Slowly surfacing from a deep sleep, I gaze up at the dim outlines of the canopy above us, draped with a white mosquito net. A sliver of gray light peeks through the gap in the curtains to my right, the direction of the sunrise. I listen to the pre-dawn noises: a chaos of bird calls were probably what woke me, but I never sleep late anyway. The low hum of the air conditioner. The dominant noise, though, is the slurp of the waves. It must be high tide; it sounds like they’re lapping at the stilts supporting our chalet, not the even shushing of waves on a beach that put us to sleep.
[Disclosure: Pulau Sipadan Resort & Tours sponsored my stay at Lankayan Island Dive Resort. My husband’s stay was partly paid for by Asia Diving Vacation. However, we paid our diving equipment rental and all dives in full for both of us. As always, all opinions are my own.]
Waking up at Lankayan Island Resort, I can’t believe my good fortune. Both my husband, Albert, and I posted on Facebook independently soon after we arrived that we’d found paradise. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s pretty close.
On Lankayan Island
Lankayan Island is a tiny dot, far from anything. Walking around it on the beach took me about 15 minutes, and I wasn’t hurrying. Privately owned by Pulau Sipadan Resort and Tours, the island holds nothing but the resort, staff quarters, a small army post and a turtle hatchery. Natural growth – a green jungle – fills the rest of the 2.5 hectares of land.
Part of Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area, a 46,000-hectare expanse of ocean that includes two other islands as well, Lankayan Island conforms to rigorous conservation guidelines in terms of water use, waste treatment and protection of wildlife. When we arrive, a staff member explains the rules to us immediately: no taking anything, not even empty shells; no touching corals; no fishing, etc.
Arrayed along the eastern beach are 26 bungalows (called “chalets” at Lankayan) of various sizes. Ours, number 20, is a two-person chalet with a bedroom and bathroom, including air conditioning and a ceiling fan. Large, high-ceilinged and airy, it is simple but well-appointed, with toiletries, towels, a safe, a hair dryer, a fridge, bottled water, a kettle and makings for tea or coffee. Rather disturbingly, we also have a supply of cockroach killer and mosquito coils. Fortunately, we never see the need for either one.
The bathroom has a bathtub with a choice of a hand shower or a rain shower. The only thing lacking, in my view, is a door on the bathroom. Much as Albert and I have been married a long time, I prefer to use the bathroom in private.
The best part, though, is outside. We first approach the chalet from the boardwalk running behind the row of chalets, then walk along the side of the house and up a short stairway to the door. That’s when we see “our” view.
The entrance to the building is on the ocean side, with a wide balcony overlooking the sea. The white-sand beach below is smooth; no one has walked on it, and it comes complete with a palm tree bent picturesquely over the water’s edge. On the beach, in the shade of the balcony, two lounge chairs beckon. It is perfect. The nearby “vinegar stand” is a little worrying, though. Apparently, it’s better to wash a jellyfish sting off with vinegar than with fresh water, so every two chalets share one of these.
The “street” behind the chalets is a boardwalk, lit at night. It’s a shady, green stroll. The staff quarters are nearby: “inland,” but not far away, and we can hear some uproarious games of volleyball and football going on in the early evenings. A generator hums in the background, supplying electricity for the island. Other than that, the center of the island is just jungle: green and shady and cool.
If you like the idea of a tropical paradise, read my posts on Guadaloupe and Martinique!
Lankayan is expanding by adding nine over-water bungalows. When we visited in August, three had been completed and men were at work on the rest. It’s a shame, in a way, that the resort is expanding. At the same time, it seems clear to me that the chalets in our row will eventually have to be rebuilt or removed: the sea is rising and the beach is eroding. (In the aerial photo above, you can see a curved boardwalk under construction. That’s where the over-water bungalows are.)
The over-water bungalows are certainly a step up from the chalets, just in terms of their more modern design. With one bedroom, they include a very chic bathtub next to a window overlooking the sea, and a separate large shower room. Their balconies face away from the island toward the sea, and include two lounge chairs as well as a hanging swing chair. What they don’t have is direct access to the water; guests in an over-water bungalow have to walk back to the island on the boardwalk to get to the beach for a swim.
The centers of activity at Lankayan Island Resort are the main building – home to reception and dining – and the dive center.
The main building
Standing prettily on stilts at the end of a long boardwalk lined with lights and potted bougainvillea plants, the round – or, more correctly, polygonal – main building serves meals three times a day. Coffee, tea and fruit drink are available all the time, while other drinks cost extra.
The meals are surprisingly good: not gourmet, but hearty and very tasty. I say surprisingly because buffet-style eating tends to be bland, in my experience. This is not. Every lunch and dinner we have several choices: some Western, but mostly Malaysian. It is ample and flavorful, and the seafood is particularly delicious. Dessert is always fresh fruit: pineapple, watermelon, or melon. The day that papaya is on offer almost causes a stampede. At breakfast, you can choose between Malaysian-style noodles and Western options like eggs or waffles cooked to order.
The building itself is open on all sides, with views of the island and the sea and with plenty of air flowing through, helped by ceiling fans. Upstairs is a small library, where guests can help themselves to books, though when we visit it is mostly used for over-excited children to run around.
The main building at mealtimes is definitely not a quiet place, but for us it is a friendly place. The Chinese tourists mostly keep to themselves in large family and friend groups, though I do manage a chat with one young woman from Beijing who has come with her husband and can manage some limited English. The Western tourists – we meet mostly Dutch and Brits – end up chatting over meals.
The main building is also the only place with wifi, and it’s not the best, but it’s enough. Why would you want wifi in paradise anyway?
Outside of meal times, the main building is a quiet, restful place, and couches or comfy chairs make good places to read or write.
Lankayan Island Dive Resort
Lankayan Island’s dive center is at the end of another boardwalk not far from the main building. We need a refresher dive since it has been several years since our last dives. Our instructor, Efran, is extremely patient and professional with us.
At one point when we are practicing our skills about seven meters below the surface, I experience a moment of panic. We are simulating a situation where one person is out of air and needs an emergency air supply from another person, a standard skill that all divers learn. Each diver always carries a spare mouthpiece (called a regulator) for just this eventuality.
I remove my mouthpiece and take Albert’s extra one, put it in my mouth, and try to breathe in. Nothing comes out. I try again. Nothing. Now running out of breath (I’ve been blowing slow bubbles as required at depth.), I look up toward the surface, thinking desperately that I might have to pull an emergency ascent. Efran sees what has happened, realizing that I have tried to use the regulator upside down. He corrects it, gives it to me, and I can breathe again. I’ve taken in some seawater in the process of switching regulators, which is normal, but I splutter and cough into the regulator. Adrenaline coursing through my body, I pant heavily, and Efran holds my shoulders, looks calmly into my eyes, and signals to me to slow my breaths. His knowledge and composure help me focus again.
Anyway, we do two more dives after the refresher. One is with Efran again, who essentially babysits me throughout the dive, keeping me calm. The second is with another dive instructor, who also shows tremendous patience when I take a very long time descending.
I often have trouble “clearing” my ears. Similar to popping your ears when you take off in an airplane, this needs to happen on the way down and back up when you dive or your ears can get very painful. If it’s not done often and properly, ears can be permanently damaged. My ears just don’t like doing it, so I have to stop regularly and work on clearing them.
The corals around Lankayan are not very colorful, but the other sea life makes up for it. We see bright blue sea stars and enormous Moorish idols and elegant lionfish and multi-colored parrotfish and an array of brilliantly-colored small fishes that I don’t know the names for.
I should add that the whole dive operation is efficient and professional. They keep track carefully of who is diving where and with what instructors or guides. We’ve gone diving at places with worn-out equipment and lax procedures, like one place where our PADI certification was never checked, and another where we (including our then-16-year-old daughter) ended up going much deeper than our certification’s limit of 18 meters. Lankayan’s equipment is up-to-date and their procedures are in order.
By the way, if you’re not up to diving, snorkeling is possible pretty much anywhere around the island. Many of the families who visit the island don’t dive; they limit themselves to swimming and snorkeling. I tried it at our chalet, but it was a bit disappointing there because the scenery was mostly sand and seaweed, so the animal life was rather sparse. The snorkeling is far better near to the dive center, where a coral reef extends on both sides. I used to keep banggai cardinalfish in my aquarium at home; this is the first time I see them in the wild.
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The turtle hatchery at Lankayan Island Resort
At Lankayan Island’s turtle hatchery, a team of dedicated staff keeps a day and night watch on all the beaches for any sea turtles – hawksbill and green turtles – that lay their eggs on the beaches of Lankayan Island. Once nesting is done and the turtle has returned to the sea, they collect the eggs to keep them safe in a hatchery. When the babies hatch, the team counts them and then releases them on the beach to make their way to the water. Visitors can learn about and witness this project, if they’re lucky and a release or a nesting happens while they’re there. We were lucky and got to witness both. Click on this link for my article about the hatchery on Lankayan Island and to see some really cute clips of how these hatchlings run down the beach!
Getting to Lankayan Island Dive Resort
Lankayan Island Resort is, we both agreed, about as far away from it all as we’ve ever been. And we’ve traveled to some pretty obscure places. To get there involves a 90-minute boat ride from the small city of Sandakan on the east coast of Malaysian Borneo. It would be considerably faster from the nearest point on Borneo, but there’s no city or port there.
This isn’t just any boat. It’s a speedboat with two 250-cc engines, racing at full throttle for 90 minutes. It is most definitely not a comfortable ride. The boat plows through the water, rising on waves and banging hard on the way down. A small boy vomits, then falls asleep on his mother’s lap. Two Chinese women look ill but manage to hold it together. Those sitting toward the back of the boat get splashed from time to time, but the water cools us, so we don’t mind.
The short clip below is the best I can manage to record; the ride is too bumpy to hold my camera steady. It’ll give a bit of an impression of how fast we go. The other boat is the same model as ours and is also on its way to Lankayan Island.
Besides an extended family of Chinese tourists and ourselves, the boat carries a soldier in full uniform, bullet-proof vest and AK-47. He sleeps through the trip. Why a soldier? Lankayan Island is close to the sea border with the Philippines, and there have been a few incidents on the Philippine side of the border of kidnappings of fishermen and cargo ships, as well as one foiled plan by Abu Sayyaf to kidnap Western tourists. The military has a small post on the island, just in case, though no one from the area seems particularly concerned.
In the evenings after the sunset, after dinner, after a pleasant chat with new friends, we make our way back to our chalet: down the bougainvillea-lined boardwalk, now lit with low lights, to the shore, onto the boardwalk backing the chalets, listening to the birds calling and the insects buzzing as we walk along. The sea is calm and breezeless, the waves quietly tickling the beach below the balcony. I can see a few points of light on the horizon. Apparently, these are Filipino fishing boats keeping just the other side of the border so as not to violate fishing treaties. Adding the hum of the air conditioner to the night sounds, I sleep well.
As you can tell, I loved our visit to Lankayan. The peace and quiet of the place – the Robinson Crusoe feel – is priceless. I found myself daydreaming about owning a tropical island like this and what I would do with it. We stayed for three nights, but I would have liked more.
Having said that, I would not recommend it for anyone who needs distraction. Lankayan has no TV or “animations” to keep you busy; you have to make your own entertainment. During the day, you can dive, snorkel, swim, sunbathe, or go sea kayaking: that’s all there is. Each turtle release or nest-building causes a brief flurry of activity, and then everyone goes back to whatever they were doing. In the evenings after dinner, families play cards or enjoy a drink together in the main building.
Also, if you get motion sickness on a boat, make sure to take meds ahead of time; it is not a pleasant ride.
If you have impaired mobility of any sort, it might not be a good choice. You’ll need to be able to step into and out of a boat and negotiate stairs to your chalet. Getting into the water to go snorkeling might be difficult.
It would be a good place to travel with children, but only from about six years old and up. The boardwalks to the dive center and to the main building have no railings, and it would not be relaxing to have to keep such a close eye on the littler ones all the time. For older children, a vacation at Lankayan would be magical: nothing but beach and snorkeling and plenty of food that is included in the price. We met several families with teenagers, and even they seemed happy.
I booked my trip through Asia Diving Vacation. I found them very helpful with all my questions and concerns. They arrange vacations at a number of other resorts in Malaysia and Indonesia as well.
The nearest airport is in Sandakan. You can fly there on AirAsia from Kota Kinabalu or Kuala Lumpur or take Malaysia Airlines from Kota Kinabalu or Tawau.
Arrange with the resort to pick you up at the airport or a Sandakan hotel to bring you to the quay in Sandakan where the boat lands. The boat goes every day from July through September, less often the rest of the year. Make sure to arrange pick-up when you book. This might require a night’s stay in Sandakan.
Price example: On Asia Diving Vacation’s website, the following prices are listed as examples: €697 ($700) for a non-diver to €887 ($1015) for a diver for 5 days/4 nights. These are per-person prices and do not include diving equipment rental.
Best time of year: You want to avoid the monsoon season, so go during the summer, between March and September. It may still rain, but usually it’s not for very long and often it’s during the night.
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