Friday, September 4, 2015

Budget Trip to Mabul and Surrounding Islands

If you have been following our social media, you would have known that the three of us went for a quick island trip to Semporna. Although at that time Semporna and its surrounding area was always in the news as a "hotspot" for kidnapping, we proceeded with the plan as all of us believed that "Malaysia masih aman". On top of that, the Ranau earthquake happened on the day we took off to Tawau. However, we were thankful that the catastrophe didn't affect Tawau.

At first we thought the trip to the islands of Semporna was going to be an expensive one because (1) the packages on most of the islands are pre-planned by the tour operators which means that the prices are already fixed and (2) most of the packages are cheaper for divers and not casual snorkelers like us. But luckily, after spending time researching all the packages offered by the operators, we came out with ideas to save cost by planning our own DIY package.

The first thing we did was to find a reliable operator to carry out our planned itinerary. We made our booking with an operator named Hatta and we were extremely pleased with his services. Totally recommended! He was punctual and very reliable. You can contact him at +60148731021.

The second thing that we did was instead of staying on the island, we opted to stay on the mainland at Semporna town and to our pleasant surprise, the town was safe and friendly for first timers.


Airasia Promo RM158 return trip from KL - Tawau (no check in luggage)

Private van from Tawau to Semporna

RM 20 per person


 - The drive from Tawau Airport to Semporna takes about 90 minutes. So you can have lunch first in Tawau Town. Hatta was already waiting for us at the airport when we arrived. Please inform your operator in advanced of all your flight information.
- Taxi fare from Tawau Airport to Tawau town is RM45 and it took about 30 minutes to reach the town. From Tawau town, you can get to Tawau Airport by taking the "mini bus"/van from the Terminal Bas Tawau, Jalan Stephen Tan  (look for a small green building in front of the terminal) for about RM15 per person. The van will stop to pick up passengers along the way so plan your trip early if you need to reach the airport at a specific time.


Marco Polo Hotel (Tawau) RM 150 per night for standard room
Best Bunk Beds (Semporna) RM 48 per person per night
Holiday Dive Inn (Semporna) RM 96 per night (not including GST)

We stayed at these two different places because of limited availability of rooms to accommodate the 8 of us. You can choose either of these depending on your preference.

Marco Polo Review: There is no accommodation within the vicinity of the Tawau Airport. Since Lisa & her sister arrived a day earlier, they took the taxi to Tawau Town. Not the cheapest nor best choice but it was getting late and we opted for the hotel nearest to a crowded area for safety. It was near to the Central Market and Servay Hypermarket. You can get local delicacies and food supply there.

BBB Review: Best Bunk Beds is a dormitory style bed with shared common room such as bathroom, kitchen and living room. If you don’t mind sharing with strangers, Best Bunk Beds is  highly recommended. The rooms are clean and the owner is very friendly and accommodating.

HDI Review: Standard hotel room for 2 persons with a private bathroom. We booked standard room with balcony as it is convenient for drying wet clothes. The rooms were comfortable and we have no complaints. The room without balcony is however cheaper.

View from the bunk bed. The sunrise can be your alarm clock.

- For Best Bunk Beds, apparently it is cheaper to book via Agoda as the walk-in price is RM 52.
- For Holiday Dive Inn, you can book directly by sending them email. Please note that, they have a strict no change and cancellation policy. So please confirm you itinerary before you pay the deposit.


In Semporna town, you don't have to worry about food at all! There are many restaurants to choose from. After the snorkelling trip, we had Nasi Goreng Seafood at Ocean Restaurant located below Best Bunk Beds. We later had our dinner at Mabul Cafe. The pineapple juice is to die for! They have huge portions and 2 persons can share one meal.

If you are fan of fruit shakes, go to Amazing Island Cafe. They have the best fruit shake for RM6-8 each. They also sell the most delicious Pisang Goreng Cheese (Banana Fritters) for RM5. We recommend the Mango Avocado Smoothie. Refreshing!

Handsome and friendly Kiwi dudes.

Night Market in front of the Semporna Mosque. If you are looking for local street food, the night market offers a variety of BBQ seafood. Price ranges from RM3 - RM15. It is within walking distance from our hostel and nearby to the banks and wet markets.

Nasi Kuning, a famous local delicacy.


- Before departing from Tawau Airport, ask the driver to take you to the famous Sup Payau (rusa) near the airport.
- For a late night snack, Giant is just located within walking distance from our accommodation. Watson & Guardian are also located nearby if you want to buy other necessities.


Plenty of shops selling souvenirs at Semporna Tourism Centre (near Dragon Floating Inn). Variety of t-shirts from RM 20 - RM 35, fridge magnets 3 for RM 10 and many more.


Day 1

Snorkelling at Mantabuan Island

RM 350 per boat

Snorkelling equipment RM 10 per person

We arrived in Semporna for our first day at noon and we went for a half-day island tour since we thought that nothing much we can do at Semporna town. But in our opinion, to save cost, you can skip the half-day island trip and spend the afternoon walking around and exploring the town. It is more advisable to include Mantabuan Island together with Bohey Dulang trip on Day 3.

Boat by Hatta. For your information, walk-in private boat hire at the jetty may cost you around RM 600. So plan your trip early and arrange with Hatta to get the cheapest price in town.

Semporna Public Jetty is just few minutes walk from our accommodation.

You can buy souvenirs at the Tourist Centre as seen from the jetty. The whole stretch of the floating market sell t-shirts, keychains, fridge magnet etc.

Mantabuan view after the rain.

Looking for star-fishes.

Found one!

Found another one....

After Kapalai, Mantabuan is the 2nd best snorkelling spot.
Day 2

Exploring Mabul Island
Snorkelling in the islands of Mabul and Kapalai

RM 350 per boat
Mask and snorkel RM 10 per person
Fin RM 15 person (optional)

Visiting Bajau Village at Pulau Putih

RM 80 per trip/ RM 10 per person

Mabul Island

In Mabul, there are two different groups of inhabitants. The first group are Malaysians with proper home and their children attended the local school. The other group belongs to people arriving from the Philippines, they have no proper identification and their children do not go to school as they lived a nomadic life.

Don't be surprised if you are swarmed with the Filipinos children.

They lived in dilapidated houses.

The common view of Mabul, beautiful scenery which come with a price - lots of rubbish.

While these are Malaysian kids. You can see the difference.

Part of their daily activities.

New Billabong's seafront chalets. One of the best in Mabul. Price starting from RM180 per night. You can check their website here.


Kapalai is the best snorkelling spot among all. We saw 2-3 turtles while snorkelling there and the corals are beautiful and abundant. If you want to use fin, you can request it from the boatman subject to availability.

If you prefer a fancier stay, you may opt for Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort.

Pulau Putih

Pulau Putih is another island with stateless migrants. They don't know how to speak either Malay or English. While the men go to sea, the wives and kids just stay on the island. 

Tourist don't usually drop by on this island, so when we arrived, we were like their saviour. All they want is money and food.

This island has the second largest population of sea-gypsies. A quieter and more secluded island.
The real playground.

Be thankful for what we have.

- Pulau Pasir Putih is not a regular island to visit. But since we had extra time, we decided to stop by the island. However as a gentle reminder, be extra careful. We had initially intended to properly distribute the sweets and chocolates to the kids but things got out of hand and turned physically rough as the kids forcefully grabbed our bags and tried to take our belongings.


We went for breakfast at Bismillah Restaurant and take-away some food for our lunch. You can request the boatman to have a lunch break in Mabul before departing to Kapalai. Luckily, his friend at Mabul Backpackers allow us to have lunch at their dining room. You can also bring 3-in-1 sachets of hot drink as they also offer unlimited hot water.

For dinner, we had the cheapest seafood dinner ever at Fat Mum Restaurant in Semporna Town. We would like to recommend their steamed scallops with ginger and spring onions, steamed fish, sweet and sour crabs and salted egg squids.


- Book the restaurant as soon as you return from island hopping trip because the restaurant is always full. You can also place you order at that time of booking so that when you arrive for dinner you don't have to wait that long for the food.

Day 3

Hiking Bohey Dulang
Visiting Bajau Village at Maiga Island
Snorkelling and casual swimming at Sibuan Island

RM 500 per boat
RM 50 hiking guide per group
Mask and snorkel RM 15 per person
Fin RM 15 per person (optional)

For this trip, we hired a private boat from another operator, Kembara Pulau Semporna. It's more expensive because they use fiber glass boat instead of the normal wooden boat. Safer, faster and more comfortable. They also offer better quality snorkelling equipment however their life jacket are not snorkel-friendly. 

Honestly, although Kembara Pulau Semporna is an established operator, we prefer the service from Hatta and his boatman. They are friendlier and accomodative. Eventhough Hatta provided us with only a  wooden boat for a fixed price of RM 350 per boat, which made the ride a bumpy one, they are friendlier, flexible, and gave excellent customer service as compared to Kembara Pulau Semporna.

Bohey Dulang

Personally, we believed that the hike to Bohey Dulang is a must do activity. We hiked up the mountain for 40 minuteso get the awesome view of the deep blue lagoon. It was a 600 metres hike (500 metres steep climb and 100 metres flat terrain). We recommend that you wear a sport shoes or strapped sandals and proper clothing as the weather can be quite humid.

Bohey Dulang Jetty.

The water was captivating but we didn't swim there as there were a lot of jelly fishes. Yikes.

View of the jetty from the summit.

View on top of Bohey Dulang.

Worth every sweat and every laughter.

Finally, a group photo on top of Bohey Dulang.

- The area at the top of Bohey Dulang Island is not big. Plan your hike at early as 9 am because by 11 am, it can be very crowded. The viewing area is small, you would not enjoy the view if too many people are up there.

Maiga Island

If you want to visit the proper Bajau Village, Maiga Island is highly recommended. The kids can speak Malay and are well-mannered around tourists. It was such a pity that we had finished all of our sweets and chocolates at Pulau Putih.

The island is very scenic  and picturesque.

Young owners of the catamaran, Milah and Mydin.

They sea-gypsy's wooden huts, with very very very basic amenities.

Sibuan Island

A small island for beach lovers.

A very beautiful beach with white sand and turquoise water.

When the tide is low, we can walk on the sandbar.

As we mentioned earlier, you can actually include Mantabuan Island for this Day 3 trip. Trust us, you will have ample time to visit all these 4 islands in one day if you follow our suggested itinerary at the end of this post. We arrived in Sibuan exactly at 12 pm and it was really hot. We end up having our take-away lunch on the boat instead because of the heat.

Hence, it is advisable that you head to Mantabuan for snorkelling before ending the day relaxing in Sibuan. Moreover, snorkelling in Mantabuan is much better than Sibuan Island. In our opinion, Sibuan is more of a beach island rather than a snorkelling spot. There were not much corals here but it is one of the most beautiful beaches we have been to as it has a vast sandbar surrounded by clear blue waters.

Day 4

Semporna - Tawau - KL

Transportation by a private van from Semporna to Tawau Airport

RM 20 per person

Total costs for 4D3N 

RM 554 per person (not including food and souvenirs)


The whole journey was quite far but for island lovers like us, it was worth it. The islands are beautiful and we had a fun time snorkelling. The turtles were huge! We were a bit sad because the boat route area was littered with rubbish but overall, this trip was a success.


- As a word of caution, local kids in Semporna Town will ask for money, especially around town at night. If you give some to one of them, others will follow. But if you don't mind, we won't stop you from doing so.
- Check for weather before going on the snorkeling trip as the visibility can be poor, the water choppy and you might also find debris in the water. We experienced this on our Day 1 trip to Mantabuan Island.
- Kindly request for good and well-maintained life jackets. Safety first!
- We know there's a lot of people out there who are skeptical about going to Semporna and Mabul and have safety concerns due to few episodes of kidnappings around the area. For us, we felt safe as the local police & ESSCom are always visible around the area.

Suggested 4D3N Itinerary

Day 1 (Semporna Town)

0700 am - Flight to Tawau
0950 am - Arrive in Tawau. Lunch.
1100 am - Depart to Semporna
1230 pm - Arrive in Semporna. Check in.
0200 pm - Explore Semporna Town, visit Semporna Tourism Ocean Centre to buy souvenirs

Day 2  (Mabul & Kapalai)

0700 am - Breakfast
0800 am - Depart from Semporna Jetty
0900 am - Arrive in Mabul. Explore Mabul.
1100 am - Snorkelling in Mabul 
1200 pm - Lunch at Mabul Backpackers
0100 pm - Depart to Kapalai
0130 pm - Snorkelling in Kapalai
0430 pm - Return to Semporna 

Day 3 (Bohey Dulang, Maiga, Mantabuan & Sibuan)

0700 am - Breakfast
0800 am - Depart from Semporna Jetty
0900 am - Arrive in Bohey Dulang
0930 am - Hiking Bohey Dulang, visit Marine Centre
1100 am - Depart to Maiga Island
1130 pm - Arrive in Maiga Island 
1200 pm - Depart to Mantabuan Island
1230 pm - Arrive in Mantabuan. Snorkelling. Lunch.
0230 pm - Depart to Sibuan
0300 pm - Arrive in Sibuan
0430 pm - Return to Semporna

Day 4 

0700 am - Check out. Depart to Tawau Airport.


  1. sangat hebat.. next time buleh follow nih

  2. boleh dapat Mr hatta phone number?

    1. Hi Param2u. Kindly pm us on fb for the phone number. Thanks

  3. nice tips & infos #follow gak

    1. Terima Kasih Dzuhata. Harap membantu

    2. Terima Kasih Dzuhata. Harap membantu


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