City girl Irvin Hanni leaves her desktop behind as she flash packs across Sabah to discover the natural beauty of ‘Land below the Wind’.

Hello, peeps! Can you guess where the below picture is taken?

The path to serenity.. Kapalai Island.

Yep that’s right. I was in Semporna! All lively and excited from my experience in Kota Kinabalu (you can read about it here), the decision not to go and visit the Orang Utans in Sandakan was a very tough choice indeed but I really needed a relaxing beach holiday and the next thing I knew, I was already onboard AirAsia and off to Tawau, YEAY!

From Tawau Airport, I then took a one-hour minivan ride to Semporna jetty and another one-hour speed boat ride to Mabul Island. I decided to stay at Seaventures Dive Rig Resort, simply because it would be an experience like no other! As our boat swayed towards the dive rig, I was taken aback by how truly awesome it was. My heart jittered excitedly as it was quite an experience to get to actually sleep onboard a former oil rig! According to the owner, this oil rig was originally located in Panama during the 1920s. It has then made its way to Singapore, Brunei, Labuan and finally settled in Mabul as the world’s first and only oil rig turned resort. How cool is that?

Clockwise from top: View of Seaventures Dive Rig Resort, azure water of Mabul Island and me enjoying the beautiful Celebes Sea sunset from the Seaventures sun deck.

I spent a very serene day at Mabul. Even though the plan was to just laze at the beach the whole day, the water kept beckoning me to join the myriad of sea creatures in the sea. And so I put on the snorkelling gear and jumped down right off the jetty. Splash! I literally swam with the fishes, hundreds, if not thousands of them. As I was snorkelling, I managed to spot a kid turtle swimming nearby. Very quickly I swam until it was barely inches away from me. Oh what a cute itty bitty little turtle! To be able to swim with it with sunlight permeating through the clear water was a marvellous, marvellous experience.

As one of the most popular islands in Sabah, Mabul is actually surrounded by two sisters: Kapalai and Sipadan. Since I only have one day here, I decided to hop on a 10-minute boat ride to Kapalai. Captivatingly stunning, this island expresses the kind of tranquillity that can never be emulated in the cities. I’ve heard tales about Sabah’s heavenly islands before this, but never have I expected the actual scene to be so breathtakingly beautiful. Soft sands and crystal clear water, bright sunlight shaded by beautiful shapes of white fluffy clouds in the sky…the view is simply enchanting.

Snapshots of Kapalai Island.

Alas, it was time to bid farewell to the islands but the trip was not yet over as I still have some time left to spend in Tawau before heading back home. So, what’s good in Tawau? As I was doing my research, I stumbled upon this little known fact: Tawau is actually a cocoa town! COCOA! And I found exactly where to go to get my chocolaty fix: the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum. Yes people, there’s a cocoa museum right here in Malaysia. I didn’t know which was more exciting; the fact that I was going to be surrounded by chocolates or that I was secretly hoping to meet the oompa loompas.

Sadly, there were no oompa loompas here 🙁 but I did enjoy my visit here thoroughly. Even though far from my imaginative visuals of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum was indeed charming. At the entrance, I was greeted by statues of native people holding what looked to be the world’s largest cocoa seed. Coupled with the sweet smell of chocolate that came from inside the museum, I was all ready to bite on one of the statues’ head!

Clockwise from top: Local girls handing out delicious savouries made from fresh Tawau cocoa, cocoa stuff on display, cocoa statues at the museum entrance.

Next, I headed off to Pasar Tanjung, a dry market that’s sure to delight all the moms and aunties. Tawau boasts the best selection of dry food goods including ikan masin (salted fish), udang kering (dried prawns), belacan (prawn paste) and so much more, at bargain prices to boot. The whole complex is three-story tall, with rows of stalls selling fresh produce such as vegetables and fruits as well as general goods like toys, accessories and beauty products. What’s nice about shopping here is that the merchants greet you as if you are one of the locals, with genuinely friendly smiles and “apa khabar?” (how do you do?). When asked if I can take a picture of them, they even jokingly said “Jangan lupa tag di Facebook” (don’t forget to tag us in Facebook). Haha..

Clockwise from top: Entrance of Pasar Tanjung, dried food on offer, local merchants greeting ‘hello’.

I asked for their recommendation on what’s good to eat in Tawau and they immediately said, almost in unison, Nasi Kuning! Wow…Nasi Kuning eh? It is apparently the staple food in Tawau and a definite must-try for all visitors. And so off I went to the best Nasi Kuning place in town: Restoran Haji Tamrin that’s located in Jalan Kuhara. This local favourite dish is actually steamed rice that’s cooked with santan (coconut milk) and kunyit (ginger), producing a rich and flavourful taste of the rice. Add in Ayam Masak Merah (chicken in red chilli sauce), Daging Rendang (beef rendang) and boiled egg and then the next thing I knew, I gained a whole kilogram! Just kidding!

Top: Nasi Kuning with Ayam Masak Merah and Rendang Daging; Bottom: Scenic view of Tawau.

Finally, it was time for me to head back home. I was sad to leave but also very happy and thankful that I got this chance to come here and experience the unique life and culture of Sabah.

From learning how to cook in bamboos from the Kadazandusun people to seeing the beauty of Sabahan flora at the Kinabalu Botanical Garden and Poring Hot Springs, having ikan kelar nibbling gently on my feet at Kampung Luanti, taking a walk through history at Kota Kinabalu, swimming with a kid turtle at Mabul Island, daydreaming about my honeymoon at Kapalai Island and the endless shopping for souvenirs and dried goods in Tawau, I left my heart in Sabah and vowed to return back to explore more of this ‘Heart of Borneo’.

Would you care to join? Book your low-fare flights to Sabah at now and give me a buzz, perhaps I’ll meet you there? 🙂


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