Our day began at 4 AM when we checked out from the airport hotel to catch the 7 AM flight to Tawau to visit Jimmy and Shing in Semporna. We made many promises to see them throughout the years. Still, we could not carve out extra days in our usual tight itinerary due to the limited flight options to this remote location. This time, we were adamant about making it a reality. Our initial plan was to spend five days in Semporna. However, we could only manage three days because we needed an extra day in Kuching. In addition, our unexpected flight delay ate another precious day. As a result, we had to abandon a day trip to hike to the summit of Bohey Dulang Island. Instead, we chose to snorkel in Sipadan. Unlike other islands in that area, only 180 divers or snorkelers were allowed to visit Sipadan per day. Jimmy successfully secured the sought-after permits and rebooked the boat reservation at the very last minute upon receiving our calls from South Korea.
Sipadan — the only oceanic island in Malaysia — is considered one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. Unfortunately, none of us are divers. If we dive, we sink and will never resurface. Still, we were all very excited to snorkel there. Many Chinese tourists paid top dollar to visit this exotic location during the pre-pandemic period. Our boat carried six passengers, two local guides, and one driver. Although we shared the same boat with one young Chinese couple, there were still not many Chinese visitors due to the strict travel restrictions in China. We were very well aware of the rampant kidnappings-for-ransom threats from the pirates in this part of the country. The US, UK, and Canada travel advisories also discourage their citizens from avoiding non-essential travel to the east coast of Sabah. That said, we felt we were in good hands since Jimmy and Shing knew the excursion company very well, and we would be back on the mainland before dark. It was a blessing in disguise to arrive a day late because, unlike the previous day, we had a perfect sunny day. The gloomy weather would have prevented us from seeing the corals and marine life. The boat driver mentioned one of the boats had to turn back on the previous day due to the rough waves. Our snorkeling excursion covered Barracuda Point, Coral Garden, and South Point. We saw many green turtles and batfish. The most surreal part was swimming with thousands of jackfish at the Malaysia-Indonesia border.
This trip educated us about the existence and the plight of the Bajau people — the stateless indigenous seafarers. They escaped the Mindanao civil war in the 1970s and now live in the waters off the coasts of Malaysia. Given their status as outsiders, they are forbidden to set foot on Malaysian soil. However, during traffic stops in Tawau, we saw many women and young kids on bare feet begging for food and money. The Bajau people are isolated from the rest of the world and live in dangerous waters. Just like most of us who get seasick after spending too much time on the water, the Bajau people get land sick after spending too long on solid ground.
On the final day, we traveled to Kuching to meet more family members and relatives. Given the remoteness of this area, there were no direct flights from Tawau to Kuching. Hence, we spent the whole day traveling and eventually arrived in Kuching at night. This trip to Semporna was too short, but we were grateful to make our first-ever visit. Our super gracious hosts — Jimmy and Shing — went above and beyond to make our stay as comfortable as possible and treated us to delicious local dishes in Tawau and Semporna. This would not be our last time visiting them. We would love to explore other beautiful islands around Semporna in the coming years.