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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of course nothing in life is safe or guaranteed, but that’s the beauty of it, right?
Have you been to Mabul island? Would you travel there now? Let me know in the comments!