Semporna Travel Guide

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Overview of Semporna

Located on Sabah's east coast, Semporna is one of the main tourist destinations in the state. It is about 530 kilometres away from Kota Kinabalu, and visitors mainly come to scuba dive and snorkel. 

Semporna became a household name across the globe after conservationist Jacques Cousteau featured Semporna's Sipadan Island in his 1989 film titled "Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle". In it, he explains that Sipadan was an "untouched piece of art", which caught the attention of divers worldwide. Semporna is also home to the famous Bajau Laut or “Sea Gypsies”, a nomadic seafaring ethnic minority, most of whom have never lived a life on land. Over the years, many have come to see Semporna as one of the best scuba diving spots in the world, all thanks to its crystal-clear water and abundant species of underwater flora and fauna.

What to Do

There are plenty of islands around Semporna, and many people regard it as diving heaven. There are also activities for non-divers, such as island hopping, hiking, and water sports. 

Diving and Snorkelling

Most travellers come to Semporna to scuba dive and snorkel, and with hundreds of dive sites in the area, it is the perfect holiday destination for divers and snorkelers. The most popular place is Sipadan Island, where there is a limited number of permits allocated daily for visitors. Securing a permit can be quite tricky as it is distributed based on a rotation system, so you might have to stay a few days in one of the island resorts or lodges to get one. 

If you are unable to secure a permit, there are plenty of other famous islands you can visit, such as Mabul Island and Kapalai Island, as well as those that make up the Tun Sakaran Marine Park off the coast of Semporna — Bodgaya, Bohey Dulang, Tetagan, Selakan, Sebangkat, Maiga, Sibuan and Mantabuan.  

Island Hopping

There are many tour operators you can go to for island hopping in Semporna. Divers and snorkelers use their service to go from one dive site to another, but if you do not plan to dive or snorkel, you can also go from island to island to relax on their white sandy beaches. 

Hiking

There are several hiking trails around Semporna, both on the islands and the mainland. One of the most popular hiking trails is on Bohey Dulang Island, an extinct volcanic crater, where you will be able to see a fantastic view of the surrounding sea and islands.  

On the mainland, you can go to Tanjung Parapat instead. Just like Bohey Dulang, you will be treated with a gorgeous view at the summit. 

Water Sports

For non-divers, you can also do other water sports, such as parasailing, banana boat rides, and jet skiing in Timbun Mata Island.

Where to Go

Museums

There are two museums you can visit in Semporna: Tun Sakaran Museum and Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Sites. If you want to learn more about the history and culture of Semporna, you can go to the Tun Sakaran Museum for its exhibits and historical artifacts of the community. Bukit Tengkorak, on the other hand, is the largest pottery-making site in Southeast Asia during the Neolithic period. The hike to the top of the hill is relatively easy as there are stairs provided for visitors. 

Regatta Lepa

One of the biggest festivals in Sabah, Regatta Lepa, is held annually in Semporna since 1994. The water festival aims to celebrate the unique tradition of the Bajau Laut (Sea Gypsies) community and features the floating parade of beautifully-decorated lepa boats, beauty pageant competition and performances. Regatta Lepa usually lasts 2 – 3 days in mid to end of April every year.

When is the Best Time to Visit

In general, you can visit and dive at Semporna at any time of the year. However, the peak season falls between April and July when the weather is dryer. During this period, there will be more tourists, and securing a diving permit to Sipadan will be more difficult.

How to Get There

By Car / Bus

If you are planning to travel on land, the best way to get to Semporna is by bus. From Kota Kinabalu, you will need to go to Inanam Bus Station and hop on a bus from there. The bus will depart at 7.30am and 7.30pm, and the journey will take about 8 – 10 hours. You can also reach Semporna by bus from Sandakan, Tawau, or Lahad Datu.

While it is possible to drive to Semporna from Kota Kinabalu, it is not advisable to do so. The journey will take you almost half a day, and there are only a handful of places you can stop for a short rest or a bathroom break. Unless there are no other options, it is more convenient to go there by bus.

By Air

The nearest airport is Tawau Airport, which is about 82 kilometres from Semporna. From the airport, you can rent a car and self-drive to Semporna yourself. Besides that, you can also get a taxi or use a ride-share service to take you to your destination.

One other option you can go for is to hop in a minivan from a tour operator. They will charge based on the occupancy of their vans, and you will need to contact them first. There are also minivans waiting outside the airport for arriving visitors, but they are subject to availability.

How to Get Around

By Car

The best way to travel around the mainland is by car as public transportation is not so convenient. There are also cheap private taxis you can use to get around town, but it is not advisable to use their service because they are operating illegally. If you are not planning to drive, you can also get around town using ride-share services, such as Grab. 

By Boat

There are plenty of tour operators in Semporna that can take you from island to island for your diving or snorkelling session. If you book a tour package from one of the island resorts, they will usually take care of your transportation from the mainland to the island, as well as your diving/snorkelling trips between islands.

What to Eat

The seafood in Semporna is cheap and fresh, which many visitors will go for when travelling there. There are plenty of seafood restaurants around town, but if you want to go for a cheaper option, you might want to avoid seafront restaurants. You could also buy your own fresh seafood from the market and take it to one of the restaurants to be cooked for you. 

Besides that, you should also try some of the local cuisines in the area, such as nasi kuning (yellow rice with vegetable and fish cooked in chilli), bakso (beef ball noodles), and putu (a dessert made from cassava). You can usually find these in stalls around Semporna.

What to Buy

You can buy cheap pearls and other jewellery in Semporna. Do not hesitate to bargain for a lower price with the sellers there.

Aside from that, you can also buy amplang, a traditional savoury cracker made from fish. It is possible to purchase amplang in Kota Kinabalu, but most sellers get their supplies from Sabah's East Coast, and it is cheaper in Semporna and Tawau.

Where to Stay

There are plenty of accommodations around Semporna suitable for all kinds of travellers. Since Semporna is one of Sabah's top tourist hotspots, there are many budget and mid-range lodges, both on the mainland and Mabul Island. There are also several luxury island resorts in Semporna.

What to Bring

  • Remember to bring sunblock and proper beachwear since you will be spending most of your time at sea and on the beaches.
  • You should always have drinking water with you to avoid dehydration due to the warm climate of the area.
  • If you are prone to getting seasick during boat rides, you should also have some motion sickness pills with you.

What to Wear

Since Malaysians are predominantly Muslims, it is best to dress conservatively. However, it is okay for travellers to wear bikinis or swimwear on the islands. Sunbathing naked or topless on the beach is unacceptable. 

If you are planning to visit Bohey Dulang, Tanjung Parapat, or Bukit Tengkorak, remember to wear comfortable clothes and shoes.

Things to Note

Diving in Sipadan can be quite challenging, especially for inexperienced divers. Many resorts and tour operators will require divers to complete a certain number of minimum dives before they allow you to dive in Sipadan. 

In general, Semporna is safe to travel, and the security in the area is pretty tight. However, do exercise some caution and only travel with licensed operators that have established safety procedures.

Summary