Following our heavenly days on Mataking Island, the last stop on the Malaysian leg of our trip through Asia was to Mabul Water Bungalows (a part of SMART, a bigger resort that also boasts accommodation on “mainland” Mabul), a place that seemed the most fitting for a honeymoon in Borneo of all the ones we visited.
We knew from the get-go that we wanted some sort of over-the-water bungalow experience during our honeymoon in Borneo—hence, the initial plan to head to Fiji—and the only real place you can stay in such a setting is in the Semporna area in the Celebes Sea.
SVV and I went back and forth, back and forth, on where we’d spend those final days, as there were all of two options from which to choose: There was Mabul, but there was also Sipidan Kapalai, just a five-minute speedboat ride away. We read every last Trip Advisor review before deciding that Mabul was the one for us. Sipidan Kapalai was literally located in the middle of the sea, with no land attached to it, while Mabul had a dock that was roughly a quarter of a mile long that attached to an island of the same name. Something about having access to actual land sounded a bit more appealing (though the only time we moseyed over that way was to pick up our rental equipment at the dive shop).
Each bungalow was allotted two bicycles, so you could ride them to and from the island on the decks if you pleased. If you weren’t into physical activity, there was a golf cart shuttle. Or your own two feet.
Early each morning—want to know how early? the bags under my eyes below should be an indicator that we were waking up before dawn—we would board the dive boat and head over to the uninhabited Sipidan isle to do three-tank dives, then return around 3pm in the afternoon.
When we’d get back to our humble abode, it would be low tide and the whole area around our “house” turned into a soggy beach.
I loved this transformation each day, from a water-submerged resort…
…to this. It took everything I had in me to not go running around the sandy patches like a maniac.
Like elsewhere in Borneo, the food wasn’t great, but it was probably the best we had on Borneo, aside from the international cuisine at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria. Borneo is a lot of things; a foodie destination it is not. Both the dive resorts we stayed at were buffet-style, so you could eat as much—or, in our case, as little—as you pleased. The rooms themselves were quite basic, but comfortable, and overall, I was thoroughly impressed by Mabul. All of the common spaces were open air, which created a very pleasant breeze throughout, and we really dug the Asian-style architecture.
Despite the fact that we were staying on a resort in the middle of the ocean, all the walkways were awash in lush foliage.
You could borrow kayaks and paddle around the premises. SVV is still bummed we never got around to this—how is it that we had so many days of doing nothing at all and still never found time to tackle half the activities we planned to do?—as he really wanted to kayak out to the oil rig that serves as a hostel just 500 feet or so from the bungalows.
Instead, when we weren’t diving, we strapped on our snorkel gear and swam in the shallow waters surrounding the bungalows. There were steps from the dock that led directly into the water should you want to go for a swim or snorkel. We saw spotted rays and starfish aplenty, but never spied what we sought out in the muck: the elusive cuttlefish. Rather, while focusing hard on seeing one among the grass, we saw a lethal sea snake instead. Eek! Those things aren’t to be taken lightly; I’ve had friends that nearly died from their bites.
Mabul was a serene place—there weren’t a whole lot of people around. It was quiet. The surroundings were remarkable. The sunsets were killer. We couldn’t have found a better way to end the tropical segment of our honeymoon.
Where to Stay: You can opt for a water bungalow, which is a little pricier but the perfect way to spend a honeymoon in Borneo, or stay on the island of Mabul, both entities of SMART resort.
How to Get There: Once you’re already in Borneo, you can fly to Tawau from most other cities on the island, such as Kota Kinabalu, Bandar Seri Begawan and Sandakan. We flew Malaysia Airlines for about $60 each way; you can also reach Tawau on Malaysia Air from the peninsula (e.g. Kuala Lumpur). Air Asia is the other low-cost carrier that serves Tawau Airport. From there, all the resorts have speedboats that ferry you to your final destination.
What it Costs: Most of the resorts in the Semporna area are all inclusive, with generous buffet spreads for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Alcoholic drinks are extra (and pricey at that, around $11 a pop). All the resorts also have two types of accommodation options: the diver’s package and the non-diver’s packages. For four days, three nights at Mataking, it’s $1,245 per person for divers and $775 for non. That includes all meals, airport transfers and ferries. Dive rental equipment (about $60 a day if you get the whole set-up) and a permit for Sipadan ($13 per entry) are extra. Of course, for every additional night you stay, the per-day cost goes down a bit. We also left about $20 a day in tips for the staff, which was dispersed among all of them. The prices are a little bit cheaper if you opt for accommodation on the island instead of a bungalow, but you have to contact the resort directly for rates.
If you want to stay in the oil rig hostel instead, it will run you $516 for a three-day, two-night diving package. (So much for backpacker prices.)