The pontoon of Mabul Island, near Sipadan, off Borneo. July 2006.

Borneo: projects and dilemmas

  Borneo [Malaysia and Indonesia] - July 2009

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 


In a little more than a month I'm flying to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). With my mania not to do too much preparationI still don't know what my itinerary will be. Only thing I know for sure is that I'm going back to Borneo, for diving in Sipadan, as in 2006.

For those who are not familiar with the geography of the area, take a look at the small map below, to locate. I've put in big black dots the places where I want to go.

Map Malaysia

Do you see the point? Malaysia covers two very different regions: the peninsular area, as an extension of Thailand, and northern Borneo. South Borneo is part of Indonesia.

Fortunately, from Kuala Lumpur (KL for the close friends), the numerous Air Asia routes allow to go everywhere in Malaysia and Indonesia, for cheap.

My other desire, in terms of diving, after Sipadan, is Derawan.

But Derawan is not in Malaysia, but on the other side of the border, in the Indonesian part of Borneo... And the journey is not the easiest. It takes two days of travel, mixing boat+plane+road, starting from Tawau (the Malaysian city on the other side of the border).

Diving sites, in northern Borneo. (Source: Starfish.ch)
Diving sites, in northern Borneo. (Source: Starfish.ch)

That said, Derawan is worth the detour, both for underwater wildlife (turtles and mantas, among others) for the scenery. Read the bewitching travelogue of Yann Senant and take a look at the fabulous images of Pierre Poilloux.

Derawan by Pierre Poilloux

I have one month of freedom. In July then. With these new plans for Asian escapades, here I am facing terrible dilemmas 😀

First dilemma: to dedicate this trip to Borneo exclusively?
Or give in to the temptations of Peninsular Malaysia ... and go back to Perhentian IslandsI would go to Besar (the big one) instead of Kecil, for example, to mix pleasantly farniente and quiet dives? So I would go to Besar (the big one) that I had not had the opportunity to discover, instead of Kecil...

Another dilemma: to go to Kuching or not?
I'm aiming for Sipadan, of course, but it would be a shame not to take advantage of this new foray into Borneo to visit Kuching, the capital of Sarawak (Malaysian state in the northwest of Borneo), whose charm is praised by all travelers. But it's the complete opposite of Sipadan. And there are not too many dive sites in the area. It is rather a good base to explore the surrounding natural parks.

Third dilemma: jungle or no jungle?
I am rather aquatic, as a traveler. I like the sea, beaches and islands. In short, I'm not too fond of sweaty treks in the middle of the tropical nature. Especially if it is recommended to put on anti-leech socks (brrr, special dedication to Thib'). At the same time, if there is one place where the jungle and the natural parks are sumptuous, it is Borneo... Well. On this one, I'm going to play blasé, but never mind: I already did a lot of jungle walks during my previous trips, in Thailand and Vietnam for example. And then, during my trip to Borneo in 2006, before heading to Sipadan, I took the time to stop at the Sepilok Center to admire the orangutans: a piece of jungle with comfortable wooden walkways (perfect for the poor hiker that I am). So, here, uh... I think I'll skip the jungle and tribes trip, even if it is in principle a "must" of the Borneo trip.

Last dilemma: after Derawan, which way do I go home?
If I go back to Balikpapan, a big oil city without much interest further south, it is relatively easy to reach by plane a lot of attractive Indonesian destinations... If I go back to Malaysia via Tawau, it is also relatively easy to reach a lot of attractive Malaysian destinations.

The pontoon of Mabul Island, near Sipadan, off Borneo. July 2006.
The pontoon of Mabul Island, near Sipadan, off Borneo. July 2006.

So many dilemmas that I haven't decided yet... (Yes, I know, I feel sorry for myself for having such problems.)

And yet it is not for lack of having received several e-mails from readers of Bubbles Underwater & Beyond, giving me advice and possible itineraries. Thanks, among others, to Ludovic and Olivier, for their suggestions!

😉

  Borneo [Malaysia and Indonesia] - July 2009

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  1. Indeed, there is enough to hurt your head. But what to do in the face of so much suffering ????? Empathize? Certainly not.
    You get what you deserve. Am I going to spend a month in the sun, taking advantage of all that time to do whatever I want, no!!!! And I'm sure I'm not the only one!
    You're going to blow your retinas out again.... 🙂

  2. @Blue Lagoon: Hey, hey, I'm looking forward to it!!! 😀
    But it's not with such unconstructive and compassionate remarks that I'm going to solve my dilemmas... 😆

  3. I'm so sorry and confused !!!
    You speak.
    It's going to be great again, and it's coming up fast.
    Preparations are already underway, long before you get on the plane.
    Can you tell from there?

  4. @Blue Lagoon: Yes, it's almost approaching "too" fast... I still haven't booked my dives at Sipadan, which isn't very smart if I want to get a place on a boat, because for the preservation of the site, there's a quota limited to 120 divers and snorkelers per day... 😕

    In any case, I intend to tell my journey live or almost, as I always do. It all depends on the internet connections that I will find on site.
    No worries, I think, for the northern part of Borneo, including the island of Mabul where we're staying to dive in Sipadan, as I know that one of the resorts even offers wifi (at worst, I'll connect on my return visit to Semporna, the port on the coast, where there are internet centers and cafés).
    On the other hand, in Derawan, I doubt very much that you'll find many computers or connections other than fixed telephone lines, old-fashioned 56K modems... So I'll tell the story of this stage when I come back to a town or tourist spot.
    Since I launched "Petites Bulles d'Ailleurs", writing about my travels on this blog has become a real part of the pleasure of traveling. In fact, I make traditional tourists laugh when, in the evening, after diving or dinner, I'm in no more of a hurry than to log on to post texts and photos, reply to new comments and so on.
    🙂

  5. Why decide everything now? You reserve portions that are important to you and for the rest, you go according to your impulses (lucky!)!
    I DREAM of seeing the monkeys in Borneo... 😉

  6. And for me, the turtles of Sipadan.
    At the same time we saw so much in the Maldives ...
    For the story of your turpitudes and connection failures, I can only think of one solution: an Immarsat suitcase with an Internet connection must exist!
    That way you can even do it from on the boat still all wet from the dive. 😆

  7. @ Marie-Julie: Yes, I think the reason I take so long to "plan" is because I hate deciding everything in advance. However, as I explained above, it's in my interest to book for Sipadan. And even if I allow myself a certain amount of freedom, I have to decide on arrival and departure dates for certain sections... dilemma. 😡
    As for the monkeys, I've never seen a Nasa, but the orangutans are there:
    The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
    »Malaysia • July 2006 • Sepilok Center [photos]

    @Blue Lagoon: I promise, there will be photos of turtles... There are so many of them in Sipadan, that we come out "blasé" after a few dives: "Ah, there! More turtles there... Yeah, OK." 😀
    For connections, Immarsat is out of my league, but don't worry, I'm resourceful. As soon as I arrive somewhere, it's part of my very first scouting, the internet... Generally, I don't do too badly. 😉

  8. Hi Corinne,

    I confirm, no connection possible on Derawan ...

    A little advice from me for your project. Don't try to see too much, you'll be running around all the time...Forget the Perhentians 🙁 and Kuching....

    Concentrate on Sandakan / Kinabatangan, Sipadan and Tun Sakaran; then Derawan. You will see that it will already be well filled ...

    For the Derawan archipelago, you need time...quite a lot of time; especially if you come via Tawau.

    friendly

    yann

  9. @Yann: I hate running, as you know... 😉
    And I tend to agree with your advice... That's why I was in the middle of a dilemma. In other words, I'm going to have to make choices, and therefore eliminate things, if I want to be able to enjoy each place in peace.

    That said, as of today, I've pretty much made up my mind: I'm going to give up on Kuching, the jungle and the monkeys. If I'd had another week, why not, but now, with the time "lost" in transport, it's going to be too little. So I'm staying resolutely aquatic, and going back on an "islands and diving" vacation.

    In spite of everything, I think I'd still like my first stopover in the beautiful Perhentian (this time, I'd like to go to Besar, which I don't know): I like to settle down in a "relaxing" and easy place at the start of a trip, to rest and acclimatize for a few days, before tackling the main part of the journey. Plus, it'll give me a chance to do a few more nice, quiet dives to get back into my flippers before Sipadan.

    Avec Air Asia, j’ai regardé, les horaires collent pour faire Kuala Lumpur > Kota Bahru le jour même de mon arrivée en Malaisie; de même qu’ensuite, pour filer à Bornéo et faire dans la même journée Kota Bahru > Kuala Lumpur > Tawau…

    But I'm in the process of finalizing all that, I'll come back and say more when I'm sure. Otherwise, it won't hurt to be deprived of a web connection in Derawan (disconnect for good, finally!!!)
    8)

  10. Life is about choices 🙂

    Sarawak, around Miri:
    - dives not terrible, but nobody
    - no tourist, cheap
    - oil wells and oil palm fields
    - interesting if you want to do the "Jungle", as there are lots of parks around. As for leeches, your socks are no good for walking. The best thing is to take real walking shoes with simple gaiters coated with repellent, but many parks in Borneo are so well equipped that you can go in flip-flops 😆

    Sipadan, you know, it's a bit like the Disneyland of diving in Asia, but it's well worth the detour 😉

  11. @Alimata: The choices are made... 😉
    In the end, I'm sticking with my desire for an aquatic vacation, with beaches and islands as my immediate environment. So much for the jungle, even if it's equipped for tourists in flip-flops like me, which is definitely not my thing.
    So I'm giving up on Sarawak, as I don't have time for this trip, and I hate zapping from one place to another at breakneck speed. As for the landscapes of oil palms and oil wells, which I had already seen a bit of when I crossed Sabah in 2006, I might as well dispense with them this time...
    My first stop was Perhentian Besar (a few days of rest and acclimatization with all the comforts of tourism in a splendid setting), then Sipadan-Mabul (dives I still remember fondly), then Derawan (more of an expedition, off the beaten track, but clearly worth the detour).
    8)

  12. 😀 Hi and congrats on your blog!
    We want to go to Malaysia in July (4 weeks) and dive to Sipadan.
    I've consulted quite a few people on P.com but you seem to be by far the most experienced on the destination!
    We think to do like you, flight + backpack and we will see on the spot ... but I think to book Sipadan to be sure not to miss it!
    With whom to dive and where to sleep ??
    I'm leaning towards Billabong. Is their Long house nice? In 2006 you said you preferred to stay in Semporna, is that still true?
    Thanks in advance for your help!!!
    If you have good plans not to miss in 4 weeks I'm interested!

  13. @ Costarico32: Yes, you must book your dives for the Sipadan site itself. As you must know, you need a license to dive in, and these licenses are limited to 120 per day. The different dive centers must share them with each other. On the other hand, no restriction to dive on the neighboring sites (Mabul, Kapalai, and, from Semporna, the islands of Mantabuan, Sibuan, etc.)

    During this trip in July 2009, I stayed in Mabul and dived with Billabong. I was very satisfied with our email exchanges. They replied promptly, giving me precise dates for the days on which they had obtained a permit for Sipadan (and even gave me a discount when I asked for one). In other words: a total of four days' diving in Sipadan over a week's stay, with the other three days devoted to Mabul. Very good, compared to Scuba Junkie who could not guarantee me any dives in Sipadan ...

    The Billabong longhouse is very nice for its atmosphere, but the comfort is more than rustic. So, during my stay, I zapped myself to the guesthouse next door, Arung Ayat or Hayatt, something like that, better known as "Big John's". The various longhouses all work more or less together with the diving centers. Anyway, they arranged to transfer me next door. At Big John's, it's a little quieter and better run, the food is better and you can have your own bathroom in the rooms, which are on stilts.

    Some people told me that they had chosen to dive with Billabong, which guaranteed them, as it did me, permits for Sipadan, but that they were staying at Scuba Junkie's new Mabul Beach Resort (on the other side of the island, on the beach next to Borneo Divers). This new construction (which I have seen, but not tested) offers a much higher level of comfort than the "low-budget" longhouses for the same price...

    Below, all my posts on Sipadan/Mabul, during this trip in July 2009:
    »Sit with Sipadan sharks
    »Mabul Village
    »Latest bubbles in Mabul and Sipadan
    »Nudibranch Festival

    For the rest, since you have already visited the Asia section of the Plongeur.com forumYou should have plenty of information about Sipadan and the various local operators... Enough to make an informed choice!

    Finally, you should know that Semporna is very boring, and has nothing to offer apart from the choice of restaurants and the comfort of the accommodation. (And now, on Mabul, web addicts like me can still connect to the wifi at Borneo Divers, going to drink a beer at home, but shhh ...)

    Good preparations! You will see, Sipadan is an extraordinary site !!!
    😀

  14. @ Costarico32: Mmm... beware of hearsay on the forums. There's no proof that what this guy says is true. Maybe he had a dispute with Chok, and is now trying to harm him via the diver forums. Or maybe the story is true, I don't know. In any case, it should be taken with the appropriate reservations...

    One thing's for sure, Billabong is one of the "low-budget" dive centers, and won't necessarily suit people used to German-style organization and Swiss-style surroundings, to coin a cliché... Personally, I didn't stay in their longhouse, which is indeed quite rustic, to put it mildly (and yet, it wouldn't miss much to become an excellent option in the low-cost category).

    On the other hand, during my stay, the staff were spot-on (except perhaps for one dive-master, who was blasé and nonchalant). But then again, in Asia, staff rotate all the time, as the seasons change. As for equipment, I had my own, so no worries, and finally, I never noticed anything odd or out of place around the compressor and tank maintenance. (But then, I didn't go and inspect the inside of the cylinders, or check the inspection certificates).

    Finally, the website you mention, as far as I can tell, is not a dive center, but an intermediary, an operator who markets the dives and accommodations of the various resorts on site, as does Olivier Martinez fromAsiaqua (aka Martinoo on Plongeur.com). To organize your stay in Sipadan, and save yourself the hassle, you might as well go through Olivier...

    If you're looking for a less "cheap" and more reassuring center than Billabong or Scuba Junkie, but still affordable, you're better off at Borneo Divers, or the famous Seaventure platform (which I've heard nothing but good things about). Or go for the cruising version, as Olivier often suggests, because then you're sure to get your diving permit for Sipadan.

    Come on, good preparations!
    🙂

  15. @ Costarico32: Yes, Borneo Divers offers a good standard of Western comfort, hence the price. But it's worth it, I think. Otherwise, the other option for more comfortable and inexpensive accommodation in Mabul, as I may have already mentioned, is to book nights at Scuba Junkie's new Mabul Beach Resort. It's almost the same price as the longhouses, but much better.

    Semporna, yes, it's a bit cramped, but it's got "civilization", modern comforts and reasonably fast Internet. If you stay at Dragon Inn (the rooms, in the 60-80 Rm range from memory, are very good), on the other hand, don't eat there, it's rubbish and not good. There's a whole choice of restaurants around for all meals. I don't know Sipadan Inn.

    The Semporna-Sipadan/Mabul trips are sometimes tough, sometimes not. It depends on the weather, the waves, the style of boat, the captain's mood, and so on... It means getting up earlier and having to make the trip back. But it can be done. I don't remember it terribly, when I did it in 2006. But that was on Scuba Junkie dive boats. I think Billabong makes the trip, not on their beautiful dive boats, which stay moored in Mabul, but on trad wooden boats, which are much less comfortable. I don't know what kind of boats the center you're talking about (if you dive with them, I'm counting on you for the CR! 😉 ) uses... to be seen.

    Well, yes, the advantage of Semporna is that from there you can do all the other little islands, Sibuan, Mantabuan, etc., which I really enjoyed on my first visit in 2006.

    In addition to the images I've posted here, on my Petites Bulles d'Ailleurs, there are photos of my 2006 stay on my other site, by following these links:
    »Semporna
    »Sipadan / Mabul / Mantabuan / Sibuan

    Anyway, I don't have much time tonight, but tomorrow I'll send you, privately on your e-mail, some more recent photos of my 2009 trip, so that you can get a better idea of what things look like in Mabul.

    🙄

  16. Thank you very much Corinne !!!
    I've just got in touch with Olivier, with whom I'm building my stay ...
    He will inquire for Billabong.
    BD look great but are twice the price of Billabong ...
    During your first trip to Sipadan, you said you prefer to stay in Semporna I think.
    A not very expensive and reliable option would be to stay in Semporana (Sipadan Inn or Dragon Inn) and dive with Sipadan Scuba which is PADI 5 *.
    Are the journeys really painful? Is Semporna so horrible?
    The advantage would be in 7 days: 3x Sipadan and 4 dives on other islands between Mabul, Kapalai, but also Sibuan, Mataking, Mantabuan, Boheyan ... maybe this solution would not be bad not?

    Thank you again for your time... it's gold!

  17. Thanks again for giving us time!
    We'll be posting a CR on plongeur.com and voyageforum.com!
    I put the idea of the Scuba Junkie resort to Olivier, but he told me I'd have to dive with them... which he advised against.
    We read a bit of everything about this club!
    You've done both (Billabong and SJ), what do you think?
    Sipadan.com is brand new on the market apparently.
    I read on a blog that the equipment was brand new ... it inspires confidence. Lodging Arung Hayat which seems to be a safe bet ...
    I put you the link: http://borneo2010.uniterre.com/
    Otherwise, there's always the Semporna option.
    If you have to come back one day, what option would you take?
    Another possibility with Sipadan scuba: take their package and find a club on Mabul that will take us to Sipadan on days 4 and 5:
    MABUL COMBO 6 @ (2DAYS SIPADAN + 2DAYS OTHER ISLANDS> 12 DIVES)
    ITINERARY:
    DAY 01: Day Trip To Sibuan Island from Semporna (Own accommodation or Book Sipadan Inn)
    DAY 02: Day Trip to Sipadan Island from Semporna (Own accommodation or Book Sipadan Inn)
    DAY 03: Day Trip To Kapalai & Mabul Island from Semporna and overnight at Mabul Island.
    DAY 04: Stay at Mabul Island
    DAY 05: Stay at Mabul Island and Free at own leisure
    DAY 06: Check-Out from Mabul Island at 9.00am and transfer to Sipadan Island before back to Semporna at ~ 5.00pm

    We have to hurry because some clubs are already fully booked for Sipadan ...:(

  18. @ Costarico32: So ... I will try to answer the best ...
    😉

    - Scuba Junkie: I've dived with them, but that was in 2006. From one year to the next, especially in Asia, the centers can change (for the better or worse), and the staff is rarely the same. But it's often the staff and organization that make the difference. Scuba Junkie has a lot of turnover: ideally, you want to find guides who know the sites inside out... If you end up with a guy who's just discovering the site at the same time as you are, it's no good. In 2006, I was lucky. I dived with several dive-masters and instructors who knew the place inside out, who were also keen photographers, and very nice people. Today, to judge by the comments scattered here and there on the forums, Scuba Junkie has gone from being a nice little center for broke divers to a bubble factory that doesn't give a damn about the satisfaction of said broke divers.

    - Billabong: I dived with them in 2009, so recently, and the good thing was that the guides were locals who'd been working there for a long time. All of them, with the exception of one visibly jaded one, were very good. Ditto, by the way, for the other dive-masters and Western instructors who worked there for the season: real enthusiasts, and lovely people too.

    - Arung Hayat (Big John): a basic longhouse, like all the others in the village. By that I mean you'd better be used to Indonesian-style "comfort"... But the place is better kept, cleaner and more welcoming than many others. The food is better, heartier and more varied. I managed to get room A, at the very end of the stilt. It's nice to be there, facing the sea. Except when there's a storm or gale, especially at night (another thing I haven't had time to tell you about, but I have a recording of the terrifying whistling of the gusts): it's terribly impressive, shaking, creaking, groaning everywhere, the wind howling all around, it's almost frightening, you wonder if everything's going to be swept away by the gust of wind, if it's not a typhoon that's just arrived on the island. And then no, it holds... But it's hard to get a wink of sleep.

    - The blog link you pointed me to: the photos they put up of the room in Semporna, that's the Dragon Inn. The photo of the longhouse, I'm not sure I recognize, they all look the same...

    - Semporna: when I return to dive in Sipadan, I think I'll stay in Mabul again. By saving some money or finding someone to share the cost of the room with, I'll be able to offer myself more comfortable accommodation than a longhouse (one of Borneo Divers' pretty bungalows? The Seaventure platform, which even has wifi?) Longhouses are nice and cheerful, and then there's the village atmosphere, kids and all, but sometimes, what I wouldn't have given for a long hot shower in a bathroom worthy of the name... (Oh, I'm getting fat.)

    • Your schedule: I do not understand, the center in question can not make you dive to Sipadan on days 4 and 5?

  19. What a pleasure to correspond with someone like you!
    Your tips are a gold mine 💡

    I'd like to stay at scuba junkie but apparently they only house their divers and the club doesn't look great ...:(
    After that, I'm thinking that if the Billabong poisoning story is real, they must have reacted as quickly as possible !!!:?

    I'm going to check with Arung Hayat (Big John), but Olivier can't get hold of them.
    The Seaventure platform also appeals to us, and I don't think it's much more expensive (or am I wrong!).
    In any case I must make a decision as soon as possible!
    I will also visit Sipadan scuba club if I can dive on Sipadan on days 4 and 5!

    Finally, thank you so much for the photos you sent me!
    Hope to see you soon!

  20. Hi Corinne,
    Thank you for all your advice ... we booked 6J / 5N on Seaventure!
    Olivier guarantees us at least 2 dives on Sipadan ... and unlimited below (I hear it's great!).
    We'll definitely be following in your footsteps, as we've just learned that a family friend owns a guesthouse on Derawan !!!!!
    The trip seems very complicated but the game is worth the candle!
    I even think you met one of his friends ...
    Result: less jungle and more diving !!!! 😀
    We may ask you again to enlighten us! 💡
    Thanks again !

  21. @ Costarico32: Ah, that's it!!! Seaventure has a good reputation. The dives under the platform are very nice indeed (rather muck-dive), but beware, there's often quite a bit of current, so it's a bit sporty on the way back up.
    For Derawan, it's not so complicated from Semporna/Tawau. Send me your questions by email (corinne@petitesbullesdailleurs.fr) and reread the posts from my trip:
    http://petitesbullesdailleurs.fr/voyage-borneo-malaisie-indonesie-2009/
    Good preparations!
    🙂

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