Trip Start Oct 13, 2010
77Trip End Feb 22, 2012
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The resorts on Sipadan were closed and now nobody can stay on the island, partly because of a bit to become a UNESCO world heritage sight, and partly because (I only found this out once I got there!) in 2000 some tourists were kidnapped by Phillipino pirates, who remain a threat to this day so now there is 24/7 military presence on the island!! So now everyone has to stay on the nearby island of Mabul but can visit Sipadan on dive boats with closely controlled permits.
So, I left the jungle homestay and got straight on the bus to the port town of Semporna along with a few other travellers going the same way. On arriving, unlike everyone else I had decided to go straight to the island rather than using up one of my last few nights in Borneo in the rather crap town of Semporna. This meant I only had about an hour to find the Uncle Chang office (turns out there are two of them) where the boat would be leaving from, get snacks (was told there were no shops on the island) and get cash from the ATM. Meanwhile the woman from Uncle Chang’s kept texting me irately asking where I was and if I was coming – I felt like a naughty child who was late for school! I made it with about 2 minutes to spare, and set off on the 45 minute speed boat trip to Mabul
The accommodation is actually built around the island, rather than on it. So the Uncle Chang’s resort consists entirely of structures on rickety wooden stilts in the ocean which sway in the wind. The benefit is the rooms are directly over the ocean so when you wake up in the morning you can literally just jump off the balcony into the sea :) The price includes all meals, which at first sounds good until you try the meals. A vegetarian gets a separate lunch and dinner, of fried egg and cold baked beans, every meal and every day. Every breakfast no matter how early you are, the butter and jam is 'finished', so dry toast it is! At least there’s tea and coffee … there is a really nice decking area though with sunbeds for sunbathing and great for meeting people over meals. After a few hours everyone seemed to know each other.
Hannah and I were both booked for snorkelling on Sipadan in a few days time, so in the meantime we went snorkelling around Mabul itself which was brilliant. I saw the most colourful, alive looking corel I’ve ever seen and hundreds of weird and wonderful fish. We were warned to avoid the trigger fish, which apparently attacks if you get too close – I had a mild panic when I mistook one of Hannah’s flippers for the fish in question! I spent an entire day sunbathing on the deck, only getting to eat and drink which was nice. There were a few characters lurking around – a French couple with dreadlocks who live there for free in return for playing the sax (him) and juggling fire (her), neither of which were particulary exciting – they were still trying to save up for one trip to Sipadan and had already been there 3 months, surely something is going wrong then!? Then there was British Dan ... if you wander outside the resort you enter the village, a shanty town style collection of huts and little shops (so there was no need to stock up on supplies after all) and kids playing marbles in the streets – we ran into Dan when taking a stroll through the village looking for a beach. He was being shown around by a man who at first glance I thought was a woman, who had taken Dan into his home for free. Bit suspect I thought – sure enough the next day Dan turned up at Uncle Changs, after his host had lured him into the sea then proceeded to grope him
The night before the big Sipadan trip, Hannah and I had vowed to get an early night. However, it was Saturday night, which means Party Night at Uncle Changs! Now so far we had not seen Uncle Chang himself – only his face on the mug-shot style posters plastered on the walls. We were finishing dinner when the whisper went around ‘Uncle Chang is here!!’ and immediately he achieved celebrity like status, all of us desperate for a photo with him. The man himself appeared, with waist length hair, and took to a stage which had been erected. The staff had formed a band, with the rest of them lined up around the stage. All the staff wear t-shirts emblazoned with the words 'The Dream Of Uncle Chang Come True'. The music started and Uncle Chang started singing (kareoking!) some cheesy song like ‘I did it my way’ while running around manically handing out a very small sum of money to each staff member. He then did another loop handing out cans of coke, then another loop handing out cans of lemonade
The final day was the day of our much anticipated trip to Sipadan and everyone was genuinely excited like little kids. It was just Hannah and I snorkelling, and three people diving. The dive staff are extremely laid back here and it's a great atmosphere. It takes about half an hour to get to Sipadan, and it was rough. I mean rough – the speed boat was smacking down hard on the waves and several times I thought we were going to capsize and I might not even get to see the snorkel, luckily I don’t get sea sick
There was one scene when neither of us had any photos left on our disposable underwater cameras, but it will stay in my mind. There was blue and red moving corel, and about 30 different types of fish just hanging out. There were leopard spotted fish, zebra stripey fish, angel fish with huge funnel noses, electric blue fish, box fish, loads of small fish … just breathtaking. It has made me really want to dive – all the divers came up totally ecstatic, raving about the twenty shark they had just seen
Back at Uncle Chang’s, I found out that in fact there was no boat going back to the mainland tomorrow in time for my afternoon flight to Kota Kinabalu (it worked out incredibly cheap to fly instead of taking an overnight bus as for once I booked in advance). The woman at the desk informed me my only option was to leave in half an hours time – she obviously didn’t realise that for me to shower and pack in this time was physically impossible. Luckily Uncle Chang was still in the house and he came to my rescue, saying ‘no problem, when do you want to leave?’. So the next day Uncle Chang and I went in our own boat to the mainland, then they even transported me in a pick up truck to the bus station and helped me buy a ticket – how’s that for customer service!! One person I will not miss was the most unhelpful person in a customer facing job that I have ever met – Mr Smiley who works behind the shop desk. Every time we asked him anything, he just smirked at us with an incredulous look of ‘what do you actually think I work here or something?’. This man may has well have had the words F*CK YOU tattooed on his forehead for all the help he was. The best was when I asked him for some toilet paper and he just smirked 'toilet paper finished'. We took a sneaky photo of him as we pretended to be taking one of me, childish I know but looking at the photo still makes me laugh hysterically :)
So my trip to Mabul was a great success, and I had such a laugh at Uncle Chang's. Despite the inflated price tag, it was money incredibly well spent as this underwater adventure was seriously one of the best experiences of my entire life :)