mass tourism and we need to take a good care of the environment in order to don’t damage it. Head to the paradise islands with respect for nature and Bajau people. Here are few notes on responsible tourism in Semporna:
- produce as less waste as possible, especially on the islands, as you don’t know where it lands;
- if you bring gifts for Sea Nomads, take no plastic because this will surely end up in the sea;
- use a refillable bottle on Semporna Island Hopping Tours; they provide plastic bottles for the participants which is a mass waste;
- be careful to not destroy the corals while snorkeling and don’t touch any marine life;
- taking shells for souvenirs means taking homes from sea creatures;
- going for snorkeling use only organic sun screen, chemicals charm marine life;
- before deciding for the tour, ask if they feed the fish to gather near the boat so that Chinese tourists can take photos;
- buy on the local markets and from Bajau people;
- respect local customs, don’t treat island Gypsy like an object of photography, ask if they agree;
- travel with small tour operators, which tend to have less environmental impact;
- check for community based tourism – local guides, tour operators, Bajau divers.
Check out my other adventures in Sabah, Malaysia. Why I regret I went for Kinabatangan River Cruise and how I survived the blood suckers during the jungle trekking in Danum Valley. After visiting Semporna and Sea Gypsies, I crossed the border to East Kalimantan, Indonesia and headed straight for another paradise islands – Derawan Islands near Borneo.