Semporna – Malaysia – Information

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JULY 2015:

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At the moment, the trip to TRACC Pom Pom Island (that I describe, below) is not yet suitable for GRANDPAckers. The appropriate facilities are not yet in place.

Read here for more details.

However, when TRACC get their facilities right, this trip is definitely worth putting on to your ‘bucket list’.


So, you are GRANDPAckers and it has been 4 months since you went on the Andaman Sea Liveaboard SCUBA Diving trip.

You live in a GRANDPAcking Retirement Location where you (typically) have about 35% of your State Pension as your LIVING allowance…

You have saved up for 3 months and saved a total of at least MYR6,000 / NZ$2,500 / US$1,650 / €1,500 / £1,200. That means that you managed to save MYR66 / NZ$28 / US$18 / €16.50 / £13 per day.

As with saving up for the Liveaboard, you haven’t had to suffer much… even your ‘costs of existence’ provide a pretty decent lifestyle… you’ve been living on a tropical island (in a modern 2 bedroom rental property in the best area of town) and eating in restaurants 3 times every day…

It’s time for another break… you jump on a flight to Tawau, Sabah (you got a cheap, booked-well-in-advance Air Asia return flight ticket) for a couple of dollars more than bugger all.

You have picked up the maximum allowance of your favourite duty free spirits on the way.

You have already pre-booked as Volunteers for 2 weeks with Tropical Research And Conservation Centre (TRACC) Borneo on Pom Pom Island as Snorkelling Turtle Conservationists.

The TRACC cost is MYR5,600 / NZ$2,235 / US$1,470 / €1,355 / £945 for both of you for 2 weeks and includes everything except your alcohol (but you have brought your duty frees), carbonated soft drinks (but you plan to pick up a couple of large bottles from the supermarket in Semporna), and cigarettes.

We have chosen the 2 week Snorkelling package because we are poor GRANDPAckers. SCUBA Dive packages are about twice the price so we could have opted to SCUBA Dive and reduce our stay to 1 week (if we wanted to).

I’ll meet you in Semporna…


From Sandakan:

I booked my ticket to Semporna at the Harbourside Backpackers in Sandakan. The cost was MYR40 for the bus ticket and MYR10 for their service fee.

There were 8 of us going that day so Harbourside arranged a minibus for us at MYR5 each (the taxi usually costs MYR20 if you go on your own)… so, in the end, they earned their service fee.

The minivan picked us up from Harbourside at 6:30am. It took 15 minutes to get to the Long Distance Bus Terminal. We got straight onto the waiting bus.

The bus left 10 minutes late at 07:10. It was an uneventful journey. We watched Malay music on the TV and two Malay action movies with English sub-titles. It took about 6 hours to get to Semporna. We were off the bus by 1:15pm.

From Tawau:

The bus from KK to Semporna costs MYR75 per person each way and takes about 9-12 hours. In addition, it costs MYR25-30 each way for the taxi to Inanam Bus Terminal from KK city centre (more from KK airport). This bus IS NOT for GRANDPAckers; I strongly suggest that you either:

  • Fly to Tawau; or
  • Take two shorter daylight bus journeys via Sandakan

If you have booked your flight direct to Tawau, it is MYR25 per person each way for the bus to Semporna (which takes 2-3 hours).

Arriving in Semporna:

The bus terminal is in the centre of town, so you can walk to where you are going from there.


Semporna - Central Square If you find that you are having trouble withdrawing money from ATMs, head to Maybank in the Central Square (opposite the blue and white Mosque on the waterfront and Esso station).

Maybank accepts Visa debit and credit cards. Another easily accessible ATM is the BSN next to the Giant supermarket at the Old Jetty (near Scuba Junky); however this is a single unit and sometimes has a big queue or out of order.

I went to Maybank. To my surprise, it dispensed MYR1500 at one time! Something that the Maybank ATM refused to do in KK. Who knows what the game is… everything seems to be so random.


I was lucky (for a change). For Pom Pom Island you are advised to get either TUNEtalk or Celcom.

I now had a working Celcom Magic SIM so I topped it up with another MYR50 (which is sufficient to buy another 5GBs of data when I need it on Pom Pom).


I found Island Hopping, SCUBA Diving and Snorkelling prices expensive for S.E.Asia.

Such excursions are likely to be out of a GRANDPAcker’s budget so you have decided to focus only on your 2 weeks in TRACC Pom Pom Island.

However, there is no harm in taking things easy… so we have decided to spend a day or two in Semporna on arrival and departure.


It doesn’t take much searching on the internet to find out that Semporna is a bit of a dump. So, when you get there, there are no surprises… it is a dump.

I had nothing pre-booked, so I got off the bus and headed towards the centre of town. It is a small town and easily covered on foot.

In the streets around the Esso Petrol Station I found many backpacker hotels with the normal variance of cleanliness and quality. Prices ranged from MYR70 to MYR100 for a Double with aircon, hot water ensuite, and TV.

In-room wifi is not common; if there is wifi, it is usually found only in the ‘common areas’.

I found the City Inn (you won’t find this on internet hotel search engines) that had a reasonable Double Room for MYR69. I nearly took it there and then but decided to keep looking to get a better comparison.

The ‘place to be’ is in the area near the Old Jetty in and around the Borneo Global Sipadan Backpackers. You pay a bit more in this area (around MYR100 for a Double) but there are more restaurants, bars, and Travel Agents to choose from.

In the end, I walked back to City Inn and took the Double Room.


There are many options in and around the Old Jetty.

However, I found some hawker stalls about 50 meters up Jalan Tawau Semporna from the waterfront roundabout. I had two large chicken kebabs with peanut sauce dip, soy sauce dip, and rice with two cans of coke (for my whiskey) for a total of MYR8.


The cheapest place in town for a drink is the Hong Kong. The Hong Kong backs on to the Hawker Stalls, above. It is a bit of a ‘dive’ but 3 cans of Tiger sell for MYR15. I sat and had a couple of beers and a chat with a group of Marine Police who had their day off.

Semporna doesn’t really offer much of a night-life, but if you are after a cold beer there are certainly a few places to try. Most are down in the Old Jetty area. If you want a more ‘refined’ environment than the Hong Kong, a can of Tiger will cost you MYR10 in a ‘normal’ establishment.


You and I know nothing about Turtle Conservation. But we don’t need to. TRACC will tell us everything that we need to know and guide us through the process.

TRACC either uses their own boats or they use the Celebes Beach Resort boats (CBR) to get us to and from the island.

TRACC boat times are Monday and Thursday afternoon at about 4pm.

If you are flying in to Tawau, you will get to the boat in plenty of time.

We arrive at the New Tourist Jetty (which is a 10 minute walk North West of town centre), we make our way to the Celebes Beach Resort office.

The office is half way down the jetty on the right.

We ask for Rose and tell her that we are with TRACC. She looks after us and makes sure that we make it to the boat.

Depending on which boat we use and the weather, the boat trip takes about 30 – 60 mins.

Our Pom Pom Island experience is written up here.

Meanwhile, here’s a view of our first sunset…


I thought it worth mentioning the over-night bus from Semporna to KK. If you are thinking about taking it, be prepared for problems and/or much discomfort.

I met a couple in Pom Pom Island that caught this bus down from KK to Semporna. They said that it broke down in the middle of the night and that their 9-10 hour trip turned into a 15-16 hour trip.

I’m always in for a challenge, so I thought that I’d try it in the reverse direction back to KK. I wish that I hadn’t. It costs MYR75, leaves Semporna at 19:30, and should arrive in KK at about 05:00-06:00 the next day. This is not a ‘sleeper’ bus. It is normal, reclining seats. I chose Manis Express but they are all the same; it looked like the Senex Sentosa Bus might have been the best.

Firstly, as we were leaving the Semporna Bus Terminal the bus broke down. We waited 40 minutes for another bus to pull up beside us with jump leads. The busses look like almost new Scanias but don’t be fooled by the looks. We finally left Semporna at 20:10.

Then, I took a bad seat: Seat Number 1; it was either that or the seat next to the toilet at the back. Seat #1 is in front of the stairs so you can’t put your feet under the seats in front of you.

Then, we broke down again in Kunak at about 21:10. It was 23:00 before a replacement bus arrived from Semporna.

Then, the draft at the front from the door (coupled with the aircon that was on MUCH TOO LOW) was so cold that I had to tuck my arms inside my T shirt to keep warm. When we stopped at 3am, I had to get the driver to give me access to my suitcase so that I could get more clothes.

Then, I couldn’t rest my head against the window because I was in the main downdraft of the aircon coming from the side vents from the over-head luggage compartments.

Then, the guy next to me insisted on falling on me every time he fell asleep.

To top it all off, I ate something bad in Semporna before I got on the bus and had stomach cramps all the way. The toilet was so small and ‘inconvenient’ with no ‘flush’ and no toilet paper that I dare not use it. I spent the last few hours feeling really sick and worrying about whether or not I was going to shit myself!

We finally arrived in KK at about 07:00. I went to get my suitcase and they had man-handled it so roughly that they had pulled the handle off of it.

The Bus Terminal is 10kms out from central KK so I thought I’d treat myself and catch a taxi. They wanted MYR30. Another rip off. I walked around the corner and jumped on a local bus that dropped me off 2 minutes walk from my hotel for MYR1.50.

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