Often times on this website and many other websites that are similar to this one, I believe that I (we) get caught up in the ritz and glamour of traveling. Bloggers here and in many other places write trip reports describing their flights in business class and their hotel stays at high end hotels, making traveling look affordable to anyone. Yes, I too am guilty of this, but I must say, I fail to write many reports about the places I primarily stay–the mom and pop shops, the cheap budget hotels, and the couches I surf. Traveling is only as expensive as one makes it, and I must admit, I am an expert of the week vacation to European for $500 or the 10 day dive trip to Sipadan, Malaysia for only $600. How you ask? Points, miles, credit card bonuses, and my secret sauce, aka not staying in brand name hotels!
me scuba diving in Mabul & the sunset
On a tiny island off the east coast of Borneo lays Mabul Island. The island is home to roughly 500-1000 people whose tiny fishing village now welcomes hundreds of scuba divers each month who make the hour boat journey from Simprona to dive in one of the best dive spots in the world. The protective island and untouched underwater oasis of Sipadan is just a few miles from Mabul and the sights and sounds of what can be found there easily leave any scuba diver speechless. I’ve been there twice now, and after each dive, I either surface awestruck or like a little kid on Christmas—after all where else can I see hammerhead sharks, giant spheres of jack fish, cuttlefish, sea turtles, and seahorses all within a 50 minute bottom time! Yet, again this trip report isn’t about the scuba diving—which is top notch—but instead about going back in time to a place where life is simple and time slows down.
Mabul island, a fishing village which has been divided by fancy resorts, back packers bungalows, and a desolate village in-between is a place where the locals thrive without modern amenities and the tourists reap the benefits of the sea. Time doesn’t just slow down, it comes to a screeching stop. Most island locals live on less than $1 a day, call home to plywood one room homes built on stilts to avoid flooding during hide tides and storms, and go completely without power. Those who are more fortunate are connected to the public island generator, but island power is only available nightly between 6pm and 6am and even this is not 100% reliable. Children go to school until they are 12, but secondary education is not offered on the island and the children must be either shipped off to live with a relative elsewhere or begin working.
The poverty on Mabul Island is shocking and outright depressing. From the time the local children begin to talk, the learn how to beg from the tourists. Toddlers who can barely waddle reach their hands towards the unfamiliar faces when passing on dirt paths, and children of all ages say “hello” but immediately follow hello by asking and sometimes demanding cash. The all-inclusive resorts which cost upward to $300/night on the island have created such a large gap between the rich and the poor it’s evident in every aspect of island life. Sadly enough to, the locals have been exploited and work for the dive resorts, making pennies on the hour just so they can have a free meal and do something somewhat meaningful. Meanwhile, the investors from city reap the riches and leave the island without much hope and keep is islanders poor by paying outrageously low wages. Yet with no other work, and fishing highly restricted due to the water park, the locals are left with very few options if they choose to stay on the island.
Little kid head to school while the teenagers play basketball
after school the island kids entertain themselves with crab racees
two of the high end resorts on the island
Despite the poverty and the wealthy businessman taking advantage of the pristine dive conditions, there is a sliver of hope on the island. Places like Scuba’s Jeff dive shop and homestay are offering jobs to the locals and providing diving scholarships to Malaysians who want to learn to dive and work in the business. Scuba diving courses are expensive, just certification alone cost well over $250, and if one wants to become a dive master or an instructor, certification can easily run $1000 or more. Knowing that this is out of reach for many islanders, Jeff has instead hired and trained a select few and is offering dive scholarships to more. Furthermore, Scuba Jeff has not only provided locals with work opportunities, he runs an extremely basic motel which offers basic can rooms and shared bath with meals for approximately $23 a night. A fraction of the price of many other locations on the island, the no frills rooms offer exactly what one needs to enjoy island life. A place to sleep, a cold shower to rinse off in, three meals a day, and a fan at night with power from 6 to 6 and occasional wifi which comes and goes as it pleases.
scuba jeff and team singing me farewelll
Mabul has it’s issues, the poverty is heartbreaking, yet the locals seem to be happy. It’s common to witness the kids playing basketball or having hermit crab races, simple entertainment that so many of us can fail to enjoy due to technology. Everyone on the island knows everyone and when one is in need of help, the entire village stops to offer a hand. Marriage happens at 16 and education ends at 12 and without a medical clinic on the island, life expectancy is not nearly as long as it could be. Yet despite all this, everyone appears happy. Enjoying life for what it is, instead of what it could be.
Some island kids wear no clothing until they are 5 or 6 years of age
Local fisherman bring food to sell to the guests of many of the hotels
This famiy of 5 lives on this boat and fish to survive
These kids were searching for sea urchins for food and to sell at low tide
meanwhile next door, this beach is at a hotel that charges up to $300 USD a night
Going back to Mabul island, is seriously like taking a step back in time. The simplicity of island life is unlike anything that I can explain. The standard of living is lower than most Americans would be comfortable with, but the comfort of the western world may just be slightly overrated. After all, here’s an entire group of people, living off the sea, without the modern amenities of the internet, hot water, 24 hour electricity or potable water. Yet they’re not only surviving, most of the people are happy. Yes this island is divided, with the westerns staying on semi fenced off resorts, or offshore water bungalows. Yet the laid back persona of the island somehow blends these two worlds together and make it entirely possible for them to coexist. Is it ideal, absolutely not. Yet is it amazing to witness—Absolutely!