Sep 14

Is Mabul Island Safe? Why I Went Where They Told Me Not To

Is Mabul Island Safe

After visiting Mabul Island in August, each person I met throughout Borneo gasped when I told them I had just come from that region. “Isn’t it really dangerous?!” they would cry. Since I had made it out alive, I’d shrug and say it was fine.


I hadn’t been so indifferent a few weeks prior, though, when I had sent the news links, along with a slew of profanities, to my travel buddy. “Gunmen attack resort on Mabul island,” the headlines read. “One cop dead, another kidnapped after shootout with pirates on Mabul island.”


What are we going to do? we wondered desperately. Mabul is a small island located an hour boat ride from Semporna, a small seaport town in the region of Sabah on the east coast of Borneo. Mabul island is host primarily to an array of dive resorts, with most guests seeking to dive at the neighboring island of Sipadan, one of the world’s top diving locations. We had secured the elusive diving permits (the government only allows 120 divers per day at Sipadan, as it is a marine sanctuary) and we were bound and determined to dive Sipadan.

Diving Sipadan

Resort on Mabul island

Our resort on Mabul. Our hut was third from the left.

The only problem was the damn pirates.


After booking our trip months before, we had learned that the region of Sabah had been dealing with ongoing pirate attacks on diving resorts. Masked men in boats snuck over from neighboring Philippines islands and raided tourist spots at night to kidnap wealthy tourists and hold them for ransom. Often, people were killed during the raids.


Upon learning that most governments advised tourists against visiting the region, my friend and I did some research and debated. We decided to leave our travel plans in tact and keep an eye on the news in the mean time. If anything happened again, we would reconsider.

Snorkeling Mabul Island


Then, two weeks before we were set to depart, it happened again. After further discussion, we resolved that we weren’t going to let some dumb pirates get in the way of our dream of diving Sipadan. Here are the reasons (some completely illogical or silly, I know) we decided to go to Mabul island anyway:


1) The government had stepped up security and would likely have more police presence

2) Since it had happened so recently, we figured it was less likely to happen again within the next few weeks

3) All of the abducted tourists so far had been Asian. We’re white.

4) The pirates generally targeted wealthier resorts. We were staying at a budget resort. The pirates wouldn’t want us poor people, right?

Resort on Mabul Island

So what was it like? Was it safe?

My friend and I stayed on Mabul island for three nights and felt completely safe. The government was clearly taking measures to increase security, which did temper the laid back island feel with an eery edge. Signs everywhere warned of a curfew and requested tourists not to leave their resorts after dark. A military police boat patrolled the waters at night and packs of police men carrying machine guns circled the island on foot. There was no sign of pirates during our stay.

Police on Mabul island


Is it better to stay in Semporna?

Tourism was clearly suffering. Though it was peak season, most resorts were nearly empty. Many people were opting to stay in the port town of Semporna and take day trips out to the islands, but we were glad we chose to stay on Mabul island. The boat ride from Semporna out to Sipadan or Mabul is long and, on the day we went, a bit rough. It was much more convenient to boat to Sipadan from Mabul. And when we weren’t diving we were able to hop on a boat for various snorkeling trips, which turned out to be incredible.

Snorkeling Mabul Island

I may or may not have taken my top off to feel like a real mermaid… (my friend and I were alone)

Snorkeling Kapalai island Borneo

Schools of fish we saw snorkeling at Kapalai, an island 15 minutes from Mabul

Snorkeling Kapalai island Borneo


We had a blast staying on Mabul island. During the day we explored the village and though it was overflowing with trash and impoverished children, we found it an intriguing window into local life. At night we drank rum and sang along to the guitar with our resort’s diver masters and jumped in the water to swim in bioluminescence.

Child on Mabul island Borneo

Snorkeling Mabul island

Mabul island sunset

The breathtaking sunset view from our hut

Tuna fish sashimi

A local shared his sashimi tuna with us. The freshest and most delicious raw fish I’ve ever had.


I am relieved that we were safe during our trip, and I sincerely hope that there are no more incidents in the Sabah region. If you desperately want to dive Sipadan and if you were to ask my humble opinion, I would say, you should still go. When you consider the rate of these kidnappings, you’ll realize they are actually very few in the grand scheme of things.  Robberies, kidnappings, and murders happen at alarming rates in other tourist destinations around the world and people still travel there.


Sea gypsies children Mabul Borneo

The closest thing we saw to pirates… the sea gypsy children playing in a tiny boat below our resort


Of course nothing in life is safe or guaranteed, but that’s the beauty of it, right?


The beach on Mabul island

The beach on Mabul island


Have you been to Mabul island? Would you travel there now? Let me know in the comments!

  • Debbie Theodosiou

    So great photos!!



    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Thank you Debbie! 🙂

      • Julianne Williams

        Hi great post! Toying between going because of the safety issue but you may have me convinced. What was the name of your guesthouse? It looks beautiful.

        • KaleenasKaleidoscope

          Great! Of course there’s never any guarantee for safety but I think you should go! 🙂 My guest house was Uncle Chang’s but I actually can’t recommend it… Terrible service (they gave away our Sipadan permit the day before we arrived even though it was confirmed and we had to change our dive date), the food is terrible, and the gear is old and in bad condition (my friend’s mouthpiece fell off her reg during a dive–scary stuff). There are some other budget dive lodges on the island, although they’re not actually out on the stilts, but I would still go with one of them. Have a great trip!

  • Azree

    Kaleena, Great review !! i will be this place again for the 4th time by this Nov… Cheers from Malaysia m/

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Wow, 4 times! Lucky you! Enjoy, I wish I could be back there right now. 🙂

  • Daniel Douglas

    Awesome write up. I was at UCS as well in August. Had a blast. Do watch my vids during the trip. Cheers.

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Thanks! I actually think I came across your video recently and saw it, looks like you had a great time and good weather.

  • Pete Pete

    Hi Kaleena . I like your bloog ☺. It was brave decisions or stupid doesn’t matter . you done it !!! Well done. I’m going to Borneo in May. I will start from Kuching .first orangutan sanctuary then 2 nights in bako . then 4 nights in Mulu. And don’t know what next 🙁 for my last week. At first I was thinking of staying in Kota Kinabalu and visiting Abdul Rahaman park each day different island. But . … I don’t want to miss Sinpand . and probably I will stay last week in Mabul island . I have contact Unckle Chung also billabong diving but I’m not sure about them . can you advise me where to stay in Mabul ( budget place ) also if you have any ideas regarding my plan please let me know. Sorry for my English 🙁 . all best with you around the world trip.

    • Thanks for reading, your Borneo trip sounds exciting! If you are a diver definitely go for Sipadan. Uncle Chang’s was VERY budget, and their equipment was a bit old (my friend’s had a malfunction under water). But I don’t know if the other budget options are any different. Make sure to schedule some extra time just for transit as often the roads can get blocked and delayed (happened to us, we got stranded in the jungle for hours) and don’t try to do too much, just enjoy a few places. Have fun!