Diving in Sipadan, Malaysia

sally taking it in

sally taking it in

After 5 days away diving in Sipadan, we are back ‘home’ in the mad house in Penang… truth be told, we have kind of missed these guys J We were greeted with the slightly crazy bare-chested Ihock who revved a pretend motorbike in the air when he saw us and shouted us to our room. Ali was no where to be seen which concerned us to start with, but then we heard a loud snorting/shouting noise which sounded like pigs and/or dogs fighting which we finally identified as Ali sleeping. Westy came scurrying out of his room, walked around the reception area clutching his coffee cup laughing and then returned back to his room but Hussein the blind man is nowhere to be seen… hopefully he will pop up again soon…

So, Sipadan…. a place that has been raved about as having some of the best diving in the world (like most places are) where the water is warm and the visibility is ‘amazing’. The water was warm and that was fantastic. The visibility very average but I don’t believe in good visibility anymore so I wasn’t too disappointed, the diving was great, we saw some really cool stuff, many things we hadn’t seen before, a huge diversity of sea life and lots and lots of turtles… but was it worth the money it cost and the effort it took to get there? Probably not, and having dived in Komodo a couple of months ago for half the price, we were a little spoilt.

Sipadan Island, Malaysian Borneo

Sipadan Island, Malaysian Borneo

What’s it like to dive at Sipadan?

We backroll into the water from the too-high-to-backroll-from boat, and consequently I’m met with a hard slap on the back of the head from the water… GOOD MORNING SIPADAN!!!

As i surface air is gushing from my regulator and I’m still fumbling around trying to find it and then turn it over to stop the air bubbles, when Sal says “Look into the water!”

I pull on the mask and stick my head under to see a school of Trevally closeby, hundreds, no thousands of fish, thick in the water in a tight group slowly circling in the warm waters just off the coast of Sipadan Island.  They’re smallish as far as Trevally go, maybe 50cm long, silvery coloured, with black stripes and dark eyes looking around.


schooling trevally

The divemaster mutters something and disappears below the surface before I can even put my regulator into my mouth, he has a camera and is off to take some pics… we’re not feeling much love from him.

Anyway, the water is 29 deg warm and we’re diving what’s supposed to be one of the top 5 places in the world, so we’re happy anyway. We play with the Trevally for 10 mins taking lots of pics as they slowly circle around us, before moving onto the wall nearby which we follow for the rest of the 45m dive. 

sally surrounded by the trevally

sally surrounded by the trevally

There are more sharks than I can count, out in the blue off the wall, they come to say hello and then glide away, turtles too, either diving or resting in any of the series of small caves in the wall, really beautiful.

sea turtle at sipadan

sea turtle at sipadan

For some reason (“it’s just the rules”) our dives are limited to 45mins, which is frustrating  when it’s this expensive, (and we keep coming out of the water with half full tanks!), but on the upside it means we can fool around a bit more in the water without trying too hard to control our breathing.  So I’m often off chasing a puffer fish, or trying to get a bit closer to a sleeping shark for a picture, or just rolling around on my back facing the sky, where the silver shimmer on the surface looks like some magical mercury ebbing and flowing in the rippling waves. 

the shimmering surface of the ocean from underneath

the shimmering surface of the ocean from underneath

a porcupine fish saying hello

a porcupine fish saying hello

I sometimes stay a little behind and watch Sal and the other divers suspended as if in mid air by wires, it’s unlike any other experience you can have, really special.  Most of the dives in Sipadan are bottomless, that is, the bottom is at more than 100m so you can’t see it, and when you’re deep enough you can’t see the top either, so it just feels like you’re floating in mid air alongside the vertical coral wall.  I feel a gush of excitement as a big school of fish pass by, or a turtle swims past on it’s way to the surface. Diving can be a stressful panic stricken affair sometimes, but at times like this it’s bliss, and I feel really privileged to be in such a place, seeing such amazing things. 

lots of reef sharks here, not at all dangerous

lots of reef sharks here, not at all dangerous

At one point our divemaster has completely disappeared for a few minutes, and then returns wanting to show me the pics he’s taken of a couple of giant mantas that were ahead of us – nice of him to be looking out for us like that!!  We get the air pressure check symbol from him, I’m at 100bar (1/2 a tank), Sal has 120 but the other diver is at 50 so we have to ascend to do the safety stop and end the dive.  Even at only 5m depth though we still see more sharks and turtles, I even saw an octopus, which was a real highlight.  It sneaked away from me and under some coral before I had a chance to take a pic, amazing creatures, it changed colour from dark blue to grey, then back again, and hid back under the fan coral with a series of little lights glowing on and off along all it’s tentacles, what a crazy little light show. 

The ‘divemaster’ gives us the ok, then thumbs up symbol, it’s time to surface.  We pop out back into the normal world, and inflate our vests to wait for the boat to come pick us up…  “did you see that shark? ….  what about that turtle on the pinnacle… that snapper was amazing! 🙂 DM

So the dive operators were very disappointing, there was no ‘dive vibe’ and it questionable if the dive masters were actually properly trained and accredited. Still it was some of the best diving we have done and we’re really glad we went.  Unfortunately the island (Mabul) that we (and every other diver) stayed on has been, and continues to be completely ruined, which made us really sad.

They have built accommodation on stilts in the water surrounding the island as there is not enough land to accommodate all the tourists, and in true Asian style it has been done really poorly with little regard for the wildlife and environment surrounding it.  They also have no real sewage system on the island so every bathroom has a hole in the floor and everything goes straight into the sea, right under your room – and there are a lot of bathrooms so the smell is pretty bad! Along with general plastic litter in the water there are also nappies, backpacks, petrol containers, toilet paper and other nice toiletries floating around.

our accommodation huts, oretty but it's  a shame they dump sewer directly to the ocean

our accommodation huts, oretty but it’s a shame they dump sewer directly to the ocean

They have even built some ‘exclusive’ accommodation (that looks like an oil rig!) right on top of a reef, and are in the process of building an underwater restaurant commissioned by someone senior in the Malay Government… It is just so sad as it doesn’t seem that anybody sees the value of the beauty they have at their fingertips.

local kids from Mabul paddle over to the huts to beg for money

local kids from Mabul paddle over to the huts to beg for money

After walking around the island in search of a place that sold beer (as it’s mostly run my Muslims), we came across one of only two bars – ‘Scuba Junkie’, another dive operator, no doubt run by westerners – which had the dive vibe… and a nice bar.  We ended up spending all night there trying to forget about the rest of the mess in Mabul. We’d decided against diving with them when we were booking as they had a minimum diving package which was more than we wanted to do, but if we were ever to go back again, we’d go with those guys, as for us diving is about the whole experience, not just the time underwater.

sunset from Mabul

sunset from Mabul

After two nights on the island and two nights in Semporna we commenced the long journey of taxis, planes and buses back to Penang where we arrived last night.

Tomorrow we are back on the bike and we head up to Thailand and then on to Siem Reap where we will meet up with Hannah’s parents and leave Betsy with them for a few weeks while we fly to the Philippines! SC






catching up on a few things

As we have about a week here, we’re catching up on a few things we need to get done, and didn’t do back home as we ran out of time and some things are much cheaper to do elsewhere.

This sectíon could be called ‘tips for other travellers’

Like going to the dentist, where a checkup and clean costs about $200 at home, but only $25 here, and getting vaccinated for Japanese Encephylitis, $275 at home, $26 here.

Those two little gems saved us about $850 – thank you Malaysia!

I also went to a skin specialist to get a couple of moles checked out, no reference, no appointment, 30min wait and was greeted by a specialist from Australia, here to help his dad out in the local clinic. Dr Lim is a ‘Fellow’ no less, second in charge of skin related stuff at the Alfred hospital in Melbourne.

Ten mins later he’d whisked the mole off and sent it for testing at KL, no followup appointment necessary, just call me in two weeks.  Total cost $95.

It’s not all good news though, as the dentist tells me that I’m most likely going to need a tooth removed… might leave that one till we get home 🙂

Our plan from here is to head to Sipadan for a few days diving before returning to Penang and riding more or less straight through to Siem Reap, with a short stop in Bangkok to try to preorder tyres for the rest of the trip and get the laptop repaired.

From Siem Reap we have f’ights to the Philipines where we’ll roam aimlessly for about 3 or 4 weeks.  Then it’s back to Cambo’ pick up the bike and make our way through Laos back to Bangkok, apply for some visas and then Myanmar through to India.

Poor Sal had a bit of a sleepless night last night, too many people screaming, vomiting and showering in close proximity.  So she’s put in earplugs and is sleeping in a bit this morning while i do this.

There’s no curtain on the window so very bright in here,  I just need to share this…


S Clark, always in style!

They are brand new nickers though 🙂



Penang and the Pin Seng hotel

home sweet home

home sweet home

We’re in Penang, home to some of the most delicious street food we’ve ever seen, and a handful of completely crazy people – who live in our hotel.

We did our usual roaming of the streets in town looking for a good deal on accommodation, made more difficult by the tichiness brougt on by 4 hours of belting rain that we rode through to get here, and had almost settled on a quite nice looking heritage building, converted into a modernish hotel, for 60 ringgit a night, when Sal walked down an unlit alley and emerged with good news.

‘hey this palce has a garage to keep the bike in… the room is pretty shit though, 30 ringgit a night’ ($10)…



the laneway to crazy

Little did we know…

The old chinese man at reception, Ihock, wearing just a pair of khaki coloured shorts, was talking flat out when we came in to register, initially we didn’t realise it but he was talking to us, (about how cheap his hotel was), and he went on to explain that ‘hetdbfh hegc I see bike  hfhch hdhchf hfhc h one towel per room hfhv hf hf hfbff my place very cheap gjgbg ghgnlflg gjgng gj!!!!!!!!!!’

‘ok, so which room are we in?’

‘hff kcd dididndhtdbedyd eneyfteue 6’

‘room 6?’

‘yes, 6 6 nuba 6, GO GO go to YOUR ROOM NOW!!’

Ihock at reception in between breaths

Ihock at reception in between breaths

it turns out we are in the Unesco heritage listed part of town, full of cool bars, coffee shops, lovely guest houses and quaint old chinese stores… and the Pin Seng Hotel.  Home to the most odd ball collection of residents that we’ve ever seen.

When we arrived there was an old man at the door smoking a cigarette, dark skinned, over weight, stained t shirt, middle eastern looking, with a bum bag around his waist, and sweat trickling off his forehead.  I thought he was security… now we call him Ali. Crazy man No. 1.

Ali lives here, Ali smokes cigarettes, Ali asks us if we smoke, EVERY TIME WE SEE HIM. No sorry Ali, we still haven’t started.  The rest of the time Ali talks to himself with arms flailing in incomprehensible sentences. Ali also asks everyone who walks through the door ‘do you speak French, do you have cigarette?’ (Ali doesn’t speak French!?).

ali on guard out the front

ali on guard out the front

Then there’s the blind (actually vision impaired) gentleman who fumbles his way along the corridors looking for his room, the toilet, the cupboard containing warm beer, or it seems our room which he’s quite fond of…  we call him Hussein ‘ no Hussein, this is still not your room’. Hussein is crazy man no. 2. Hussein is drinking warm beer from before we wake up, until after we go to sleep. He sits at a table crouched over the beer, with a jam jar half full of brown water water and old cigarette butts. We wonder if he ever confuses the jar with the glass as they are both equally close to his mouth. Hussein will respond to any voice he hears as though he’s being spoken to, but the responses are hard to make out.

Now i come to the craziest of the lot, ‘the Westerner’ we call him.  I walked out of our room into the hallway yesterday to find him standing just in front of our door, both hands stuffed into his mouth but still trying to talk, I actually screamed. He didn’t flinch though, just went on talking through his fingers. He’s proper crazy. Caucasian, maybe 60 years old, 5 foot tall, thin and always wears the same white tank top and blue shorts.


we cant show his face, he may be wanted for something.

Westie has apparently taken it upon himself to take care of the other crazies in the place, he empties ashtrays, pours hot beer into dirty cups for Hussein, and bums cigarettes off strangers for Ali.

It all sounds a little exaggerated, but i kid you not, this place is stark raving mad. And we love it!! The Chinese owner Ihock sleeps in the store room next to the front door, which is a room about the size of my mum’s pantry. He locks the steel bar front door around midnight, presumably to keep us all from leaving.

During the course of the night, we hear noises that range from a yet to be identified woman vomiting next to our window, to something that sound s like a waterfall, which I’m slowly deciphering as being something to do with Ali, and his wash room routine.

Any request from Ihock at reception is responded with in totally bizarre  shrieks and grunts which eventually we can now sometimes understand.  The handful of ‘normal’ looking people here all have the same bewildered look on their faces, that ‘what the fuck is going on here????’  look.

I left my helmet outside this afternoon, quick as a flash Ali brought it to our room ‘helmet, grunt, outside, grunt, you have cigarette?’.  It was all i could do not to laugh.

sally sitting outside our room to get wifi

sally sitting outside our room to get wifi

Every now and then, a couple of ridiculous looking backpackers wearing zip pants and money belts wander in to ask how much the rooms are, it’s priceless… the owner flat out starts screaming at them, explaining that his rooms are really cheap, and clean, and there is nowhere else in town for this price’

They make their excuses and run away… we laugh, Ihock grunts, Ali asks them for a cigarette and Hussein bumps into them with his walking cane, while Westie is still trying to eat his fingers while hopping up and down on one leg in the carpark.

True to his word though, it is very clean.  Our room is at ground level, it’s unremarkable except the fan on the ceiling which is enormous, like Ihock stole it from an aircraft hanger.  On the lowest setting it blows more air than we could ever want, but it’s hot here, so we leave it on, and consequently it’s gale force wind all the time.

the pic doesnt do it justice

the pic doesnt do it justice

We have a wardrobe and a small sink, but no bathroom, a small table and two plastic chairs.  The bed is thin foam, the floor is concrete painted deep red, the walls are pale blue and there is one fluoro tube on the wall for light.  There is one power point on the wall, just a bit too high for any of pur cords to plug into and reach the floor, so there is usually something balancing precauriously on the outlet.  The showers are cold, but not brutally, so even a rinse at 12am is quite comfortable…  It’s about 1am now and Ali’s washing routine has begun, it sounds like Niagra falls in here, where the fuck does all that water come from???

Ihock spends the mornings cleaning, he mops the floors and does the washing.  Quite novel to be somewhere so clean after Indonesia.   He even puts the pillows out in the sun, arranging them in rows on top of the cars in the laneway leading to reception, if anyone out there can think of why he might be doing this please let us know!

Ihock adds the bills with an abacus.

The row of communal toilets at the end of the hall is very well ordered, they have western style toilets and squatters too, toilet paper provided – what luxury!  Sal went to the toilet in the middle of the night though to find Ali perched on top of one of the bowls in the dark with the door open, as she opened the adjacent door and went into the cubicle, Ali leaned close to the wall and shouted ‘BOO!!!’ She had tears in her eyes from laughter as she told me the story in the morning.



I’ve described the three main protagonists in this show, but there are many other supporting actors too.  At any time off the day there will be between 3 and ten people in and around reception and the hallway leading to our room, usually just sitting alone on a plastic chair, rocking forwards and back and mumbling quietly.  It’s quite nice the way they all seem to take care of each other though, like when Westie steals a cigarette for Ali, or Ihock sees Hussein stumbling in the hallway about to walk into our room and gentle guides him past.

This place could be the basis for some weird show at the Fringe festival, I’m just not sure anyone could do it justice… At ten dollars a night it’s the best entertainment we’ve had in a long time.

It’s also the cheapest room we’ve found since that pearler upstairs at the ferry office, but we dont talk about that anymore.

So we’re here for almost a week to explore Penang’s street food and vibe, after which we fly to Sipadan for what’s supposed to be the most amazing diving in the world.

‘It was AMAZING, we saw an angel fish and a snapper’

Katie Clark 2015








Blue Skies

How exciting, after a month in the Indonesian forest fire haze, we can finally see some blue sky and sunshine again.


We left KL yesterday after saying a sad goodbye to Paul, and came to the Cameron Highlands (which are closed for renovations…) to escape the heat for a bit

Unfortunately it’s all closed here so we’re off to Penang today.

A bigger update to come soon.