Semporna is a town located at the east coast of Sabah, well known to locals and tourists to the state alike. Established by the British North Borneo Chartered Company, the town is home to approximately 130,000 people as of 2010, of which the majority consist of Bajau. Aside from being sustained by marine produce and pearl culturing industries, Semporna is also supported by being a hub for divers around the world, due to their proximity to islands famous for their pristine beauty, such as Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai. With that, if something ‘sempurna’ (‘perfect’ in local Malay language), you can do little better than with Semporna!
Within the town itself, Semporna can be travelled on foot, due to its small size. Where possible, stick to validated means of transport and avoid the use of ‘private taxi services’ that are not subjected to regulation and hence can be particularly dangerous. To get there, a number of options are available. By road, the town is accessible from Kota Kinabalu, Sepilok, Sandakan and Tawau, through bus or taxi services. By air, the most common route would be through Tawau Airport, accessible from Kota Kinabalu or Kuala Lumpur. Upon reaching there, the journey can be continued via bus (available from 6am – 6pm, RM 10 – 25 per person), or taxis (RM 80 – 100).
Located 15 minutes’ drive away from the town is a hill known as Bukit Tengkorak, translated from Malay literally as ‘Skull Hill’. The grim source of this name originates from the beheading of prisoners of war by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, here. More recently, archaeologists have found ancient pottery with markings, within old ruins, which suggests that it was once a home to some early locals. Nowadays, the hill is a popular viewing spot of which to get to the top, visitors must pay an entrance fee to trek through a steep wooden staircase. Upon reaching, one can almost guarantee that the effort will be worth it once you get the view of Semporna and its surrounding islands, while caressed by the cool hilly breeze. You can also visit said ruins housed in the museum nearby. Definitely not one to miss!
The very name of Sipadan Island almost requires no further self-explanation. Lying 5 degrees north of the Equator in the Sulawesi Sea, it has long been a popular diving spot due to the rich ecosystem hidden beneath the surface. Of the 3000 species of fish and corals around, this site is particularly famous for the large numbers of hawksbill and green turtles that come to mate and nest, making sightings of these usually elusive creatures very probable here. Divers can choose from a selection of 12 different sites, with the four most popular being Hanging Garden, Barracuda Point, South Point and Turtle Cavern. Whatever the choice, one can always be sure of a sight to take the breath away!
Our inability to breathe unassisted underwater has long been the reason we have been landlocked throughout history. Hence, with all the advancements we’ve made, it’s astounding to see that some people do prefer the sea to the land, as seen in with the local Bajau Laut. Residing in stilted homes and dependent on boats for sustenance, these are people who have perfected the art of living with respect by the sea through generations. To understand their simple way of living, it’s possible to go by boat to Maiga Island, one among the many that they call home. Don’t forget to bring sweets for the children!