And back to KL

A day full of travel and few events, but one thing to note: I filled in my dive log book earlier and I’ve passed the “24 hours of my life underwater with a tank strapped to my back” mark. Cool.

I had a bit of a lie in and appopriated a Lonely Planet SE Asia on a Shoestring that someone left behind. Handy as I’m heading back into Thailand shortly, and into areas I’ve not been before. In the Sipadan Scuba office I updated the blog (painfully due to the poor internet) and walked up to the bus area with Elsa, my Rescue Diver victim. She’s looking a lot better now – breathing and everything.

For those travelling to Tawau Airport from Semporna, the cheapest way to do it on your own is to get one of the minibuses from outside KFC. It’s MR20 flat fare, as opposed to the MR80 that Scuba Junkie will charge you for a share taxi – essentially a minimum of MR20 if you can get three other people. The buses leave when they’re full which seems to be every thirty minutes or so.

As it happens, I was hungry having skipped breakfast so I had a KFC. As I sat there, the bus driver poked his head in the door and signalled that he was about to leave. I chugged my Pepsi and ran out in time to squeeze into my seat and read for the next hour as we zoomed along the windy roads.

Check-in for the flight was the usual fun with anyone trying to take on more than 15.5kg being asked to empty things out of their luggage or cough up. And the usual handful of people with four boxes of 25kg each that argued, holding the line up. My rucksack? 15.0kg precisely, thank you very much.

I gave myself an ice-cream headache with a blueberry ice drink and munched a packet of cheese crisps and a small roll of Oreos. Healthy dinner. Not. I then encountered a novel version of “queueing” that the Malaysians have developed that I guarantee you would not work in the UK. As they came through security, they placed their bags in the queueing area near the departure gate then wandered off to the seating area elsewhere. That’d go down well with the overzealous security at Heathrow… I don’t know if they have enough controlled explosives to take out an entire “queue” of Malaysian backpacks.

The best part was that the queue was divided in three. I got onto the plane far ahead of most of the people who’d cheated by the simple expedient of walking to the front of one of the other lines when they opened them. Not that it helped much as the flight was delayed by roughly half an hour.

At Kuala Lumpur, Air Asia land at the budget terminal which gives you some options for getting into the city itself. The airline runs its own express bus which takes around an hour (likely longer during daylight hours) for MR9, or MR6.50 if you book it online at the time you sort your flight. There was another bus in front of us that I think was charging MR11 for the same journey.

As an alternative, you could catch the free bus to the main terminal and then hop on one of the rail services (regular or express). All these buses and trains go to KL Sentral Station from where you can jump on the LRT or MRT to other parts of the city.

Bonus time – I paid for my MR9 ticket with a MR10 note… and got MR41 in change. I’ll get scammed somewhere else, so it’ll work out I’m sure.

When the bus pulled in to the Sentral Station, we were surrounded by taxi touts all trying to convince passengers that the MRT and LRT had both closed for the night. The thing is, they did this will stood underneath signs saying a) that you should not use these taxis and should go upstairs for the voucher ones and b) that the last train is at 11:56. And it was 11:40. So they were lying.

The station the bus stops at is the one for mainline rail services and the LRT. For the MRT monorail into the Golden Triangle area, you need to turn your back to the station and walk through the park in front of you directly across the main road. The last train from there is midnight. Never trust taxi drivers.

I bumped into a couple who were on holiday from their teaching jobs in Saigon, and they’d not been to KL before. They were heading in my direction so I helped them get their bearings. As we pulled into Bukit Bintang station, the train horns started blaring and we could hear explosions… fireworks. August 31st is Merdeka – Malaysian Independence Day, and this year is their 51st anniversary as an independent nation. Sadly, under the cover of the MRT station we couldn’t see the fireworks, but we could see the thronging crowd below staring at them and covering each other in silly string. A shame I’d not arrived earlier in the day!

I directed my cohorts to the backpacker area and strolled around the corner to the Trekker Lodge where I had a 2-night booking. Seems like an OK place with friendly reception and wi-fi. I had to fix the internet connection as well as the network settings on two of the PCs in the office. I’m nice like that. Then I sat down to watch us getting hammered by Arsenal. As I type, we have 5 minutes left and we’re 3-0 down. Hey ho.

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Up early again to get to the dive shop for the Sipadan trip. I thought I’d be diving with John and Mel, but it turned out they were doing Sipadan the next day and were off to Mantabuan instead. Sipidan is strictly regulated when it comes to diver numbers – no more than 120 per day. This is to ensure it’s not spoiled and is a good idea, though it can make diving there a pain if you don’t pre-book well enough in advance. At one time, you could holiday on the island but now the small resort plays host to the soldiers who protect it. Very little of the island can be walked on – one small beach, the jetty and the toilets.

Still, nobody goes to Sipadan to trek in the jungle. The 45-minute boat ride takes you to what is reckoned as being one of the world’s best dive sites. And having done three dives there, I can see why. The sheer volume and variety of creatures there is breathtaking, though be prepared for a few currents. At times it’s fun to just make yourself buoyant, curl up and let the waters push you past the coral. It’s like watching a film float past your eyes.

Barracuda spiral in a tornado. Turtles can be found in almost every rock crevice and eye you wisely before gliding gracefully past. Shark appear as a shadow above or below you – annoyingly very rarely at the same depth as if they just want some privacy. The number of fish species is too numerous to count and they’re all very blase about swimming around you. They see enough divers that you’re not going to upset them.

One word of warning, though – and this holds for every dive site – don’t touch the wildlife. Any of it. Coral, turtles, fish, nudibranches. Unless you’re trained, know what you’re doing and know for certain you won’t harm anything, keep your damn hands off. If I see anyone tugging on a turtle‘s flippers (and I’ve heard of this happening too many times) I’ll happily pull their dive mask off with no warning. Think yourself lucky I don’t rip out a regulator or turn off their air.

I know I’ve not written much about Sipadan, but you really have to go there to experience it. Even with poor visibility on the second dive due partly to rain, it was a hell of an experience.

Back at Semporna, I met up with Michael (my dive buddy from Switzerland) and Jenny (a Swedish student) for dinner while I also said goodbye to Mel and John. I really hope I get a chance to catch up with them again somewhere, though they’re working homeward now.

After walking Jenny back to her place (Semporna gets dark afetr sunset – not too many street lights) I popped into Scuba Junkie for a beer as I’d been told it was rocking on a Friday night. Well, not this Friday as they’d postponed things to the next evening for some reason. I had a couple of bevvies with some people I got talking to then walked back to the Dragon Inn around 11-ish. In truth, I was knackered. A good day and sadly my last here, but diving’s not the cheapest hobby and if I didn’t leave I’d spend far too much money!

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Qualified Rescue Diver

This was the final day of my EFR and Rescue Diver course, and the second involving hands-on training and exercises. My instructor today was Ice, a local guy who speaks English, Malay and Cantonese. Along with us was Elsa, a girl from Hong Kong who was to play my victim/patient for all the hard work. I’m very glad they picked someone small and slim, making the exercises a lot easier than they would have been with Ross! No offence, Ross – Elsa’s also a lot prettier! 🙂

The venue was Sangamata, a small “floating” hotel resort only a short boat ride from the mainland. It’s also a fish farm with many cool species kept in netting before either being used for food or released into the wild. There’s a natural reef around it as it’s essentially a small island. Like many “floating” places, Sangamata’s actually on stilts embedded into the bedrock beneath.

We covered a lot of work from locating a lost buddy to bringing her to the surface safely. Once there, checking for breathing and performing rescue breaths while towing to the nearest shore/boat while continuing breathing and removing equipment if necessary. A few techniques for removing a victim from the water were shown to me as well. Trying these things out for real is a lot more work than watching the training DVD and reading the manuals!

The dives were also fun around all the exercises, but I had some problems with my camera housing fogging up. I think I got it sorted by the last dive – important as I had three dives at Sipidan booked for the next day and I really wanted to get some good snaps there.

On the boat on the way back, Ice said simply “Congratulations – you’re the newest Rescue Diver in Malaysia!” and shook my hand. Cool – another qualification and step towards Dive Master should I decide to go that route (which is tempting).

Back at the dive shop I bumped into John and Mel again. They’d not expected to stay here so long and I thought they’d have left as well, but they opted to enjoy some more diving and ended up with Sipidan Scuba as Scuba Junkies were fully booked. We had a few beers and pizza in Scuba Junkies to celebrate and had a great conversation with another English couple, a Canadian guy and another English lass (Helen).

Beers safely stowed in my belly, I walked a Danish girl back to her flat (I’m nice like that) and then trudged back to my own place for a decent kip. I was really looking forward to Sipadan – I’ve heard so much about it!

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First day’s diving off Semporna

More water today than yesterday. Courtesy of my earplugs, my phone had been beeping for ten minutes before I happened to look at it and realised it was 07:10. Whoops. Well, nobody threw anything at me to wake me up.

I dressed quickly and walked to the Chinese place I’d had lunch the day before. Chicken and noodles for MR4.50 seemed a good enough breakfast and I ate them at Sipadan Scuba as everyone rushed around getting ready for their various dives. They also supply lunch for MR5, so I bought another polystyrene container full of rice and veg for later.

My instructor for the day was Ross, an Aussie from Perth and a really nice guy. Our boat was mainly people on their Open Water with one guy doing his Advanced who I shared some exercises with. He did his Navigation module in tandem with my exercises in expanding square and U-shaped search patterns. I also had to tow him back to the boat when he was “tired”. Grr. This rescuing people is hard work.

Today we were diving off a tiny island called Sibuan which must be about 150m long and a third of that at its widest point. The weather was superb, visibility top notch, variety of wildlife awe-inspiring, company good and learning curve just right. The highlight has to be the ease with which we found turtles – fair-sized ones at that. Truly amazing creatures and I’m looking forward to seeing hordes of them at Sipadan on Friday.

It was a long day, kicking off at 8am and returning after 5pm. One of the other instructors still had exams to give to the Open Water students so he was still in the office until gone 8pm. By then I’d had dinner. Erm. At KFC. Hey, don’t knock it. I had about the same amount of food as the previous night, and a drink, and paid less.

A beer at the Turtle Tomb got me online on their wireless until the connection went down just as I was about to post an update. Gah. It’s creeping up on 21:30 and there’s little else for me to do so it looks like an early night. Hey ho. I think I’ll need the rest for tomorrow anyway. It’s all “rescue scenarios” which I think translates into “towing and carrying people around”.


(Really, I’m loving it!)

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Map of Semporna

Yesterday, as I said, I sorted out moving town – finally. I packed up and shifted just after 18:00 with Vincent kindly giving me a lift the short distance to the City Bus stop – the one that takes you to the long-distance terminal outside of town. Good job, as the City Bus left 6 minutes early and had I walked I’d have missed it.

The little bus is only MR1.5 for the 15 minute journey. Vince had also reserved me a seat on one of the three overnight buses – a good job as all three were full to the brim as far as I could tell. I had a window seat (woo) for my MR58, 10-ish hour ride to Semporna. And a person in the seat next to me who seemed to assume I wouldn’t mind sharing my own seat with him. Every chance he got as he tried to sleep, his bum was in my lap or head on my shoulder. He didn’t take too kindly to my wedging my arms to that whenever he crossed “the line”, my elbow dug into his spine.

As per the boats elsewhere in the country, and the buses in India, loud crappy music played for the entire journey. All I can say is I’m glad I picked up new earplugs from Boots in Bangkok. We had a couple of scheduled stops for food and so that 3/4 of the bus could pollute their lungs, and two unscheduled stops where the police (with big guns) boarded and checked all IDs. Strangely the latter two were within around 15 minutes of each other.

All in all, an uneventful and annoying journey during which I managed barely an hour’s sleep. Things were to get “better”…

Upon arriving in Semporna, I was accosted by taxi drivers as I’d been warned. I’d also been told to tell them where to get off as all the accommodation in Semporna is within 10 minutes’ walk at most from the bus station. This didn’t stop them lying barefaced to me: “long way! Half hour to walk!” At least, I’ve been told, you get your money’s worth from the drive as they usually go round the houses for 10 minutes before depositing you round the corner from the bus stop.

Instead, I whipped out the map Vincent had given me courtesy of one of the dive shops… and realised not one of the landmarks on it was visible in the darkness. Did I mention it was 4am? Of course, I couldn’t ask anyone as the only people around were the taxi drivers, all of whom wanted to charge me too much to drive me there instead of just telling me where it was.

Eventually I found a girl who was sat waiting for a bus herself and asked how to get to the Damai Lodge. Thankfully she knew and at 5am I stumbled over the threshold. The night guard showed me to my room… which was strange as I had asked for a dorm to be booked, but I didn’t worry about it. Toilet, teeth brushed, bed… and after 45 minutes as I finally started to drift off, the loo made a noise like an asthmatic dragon and woke me up.

After kicking bells out of it, I managed to fall asleep for a whole two hours before my alarm went off. I gathered my kit and walked to reception. A very smiley man demanded MR45 for my room. Erm, no.

I told him I’d booked a dorm and they’d put me in a room by mistake.

“We have no dorm! Last year, yes. This year, no.”

“So why did you not say that when I was booked in?”

No reply.

“Fine, well I’m not paying 45 Ringgit. I’ll pay you twenty – I have been in the room for 3 hours, only slept for 2 and haven’t even used the shower.”

He rang the manager, who would accept MR25.

“Tough. 20 or nothing at all.”

I started to pick my stuff up and leave. He took the twenty. With a big poop-eating grin on his face. Needless to say I wasn’t going to stay there for the rest of the week. I stomped off and checked into Sipadan Scuba, worked out how much I still owed them for my courses and scouted some other accommodation.

Scuba Junkie’s hostel sounds like the best place in town, but it’s very busy and also quite expensive unless you’re diving with them. This in itself is awkward as they dive side of things is also busy so you have to book in advance. Something they don’t make easy – say by replying to emails or not hanging the phone up on you when you’re trying to offer them money. I’d mailed them a month previous asking for a price on EFR, Rescue Diver, Nitrox, Dive Master and accommodation – probably 3000+ Ringgit. And had no reply.

A shame as the place looked good, breakfast was included and it was packed. But they only had room for one night and the next place on the list was half the price. So there I headed – the Dragon Inn, “floating” on the sea. Well, it says it is, but it’s not – it’s on stilts. A gorgeous building either way you look at it.

The dorm rooms are MR15 a night, it’s very basic but the staff were incredibly friendly and made me feel a lot better than I had when I left Damai “lying buggers” Lodge. They were up front about everything – one key for the room, squat loos, cold showers, no lockers (although they’d look after stuff at reception). They even took visa at no extra fee, and insisted on only taking one day’s payment in case I didn’t like the place and left! I guess a lot of people don’t like cold showers.

Well, it’s a little scruffy. The sheets aren’t the cleanest I’ve ever seen and the bunks wobble. The pillows feel like they’re filled with cotton wool balls. But it’s still comfy, the location’s pretty good (small walk into town) and the building’s gorgeous.

Next stop was the Maybank to pretty much empty my account as I’d not transferred enough soon enough to pay for my diving. Oops. Still, I should be fine by Thursday when more cash drops in. The queue there was madness as there are only (I think) three ATMs in town and two of them are here. It took twenty minutes to get to the front and withdraw far too much cash, then shake off the kids following me going “Money! Money!” with their hands out.

The remainder of the day was pretty much all spent in a room by myself watching self-study DVDs and reading textbooks for Emergency First Response and Rescue Diver. Then filling in exercises. Then doing written exams. Which I passed with no problems at all.

In the middle of it all I had a rather nice black pepper chicken and chips from a Chinese place round the corner. Very good for MR5. Norbert, a German guy I’d met in Kota Kinabalu, turned up in the evening and we had dinner in the Turtle Tomb Cafe next door to the dive shop. Some nights, a chap barbecues food on the street outside. MR15 will get you a decent lump of chicken with a load of trimmings (spring rolls, rice, chips, bread, veg and dip). Pretty good. MR20 gets you the seafood equivalent.

One beer after that and I was ready to walk home despite the early hour. I think I did pretty well on three hours’ kip.

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