Where to recharge
Semporna has cheap accommodation and relative variety — though not necessarily quality — of food, drink, and entertainment. Mabul is more of an island getaway, so bring a book or three.
Scuba Junkie Backpackers – Accommodation ranges from dorm beds to private aircon ensuite rooms. Things have improved from what’s in the online reviews (a new coat of paint and some rat traps helped a lot).
The food in the restaurant/bar, however, sucks (with the possible exception of the pizzas). Eat elsewhere, then come here for a cold Stella and a game of pool. Every Tuesday and Friday, Seahorse — a band of remarkably talented Filipino musicians — plays covers from the ’70s-’90s.
Sipadan Inn – A mid-range option with rooms that are clean but not fancy. It’s conveniently located near all the dive shops and restaurants. Discounts are available for those diving with Sipadan Scuba.
The Dragon Inn – Perched on stilts in the Semporna harbor, the Dragon Inn has cheap, 10-bed dorms and nice private rooms right over the water. You can’t sleep in, though — the buzz of speedboats in the harbor will have you awake by 7. Avoid its terrible, overpriced restaurant.
Seafest Café – Pass on the Seafest Hotel, but do eat at its restaurant, located next door. It’s a bit of a walk from the rest of Semporna and not as cheap as other restaurants, but it’s the tastiest Malaysian food in town. Plus it serves beer.
Restoran Nafisa – Situated on the main tourist strip between Scuba Junkie and Mabul Café, this Indian joint will turn you into a roti addict. It also serves good curries. Make sure to try the Ali café — the best coffee in a town where your only choice is instant.
“The Chinese” – There are a few Chinese restaurants in town, many of which are good. This one, my favorite, is located across the street from the Guardian pharmacy. Everything on the menu is delicious. Seriously.
But if you order the shark fin soup I will hunt you down, hack off your legs, and leave you to bleed to death. Google “shark finning” to see why.
Mabul Café – Mediocre food. Coolish beer. At least it has free WiFi. Plus it sells cigarettes — handy when all the shops have closed for the night.
Karaoke – Q: What’s a big night out in Semporna without karaoke? A: An impossibility. This place is on the second floor in a building across from the gas station in the center of town. Ask for directions from the staff at the Scuba Junkie bar.
Tip: That friendly woman wearing a tight, short skirt and sitting in your lap? She’s a professional.
All eating and most drinking on Mabul happens at your accommodation, though lots of people visit the bars of other dive shops for a change of scenery.
For a fancy cocktail, try the bar at Sipadan Water Village Resort. Don’t stay there, though — as far as I can tell, other than fancier décor, the only added benefit for the extra $300/night (compared with Scuba Junkie or Borneo Divers) is the option of a Jacuzzi, plus unneeded security separating you from the village.
Other area islands, notably Kapalai, have deluxe accommodation similar in style to Sipadan Water Village. Stay there if you’ve got money to burn and you’re either on your honeymoon or part of an Asian tour group.
For a quick hit from below the waves, check out By the Numbers: Scuba World Records from Matador Sports.