It was such an amazing experience to visit and to explore Labuan, the Pearl of Borneo. This island, known for its status as an offshore financial centre offering international financial services, is also gazetted as one of the three Federal Territories of Malaysia (the other two being Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya).
Labuan territory consists of seven islands: Pulau Labuan, Pulau Kuraman, Pulau Rusukan Besar, Pulau Rusukan Kecil, Pulau Papan, Pulau Daat and Pulau Burong. These islands lay eight kilometres off the coast of Borneo, adjacent to the state of Sabah and Brunei Darussalam, facing the wide South China Sea. Labuan is equidistant from major cities like Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila. If you’re coming by air, you can take Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur or MAS Wings from Kota Kinabalu. You can also come to Labuan via ferry from Kota Kinabalu or Brunei Darussalam.
The name Labuan originally derived from the local word pelabuhan or labuhan, which means anchorage. The island has strong Bruneian influence since centuries ago. The major dialect spoken is Brunei-Kadayan Malay, which is significantly different than standard Malay. The majority of its population is Malay (mainly Brunei Malay) andKedayan. The other ethnic groups who live here are also Chinese, Kadazan Dusun, Murut and Bajau, all of them create a diversified culture and lifestyle in Labuan.
THE ISLANDS AND MARINE PARK
This tropical island, which is also one of the three Marine Park islands, obtained its name from the Kuraman trees discovered on the island not long ago. The island attracts tourists who love snorkelling, diving or simply frolicking about. The island is uninhabited and remain untouched from any form of development. The only facility and construction available on the island is the jetty.
This gorgeous island is blessed with sandy white beaches and crystal clear water with naturally formed sandbank long extended towards the adjacent Pulau Rusukan Kecil and Pulau Rusukan Besar. The island’s old name, Mompraçem, was often quoted as the setting for love and adventure in the stories of Sandokan (a fictional pirate of the late 19th century, who first appeared in publication in 1883, created by Italian author Emilio Salgari).
Papan island is a favourite weekend getaway for individual visitors and groups. The island offers facilities such as chalets, campsites, sports grounds, praying facility and barbeque area. It is surrounded by white beaches and clear water. Visitors can walk along the beach and make a full circle on the island because of its small size.
You can also plan for jungle-trekking and get to see the lighthouse on the higher ground on the island. The trekking has been developed nicely and it promises a safe experience for families to enjoy.
Batu Manikar Beach
For gorgeous sunset views, head to Batu Manikar Beach, which stretches along Jalan Batu Manikar right up to where University Malaysia Sabah is located. It is fringed with casuarinas and coconut trees, shaded naturally by the other trees. Its pristine condition garnered recognition during the COBSEA Clean Beach Award in 2008, making it one of the cleanest beaches in Malaysia.
Layang Layangan Beach
Popular during weekends, Layang Layangan Beach possesses white sandy beaches and various leisure and recreational activities, making it suitable for visiting families. There are many food stalls here that also serve live music. Layang Layangan Beach is located on the west coast of Labuan, south of Pancur Hitam beach.
LANDMARKS AND ATTRACTIONS
The Chimney is a 106-foot high red brick stack built in typical old British style of architecture, believed to be related to the coal mining days of Labuan. There are many stories surrounding this structure. Some people said it was an unfinished building while others said it was a lighthouse beaconing passing ships. It was also thought to be nothing more than a ventilation shaft. However, recent findings revealed there was no trace of smoke or burn to suggest that it was used as a chimney. The fascinating theories by locals and visitors make the Chimney popular and earn it as one of the 10 Labuan Tourism Icons. interesting historical place to visit.
World War II Memorial
This war memorial is located along Jalan Tanjung Batu. Arguably one of the most visited places in Labuan, the memorial – constructed and maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission – boasts a beautiful garden with a wide green lawn and inscribed headstones of 3,908 war heroes, who either died during battle or in captivity during World War II. Most of them were Australians and British, while the rest comprised soldiers from Punjab Signal Corp, New Zealand and even Northern Borneo.
Remembrance Day, a memorial service held on the first Sunday of November every year, brought many veterans and families of war victims from Australia and other Commonwealth countries to Labuan.
The museum is housed in a two-storey pre-war colonial building, with its ground floor dedicated to exhibiting the history of Labuan. The museum is a one-stop centre with information on anything and everything related to Labuan and Malaysia. Outside the Labuan Museum is the History Square, where the four Flame of the Forest trees stand on all four corners of the square, planted by the Chinese, Malay, Indian and European communities in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
A walk into this museum opens a world of colours to a fascinating panoramic view of fishes and corals not seen elsewhere. It is built on the concept of a ship with two floors of exhibits. Clear violet-blue aquariums display the various habitats of marine life such as sharks, rays, butterfly fish, angel fish, damsels, wrasses, moray eels, poisonous fishes, shrimps and lobsters. Visitors also have the rare experiences to touch and feel the displays placed in shallow waters such as starfish, sea cucumbers and king crabs. The second floor’s exhibits include habitats of coral reefs, habitats of sharks and rays, marine reptiles, commercial fish, marine mammals, marlins, fishing and diving activities, oceanography, marine biology, mollusks and crustaceans.
The Botanical Garden is full of beautiful flowers and trees, which we were told to have been planted by Colonial Secretary Hugh Low. There is also a dilapidated structure on the grounds of the Botanical Garden known as the Government House or Bumbung Dua Belas, which was built in 1852 and located behind the old airport. The house was a long and low structure with interesting roof design.
If you like to spend your days living the life of the local people of Labuan, there are three homestays that offers such experience: Kampung Patau-Patau II, Bukit Kuda Village and Sungai Labu Village. Visitors will be able to savour Labuan laidback culture, local customs and cuisines. The residents of these homestays will offer you warm hospitality and make you feel at home.
Kampung Patau-Patau II – The water village
One of the uniqueness of Labuan lifestyle is the water village. The people who live in this village originate from Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. The villages consist of houses built on water. Each of these houses is connected to each other via bridge-like walkways. Today, many of the water village residents still incorporate their Kedayan Bruneian culture and customs into their daily lives.
Kampung Air Patau Patau II is actually quite developed, properly organised and equipped with water and power supply, telephone and sewage lines, streetlights, water taxi jetty, grocery shops, handicraft shops, clinics, schools and place of worship. Being surrounded by water means that the main mode of transport is the boat and most of the houses own one.
We were invited to the house belonging to Hajah Samsiah Haji Matusin, a truly welcoming village resident who has stayed in the village all her life. We were very impressed with her house because it was spacious and well decorated, comfortable for visitors to relax and take in the laidback atmosphere of the village with the sea flowing under the feet.
Kampung Bukit Kuda
Located seven kilometres from the centre of Labuan, this typical Malay village is populated by friendly and hardworking residents who love to decorate their compounds and maintain high standard of cleanliness. We had the opportunity to inspect the cosy house belonging to Madzan Haji Yunus and a local dried noodle enterprise owned by Salleh Ali.
Labuan is perfect for shopping duty-free imported products at competitive prices, ranging from chocolates, perfumes, cosmetics, leather goods, cigarettes, liquors, pens and watches. We enjoyed spending our dime at popular shopping areas such as Jalan OKK Awang Besar, the Ferry Terminal Area and Financial Park Complex. During weekends, visitors should go to the Labuan Weekend Tamu to shop for authentically intriguing items held along Jalan OKK Awang Besar.
Labuan is famous for affordable seafood that includes raw and fresh fish, prawns, crabs, lobsters, squids, and shellfish. During our stay, we had the opportunity to savour many dishes served in various cooking styles, indicating that Labuan also has its culinary specialties.
One particular delicacy that Labuan is famous for is its coconut pudding. The pudding is unique, made from steamed coconut water and jelly. Another delicacy that visitors should not miss is the sweetened steamed rice wrapped in coconut leaves called lambam, closely resembling the Chinese rice dumpling or the Malay ketupat and eaten with peanut sauce.
This article was first published in Gaya Travel Magazine.
Photo taken by Shamsul Bahrin Zainuzzaman.