The waterfront at Semporna
Semporna is a city on east coast of Sabah. It has a population of around 135,000. While there is not much to see and do in Semporna itself, it is frequently used as a gateway for diving and snorkeling trips to the nearby islands of Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking, Maiga and others.
Most travellers take a flight to Tawau from either Kuala Lumpur (IATA:KUL) or Kota Kinabalu (IATA:BKI), then travel overland by taxi (Tawau airport to Semporna town at RM 80-100).
First time travellers are advised to either take an airport taxi or if possible, arrange for shuttle service if one has booked for accommodation or diving packages from tour/diving operators operating in Semporna. Some of the more established ones are like Sipadan Water Village Resort  and Uncle Chang's .
There are also public buses waiting outside the airport. Locals typically pay 10RM to Semporna, but tourist prices are often higher (20-25RM). Bargain and you should be able to get the price down to the local price. Buses depart from around 6am until 6pm.
From Kota Kinabalu: Direct from Inanam station to Semporna (or Tawau), 8-10 hrs, 75 MYR one-way for westerners, 45MR for locals (ask somebody to buy the ticket for you). Departs 7:30AM & 7:30PM. To get to Inanam station you can take the public bus from the bus stop in front of the Shangri-La hotel on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman (Bus #4-8 to "Terminal" or "Inanam", 20 min, 2 MYR) to the Inanam bus station, or a taxi (~25 MYR). Call 088-384701 or 088-384702 to book tickets for the Dyana Bus to Semporna. Note that in high season (Jun-Aug) these buses fill up fast so book at least a day in advance.
From Sandakan: there are four direct buses to Semporna run by Sida Express at 7 am & 1.30pm and Dyana Express at 7:30 am & 2 pm (5-6 hrs, 40 MYR). If you miss the direct bus, you can also try taking a bus to Lahad Datu (at least 1:00pm, 18RM), and from there take a minibus to Semporna (leaves when it's full, 24RM).
From Sepilok: Take a taxi to Sandakan and take a bus from there, or hail down the bus at Sepilok junction (works if there are seats available on the bus). Taxi can be booked through your accommodation in Sepilok for ~30 MYR pp (shared), and takes 1 hour.
From Kinabatangan River: Let your tour agent drop you off on a busstation (or a bus stand) on the main road to Semporna. There your tour guide might also help you finding a bus to Semporna: either the one heading straight to Semporna (a bus passing by that left from Sandakan early in the morning) or, when you missed that bus or when it is full, a minibus to Lahad Datu. From Lahad Datu you can catch another minibus to Semporna. Costs for the minibusses are about RM 20,- to Lahad Datu and RM 29,- from Lahad Datu to Semporna.
Do not take the offer of "private taxi drivers" that will jump you while you will get out of the bus. Semporna is very small and easy to navigate. They will drive in circles and you will end up 100m from the bus (and of course they will charge you some money). As far as I know there is no legitimate taxis in Semporna at all, they just not needed.
Because of its small size, Semporna town is easily explored on foot. However, there are also commercial passengers' vans and 'kereta sapu (prebet)' for getting around. Usually the fare is RM1 to RM3 to where ever within the city, but the ' prebet' will charge tourists with higher prices (about RM5 - RM10), make sure you make a deal with the driver before take a ride.
One may also attempt to get around the town and to surrounding villages/beach resorts using private taxis (commonly referred to as "prebet" or "kereta sapu"). These taxis are usually not color-coded, and the drivers usually drive around the town honking their taxis to attract passengers or converge around points of interest such as the supermarkets. This mode of transportation is favored by the less economically-able locals and the taxis usually charge between RM1 to RM3 to go anywhere and may charge more for tourists. Since these taxis are not licensed for commercial purposes (hence lacking business insurance), travelers are advised to avoid using these taxis at all cost. One will also notice that this kind of taxi usually wait until they have sufficient number of passengers (4 to 6 people) before heading to the passengers' destination.
Commercial passengers' vans are also available for travels to nearby villages and to Tawau. These vans are usually color-coded in yellow and can transport 8 to 12 passengers. These vans are usually available near the KFC fast food outlet and around supermarkets. Charges vary and one should establish an agreed price with the driver before boarding these vans. These vans also travel to Tawau daily and is usually available as early as 5.30AM.
- A must-do in Semporna is to visit Bukit Tengkorak (literally "Skull Hill"), a 10-15 minute drive out of town. The hill is so named in remembrance of the beheading of several prisoners of war by Japanese soldiers stationed there during the Second World War. Unsurprisingly, locals believe the hill is haunted. Access to the peak is via a steep but well-tended wooden staircase, and there are viewing platforms at the top. The view from the peak is well worth the effort. There is a museum at the base of the hill housing a number of archaeological remains found in the vicinity.
- Another peak worth climbing is that of Bohey Dulang island. To get to the island, you must arrange a diving, snorkelling or tour excursion with one of the local dive operators, who will usually arrange a climb during the lunch break. The walk up is through rainforest and the footpath is not paved, so it's a slippery, muddy hike that requires clambering over tree roots. Wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water.
- The Bajau people inhabit houses on stilts located by the jetty and around the town's mosque; where these houses are built in large groups, they are known as 'water villages'. These water villages are best viewed by boat (whilst en route to and from Mabul, for example). Locals are not used to the sight of foreigners wandering about in their midst, so please respect their privacy and admire the set-up from afar. Or, better yet, make some local friends and ask if they would mind showing you their village: most are very happy to do so.
- Unlike the Land Bajaus (most of whom reside in the northwestern corner of Sabah), the Sea Bajaus who form the bulk of Semporna's population celebrate the Regatta Lepa-Lepa  annually during the entire month of April. Being a cornerstone of Semporna's identity, the festival is of extreme importance to the locals and the State Government, and the Tuan Yang Terutama (Head of State) is always invited to grace the event. The Regatta Lepa-Lepa is similar to the Chinese dragon boat race. Different villages around Semporna will commission and decorate their own boats for a parade near the jetties. The culmination of this event is the 'Ratu Lepa' beauty pageant event .
Moon stones and pearls are sold, often on the jetty by the Dragon Inn hotel. Bargain hard to get a good price. Moon stone pendants (without necklace) should go for about RM 4-5.
There are a few new Seafood restaurant near Sipadan Inn 2, ensure to check price on off menu seafood before ordering or you will be in for a surprise.
Seafront restaurants are a bit pricey and the quality is not worth it.
Chinese food. Chinese restaurants can be found easily in every block.
recommendation : seaside seafood restaurant. easily found because it is situated among the dive shop.
Nasi kuning (yellow rice), sold in the morning by the street. traditional breakfast for sabahan. it consist of rice, fish cook with chilli and vegetables.
mee soup (bakso), sold by indonesian immigrant. RM1 for each bowl. Good if you are in tight budget.
pisang goreng (fried banana), 10-20 cents each, sold by the street (same street with bakso and grilled chicken).
ayam panggang (roasted chciken), can be found near to mee soup stall. both sold only during night.
putu (local traditional carb) 50 cents for a portion.
grilled tuna fish (RM2-RM3 per fish).
latok (fresh seaweed) 50 cents for a portion.
- Fung Ling restaurant, (walk one street from roundabout towards KFC and turn right. Delicious Cantonese food.). edit
- Ocean Treasure Live Seafood Restaurant (海中宝): Latest addition to the eating scene in Semporna, this restaurant offers a wide varieties of live seafood and other chinese cuisine at a fairly reasonable price. Being one of the only live seafood restaurant to offer a superb seaview just right outside its premise, this restaurant promises an unforgetable al fresco dining experience for everyone. Located just beside Sipadan Inn II. (Tel: +6 016 323 9009 Facebook: Ocean Treasure Live Seafood Restaurant (海中宝) or Semporna Live Seafood)
- Arthur's Bar: Not on the cheap side, but well worth it. Fresh grilled seafood, choose from the stall in front of the bar and they'll bring it inside. As well as fish, squid and king prawns, they have rice, fried potatoes and garlic bread, the last being specially recommended. Located roughly in front of Scuba Junkies, next to Sipadan Inn. RM15-25
Street Food. - walk towards KFC from the roundabout. On the right there is a street of shacks doing fresh and cheap food, around RM5 for nasi goreng. Also barbecue.
The restaurant at the beginning of the causeway serves big mugs of fresh fruit juices (mango, honeydew, lychee and others) for RM 5.
Last building on the main street east end is the most 'tourist' place in town with drinks, pool and sometimes live music.
SCUBA JUNKIE BAR IS SHUT! New bar overlooking the jetty/causeway, if you walk from Scuba Junkie shop towards the sea.
- Scuba Junkie Bar, (Next to Scuba Junkie Dive Shop), ☎ 01112658581. Full bar, cold beer, international wine list and live music most Friday nights. Get in from noon-9pm while the kitchen is open and you can also enjoy the full western food menu on offer. edit
Also, to improve the entry about the bar near Fung Ling. It’s very seedy but in a good way. Same street as Fung Ling opposite Agro Bank.
- Mutiara Inn, C4, Seafront, New Township, Semporna (Behind the main market), ☎ 089781610/0195351981, . checkin: 4.9.2014; checkout: 6.9.2014. This is a fairly new budget hotel and the room price ranges from RM45 to RM120. It is in the middle of the town and very convenient to travelers. Besides there are many shops and restaurant nearby and the sea is just a walking distance away. You can expect good and personal treatment and the room is clean and tidy with modern amenities.It is open 24 hours daily. "Delux. edit
- Semporna Backpackers. The cheapest bed in town. It's quite tricky to find it (only one poster outside, on the second floor). Hostel by itself is localized on 2-nd floor, above Nutrition Club. On the street level you will see Cosway shop and store selling fans. It's 1 min walking from Holiday Dive Inn or Arthur's Bar. AC room with one double-decker bed - 30RM. Fan room with double-decker bed - 20RM (10RM for each person or 20RM for whole room).
- Star Inn. Clean rooms, most of them with big windows (Sea view in most). Nice owner, who promised wifi soon (6/2014), AC, cold water showers, water boiler, towels, toiletries. Very close to the local market (Pasar). Double 55MR.
- Atine Semporna Backpackers Hostel. A newly opened boutique hostel with very very clean rooms and good atmosphere.Near KFC in the city center. Breakfast included. Private double room (only 1) 70 Ringgit, 4 person dorms 32 Ringgit 8 person dorms 29 Ringgit. All rooms have AC GPS: 4.478473, 118.609849 Phone: 089-782041 Email: [email protected] Atine Backpackers Hostel does pickups from Tawau Airport to Semporna for 25RM per person. You have to email them ahead of time. They pick up a lot of people in their bus, so you might have to wait until the bus is full before you they leave.
- Scuba Junkie Backpackers. Across from the Scuba Junkie dive shop. Diver discount: 25 MYR/night for dorm bed. 50 MYR for non-divers.
- Dragon Inn. 20 MYR/night for a dorm bed. Between 18 and 22 beds/dorm. Nice setting over the water and near the dive shops, but beds aren't particularly clean (as in bugs & blood stains). No security boxes/lockers, but staff can keep your travel documents in the hotel's safe.
- Damai Traveller Lodge. Opposite the mosque and with the back to the main market this is NOT a good option. Dirty, overpriced rooms with disgusting, filthy floors and walls, worn out sheets and broken toilets. 50 MYR/night (plus 3 local tax) for a double room.
- Billabong Scuba Office. Limited space, 15 MYR for dorm bed in a 3 beds aircon room with no windows. Rundown shared toilet outside the room. Tel/fax: 089-781866; Email: [email protected]; Website: www.billabongscuba.com
- Jono's. Property run by a very friendly and welcoming Jon. Incredibly clean and very modern, free tea coffee, breakfast and beers for 5MYR. Dorms and private rooms available. 2 blocks from Scuba Junkies.
At the seafront:
- Holiday Dive Inn, , Semporna Seafront Township, new and clean hotel at the waterfront, air-con rooms from RM80.00/night, dormitory at RM25.00/person/night. The hotel is attached to the PADI 5-star IDC dive centre Sipadan Scuba , bookings for diving and accommodation can be made online via www.sipadanonline.com
- Hotel Seafest (3-star) 
- Hotel Dragon Inn 
- Sipadan Inn, Block D, Lot No. 19-24, Semporna Seafront Township, ☎ +60 089 782766, +60 089 781766. checkin: noon; checkout: noon. Clean and comfortable new hotel (as of July 2007). There are two computers with internet access in the lobby for free use by guests. 85 MYR for a standard twin/double room (15% off with diver discount). edit
In the city center:
- Singamata Reef Lodge Adventures, Seafest Complex , Castem Road, ☎ 60198430550, . RM 60 / person / night. edit
Getting to Tawau can be done by public bus or taxi. Buses leave from the bus station in Semporna, near the KFC and main roundabout. Often though, just walking round town, tourists will be approached by locals offering to take them to the airport/Tawau town. Buses leave every 30 minutes - 1 hour, from 6am until 6pm. Prices are 10RM for locals, but tourists are often made to pay up to 25RM. Bargain with the driver, or pay only when the locals pay (so you pay the same amount) to get the right price.
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