Malaysia, p2: Borneo and Pulau Tioman

Written by on April 24, 2013 in Asia, General with 3 Comments

The day got off to a bad start as I mis-judged how long it would take during rush hour to get out to the airport and missed the cut-off to check in my bag by a few minutes.  Unlike most airlines in the world, Air Asia was completely inflexible and not only wouldn’t let me on my flight, but wouldn’t let me on the next one either unless I bought a new full fare ticket.  Bastards!  I really had no choice, as all my diving for the next several days was already booked and non-refundable, so I had to bite the bullet and buy a new ticket.  Ugh!

Luckily, the transfer from Tawau to Semporna went smoothly.  I couldn’t believe how green and lush and humid it was.  Well…I was in Borneo, so I guess I believed it.  But, I wasn’t ready for how green and tropical it would be.  Or how many palm trees there would be.  They were everywhere!


The transfer to Semporna took about an hour and half and I got checked into the Holiday Dive Inn and kitted out for diving the next morning.


I had booked a 4 day dive package so that I would be able to dive on Sipadan Island for 2 of the 4 days.  Sipadan has been a protected marine reserve for years and they limit the number of permits available to only 120 divers each day.  This has kept the reefs and marine life healthy and abundant, but makes it a pricey endeavor.  To spread the wealth (permits), the dive shops make you sign up for multi-day packages if you even want a shot at getting out there.  After Day 1, I knew why the permits are in such demand.  Sipadan is THE best diving I have ever experienced!

Sipadan is an oceanic island off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo, and is famous for its pristine reefs and massive population of green and hornback turtles.

05-Borneo Diving Highlights-001

Sipadan also has a healthy population of reef sharks.  We saw mainly white tips, and a few grey sharks, on nearly every dive.  Awesome!

06-Borneo Diving Highlights-002

I believe Sipadan Island has about 10-12 dive sites scattered around its perimeter, with Barracuda Point it’s most famous.  We were welcomed by a massive school of thousands of jack fish as we dropped down and came back up around 5-10m, which provided some fantastic photo opportunities.


And of course, the large school of huge barracuda was pretty awesome, too!


In my four day package, it was strange luck that my first two days were out on Sipadan.  My third day of diving was around Sibuan Island, which is better known for its beauty above water than below.


It was like a screensaver.  You could walk around the island in about 20 minutes and provided a gorgeous place for surface intervals.  The diving wasn’t great, but it was so hard to follow Sipadan!  I think almost any dive site in the world would’ve felt like a let down.  We did see a couple super-cool frogfish and lots of crocodile fish, but it was not Sipadan.  Still…it was a great place to work on my tan between dives.


My fourth day of diving was on nearby Mantabuan Island.  Conditions improved.  The reef was in much better shape and visibility was 20+ meters.  The coral was fantastic.  This tube coral was probably 5-6 feet tall.


Definitely better than most of the diving in the Similan Islands in Thailand, except for maybe the manta experience at Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock…although it was pretty comparable to that.  Still…it was not Sipadan, which is why I decided to plunk down the cash for one more day of Sipadan magic.

Boy am I glad I did!  Before we even managed to get in the water, we heard whispers of a whale shark sighting and our boat captain got us out close to where it was seen earlier that morning.  Our divemaster jumped in with a mask and confirmed it was right under our boat, at which point it was a race to find my mask, grab my camera and jump in the water.  BINGO!

04-Borneo Diving Highlights

My whale shark “chasing” had finally come to an end at Sipadan, a dive spot not even in their migration path.  Totally dumb luck, and utterly awesome and amazing.  It was a baby one – only about 4 meters long.  Only!  In this picture, he’s surrounded by jack fish that were each about 2-3 feet long, if that gives you any idea of how big he was.  Of course, the diver below gives a better idea of scale.


OMG!  At last!  Swimming/diving with a whale shark has been a dream of mine FOREVER!  And, perfect timing as I had had my mom ship my underwater camera housing the week before and it had literally arrived the day before this dive.  What a difference it’s making in the photos!


It definitely helped that the clarity and visibility in the water was incredible.


It was like we were diving in an overstocked aquarium.  More than anywhere I’ve ever dived.  Simply amazing!


One last turtle shot…LOVE them!  Everyone on our boat was grinning ear to ear after each dive that day, and through the night when we rubbed everyone else’s nose in it when we got back to the dive shop.  I feel a little bad about that.  Well…not really!


Still buzzing from the whale shark and sad to not have the time (or money!) to keep diving, I caught a bus and a connecting shuttle van to the Nature Lodge in Kinabatangan (say that 3 times fast), where I had booked a 3 day/2 night stay.  Included in the package was 4 river cruises and 3 jungle treks, as well as accommodation and all meals.

We checked in, had lunch and were quickly whisked off onto our first river cruise where we saw a bunch of proboscis monkeys.  Check out his schnoz!  Straight out of the Wizard of Oz, huh?  I wish I was able to take better pictures, but I’d forgotten to charge my good camera and they were just too high up in the trees for the zoom on my other camera.


I skipped the night trek after dinner as I was exhausted and remember doing one in Peru where we literally saw nothing and just heard a bunch of insects.  Not my thing.

I really enjoyed the river cruises, although the 6am departure time was rough.  It made it even rougher when we didn’t see so much.  Aside from Sipadan, I came to Borneo to see some orangutans.  The proboscis monkeys, and other monkeys we saw jumping wildly from branch to branch were quite cool, but not what I came for.  When I was told that the day trek was going to a lake and there zero chance of seeing orangutans, I skipped that too.  Thankfully, as everyone returned with stories of lots of leeches.  Yuck!  I’d been tipped in advance about the hot and uncomfortable slog through the mud and the tendency for there to be tons of leeches, which is why I skipped out.  I am not an insect person.  And I would like to continue going through life without any unfortunate leech encounters, thank you very much!

For our afternoon river cruise, I was tipped off by some friends I’d met diving that we could pay our guide a little extra to take us further down river in hopes of seeing pygmy elephants.  Success!


What is it with me and elephants on this trip, anyway?!?  I will never get tired of watching these amazing creatures.

I skipped the night trek again after tales of leeches from everyone who slogged through the day trek.  Found out they saw absolutely nothing, so felt good about my decision to share a bottle of wine with my new friend Sybil instead.

It was rough getting up for the 6am river cruise again, but I didn’t want to miss a potential orangutan sighting.  Alas, no orangutans.  Not much of anything, really.  That said, it was very relaxing to be out on the river.  There was lots of bird life, and I saw several different hornbill species, which was kind of cool.


Interesting that the most action on the trip actually happened when I went back to room to pack and found a new roommate underneath a plastic bag!


Turns out he was a yellow-ringed cat snake.  I took a few pictures before calling someone in to take care of it.  Here he is close up.


Turns out he’s totally poisonous!  OMG!  Very glad I found him curled up OUTside my bag and not in it at the next stop!  A guy came in with a stick and a plastic bag and wrangled it out of the room and through it back in the jungle about 50 meters from the room.  I’m guessing the snake will end up in someone else’s room someday soon.  Hopefully not though!

After an already eventful morning, the lodge’s shuttle bus drove me the 2 hours to a town called Sepilok, where I checked into a super-cute place called Pandakan Dii, set in the hills overlooking the jungle.  I was not leaving Borneo without seeing an orangutan!  So, I paid a visit to the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary that afternoon, which is the next best thing to seeing them in the wild.  Technically, the orangutans have been released into the wild, HOWEVER, the sanctuary feeds whoever wants to show up at the set feeding times each day, so they generally get 3-6 primates for all the happy tourists to take pictures of.  Felt a lot like a zoo to me, but the sanctuary is doing a lot of work to rehabilitate orangutans and release them into the wild, so it’s just going to have to count for my purposes.

How adorable is her little baby!?!


The next day I flew from Sandakan to Kuala Lumpur, where I met up with my new super-cool friend Jessica (who I’d met at the Future Music Festival a couple weeks before) who’d invited me to stay with her for my short day and a half in KL.  She was a fantastic hostess and showed me a few places in KL I hadn’t been to yet, which was very cool, especially the Petronas Towers by night.


On the first afternoon, we went for a hike to take her dogs for a walk, and at the top of the ridge, there was an amazing view of the city…too bad it was a little hazy.


Anyway…the next day I flew to Pulau Tioman, an island off the SE coast of Malaysia, where my friend Natalya was flying in from Singapore to meet me for a weekend of catching up and more diving.  Tioman is pretty big, but we were staying on a small beach called ABC Beach where a lot of dive shops were located.  The beach wasn’t the greatest as it was quite rocky, but the sunsets weren’t too shabby.


I got in a day early to do a few extra dives, and ended up following this and another cuttle fish around for awhile.  It was HUGE!  Super cool to watch.


I was very surprised at how good the diving was!  The reefs were in great shape, visibility was good and there was a large abundance of fish.


Natalya and I have been friends since our early days at ABN – I think since 2006.  I’ve now seen her on 3 continents, and every time I hang with her it is more fun.  We had a blast diving together.  Especially when we ended up on a dive with props to play with!  Diving is just like riding a bike.


Once you learn…you never forget 😉

Natalya has been studying hard at INSEAD in Singapore, where she’s enrolled in a 1-year MBA program.  It was nice to see that she was able to relax and chill out a little bit.


Of course, the weekend went by way too fast and we headed to the airport to catch our sketchy flight on Berjaya Air to Singapore.  Tioman is supposed to be one of the toughest airports to take off and land in due to how short the runway is.  I’m still alive, so it obviously wasn’t so bad!


Farewell Malaysia.  I was so surprised at how awesome you are and will definitely be back!


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3 Reader Comments

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  1. Herb Glatter says:

    No Facebook “friends” for Deb – you have friends all over the world.

  2. Oh dear god, SNAKE!!! Sharing a room with a deadly snake in my quite possibly my worst nightmare. Did you ever tell us that craziness happened to you? You are one brave lady! Much less the scuba photos are sick in this post!

  3. Deb says:

    How sad that this is the first time since I’ve logged in to the blog and it’s been over a year! Geez! Time to get writing again (and travelling again!).

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