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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I is moving on (at last)

Map of Semporna

This time tomorrow I’ll be in Semporna and on an EFR (Emergency First Response) course. I finally caught Vincent early enough in the day to get it all booked up. I just need to ensure I have a seat on the overnight bus and somewhere to stagger into at 4:30am when I arrive.

Not a lot else to report. I had fruit for the first time in ages yesterday after a walk to the central market for some lunch. I gave up asking prices when everything turned out to be “one ringgit“. Rose apples, star fruit, watermelon, oranges, bubble tea… Good stuff. I also intended to use the restaurant downstairs for dinner, but they were closed (it being a Sunday) so I won’t challenge you too much to guess where I ended up instead.

I gather Semporna doesn’t have a KFC. This is a good thing.

So to all those I’ve been nattering to on MSN until the early hours, I’ll catch you again when I do – use my email instead! The current plan is to return to Kota Kinabalu once I’ve done my Rescue Diver and (hopefully) been amazed by Semporna. But you know how my plans change… The only other thing that’s looking likely is a return to Vietnam around the middle of September to visit Hanno who’s working at a Primate Research place near Ninh Binh. Dependant on availability (of good weather and tourists), I may also work as a tour guide in Hanoi for the remainder of my visa.

We shall see!

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Around Kota Kinabalu

After spending a day doing pretty much naff all yesterday, I decided to do a little walking. My targets were the Sabah Museum and the nearby mosque. They’re near enough each other, but a bit of a hike from the hostel. On the way I passed the clock tower, which also used to act as a lighthouse until the town grew massively early in the last century.

The museum’s not bad, covering all aspects of Sabah lifestyle, history and natural life. It’s the first museum I’ve been to in Malaysia that charges an entry fee, though. MR15 (around £2.50 – locals pay MR2) isn’t a lot for the size of the place, but if you’re feeling really tight you could see a lot of it for nothing. Just don’t go into the entrance of the main building. There are several sections and the only place my ticket was checked was right opposite where I paid for it.

I’m getting Oz Syndrome with the museums – each one seems to have a lot of similar material to the last one. The main museum building is impressive and houses stuffed animals, pottery, a fake cave (the area around here has some large natural ones) and a history area. There are also tribal costumes and the like. All well and good, but I’ve seen far too much of it elsewhere.

The science and art gallery wing is OK, the bulk being taken up by a history of the railway and yet another Shell-sponsored “this is how we drill for oil” exhibit. In fairness, this is probably the most impressive one I’ve seen, but all the information (and in fact, some of the material) is a direct copy of that in other museums.

By far the coolest area is outside, where you can find plants labelled with what they are and what medicines they’re used in; a “history” of plant life; and a selection of traditionally-built structures detailing how many of the indigenous population still live out in the jungle areas. It reminded me of a similar area outside of the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi though none of the buildings here are as large as the ones there.

If you’ve not done another museum in the area, this is definitely a good one. However, it’s a little repetitive if it’s your umpteenth in Borneo.

A few minutes’ walk away is the Sabah State Mosque, so I took a squint. The tower is pretty enough, but the inside is typically functional and plain. I did find one prayer room and I’m not sure if I was meant to go in (though nobody and no signs said I couldn’t) so I had a squint inside. Nice enough with the inside of the dome to see, and a huge glittery chandelier. All very nice.

By this time – mid-afternoon – I was a bit peckish so started the walk back to the hostel. On the way I passed one of the three cinemas in the area and saw they had a performance of Death Race on shortly. I picked up a ticket for MR8 (Saturdays are the expensive day…) and had time to wolf a very small KFC beforehand.

Not a bad film, entertaining enough, but Malaysia cuts its films for violence and dubs out bad language. This is very frustrating when watching a film, the primary reason for which is to enjoy some carnage. The cuts are very clumsily done as well. And don’t even get me started on the people who had their mobiles on for the whole film. They never answered them – just stared at the screens and let them ring out for a minute at a time whenever someone called. Back home they’d have been ringing their supplier for a new one and trying to explain how the last one had become lodged up their back passage in the first place.

I think it’s about time to consider heading for Semporna. I might catch the early bus tomorrow, and start my Rescue Diver course the day after. I’m still looking into Dive Master courses but there are so many inclusions, exclusions, accommodation deals, park fees and so in depending on where you look it’s hard to figure out where is cheapest!

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You can’t trust anyone

A lovely young couple here woke up this morning to find that someone had rifled their bag and taken a mobile phone… and approximately 500 Euro in mixed currency. The bag had been left in a communal area at the hostel here by accident. A small mercy is that flight tickets and passports weren’t stolen.

However… we have suspicions as to who did it. Another couple, who checked out very early this morning and cancelled their return booking. The bag was found outside their room, which also raises eyebrows.

I’m in Kota Kinabalu and they were due to return in 10 days after doing a trip of some kind. We reckon they’re still in Sabah, and Vincent is doing the rounds on the phones checking every tour operator and hostel he knows.

Just on the off-chance anyone else in Malaysia is reading this – perhaps in Semporna or wherever – please can you check to see if the following people are staying at your hostel or hotel:

Carmen Scherbaum (passport number 9118106765) and Thomas Scherbaum (passport number 9118108002) from Germany.

The details could be false, we don’t know. If you do have an idea of where they are, please send me a message via the link to the right.

And, folks, don’t leave your bags lying around. Stories and experience tell me that other backpackers are amongst the most likely to rip you off when you’re travelling. You know I won’t. I know you won’t. But what about that guy in the other dorm? If your hostel has lockers – use them. And don’t carry/withdraw huge amounts at one time if you can avoid it. If you do, spread it through several bags and pockets.

It’s easy to say after the incident. I’m only glad that more inconvenient articles weren’t stolen.

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Back in the water

Small post and a few photos and videos, so they’re all at the bottom. I didn’t get to dive with the girls this morning as their dive boat was full. I took a walk across the road and found most of the other dive shops shut. One, Sabah Divers, had an open door but the staff were busy preparing for the day. I sauntered in anyway.

They quoted me MR281 for 3 dives including kit hire, which isn’t too bad. The girls got theirs for 250, but a fiver extra for a walk-in is fine. My dive master was Russel, and there were a few others in the group including a young guy from Singapore doing the last day of his Open Water course.

We boated out to one of the nearby islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park where there are many reefs around. All three dives were in excess of 40 minutes, visibility was superb in the morning (first two) and a little more limited in the afternoon as a storm closed in overhead and took away some sunlight.

Still, we saw some pretty good stuff and I managed to get my camera down there on the third dive. Dive 1: tested the casing. Dive 2: took camera, spotted case leaking at 6m and the other dive master took it back to the boat for the. Dive 3: all OK and I’ve got what I hope is some good video of a cuttlefish.

Russel certainly knows his stuff and where to find it. Sadly we didn’t spot the hairy frog fish which has been lurking around recently, but plenty of other things from starfish to octopi and the now-mandatory “Nemo”.

Between dives we retired to a resort on the island for drinks and food and chat. The staff and other divers were a good bunch and the lengthy surface time breaks seemed to fly by.

Oh, and I got my foot licked by a 2m long monitor lizard, which was cool.

Not a bad day considering it was all decided on at the last minute. The guy who runs the hostel took five of the guests to another tiny island, so had I not managed to get a dive I’d still have had a good time by the sound of it.

I caught up with the girls again later and it turned out they were the only two on their boat apart from the dive master and the boat operator. They had a great time, and they had lunch included. I should have found out what company they went with. However, they didn’t land on the island – they stayed on the boat all day. We’d intended to go out for dinner, but by the time we met we’d all eaten. Diving does make you hungry! Plus, we were all exhausted after too little sleep and too much exercise!

Kota Kinabalu is shaping up as a town which in itself isn’t really spectacular, but which has a lot going on around it. And at £3.20 per night for accommodation, I can handle staying here for a night or two more.

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