Cheap alternative to the Maldives
AS THE boat slowed down and we neared the island, I saw it. A starfish the size of my hand lying on the seabed in the shallow aqua-green water. And, I quickly noticed, it wasn't alone. There were at least six of them scattered nearby.
I was approaching Mabul, a small, road-less island off the Malaysian state Sabah in Borneo. It's known among scuba divers but outside of that, not by many others. I wasn't a diver, but I'd heard about it through a friend who was. Her photos of overwater bungalows, similar to ones I thought only existed in the Maldives or Bora Bora, had gotten me interested.
Some Google searching and currency converting later, and I was really keen. I could stay in a stilted villa at a luxury resort with three meals a day included for roughly $300 a night. Considering most overwater bungalows in the Maldives start at $500 and can go up to $20,000 a night, it was a serious steal.
The starfish sightings on the way in were only the start of four very surreal days I'd spend in Mabul. I'd also spot turtles gasping for air as I ate breakfast on the overwater deck every morning, snorkel off an abandoned oil rig-turned-resort, almost step on a stingray while wading in low tide and not once - in the whole four days - wear shoes.
It was in equal parts an adventurous time and a relaxing one. And, considering how tiny the island was and how eager I was to experience every part of it, it was a long enough time to make me a fully-fledged expert on it. Well, maybe not an expert per se. But I definitely did pick-up loads of useful advice about it. On that note, these are my Mabul must-knows
GETTING TO MABUL
Travelling to Mabul isn't easy. From Australia, you'll need to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then directly to Tawau, but some flights add a stop in Kota Kinabalu. From there, it's a 90-minute drive to the port town of Semporna and then a 45-minute boat ride over to Mabul. In total, the journey can take about a day and a half.
The flight costs however, more than make up for the long travel time. From Sydney or Melbourne, flights can set you back as little as $700 return. From Perth, it can be around $500. The rest of the travelling - the drive to Semporna and boat ride to Mabul - are usually included in your accommodation cost.
WHERE TO STAY
The island has a wide range of places to stay with 10 or so options in total, including budget backpackers, on-land hotels and a couple other water bungalow resorts. The room prices are usually all-inclusive, per person rates with diving packages as an add-on.
Mabul Water Bungalows, where I stayed, was one of the nicest with identical wooden chalets and massive villa suites shooting off winding, wooden walkways.
One of the cheapest, a stilted overwater guesthouse called Scuba Jeff, had rooms for only $30 a night. After seeing it myself, though, I have to say it really was a no-frills situation. The small rooms had stiff beds with thin sheets and no blankets, and the electricity only kicked in from 6pm to 6am. Still, for that price and the chance to see Mabul, it might be worth making a few sacrifices.
WHAT TO DO
Besides the endless opportunities to relax, Mabul's all about diving. There's snorkelling too, but most people come to Mabul to dive. After its neighbouring island Sipadan was described as an "untouched piece of art" in a 1989 French documentary, the area began attracting visitors. Sadly, but inevitably, the steady stream of divers began damaging its reefs and in 2004, the Malaysian government ordered all hotel and dive operators off Sipadan.
If you wanted to see Sipadan, staying on nearby islands Mabul and Kapali or the mainland town of Semporna were your only options. Two years later, the government limited the number of people who could visit Sipadan to 120 per day and tacked on a permit cost.
Nowadays, Sipadan permits can be hard to come by. They're allocated between the hotels and resorts on Mabul, Kapali and Semporna. During high season, with some hotels allocated a total of six per day, they can be even harder to get. While you can dive elsewhere around the area and still see some pretty amazing marine life, if you want to see Sipadan specifically (and why not - you're there anyway), it's best to organise a permit before booking flights.