Dive Malaysia ... The Big Blue!
The Islands of Labuan, Layang-Layang & Sipadan
LETTERS FROM MALAYSIA - The Country by Bruce Stewart
Malaysia is a nation of magnificent geographical and ethnic variety, offering a kaleidoscope of culture, cuisine's, handicrafts, lifestyles and landscapes. Often dubbed the "lucky country of Asia" because of its wealth a natural resources, it is also a land of opportunities.
Modern Malaysia is the result of the 1824 Anglo Dutch Treaty which partitioned Malaya into the Straits Settlements and Indonesia. Under British influence until 1957, the Straits Settlements declared independence on 31 August 1957, establishing the Federation of Malaya. Later, in 1963, Malaysia was formed with the admission of Sabah and Sarawak. (Singapore withdrew from the Federation in 1965 to become an independent city state.) Malaysia however still reflects a very strong and notable British influence. At Independence Square, the original "spotty-dog" club still exists - formerly the club-house at the cricket oval, visitors were required to leave their dogs outside, and the collection of Dalmatians which seemed quite popular at the time, lead the locals to nick-name the building.
Malaysia is divided into 2 regions by the South China Sea. Peninsula Malaysia is situated in the west at the tip of mainland South East Asia, and East Malaysia, comprising Sabah and Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The country consists of 13 states and 2 Federal Territories. The constitutional monarchy is headed by the Yang Dipertuan Agong (king) who is elected every 5 years. Malaysia practices parliamentary democracy which is governed by the cabinet, headed by the prime minister with general elections held every five years. Malaysia comprises 13 states - Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, (Central Region), Perak, Penang, Kedah, Perlis, (Northern Region), Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, (East Coast), Malacca, Johor, (Southern Region), Sarawak, Sabah (East Malaysia) and 2 Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan.
We are on an assignment for the South African division of the Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board, to study and evaluate tourist and dive resorts in Malaysia and to prepare promotional and publicity material for the South African diving and water-sports fraternity. Our group comprises 8 people : Lyn de Lacy Smith - doyenne of diving and diving tour operator for Seekers Travel, Geraldine Massyn - tour advisor from Seekers Travel, Gordon Hiles - commercial videographer, Peter Pinnock - one of South Africa's top underwater photographers, Athol Franz - photographer, Dyan Ennis - videographer and publicist, Paulo Benvenuto - photographer, and myself - writer, photographer, videographer & publicist.
From Johannesburg a 14h30 departure on Malaysia Airlines for Kuala Lumpur, initiates the first stage of that traveller's plague, "bio-clock disruption" - we are flying East and Malaysia is 6 hours ahead of South Africa. The 10-hour flight should mean an arrival at 00h30 but the 6-hour time change puts local time at 06h30. Added to this, the impeccable service from Malaysia Airlines, did much to actively discourage any attempt at sleep - gorgeous and ever-friendly hostesses, our first taste of a delightful array of Malaysian cuisine and an in-flight entertainment programme which offered some of the finest in-flight head-phone sound I have ever experienced. A combination of classical music and opera on the concert channel plus the highly entertaining movie "Entrapment" (filmed on location at the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur), effectively put paid to any attempts to sleep.
As the saying goes, "you only get one chance to make a good impression". Malaysia certainly does this with your arrival at the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) a Rm5-billion (8 billion Rand) architectural masterpiece, which has all the bells and whistles. (Even the toilets auto-flush and self-disinfect.) I have often used Singapore's Changi Airport as the benchmark. KLIA is easily its equal.
The 60km trip from KLIA to Kuala Lumpur along the North South Super Expressway, an 850km highway from Singapore in the south to the Thailand border in the north, brings us into Kuala Lumpur an hour later. A city that is quite beautiful - a combination of diverse architecture, lush vegetation, and city gardens that manifest a degree of attention and care that is very rarely seen even in private estates. The art of creating topiary layouts is seen on virtually even bush and shrub along city streets.
As we enter Kuala Lumpur, we pass the Palace of the Golden Horses, the inspiration behind the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City. Very similar architecture, but I rate Sol's efforts a bit higher, mainly because he has sited his Palace in the architecturally designed Valley of Desolation, while the Golden Horses architecture tends to stop at the front doors.
The Kuala Lumpur skyline is highlighted by the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, a 421m telecommunication tower, opened in 1996 and the 4th tallest tower in the world, and by the Petronas Twin-tower complex. Built in stainless steel at a cost of Rm15-billion (25 billion Rand), and comprising 88 floors of offices, this space-age 'smart' construction soars a staggering 451.9m, making it the tallest office complex in the world. Although the film Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, thrills the viewer with nail-biting scenes of the twin towers and the skywalk, 750-feet above the ground, nothing can prepare you for the staggering impact of seeing this structure face to face.
While in Kuala Lumpur, we are checked into the Legend Hotel, a 5-Star, centrally situated hotel adjacent to one of the larger shopping malls. Again the British colonial influence is evident in the graciousness of the hotel, in the size of the guest rooms and suites and in the level of service which makes every visitor feel that much more special.
A short briefing session from our representative from the Malaysia Tourist Promotion Board, before we go and explore the shopping in Kuala Lumpur, which is reported to be some of the best in the world. The currency is the Ringgit of Malaysia (Rm) and the exchange rate is presently fixed at Rm3.8 to the US Dollar. Our South African Rand is not as fortunate and we are looking at R1.63 to the Ringgit.
One thing every visitor gets for free in Malaysia, is a free sauna / turkish bath. Lying between one and seven degrees north of the equator, it's hot and it's humid - temperatures of 22 degree C at night to 32 degree C during the day. High humidity of 90% plus and common rainfall, averaging 2500mm a year.
The 22 million population comprises 54% Malay (mostly Muslims), 34% Chinese (mostly Buddhists) and 10% Indian (mostly Hindu), with Malay and English being the 2 main languages. Society is run on Islamic principles. Drug trafficking is punished by a mandatory death penalty, and pornography and prostitution are out. Littering caries a Rm500 fine.
The country is run as a democracy but has a king, with an unforgettable but unrememberable name (the longest ever in Malaysia) - Duli Yang Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Shah.
Shopping in Malaysia is a treat. Although Malaysian law requires that all merchandise displayed for sale be tagged with the price, bargaining is the order of the day. Good humour and graciousness are good bargaining tactics and as traditional Chinese and Indian shopkeepers consider it a bad omen if the first customer of the day walks in and leaves without buying anything, don't do your browsing first thing in the morning. Check your options and prices in the afternoon and evening, pick your store of choice and be the first customer the next day - knowing that a sale is a good omen, the storekeeper will be that much more amenable to closing a mutually satisfactory deal - especially after a respectable period of polite haggling.
Prices are considerably better than in South Africa on most items, but shopping without knowing prices at home is dangerous. I found a number of items, such as DVD zone 3 disks at Rm99 (R160) against the SA price of R115 - R150 for Zone 2 DVD disks.
At night, dinner in the Seri Angkasa Revolving Restaurant, 340m up the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, is an unforgettable experience as the scenery below the full-length glass walls is a spectacular ocean of lights. The restaurant makes a complete revolution in 90 minutes, offering diners an ever-changing panoramic view. Being somewhat cautious of any height above 1 floor, sitting 2 feet away from a 1000-foot drop is initially a bit disconcerting, notwithstanding the solid glass walls. The food is mouthwatering - a combination of classical and traditional dishes, reflecting the diverse cultures of the country, the parade of dishes never stops. I mean this quite literally as the seating area is on the revolving perimeter of the restaurant while the buffet displays are on the stationary core of the building - it's a bit like sitting on a very large "lazy susan".
This revolving restaurant can be a bit disorienting at times - after dinner, Lyn went to the cloakrooms and when she returned found her table and table guests missing. After a few minutes of panic and consternation about how many Tiger Beers she had consumed, was rescued by the maitre'd who pointed out that her table had merely rotated to the other side of the building!
All too soon and after only a day in Kuala Lumpur, we embark on our expedition to some of the best diving locations in Malaysia - Labuan, Layang Layang and Sipadan.
Best time to come : April to September. Climate is warm, sunny and humid all year. Temperature 25 - 32 degrees C, with humidity as high as 95%. Official language is Behasa Malay, although English is widely spoken throughout Malaysia. Electricity is 220 - 240v AC, 50 cycles, 3-pin square-pin plug.
PERSONAL TOUR RECOMMENDATION
Fly to Kuala Lumpur for a full day of shopping and visits to Petronas Twin Towers and an evening meal at Menara KL. Stay at Legend Hotel.
Transfer to Palau Sipadan for 4 days and include a day's diving excursion to Kapalai and Mabul.
Transfer to Kota Kinabalu and stay at Pan Pacific Sutera. 1 day of sight-seeing.
Transfer to Layang Layang Island Resort for 4 days.
Transfer to Labuan for 3 days and include a tour of the pubs and clubs. Stay at Sheraton Labuan or Waterfront Labuan.
Transfer to Kuala Lumpur for the final day of shopping before returning home. If time permits, a day at Port Dickson and a night at the Avillion Village Resort is recommended.
Grateful appreciation to the following organisations which made this trip possible :
* Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board
* Malaysia Airlines
* Borneo Divers
* Sheraton Labuan
* Waterfront Labuan
* Labuan Tourist Info Centre
* Kapalai Resort
* Pan Pacific Sutera
* Legend Group of Hotels
* Sarawak Tourism Board
* Palau Sipadan Resort
* Layang Layang Island Resort
* Sipadan-Mabul Resort
* Asian Overland Services
* Reliance Sightseeing
* Avillion Village Resort
* Palau Sipadan
* Dive Seekers : Seekers Travel
LETTERS FROM MALAYSIA - LABUAN by Bruce Stewart
LETTERS FROM MALAYSIA - LAYANG LAYANG by Bruce Stewart
LETTERS FROM MALAYSIA - SIPADAN by Bruce Stewart
500km away in the Celebes Sea, lies the diving mecca of Asia - Sipadan - a tiny island sitting on the border of Malaysia's Sabah and Indonesia's Kalimantan.
The bio-geographical structure of Sipadan dates back to the Piliocene and Quarternary Periods of shuddering volcanic activity which forced the formation of an oceanic mountain - an almost vertical limestone column rising 600m to the surface. Frequent upwellings of nutrients from the deep convened an incredible diversity and density of fishes to its environment, which has made Sipadan unique. It is the only location in Asia that can guarantee sightings of hundreds of turtles and schoolings of barracuda by the thousands.
Getting to Sipadan is a journey in itself. From Layang Layang we fly back to Kota Kinabalu for our 40-minute connecting flight to the town of Tawau, then a 100km, 90-minute bus journey to the port of Semporna, then a 1-hour 40-minute speedboat journey to Palau Sipadan.
Sipadan is impressive in every sense of the world. An island of deep jungle, narrow sand fringes separating the sea from the jungle, heat and humidity. The Borneo Divers Resort nestles into the deep foliage and has the choice location - the dive centre is no more than 25 metres from the sea and no more than 10 meters into the sea the land simply disappears into the 600m drop-off. In half an hour or snorkelling we see turtle, barracuda, bat-fish, thousands of shoaling fusilliers, giant wras, hump-back parrot-fish, white-tipped reef sharks and just about everything the sea has to offer.
And if that is not enough, the boat-dives to any one of the wall-dive locations offer an abundance of sea-life. A backward-roll boat-dive at Baracuda Point dumped is into a shoal of hundreds of humpback parrot-fish, looking like American Bison. These made way for a spiralling shoal of thousands of Jack-Fish - so many and so dense that as you swim into the shoal you lose sight of the other divers and the world becomes noticeably darker. And when you think the shoal will never end, you suddenly find yourself face to face with another shoal of thousands of barracuda and again you swim into the shoal until you reach the core of the tunnel and you look upwards towards the sky and all you see around you is this solid wall of fish. No sooner have you become sated with barracuda, when you enter an equally large shoal of yellow and blue fusiliers. These shoals are so large that the presence of divers fails to disturb them and you can swim right into the shoal which barely parts to give you passage and then closes up behind you until you become one with the shoal.
Sipadan is famous for its turtles than have become so acclimatised to the presence of divers that they pay absolutely no attention to our cameras and close proximity. On virtually every ledge along the wall, you find these turtles sleeping, feeding, coming and going. In fact, while videoing one turtle, the kind fellow was decent enough to pose for us, giving us a good front view, side profile, close-up of his watchful eye, and then he slowly started swimming away from the wall, but slow enough for us to keep the cameras rolling and then he started swimming around us so that we could capture views of him from just about every angle.
However, Sipadan is a disturbed island. Most of us notice this after our first night here. We describe it as spirits not being at rest, of bad fung shei, of restless Karma. While our hosts are slightly evasive at first, perseverance works and we are permitted an insight into the dichotomy of Palau Sipadan. Legend has it that the island was occupied by a giant squid which killed all who dared to step ashore. Possibly the legend was started by the turtle-egg collectors who, for many years, plundered the turtle-nestings on the island, to such an extent that the turtle nests were reduced from some 500 per night to as few as 3 per night. This practise has been halted by the Malaysian Government with viewing visits to turtle nests being heavily restricted and only under supervision. However, it will still take 15 to 20 years for the hatchlings to mature and return to Sipadan. For the past 5 years, Borneo Divers and 2 of the other resorts have voluntarily contributed Rm50 000 (R81500) a year to the turtle-egg collectors to compensate them for loss of income resulting from the ban on egg-collecting on Palau Sipadan.
At the same time the illegal fish-bombing continues and large tracts of the wall reef have been destroyed. Again, the Malaysian authorities impose severe penalties for fish-bombing and the Sipadan resorts refuse to buy 'bombed fish' and report all instances of bombing. However, it's a big sea and unfortunately the fish-bombers may only be arrested by the Malaysian Fisheries Inspectors - the police and military have no jurisdiction here.
For divers who have cave-diving experience, a supervised dive into the Turtle-Tomb is an experience. Some 15m down the wall at the Borneo Divers Resort, lies the entrance to a string of underwater caves that stretch some 70m under the island. Because of the convoluted entry into the caves, numerous turtles have lost their way and have drowned in an area known as Turtle-Tomb, where all that remains are the bones and shells of those who perished. As the caves are in total darkness, this is a dive only for the experienced diver and only under careful guidance, already having claimed the lives of 2 divers, exactly one year apart.
Since Borneo Divers opened the first resort on Sipadan in 1985, the number of resorts has grown to a total of 6, with a capacity of 360 guests per day. The island is clearly not capable of supporting this volume of people as well as the resort staff, and environmental impact is becoming a real problem. Borneo Divers is accordingly spearheading the formation of a consortium to manage the island and to restrict the number of guests to 80 per day, a level which environmental impact assessment studies appear to support. However, while the government supports the 80-guest restriction, it has tried to impose a 23-staff limit, a figure which the resorts believe to be inadequate (they are arguing for a 64-staff limit). In the interim, neither of the restrictions apply.
Because of this uncertainty about the consolidation of the resorts, and the uncertainty as to which of the 6 resorts will be maintained and which will be dismantled, there is no permanency and very little investment in infrastructure. This is also compounded by a territorial dispute with Indonesia as to who owns Palau Sipadan. It can only be hoped that the problems are resolved timeously, for Sipadan must surely be one of the most treasured dive-spots in the world.
Accommodation on Sipadan is rustic. Our first night with soaring humidity, high temperatures, hard beds, harder pillows and no air-conditioning, make us wonder whether it is worth it all. However, after 3 incredible boat-dives and an evening meal 'to die for doll', life is not so bad. Where else in the world can you sit on the sea shore eating a mouth-watering array of dishes including sushimi, grilled prawns, boiled lobster, mutton and chicken kebabs with peanut sauce, buffalo-wings chinese-style, washed down with teeth-achingly cold Tiger beer and followed by coffee and a cigar. Eddie the chef is also an accomplished dive-master and an incredibly good magician, in the kitchen, the sea and with an array of sleight-of-hand illusions that defy even the keenest eyes. While the spartan accommodation takes getting used to, it is a small sacrifice to pay for the experience of being part of this magic.
20 minutes by boat from Sipadan lies the island of Mabul, the location for the new Borneo Divers Resort. Here luxury is the name of the game and the strategy is for Mabul to start taking the load off Sipadan, with guests staying at Mabul and doing boat-excursions to Sipadan. The seas around Madul are murky, offering, what they refer to as 'muck-diving' - keeping close to the reef and concentrating on the little things - the crocodile fish, nudibranchs, cleaner-shrimp, morays and the coral life. Just off the coast of Mabul lies Sea Ventures Resort - a disused oil-rig stuck out in the ocean and converted into a resort. While the drop-off is quite spectacular, getting back to 'shore' is somewhat of a problem - hence all diving, swimming and snorkelling is by boat.
On our way back to Sipadan from Mabul, we stop off at Kapalai Resort - an entire resort built on stilts in the ocean, all interconnected by jetties and walkways on pylons. The only dry land is a small spit of beach which surfaces at low tide. For the rest it's Waterworld! But wow, a Waterworld that certainly doesn't need 'dry land'! The rooms are plush and luxurious with panoramic views, polished wood floors, air-conditioning, sun-decks and it's all on stilts above the ocean. Roll out of bed, walk to the sun-deck, down the ladder and you are in the sea, a visitor to some of the most colourful array of hard and soft corals imaginable and a diversity of unusual sea-life rarely found anywhere else.
All too soon, we embark on the homeward leg of this incredible journey. An 8am departure from Sipadan by boat and we head into the residue of a passing typhoon. A pitching boat, deluges of water and a sea littered with logs, tree-trunks and debris from the storm make to 2-hour trip to Semporna somewhat invigorating. Then the bus-trip to Tawau and the flight to Kota Kinabalu leave us exhausted and eagerly awaiting the luncheon hospitality of the Pan Pacific Sutera before our onward flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Back on mainland Malaysia, we are accommodated at the Avillion Village Resort in Port Dickson, the coastal seaside town in the state of Negiri Sembilan and the coastal playground for residents of Kuala Lumpur. The Avillion water chalets are a must for vacationers - huge, comfortable four-poster beds, draped with snowy-white draping to keep any stray 'mozzies' away and an open-air bathroom - combining total luxury with a touch of rustic and some spectacular sea-views while lying in bed.
Forsaking urgently needed sleep, some of us head into the village and discover the Seaview Seafood Village, a Chinese Restaurant overlooking the sea, and offering a kaleidoscope of dishes at exceptionally reasonable prices.
After a sound sleep, we are back to Kuala Lumpur for a final day's shopping. We have only a day and the shopping frenzy begins - BB Plaza, Sungei Wang Plaza, Lot 10 and KLCC Complex are my personal favourites. Unfortunately time does not permit a visit to China Town, a definite for any future trips to this incredible city.
Our last evening in Malaysia and we are treated to a spectacular 8-course dinner at the Museum Chinese Restaurant at the Legend Hotel - not your usual eatery, but a journey into traditional Chinese cuisine in an ambience of historical museum pieces, with an array of dishes and legends that keep us enraptured until we run the risk of missing our Malaysia Airlines flight back to South Africa.