I knew I was in for a treat when I peered through the plane window during the landing. The long stretches of beaches and azure blue waters encircling the A-shaped island cranked up my excitement levels. Here’s how I spent three days in Labuan, the Pearl of Borneo – itinerary included!
1) Day 1 – Morning: Learn about the Island’s Colourful Past at Labuan Museum
Before exploring every corner of Labuan, I made a quick stop at Labuan Museum at the city centre. This two-storey museum chronicles the island’s history from being a territory of the Sultanate of Brunei right up to its present status as an oil & gas and financial hub.
It’s fascinating to learn that Labuan has been coveted by many superpowers throughout history. Labuan was a British Crown Colony in the 1800s and was captured by the Japanese during World War II before joining Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia in 1963. Labuan’s strategic location makes it an important port and naval base over the last 200 years.
Once my historical thirst was quenched, I checked-in at Dorsett Grand Labuan, one of the highest-rated and luxurious hotels on the island. The service was impeccable, and I was delighted to get a room overlooking the city.
2) Day 1 – Evening: Hop on a Water Taxi and Visit Kampung Patau-Patau 2
After a quick rest, I went down to the ferry terminal and hopped on a water taxi. Destination: Kampung Patau-Patau 2 – one of the many living, breathing floating villages in Labuan. This village is inhabited by ethnic Brunei Malays who make up 35% of the island’s population.
Only a few people were around since it was a working day, but I still had to avoid getting run over by a group of kids who were playing catch along the walkway. The quaint village is equipped with a mosque, a community hall and convenience stores!
I had a chat with a shop owner about life in Kampung Patau-Patau 2, and he was happy to show me his house right behind the store. I was surprised to see his home all done up with wooden furniture and chandeliers – a modern take in an otherwise rustic dwelling!
3) Day 1 – Night: Splurge on Scrumptious Seafood at Mawilla Yacht Club Restaurant
A trip to an island is never complete without indulging on seafood.
The hotel recommended me Mawilla Yacht Club, a seaside restaurant overlooking the Bay of Brunei. This seafood joint is known for its Chinese-style cooking and went with a good portion of chilli crabs, butter prawns and a steamed red snapper.
The sweet flesh of the fish and freshness of the prawns were just divine! The process of cracking open the crab’s shell was rather painstaking but well worth it. I spent a full hour at Mawilla Yacht Club quietly enjoying my dinner. What a feast!
4) Day 2 – Morning: Soak Up the Sun at Pulau Rusukan Besar
The next morning, I took a short 30-minute boat ride from Labuan Marina to Pulau Rusukan Besar, one of the many islets that dot Labuan. On the way, everyone was gawking at the huge ships and oil rigs spread across the bay before the island came into sight.
As soon as we stepped on the sandy white beach, we felt like we were on a desert island. Pulau Rusukan Besar only has one resort consisting of cute little A-frame shocking-pink huts and a turtle hatchery.
Labuan’s very own underwater wonderland was the main reason for my visit. Plenty of Nemo-like fishes scuttled around corals and I even encountered baby swordfishes! I finished my session after being spooked by a spotted eel lurking too close for comfort!
5) Day 2 – Evening: Honour the Fallen at Labuan War Cemetery and Memorial
My next destination was the Labuan War Cemetery and Memorial, a 5-minute ride away from the hotel. Well, everywhere in Labuan is only a 5-minute ride anyway!
The sprawling Commonwealth cemetery holds one of the largest numbers of graves in Southeast Asia – 3,908 – of which half are unidentified. The graves are well taken care of as each lot is arranged according to faith and nationality.
Although the cemetery and memorial were a pretty sight, it was a stark reminder of the horrors of World War II, which happened right at our doorsteps. A sobering thought crossed my mind, knowing that these many people were sacrificed in the name of “peace.”
6) Day 2 – Night: Be Adventurous and Try the Juicy Satak, a Sea Specialty
Satak, the local’s nickname for slipper lobsters, are a type of lobster that is more related to crawfish than lobsters.
If you’re still confused (because I am too!), don’t worry because satak easily rivals real lobsters in terms of taste and texture. The crustacean flesh remained juicy even when we tried it cooked in three ways: fried, grilled and baked. Nevertheless, what blew my mind was the Dorsett Grand’s version of satak baked with cheese, which melted in my mouth. Reminded me of the equally divine Maine Lobster!
7) Day 3 – Morning: Uncover the 100-Year Old Mystery of “The Chimney”
The next morning, I drove up to the northern part of the island to check out Labuan’s longest-standing mystery: “The Chimney”.
Locals have argued endlessly over the purpose and theories behind the imposing brick tower. Was it a lighthouse or a ventilation shaft? I was fortunate to meet up with Ms Alice from The Chimney Museum who finally shed light on this conundrum.
She explained Labuan used to have a good amount of clay from mining, so a brick factory was set up at that time. The Chimney was actually part of the factory’s furnace system and was the only structure left after the factory and surrounding buildings were destroyed over time. Mystery solved!
8) Day 3 – Afternoon: Sample Local Fares and Produce at Pasar Sentral UTC
I went back to town and spent my afternoon at Pasar Sentral UTC, Labuan’s main wet market. I walked around the market to take a look at the catch of the day. It was my first time chancing upon so many exotic fishes!
Just by looking at the fish, my tummy startled to grumble. I decided to grab lunch at the market’s food court. I had been eyeing for a bowl of ambuyat, a staple ethnic Brunei meal made from sago palm. The starchy ambuyat was rather bland at first, but the flavour kicked in as soon as I dipped it in spicy soup and sambal. Sedap!
9) Day 3 – Evening: Stroll around Peace Park and Surrender Point
I made way to Labuan’s west coast and wandered around Peace Park, a zen-like garden built by the Japanese as a memorial for peace. With beautiful gazebos and fish ponds, the ambience was indeed serene. However, what really caught my eye was the uniquely curved brick wall sculpture.
Right in front of Peace Park is Surrender Point, another memorial that marked the end of World War II in Labuan. This was the exact point where the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces, a month after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
10) Day 3 – Evening: A Sunset Ending at Layang-Layangan Beach
Both the park and memorial is situated by Layang-Layangan Beach, known as the best sunset spot in the whole of Labuan. I pulled up a chair at a nearby stall and ordered a basket of barbeque grilled chicken wings, a favourite tea time snack for locals while waiting for the sun to make its way down the horizon, dramatically splashing the sky with shades of orange and blue.
When all was set and done, I retreated to Palm Beach Resort and Spa at nearby Pantai Batu Manikar to enjoy the last bit of the sweet sensations of this relaxing seaside retreat. I spent the rest of the day lazing by the pool, occasionally dipping my feet in the warm waters of the South China Sea.
I truly enjoyed my trip after scouring every part of Labuan, experiencing its food, culture, history and scenery. As the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Well, it can’t be any truer for Labuan!