The moment I parked my car and stepped on Semporna soil for the first time, I knew I would like this place. Semporna is one of those towns that somehow manage to draw you in without even trying to do so. I say this because there is nothing to do in Semporna town, and yet, here I am, love at first sight. Perhaps it is just the feeling of gladness of having arrived. After a 10-hour drive, you’ll be glad to just reach your destination.
The furthest major town away from Kota Kinabalu (565km), Semporna is located at the bottom corner of the mouth of the dog head-shaped Sabah map. It is as far away as possible from the world of the Kadazandusuns on the West Coast of Sabah. Here, the huge majority of the 130,000 population are Sea Bajaus. As to how many of them are recent migrants or genuine Sabahans, no one really know. (Actually I do, but I’m not supposed to tell).
Most people who come to Semporna are divers who pass by on their way to one of the many islands that dot the peninsula. But there are a few attractions for non-divers as well.
A must-visit for archaeology buffs is Bukit Tengkorak or Skull Hill. It is one of the largest pottery-making sites in island South-east Asia and the Pacific. Millions of ceramic pieces dating back to 3,000 years ago have been discovered. This includes the Lapuhan, traditional clay stoves that are still being made by the Bajaus who live in this area.
Here’s another thing to do in Semporna. Go to the fish jetty in the morning when fish are unloaded, weighed and transported, and avid photographers will have discovered one of the best places to take action shots. The workers willingly pose for photos amid the chaotic scene. To get here, walk past the Semporna Ocean Tourism Centre and pass the Jabatan Pendaftaran.
The town itself is not that big, and it is possible to walk to the Millimewa department store or to the market in town. Semporna though is all about the sea, and it is by the seaside where most of the action takes place. Take a few moments to relax here and you are bound to see a fisherman or a lepa-lepa boat pass by.
The sea is the lifeline of Semporna, and everything related to the sea can be bought at very cheap prices. Pearls, especially, is a bargain. But be prepared to bargain hard. Pearl sellers line the pathway at the Semporna Ocean Tourism Centre.
The Millimewa department store opens at 8am in the morning and closes very early as well (6pm I think).
Food and Entertainment
I’ve been told that there are two things that are must-trys in Semporna – nasi lemak and korchung (rice dumplings). Korchung is an elongated rice dumpling which has gained fame in Sabah. Ask around in town for where to get it.
Pearl City Restaurant at Dragon Inn is the place for delicious seafood, though its breakfast menu and fried noodles and rice can be bland and very expensive. It must also sell the most expensive plate of watermelons in Sabah. (RM8 for a measly few pieces!)
Seafest Restaurant near to the Seafest Hotel has good, cheap Chinese food, and delicious nasi kuning.
Scuba Junkies is where the divers hang out at night.
Where to stay:
Dragon Inn has lovely rooms above the water.
The majority of visitors to Semporna fly to Tawau and take a taxi for the 108km ride to Semporna. Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia have direct flights from Kuala Lumpur, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu to Tawau.
If you prefer to drive from Kota Kinabalu, the 565km journey takes about 10 hours. Instead of going all the way to the Tawau-Semporna junction, turn into Kunak town and use the Kunak-Semporna highway instead. This cuts the journey time by more than 20 km. The road leading to Semporna from the Tawau junction and also from Kunak is very well-maintained.
Buses from Kota Kinabalu depart for Semporna at 7.30am, 8.30am and 7.30pm (8 hours, RM65) from the Inanam long-distance bus terminal.
Buses leave for KK from Semporna at 7.30am and 7.30pm.
From Sandakan 8am ($43.70, 5.5 hours).