Borneo Destinations Malaysia Travel Journal

TRAVEL JOURNAL #12 | Tawau, Mabul Island and the Kinabatangan River on Borneo

travel journal borneo

The moment we arrive on Borneo it feels like a total different country. For two months we stayed in west Malaysia and Sabah – Malaysian Borneo – is nothing like it. With a new (Sabah) stamp in our passports it feels even more as a different country. We take a Grab (Asian Uber) from the airport to our couchsurfing address in Tawau, a Korean family home.

Not-so-fun Tawau

Apparently there’s not a lot to do in Tawau. People only visit Tawau to take the ferry to Indonesia. Hence the surprise of our couchsurfing hosts when we tell them we stay for four nights, without a plan. Luckily we can enjoy ourselves anywhere. Tawau – and Sabah in general – has a lot of palm tree plantations. Together with Eddie (our host) and his son we pass some of them by car. We visit a national park for a hike to see the tallest tropical tree in Asia (it always has to be the number one something in Asia), also the 7th tallest tree in the world! Apparently there are some fun places to see here!

travel journal borneo

In Tawau we also need to do some ‘serious business’, since our camera stopped working on the last day on Penang (timing couldn’t be worse). We visit a canon shop and explain our problems. The first is the camera, obviously. The second is time limit, as we’ll be moving around for the next three weeks. We conclude it’s best for us to pick the camera up in Kota Kinabalu in two weeks. Tawau canon ships it to them for repair and we’ll pick it up, it’s the only option. We hand in our camera and hope for the best (Malaysian customer service is not the best we have learned). After a busy morning we have the best lunch: Korean Bibimbap. We love it! And then it’s time to relax a bit!

travel journal borneo

The next morning we wake up really early (before sunrise!) to go to a local market. We have some delicious Chinese pancakes (a must-eat in Malaysia!). And the best part: there are no tourists at all. We also do groceries and buy all the ingredients for our Dutch meal! At night we make hutspot. It’s super delicious, but while eating the daughter tells us she doesn’t like carrot at all! Sadly the whole dish is about carrots (and potato and union).

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Long time no see

We travel back to the airport! Not to fly, but to meet… Denise & Bram: my sister and her boyfriend. We are so excited, and nervous. They will join us for the next two weeks to travel around the east of Malaysian Borneo. Immediately after they arrive we travel to Semporna by bus: no time to relax. In the bus we talk about everything, we haven’t seen each other for almost seven months! Funny enough, it feels like we saw each other yesterday! We only stay in Semporna for one night (don’t go there for fun!) and the next day we travel to Mabul Island. Let the diving adventures begin! We will do twelve dives in four days, and Denise and Bram will do their Open Water diving course.

Diving around Mabul Island

It’s all very rushed at first; we arrive on the island and have to hop on our diving boat the same minute. There’s no time to bring our luggage to our rooms. But we don’t care; the island looks so pretty and those clear waters! The first day we do three dives with dive master Azrul. He’s such a funny guy: we play rock-paper-scissors underwater, dance and make lots of pictures with our brand new GoPro Hero 5 Black. The underwater world is not so colourful but we see lots of fishes and giant turtles (big YAY).

travel journal borneo

The Scuba Junkie resort is perfect: everything is well organised, the food is delicious, and the atmosphere super relaxed. Unfortunately we don’t manage to stay up later than nine every night. Diving is so exhausting; we are so tired every night. Okay, waking up for sunrise every morning doesn’t help either. But sunrises on Mabul are magical and we fly our drone many times.

travel journal borneoDenise and Bram like diving as well; they have the best time. They finish their course in three days and then we are allowed to dive together! Denise feels a bit ill so she only joins us for the last dive, Bram joins us for the last three. Luckily we save the best for the last; the last dive is the prettiest of all. The coral is incredibly colourful and we see so much marine life. A little turtle almost attacks me, but he simply is as curious as I am.

Into the Kinabatangan jungle

We continue our adventures and travel to Sepilok. We start our jungle trekking from there. Uncle Tan organises the tour and takes us to the Kinabatangan River. Two Dutch girls we met on Mabul told us they did the most awesome jungle tour with Uncle Tan, so we had to do the same. We stay in the jungle for two nights and three days. By boat we explore most of the jungle. It looks fantastic! And the accommodation is amazing! We sleep in little huts on the water: how magical.

travel journal borneo

Denise needs to get used to the jungle a bit more than we do, but starts liking it more when we start playing games with our tour group. We are in a group with two other Dutchies, an English guy and a French girl. We all get along really well and they find out they also love playing Skipbo!

On the first night we go on a boat ride to see night wild life. Our tour guide lights his torch to spot the animals. We see some colourful birds and owls, but it wasn’t as exciting as expected. Back at our camp we enjoy the rest of the evening with some guitar music, singing and card games (shithead & Skipbo again).

travel journal borneoThe next morning we wake up early for a morning safari, the best moment to see wildlife. We are only not so lucky; we see a couple monkeys, a small crocodile and some birds only. Our guide tells us that he normally sees a lot more, that doesn’t help. But the second evening safari is way more spectacular! We see hundreds of flying foxes above us: it’s incredible. We also spot some Proboscis monkeys. They are the main reason we wanted to go to the jungle: them and orang-utans. For the latter you have to be very lucky, and guess what? Yes, we were not so lucky. We end our jungle tour the next day with a soccer game against the locals. It’s the Dutchies against locals and we’re so close to winning… But we lose with 4-3.

We want to see orang-utans no matter what, so we’re off to Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. More about that, and parasailing and zip lining in Kota Kinabalu, in our next travel journal!

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