Change of plans: five days sampling Kota Kinabalu diving

Once we’d earned our jungle badges, we had planned to head to Sandakan to dive at Sipadan, a world- famous dive site, and stay on huts over the water on a little island called Mabul. To say I was excited was an understatement; it was going to be the highlight of our time in Malaysia.

What is it they say about the best laid plans? A coincidental Google a couple of weeks before our departure revealed that there had been an incident with some Filipino terrorists which had ended with the kidnap of a local police officer and the murder of a second. Scary, awful stuff. Accordingly, the FCO had advised against all but essential travel to the region which invalidated our travel insurance.

We agonised for a while about whether to go anyway. It would probably be fine. Even if I was kidnapped I’d probably be returned within the hour complete with a sympathy note for Craig and a whip round from the terrorists. But isn’t that what everyone thinks? A tourist couple had also been attacked on the mainland not long ago in a nondescript, budget hotel. They probably thought they were fine too.

We decided not to risk it. If something went wrong, it would go really really wrong.

We’d heard that Kota Kinabalu diving was also decent, so decided to rebook Craig’s diving and my PADI with Dive Downbelow, who were based in KK, and stay in a central hotel.

Despite their rather dodgy name, Downbelow were brilliant. I passed my PADI in 3 days under the watchful eye of my tutor – Victor – and Craig got his diving mojo back too! Although the sea life probably wasn’t quite at the level of Sipadan, we still saw Lionfish, beautiful reefs with mean looking Barracuda hovering at the edge, scores of luminous parrotfish and, best of all, a turtle.

Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu gets a slightly short shrift in travel guides as being a rather charmless place fit only as a jumping off point.
However, I rather enjoyed our unexpected five days there. The food is surprisingly good, and varied.
Our favourites were the laksa…


Also the street food, such as satay sticks (although chicken tail is a tad chewy…)


We also enjoyed eating the fresh seafood at the atmospheric night market, where you can literally pick your unsuspecting fish out and have him cooked to order!


The night of my PADI qualification we headed to El Centro – one of KK’s livelier bars – to celebrate. We ended up doing the pub quiz and, despite our diminutive team of two, won 2/3 rounds and a round of free drinks!

Free beer!

We also liked watching the sun set from the waterfront, although it is expensive for food and drink.


On our final day, we headed over to the island of Sapi – about twenty minutes by boat. We spent a few hours sitting on the (rather crowded) beach and swimming in the warm ocean. We even took a ride on the worlds longest (and possibly only?) island-to-island zip line, which is possibly the quickest five quid I’ve ever spent.

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