compass Back to school compass Semporna Part 1 compass

KL's busiest and cheapest hotel

May 24

After painfully rearranging our bags, stuffing anything heavy that will fit into pockets and hoods we were allowed to check our bags and get that Air Asia “accepted for carry on” sticker. Before I go off on my little tirade about just how cheap Air Asia is I have to admit it is one of the cheapest airlines I’ve found. Our Bangkok to Yangon, Yangon to Kuala Lumpar, Kuala Lumpar to Tawau (a tiny town in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo) was only $227 CAD /person taxes and charges for extra baggage included.(Travel hint: prepaying for your extra baggage when you purchase your ticket saves you tons of money.) But – man are they cheap.

They weigh your checked baggage and will charge more than the flight costs if you are over even 1kg, and your carry on cannot be more than 7kg. Our carry on at its bare minimum has 2 kindles, a computer, 2 dive regulators with computers (we even bought the travel lite line), James’ camera, a few lenses, batteries and underwater casing, my camera, an ipod and a travel wallet full of cards that weighs about 10 kgs on its own. Now add a few guide books, a snack…and we are already way over. So we dress in layers and are thankful our pants we had made in Vietnam have pockets. Guide books, lenses, kindles – all fit nicely in James pockets and meal bars (which are crazy heavy), ipod, and small things are crammed into my pockets and the hood of my hoodie. Now once you get the checked bags through and that oh so sought after sticker on your carry on you gently walk away to find a hidden corner to empty your pockets. They threaten to weigh your carry on right before you board but luckily we haven’t been caught yet. What makes this funny is that at any given point during this process there are a handful of other Air Asia travelers, their bags wide open showing shoes & undies, doing the rearrange game alongside us. Now air Asia doesn’t stop there. Along with the no fire arms, no sharp pointy things, no gels and liquids is a huge sign that says “No outside food or drinks”. What? The first leg of the journey we figured we’d just drink the free water and have a meal bar but were shocked to find out they don’t even give free water. And a tiny bottle again costs almost as much as the flight. The second leg we bought water and snacks in the airport lounge after clearing customs only to find out we had to go through a second scanning right before we boarded. Yup, where they took all gels and liquids. To add insult to injury the flight has constant reminders of how important it is to stay hydrated while flying. Ugh!

(As I wrote this last bit I was searching flights – of course Air Asia is one!)

Tucking in for the night

We had originally reserved a room in KL at one of my all-time favourite Hostels, BackHome! It has private rooms as well as dorms so anyone wanting to save a few bucks should check this place out, just book early. But our flight times were changed meaning we wouldn’t be able to take local transportation and cabbing would cost a fortune. We discussed booking the Tune hotel that is walking distance to the airport but for some reason decided to wait until we were there. Hmmmm…you’d think we’d be smarter than that by now. So we landed at 11:15 pm to find out the Tune is booked. The very nice lady at the information kiosk (and until this very moment we’ve had nothing but great luck with airport information kiosks) helped us book another hotel, with free airport shuttle, about 20 minutes away and “yes” she assured us it is similar to the Tune. It was pretty much the same price, out of our normal budget, so we were feeling a bit picky. We were told it would be 30-45 minute wait for the shuttle which was no problem, we were starving and there was a fast food land a few feet from us. At the 1 hour 15 minute wait mark we decided to give it 15 more minutes and then stake out a piece of floor space in the airport. When we didn’t book ahead we knew there was a chance we’d end up in the airport overnight.

The guy showed up about 10 minutes later. After 30 minutes (only 10 minutes off in the dead of night?!?) of driving we ended up in what I think was the suburbs of KL. The hotel was in a deserted strip mall. We were the first of three to check in and as the girl walked us to our second floor room she pointed out the bathrooms. Huh? The bathroom? Isn’t this a hotel? I clearly remember being told hotel. Once in the room I did my new “flip the top sheet back to look for bugs after our experience in Yangoon” check and found what can only be described as a puddle the size of James’ head (yes that big!) of grey, yellowy goo with, upon closer inspection, crispy bits in it. EKE!

By now it’s about 1:30 am, we are tired, the Mc Donalds is starting to give me a belly ache and we are both a tad bit cranky. I pop downstairs to ask for the sheets to be changed but by the time I am back to our room James is holding all our bags and asking if I really want to spend this kind of cash for a few hours of sleep and a huge inconvenience the next day. We wanted to go into town to hit a foreign food store, mail some stuff and pick up a few camera supplies for James and this location would add hours to our day.

Nope! Back at the front desk the girl was furious. We tried to explain we thought we’d booked a hotel and would like to just be taken back to the airport. Some guy overheard us and kept repeating “shared bathrooms?” like he was also expecting a proper hotel. Now, as you all know, we are not that spoiled and had we known what we were booking and had it been worth the price we were paying then we’d have had the sheets changed and be sleeping by now. No matter how nice we (James) was in explaining this to the girl she just got really pissed off. We asked about getting back the airport and she quoted us a price 1/3 the price for the night. We are by now as pissed off as her so ask her to just call us a cab. Nope! She refused. So out into the dark night we go in search of a cab.

We first stopped at a quiet eatery where they spoke no English, so walked on….about 10 minutes later found another where they spoke enough English to explain that no cabs ran this hour of the night where we were. We could if we wanted to walk the 20 minutes to the train station and wait for 6 am when they start running. While we discussed our lack of options a young guy walked up to us and offered to call his friend who had a car and might drive us. Sure. So about 15 minutes later, (was it 2 am yet?) we climbed into the backseat of a car with 2 strange Malaysian men. Hmmmmm….just what my mom wants to hear. To be honest they were quite young, very clean, very friendly and their car was nicer than any I’ve owned. We paid them exactly what the hotel was going to charge us, but it’s all about principal, right?

By about 3 am we were comfortably sprawled on the floor of the KL airport floor. I was happy to have free wifi and got in a good skype with B&J. What was surprising were the amount of people sleeping in the airport overnight. I have never seen anything like it. While I was sitting there I saw hundreds of people sleeping, wandering around, hanging out in the 24 hour fast food places, kids were playing….I eventually lied down and fell into a very lovely deep sleep, likely better than I would have had at the gross hotel!

May 25

After an amazing coffee from Starbucks (no judging!) we caught a shuttle into town and did a bit of shopping and errands at the the Petronas Towers. Then headed back to the airport to play the rearrange game again with Air Aisa. We’d mailed a bit but also bought a bit of food so needed to make it fit. UGH! We are getting smarter and this time decided to eat while waiting for our flight. Unfortunately for James he went hungry. James is allergic to fish, seafood, shell fish and, this includes sauces made with fish, seafood and shell fish, which seems to be suprising to most Asians. It’s not a deathly allergic thing but still makes him ill and it seems the more he is exposed the more severe his reactions. So often no matter what he says he still gets meals he can’t eat. For example today. He asked for a papaya salad and I’d never think to ask if a salad has fish, seafood or shell fish in it but he does, and did. It comes drenched in a stinky fish sauce with tiny bits of dried prawns sprinkled on top. Lol He sends it back to the confusion of the waitress who still tried to charge him for it. (James’ note: It was a painful conversation with the waitress. “I’m sorry, you said it didn’t have any fish or seafood” “It doesn’t” “What are these?” “Prawns. Oh” “I’m sorry, but I can’t eat this” waitress returns one minute later after scraping prawns off the top “Here” “What kind of dressing is it?” “Fish sauce. Oh.”….it just got better when it still appeared on our bill)


A few hours later we landed in Tawau where a guy was waiting to drive us the 45 minutes or so to Semporna. Months ago in Korea I spent weeks researching places for James to do his IDC (PADI dive instructor’s course) and to be honest ended up picking Sipadan Scuba because they were the only one of about six that actually replied to my many, many, many emails asking for information. It is an absolute wonder to me how many times I have tried to book things (hotels, tours, courses, events, dive equipment) to no avail. I have endlessly bitched about this to anyone who will listen – but would love to meet these people who run businesses so well that they don’t need the business. As it turns out I somehow booked one of the cheapest places in the world to take the IDC in a town that has little more than that going for it.

Checking in we asked to see our room (we’d booked for a month so wanted to see it for sure) and found it was directly over Arthur’s Pub and at 11 pm the music was thumping the floor. Back downstairs we asked nicely if we could have another room. No. The not so friendly guy answered. He explained they were booked, for the whole month. Really? We tried to explain that we’d take it for the night if we could switch when another room became available. No again. He replied that they were booked for the month. A few deep breaths later we tried to explain that a few nights above the thumping Arthur’s Bar wouldn’t be too bad but a month….and the very unfriendly guy continued to say that all the rooms in the hotel were booked. It didn’t make sense. He finally said we could talk to the day staff in the morning. We then asked about wifi, yes they had it, no not in our room. Huh? But your web site says…..No.

After a hushed conversation (although I don’t know why, it was very obvious the only English the guy knew was No) we decided to try out the other hotel I had in my notes. (Travel hint: always have a back up plan). So off we went.

The Mabul Inn was a 2 minute walk away but was also “booked” and their internet was broke, yes that’s the word he used. So back we went.

So after sleeping in the KL airport for a few hours, a day of shopping, travel and very little food we checked in to our rockin’ room. Yeeee Haw!

May 26

Rested and feeling a bit better we decided to visit the dive shop. We had arrived in town for the week of prep before the course started. At the shop we were told that the owner, the guy who James needed to talk to, was not in. Tonight? Tomorrow? Maybe the next day? Okay.

We decided to do our usual city walk…and 10 minutes later were back in our room. Semporna, as it turns out, is one of the dirtiest, smallest, weirdest towns we’ve been in. When I think of dive towns I think of Roatan, Pulau Weh, Dahab...nothing fancy or really special but a little local flavour and friendly people. Semporna is flavourless and the people some of the most unfriendly I’ve ever encountered. It’s like we entered Grumpyville. I know we’ve just come from the amazing Myanmar, but still it was shocking.

We bumped into some fellow divers and asked about a place to eat and did have one of the most delicious Indian meals I’ve ever had and all for about $6 total for the two of us. We also have a Giant (grocery store) within 20 steps of our hotel room and found out the hotel had a hot water dispenser and a toaster oven which was exciting. We were more than tired of eating out and the mere mention of grilled cheese and soup made me hungry again. I imagine I’ll be spending my days figuring out what I can cook with hot water and a toaster oven.

We lounged the day away, watched tv and emptied our bags (ewwww) so I could sort out what had to be cleaned (as it turns out – everything!). One benefit of having a long stop is that everything we own could be cleaned, and it was perfect timing. James backpack had gotten dog pee on it on the last flight; well I am calling it dog pee because any other kind and I might not be able to bring myself to go near it.

A good reason not to swim in Semporna

May 27

After another long, slow start we wandered to the dive shop (literally 8 steps from the door of our hotel) where James met with the dive shop owner and got an update. I tagged along to see if and what I could do in the area. Oh – nothing and nothing. Lol Seriously, all I wanted was a beach, even a beach within a bus/bike ride. But nope! Now this is my fault completely, I booked James’ dive course and just assumed there would be a beach of some sort within a day’s travel for me to lounge on. Oops! Oh well I have my Kindle, my blog to update and that backpack covered in pee to take care of….and I could be in worse places.

James found out he gets to dive for free when he is not in class so he signed up right away for the next day. Unfortunately there was only one spot for Sipadan (that is “the” spot in this area) so I agreed to stay behind. I knew James would be doing quite a bit more diving here than me. It was part of his course, and while I could dive for a discount I really do prefer to dive with James and any money we spend on diving comes out of the “dive budget” and I wanted to make sure I just didn’t get bored and spend a wack here.

For dinner we treated ourselves to western food at Scuba Junkie. It was a bit expensive but worth the taste!

Just a pretty starfish

May 28……… and a bit

Today James and I fell into somewhat of a routine. He got up at a decent hour and left to do something productive (dive, school, study) and I slept in, watched a bit of tv before wandering down to the lobby for a coffee and breakfast of yogurt (my first trip to Giant) and muesli. Then read, did travel research or watched the three Philippines transvestites who own the hair salon and telecommunications shop across the road sing into their hairdryers and pretend to be in a Lady Gaga music video. James comes home for lunch and I get a little company. In the afternoon I do a bit of laundry, figure out supper, check emails and facebook and watch a bit more tv. At some point I decided to have a snack to tide me over until James gets back and make a second trip to Giant. James eventually comes home and we go for dinner or I make something with a toaster oven and hot water and we go to Giant (third time) for a treat. We then curl up in bed to watch tv. And so my days start to blur.

One of the guys James is in class with told me that there is a pool at “the” fancy hotel that charges about $4 for a day pass. Excited - I grabbed my suntan lotion, kindle and spent a wonderful day swimming and getting burnt like toast. It’s not a beach but it’ll definitely do! I tried to order a cold beer and after a 10 minute conversation that included the kind, size and number of glasses I sat back and waited for the chilly treat to arrive. It never did. Lol Wish he had of just said, No! No beer for you! And not got my hopes up. But still was a great day.

James and I also got a dive in before his course got into full swing. We did Sipadan! It was great. Sipadan only allows 120 visits a day, that’s divers and snorkelers, which may seem like a lot but not if you consider it only has 12 dive sites and is a mere half km in length and 200 metres in width. By 1990 it had 5 resorts rubbing shoulders on its northern beaches until in 2004 they all got kicked off when the government finally decided they should preserve their star attraction, not destroy it with greed. Today dive resorts are given 14 permits each and dive shops 7, and most are booked months in advance (Travel hint: book Sipadan dives well in advance!). What this means is that all dive shops fill their boats to Sipadan (at double the price of any other spot in the area) and some even have conditions that you have to dive for a week and get one day at Sipadan and other such scams.

One of many turtles, entrance to turtle cave, and many of many jacks and barracudas

Sipadan turned out to be an amazing dive! Three in fact. I’ve added a few videos, but nothing can describe the sight of so many turtles sleeping on the coral, the sun blocking school of barracudas and the school of Jacks so big I happily got stuck in the middle of, they literally surrounded me!

A couple of clips of the jacks. (Click on picture for link to video - 8MB and 15MB)

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