| Part 5: Sandakan, Pulau Berhala, Lahad
Datu, Tabin wildlife reserve
9.8-10.8: Munich -> Dubai -> KL
13.8: KL -> Khao Lak
20.8: Bangkok -> Kuala Lumpur -> Kota Kinabalu
21.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Garama river -> Kota Kinabalu
22.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Pulau Tiga -> Kota Kinabalu
23.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Mari Mari cultural village -> Sandakan
24.8: Sandakan -> Sepilok -> Sandakan
25.8: Sandakan -> Pulau Berhala -> Lahad Datu
26.8: Lahad Datu -> Tabin wildlife reserve -> Lahad Datu
27.8: Lahad Datu -> KK -> Mamutik and Sapi -> KK
28.8: KK -> Mantanani island
29.8: Mantanani -> KK -> KL
30.8: KL -> Singapore
31.8: Singapore -> KL
1.9: KL -> Munich via Dubai
25.8: Sandakan ->
Pulau Berhala -> Lahad Datu
Hotel Silom Dynasty, Lahad Datu. RM 148
for a room, relatively small, with a table, chair, mirror, tea making
equipment, smallish LCD TV, fridge, phone. Free WLAN Internet, but so
slow to be almost unusable. In fact after half an ahour I get fed up
and connect to the Internet via the smartphone (tethering mode). Nice
bathroom with shower. Breakfast included. The street below is a bit
Weather: overcast in the morning.
From about 11am onwards the sky starts opening up and by noon there is
a nice sunny blue sky, with only a few clouds. God weather the whole
day, no rain.
Since the weather is bad in the morning I stay in the hotel until
11:30am, then check out. By now the weather is finally good. I walk to
the harbour and negotiate a price of RM 130 to do a loop around Pulau
Pulau Berhala is a largish island, very close to Sandakan. It has a
village with stilt houses on one side, while the other side is almost
uninhabited. The highlight seem to be the steep cliffs, which are
suitable for rock climbing (advanced level I'd say). There are some
beaches, but these are not that impressive and are full of garbage.
Garbage is a big issue on Pulau Berhala. The root cause is the lack of
awareness of the local population. They through rubbish (even plastic
rubbish) everywhere and don't care about disposing of it properly. They
throw non-biodegradable plastic rubbish into the sea, and then this is
swept by the waves onto the beaches. In the worst case some sea animal
will eat it.
Anyway, Pulau Berhala could be a worthwhile destination for tourists
who are interested in rock climbing or are looking for a beach close to
Sandakan and are not bothered by some rubbish on the beach.
The seawater is unimpressive, because Berhala is too close to large
human settlements. Quite dirty with lots of rubbish floating around.
Anyway, we get once around the island and make a stop at the stilt
houses village. Then we head back to Sandakan, arriving there around
I then walk to a KFC restaurant, have some lunch and then get back to
the hotel. There I retrieve my luggage and then get a taxi to the bus
I'm there are 2:30pm. There is a minibus to Lahad Datu leaving at 3pm
which is waiting for customers. Sort of a minibus which leaves when it
has 12-14 passengers.
This one doesn't wait until it is full, it has a fixed departure time.
And in fact, shortly before 3pm, with just 8 passengers (5 adults and 3
kids) the minibus leaves. The cost of the trip is RM 25.
In the meantime I have spoken on the phone with a car rental in Lahad
Datu (http://carrentalkeretasewald.blogspot.com). They have erasonable
prices for 4WD cars. The guy suggests that I take a car with driver for
RM 500. I then SMS him, asking for more details, such as whether I can
go to Tabin with the less expensive car (Mitsubushi Triton) and whether
I can spend the whole day in the Tabin reserve. No answer follows.
The trip to Lahad Datu takes about three hours. Shortly after 6pm we
arrive at the bus station. I check Google Maps and see that the hotel
is only 500m away, so I don't bother looking for a taxi and simply walk
with my luggage to the hotel.
After checking in I call again the car rental. Actually I try several
times to reach the guy, but he seems to have switched off the phone
(?!). I call the second phone number listed on the website. A lady
answers, but when she hears that I want to rent a car, hangs up without
saying a word. When I call again she doesn't pick up the phone. Weird
people. They could at least say 'wrong number' or that they no longer
In the evening Lahad Datu is a pretty dead town. It has never been much
of a tourist town and in fact most of the business here comes from the
palm oil plantations. I cannot see a single travel agency when walking
in the streets (and not even a car rental, but perhaps these are out of
the city centre).
With some effort I manage to find a restaurant near the Executive
hotel. Not a great restaurant, but the food is not too bad.
Tomorrow I'll need to find a way to get into the Tabin reserve. It's
still not clear how I'm going to get there and if a permit is needed to
26.8: Lahad Datu
wildlife reserve -> Lahad Datu
Hotel Silom Dynasty, Lahad Datu. I
extend the room by one night and suddenly the same room costs only RM
125. Thank you Agoda for pocketing RM 23...
Weather: overcast in the morning,
some rain. After about 2pm the sky starts opening up and by 3pm it's
mostly blue sky and no more rain.
The achievement of the day is that I made it into the Tabin reserve,
without a Tabin resort booking or their involvement. Here is how things
In the morning I extend the room and surprise, surprise, I get the
lower rate of RM 125. After breakfast I call the kereta car rental guy
again at 9:30am and nobody answers the phone. So I ask in the hotel
lobby if they know a driver who can bring me to Tabin. Some phone
calls, but in the end the person they know cannot make it.
So I walk on the street and ask a taxi driver if he knows somebody. He
recommends to go to the airport (?). Suddenly I spot a travel agency
opposite the hotel. I ask there, but the lady who works there cannot
Then I walk again to the taxi stand, looking for the previous guy. He's
no longer there anymore, and the current taxi driver doesn't know
anybody. I'm there wondering what to do. It's 10 something and I have
no idea how to get to Tabin.
So I ask the taxi driver to bring me to the (mini)bus station (same
place where the minibus from Sandakan dropped us off yesterday).
Suddenly there is a guy with a 4WD who can bring me to Tabin. And he
even knows how to get there.
Should I consider myself lucky that a 4WD car with driver is there
available for me, or are there plenty of such rentable cars with driver
in Lahad Datu?
We discuss the price and settle on RM 500 for the whole day. Driver
will leave Tabin after sunset and we'll be back in Lahad Datu at 7-8pm.
These RM 500 is the same amount the Kereta car rental guy was asking
yesterday for renting a 4WD car with driver for one day.
I buy some food and drink and at 11:10am we start driving towards the
Tabin reserve. Initially we drive along a road running parallel to the
While driving I call Traverse Tours in KK and book a stay on Mantanani
island. Will go there after the Tabin reserve.
At 11:40am we reach a junction, where on the left side a gravel road
leads into the interior. There is a street sign stating "Welcome
Tabin wildlife resort 26km".
With photo stops these 26km will take over an hour. The road is really
very bad. Full of large stones, i.e. you need a car with very strong
tires. In addition, I can imagine that if it rains, this road becomes
even more difficult.
Anyway, we start driving slowly and carefully on this road. For most of
the time, except the last few km, the road is passing through palm oil
plantations. We stop a few times to take photos of the scenery.
After half an hour, at 12:10pm we reach a liftable barrier. This
belongs to a palm oil plantation (not to the Tabin resort). The driver
gets out, tells something to the person in the small house next to the
bar (probably registers his name) and the person in the house lifts the
barrier, so that we can drive through. The barrier may be crossed
between 6am and 7pm.
After that it's some more driving along this road through the palm oil
plantations. At 12:18 pm we reach the gate of the Tabin wildlife
reserve. This is open and there is nobody guarding it. Next to the gate
there is a notice board stating:
"1. No visitors or tourists are permitted
to enter Tabin Wildlife Reserve without permission from Tabin Wildlife
Resort who is the Sole Concessionaire under the Forest Enactment 1968,
Clause 2.4 of the Privatization Agreement.
2. For any entries into
Tabin Wildlife Reserve, all tourists must be registered, of which, the
registration forms can be obtained from our office (Kota Kinabalu,
Lahad Datu or in the resort). Kindly contact us at Tel: 088-267266, 089
887620/ Fax No: 088-258266 and Resort HP: 0168106493, 0168106490 / Fax
3. For Wildlife
Department related matters, a proper documented approval must be
obtained from the Director of the Wildlife Department.
4. No hunting is allowed
and trespassers will be prosecuted. (By JHL)"
The funny thing is that I have spent the last couple of days checking
if a permit is needed to enter the Tabin reserve and have found
nothing. Nowhere the faintest hint that permission is required. On the
entire tabinwildlife.com.my website there is not a single page stating
that a permit is required. And suddenly this notice board pops up.
From the wikipedia entry:
"The land belongs to the people of Sabah.
It is under government ownership and has Reserve status. The Sabah
Wildlife Department is the custodian of the animals in the reserve. The
Sabah Forestry Department is responsible for the trees in Tabin."
I have even tried to call this morning the Lahad Datu office of the
Sabah Wildlife Department using the phone number published on their
website, but that number is no longer functional.
Anyway, after a brief photo stop at the gate, we continue driving. The
road continues now at the western border of the Tabin reserve, with
palm oil plantations on the western side and forest on the eastern side.
After 25 more minutes, at 12:45pm, we finally reach the Tabin widlife
resort. Contrary to the Borneo rainforest lodge, which lies deep inside
the Danum valley, the Tabin resort lies at the western end of the Tabin
reserve. A bit strange that they haven't placed it deeper inside the
After arriving the driver talks to the staff of the reserve and informs
them about us. Some discussion follows about what I'm allowed to do or
not. They tell me that I need a guide if I want to walk on the trails.
No problem, I'll take a guide. But then this staff cannot manage to
reach his manager, so in the end it's ok "if I walk around a bit and
have a look at the place".
By the way, lots of people in serious "Camel trophy outdoor gear".
Khaki trousers and shirts, real mountain boots. Quite a contrast to me,
I'm wearing shorts and beach slippers.
So I check out a bit the resort. There are a number of chalets, which
from the outside look ok, but aren't exactly luxury. A central
cafe/restaurant building. The entire resort is on the east side of a
small stream, which enlarges into a pond next to the resort.
There are a number of trails near the resort, with lengths ranging from
80m to 2.8km. Probably enough to keep you busy for 2-3 days. The trails
are well marked, i.e. it's unlikely that you'll get lost, but the trail
quality is not very good.
At the moment the ground is not too wet and I see no leeches. By
contrast, the Danum valley near the Borneo Rainforest lodge (BRL) was
full of leeches.
The forest is not as nice as the forest near the BRL, mainly because
the trees are not as tall and majestic as in the Danum valley.
I spend a few hours walking around the trails, spotting the following
wildlife: some birds, something big on a tree which I can't see
(perhaps a gibbon), small lizards, either a monitor lizard or a small
crocodile swimming in the pond and finally a mouse deer. Actually I
wasn't expecting to see any wildlife in this dense forest, so what I
see exceeds my expectations. A bit difficult to see wildlife in a
At 3:10pm, since I'm tired and sweating a lot, I decide to drive back.
The return trip proceeds smoothly and we reach Lahad Datu around
4:40pm. I go to the airport and buy a ticket for the 11:10am flight to
Kota Kinabalu for tomorrow.
There are some people waiting to board their flight to Kota Kinabalu,
so had I known that I was going to be back in Lahad Datu so early I
could have taken this flight. Instead now I'm basically losing one day,
because I won't be able to do much tomorrow in Kota Kinabalu. Perhaps
I'll visit Pulau Sapi.
At 4:50pm we reach the hotel. Right now the late afternoon sun
illuminates the city in a very special manner and Lahad Datu becomes
very photogenic. I walk on the streets, to the open air market,
shooting many photos.
Lahad Datu is a very colourful and photogenic town, full of life and
photo opportunities. Many people see me walking on the street with a
camera and pose for me or ask me to take a picture of them. They seem
to have fun and enjoy being photographed, which is strange because
usually in Islamic countries people are photo-shy.
Wherever I walk to people are friendly and approach me, wanting to talk
to me. They behave as if they had never seen a westerner.
But the fact is that Lahad Datu is not at all a touristy place. There
are a few hotels, which probably cater to people who travel for
business purposes and (the few) tourists who are visiting the Danum
valley or the Tabin resort. But otherwise there is no tourist
infrastructure at all in Lahad Datu. No restaurants for tourists, no
nice waterfront as in KK or Sandakan. The entire city is geared towards
local Malaysian people.
In the evening I have again a dinner in the same restaurant which I