Pulau Mabul – Under Water Hop Above Water Flop

Pulau Mabul is a small island just outside Semporna in the southwest of the state of Sabah in the Malaysian part of Borneo. The island is an absolute paradise for all fans of the underwater world. With the island Sipadan one of the most famous and best diving areas worldwide is located in the immediate vicinity. If you expect Caribbean island charm from Mabul, you will be bitterly disappointed. Since I was already here for the second time, I knew pretty well what to expect. But more about that in the following.

One of the more beautiful freely accessible beaches of Mabul

Pulau Mabul

Mabul is a small island, which is about 800 m long and 500 m wide. From a cultural point of view, the whole region is very interesting. However, there is one huge problem, which is particularly evident here. This is called PLASTIC WASTE. The expensive resorts on the island have a well-kept private beach, the rest of the beaches are unfortunately not usable. The entire surface of the first meters in the water consists only of plastic garbage and clothes. The accommodations, which are built on stilts, do not have their own beach anyway. The island is very densely built and there is accommodation after accommodation. However, anyone who has been snorkeling or diving will understand why the island attracts numerous tourists every year.

The population on Mabul

The contrasts on the island are overwhelming. Between posh resorts and a large part of the population that can barely afford its own boat. And all this on 0.25 km². Equally contrasting is the level of pollution on Pulau Mabul. The island itself is quite polluted by plastic, but under water you can find really dreamlike spots for snorkeling and diving.

There are two villages on the manageable island, namely Kampung Mabul and Kampung Musu. Most of the inhabitants belong to the ethnic groups of Bajau Laut and Suluk Muslims.
Bajau Laut
The Bajau Laut mainly fled the Philippines to Sabah in the 1970s and are often stateless and live on wooden houseboats with their extended families. Because they are often undocumented and stateless, they have no rights, such as the right to education, medical care, employment, or legal assistance. The Bajau Laut are very poorly regarded by the population and do not feel comfortable on land. Some of them even get “land sick”, meaning they get dizzy when they go ashore. They prefer to live on the sea. On Mabul, they can often be seen passing by the resorts in their boats, trying to sell their catch. The money is usually invested in fuel for the boats. Due to stricter border controls, patrols and restricted areas, some Bajau Laut felt compelled to settle on land. On the way from Semporna to Mabul by boat, one passes some Bajau Laut villages built on stilts in the middle of the sea.
Suluk muslims
Unlike the Bajau Laut, the Suluk Muslims (People of the current) are rural dwellers. They live from fishing, livestock and agriculture. They are, as the name suggests, Muslims. The Malaysian Suluks enjoy a certain protected status on the part of the Malaysian government and are recognized.

Locals auf Fischfang

Getting to Mabul:

The journey to Mabul is relatively simple. First you have to get to Semporna, there are several ways to do this:

Borneo’s buses are very comfortable and offer enough legroom. A ticket from Kota Kinabalu to Semporna costs around 18 €. The trip takes +/- 12 hours. Depending on the season, it may make sense to book the buses in advance. If there are no more buses available online, it does not mean that there are no more. There are some buses running at the terminals that are not listed online. Usually the buses run in the morning between 6-10am or in the afternoon/evening and then overnight.

Another option, which we expressly do not recommend, is the flight to Tawau and from there by bus or grave further to Semporna. Since there are enough alternatives, you can well do without the flight here and thus do something good for the environment ;-).

From Semporna:

Who goes to Mabul does this mostly because of the fantastic underwater world and because of an excursion to Sipadan. Therefore, the question usually does not arise, because the boat ticket is already included in most packages that you book at the accommodation. If you want to go to Sipadan you should book your accommodation in advance anyway. On my first visit to Mabul, we talked to a local fisherman who drove us across. Whether this is currently so still possible I can not judge, but was then (2017) a good option, as there were no other boats on the day. I would rather leave the crossing in the dark due to safety concerns. The round trip usually costs 100 MYR (22 €).

The choice of accommodation in Mabul

This is actually not so easy on Pulau Mabul, because the pictures on the conventional booking platforms unfortunately do not reflect what is often offered – especially with regard to the degree of pollution of the island. In my opinion, you’ll be pissed off if you put a perceived fortune into an accommodation here. On the other hand there are budget accommodations like the “Mabul Backpackers” which I can’t recommend at all. As is often the case on islands in Southeast Asia, you book a package of accommodation and full board including 3 meals. Both the room quality and the food vary greatly.

Our experience at Mabul Backpackers
We stayed in a budget triple room for just under 90 MYR per person (just under 20 €). As already mentioned, the 3 meals were included in the price. Price-performance we felt as pretty lousy. The sheets were pretty dirty, Naomi woke up one night full of red ants (and that really hurts!!) and lunch and dinner were passable, breakfast rather poor. Not really good for vegetarians, unfortunately. However, the staff is very friendly and helpful. The costs for diving or snorkeling are also very human with 80 MYR per person and 30 MYR for snorkelers.
Fried Asian egg noodles with soggy fried egg. With luck you got a piece of cabbage in the noodles, otherwise it was unfortunately very poor.
Lunch and dinner: Here, there was always one dish with chicken, one with vegetables (usually weed cabbage) and one with fish. For vegetarians, there was also an omelet/scrambled egg.

Zimmer Mabul Backpackers

If you are not traveling on a tight budget, there is Mabul Water Bungalows which offers a great range of acommodation and diving options.

Diving in Mabul

The underwater world of Mabul is simply impressive. We were snorkeling on the first day, on day 2 we went diving and on the third day there was the highlight – diving in Sipadan. And every trip was a highlight in itself. Countless turtles, white tip reef sharks, black tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, masked angelfish, macro creatures, lobsters, barracudas, napoleon fishes and and and… as you can see it is worth it!!

Tauchen in Mabul

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We are Julian & Naomi and we love to travel the world and immerse ourselves in other cultures. We have an adventurous, spartan, sustainable and reflective travel style. In our opinion, the greatest adventures are experienced when you do things on your own and try to live like a local. The taste of a country is best captured on the road
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