Adventures On A Tax-Free Island

I did originally want to go wreck diving around Pulau Labuan but the two dive centres I spoke to had four human minimums for their trips and no groups going out so that pissed on that bonfire. Not to worry, Labuan is known for another thing; really cheap booze. I like booze almost as much as I like diving. It’s a tax-free haven frequented by people over from Brunei where alcohol is forbidden and workers from the oil and gas rigs. So we figured we’d just get drunk. Getting there from Beaufort is a piece of piss, albeit very slow piss. You’ll be needing to catch a minivan to Menumbok from the bus terminal near the mosque which, of course, won’t leave until full.

That’s it. This terminal bas and this bas mini are my life now. We’re going to be here forever. We’ll have to get jobs.

We waited for aaaaages, seriously ages which was our own stupid fault really, we should have known, but it’s that fine line between getting there too early and having to kill time by filling your already strained bladder with kopi and completely missing it because suddenly every fucker wanted to go where you’re going and the van filled up in minutes. We got there at 7.30am. It was 9.40am when he finally started his engine and drove to the train station where he proceeded to wait even longer. He really wanted to fill that van. I contemplated offering to pay for the empty seats with my vast Western wealth, they’re only RM12 each, but fortunately more humans showed up and we were on our way by 10ish. It’s about an hour to Menumbok. Plenty of time to catch up on all that sleep I could have had if we weren’t waiting for a bas mini to fill up.

The minivan will drop you right by the ferry terminal where you can choose whether you want to take a big, slow vehicle ferry which will cost you two tenths of fuck all, or a nippy little fast boat which still isn’t expensive but is over three times the price. We’re too tight to fork out for transport, that there’s beer money, we opted for the former and settled in for a 2 hour crossing on mercifully flat water on a reassuringly huge vessel. Mind you, the Titanic was massive. I’m wary of boats. Those fuckers sink. Admittedly you’re more likely to survive a shipwreck than a crash in a pressurised metal tube with wings travelling at speeds humans have no business travelling at, but give me air travel over boats any day.

We’d eaten so many of these noodle pots in KK out of necessity (read: sheer, utter laziness) that we’d started to enjoy them. Kind of like the Stockholm Syndrome of snacks.

So. Labuan Island then. One of the joys of not travelling solo is splitting room costs. If I’d rocked up to Bandar Labuan alone I’d have had to cart my crap all over town in the blistering heat to try and find something less than RM50. With Tarrant in tow we could just stay at the first place we found, Hotel Utama, in a queen standard room for RM65, a windowless room tucked away in the middle of the hotel away from the noise of surrounding nightclubs with a bum gun in the bathroom so powerful you could disperse crowds with it. I’m not even shitting you, the first time I used it I nearly took my clitoris off. We sprawled out in the room for a while, blasting the AC, and I swear it’s hotter here than anywhere in Sabah, I think I was about to take liquid form and it’s only a 10 minute walk from the ferry, if that.

This photo doesn’t do it justice but these bus are all very satisfyingly colour coded by route. I would love to meet the human who designed this system and shake them by the hand.

So we attempted to go to the beach. There are local bus services all over the island and the terminal is behind where we were staying with all the buses parked up in neat lines according to route number. Each route is colour coded with that colour painted in a stripe down the side of the bus. It’s ridiculously pleasing to look at, I wish I’d gotten a better photo. So we caught the number 4, the red bus, to Layang-Layangan beach and it turns out there’s fuck all there bar sand. I should have researched it better but I think my brain decided that Bandar Labuan was so buzzing with bars and restaurants that the whole island would be, certainly the sunset beach.

I mean, it’s a beach. It’s got sand and shit. Sand which I’ve no intention of getting on me.

Nope. There are a few little stalls selling the usual fare, and some cats. A lot of cats. Everyone seems very fond of felines here and they hung around expecting to be fed leftover chicken wings. It wasn’t even a case of if, they knew they were going to get them and if you weren’t going to hand them over then they’d just damn well take them. But aside from snacks and small furry balls of claws and the cutest terror known to man there’s nothing there, nowhere to grab a beer, and we’d failed to bring anything with us and the beach just wasn’t that great. It just wasn’t worth getting sand on me. The Peace Park is there too so we had a look around that and paid a visit to Surrender Point, the place where the Japanese signed up for unconditional surrender after the Australians whooped their arses in WWII but someone had nicked the plaques. What kind of scumbag nicks the plaques from a war memorial?

We figured we’d stop trying to be all cultural and shit and caught the bus back into town where we started what we essentially came here to do; get pissed. The first place we ended up, Murphy’s Bar, seemed awesome at first. It was like pubs were back home ten years ago, all dark and smokey with a pool table, we liked it. We grabbed a couple of drinks and sat down. A guy on the next table grinned at us and said hello, we acknowledged him. He looked directly at me. “I like you!” he said. I tried not to snort beer down my nose and thanked him for the compliment. He stared. A lot. Then the Filipina proprietor came up to us and asked us where we were from.
“UK,” I replied, “England.” She looked at me.
“Are you single?” she asked. Wait… what? I managed to stutter out a no and she answered with,
“Because I am from the Philippines…”
“Oh we LOVE the Philippines!” I interrupted because I didn’t know where that was going but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it. We manged to steer the conversation to her country and where we’d been. The bloke continued staring. I don’t think he stopped. You know when someone is staring so hard you’d swear they were burning a hole through your head? Yeah, that. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so fucking uncomfortable. We necked our beers and scarpered before shit got weirder.

It’s not hard to find places to systematically poison your internal organs in Labuan Town so we stumbled into the next place, got drinks and sat outside right next to those flashing tube lights that shouldn’t allowed anywhere near the human ocular system. It was all a bit much so we left after one drink before it triggered a fit or some shit. What we wanted was a place with atmosphere. We both missed going out for drinks, necking beer in the hostel is all well and good but I missed going to a pub and ordering a drink from the bar in a noisy room surrounded by humans. Also, we fancied cocktails because we’re classy as fuck and a quick Google search told us that there was a bar very close by called Blue Wave which could provide these things. There’s actually two sides to this; the restaurant and the lounge and we finally located the latter and made ourselves comfortable at the bar.

Mugged for leftovers by a ball of fur with knives for feet.

It’s weird seeing people smoking indoors, it triggered all manner of nostalgia but I’m not going to lie, I’m not sad about the UK smoking ban. I forgot how it could be, it’s okay for one night for the novelty but I don’t think I could work in a pub where smoking was permitted anymore. I remember when you could hardly see from one side of the pub to the other through the smoke, it’s nice being able to abuse your liver without your poor lungs having to get involved. There were loads of people here too including foreigners, and also a load of local women shoehorned into some of the skimpiest outfits I’ve seen outside of a beach since we got to Asia, carefully watched over by an older woman who introduced herself to us as Mama San. Boss lady.

Another beach photo, largely for filler.

She was very polite to us, welcomed us to her bar, told us they had a live band on later then off she went around the room, talking to everyone, occasionally lining the women up in front of a bloke presumably for them to choose one. There was no subtlety about it either, it all seemed really organised, Mama San knows her shit and ain’t no one gonna fuck with her or her girls. This was where we were going to stay for the evening then because they had RM22 cocktails (less than £4, exchange rate fans), shit 90’s music which is some of my favourite music ever, actually decent imported booze for RM10 a shot (about £1.75) and a good atmosphere. The only downside was the squat toilets. Have you ever tried using a squat toilet when you’re three drinks in?

For some reason this is the only photo I have of our night out. There were signs up in Blue Wave expressly forbidding photography, so there’s that. Apart from that I guess it just gets hard to operate a camera after a few boozes.

As much as we liked Labuan not a single brain cell was happy with us the next day. I felt like all the moisture had been drained from my very soul and I silently congratulated myself for somewhat uncharacteristically booking our Miri flight for a sane hour.


Labuan Island, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Utama Hotel


Useful shit to know:

  • When we got to Menumbok from Beaufort we just followed the crowd into the ferry terminal to the Galaxy desk. There is more than one ferry company and Galaxy, it seemed, had the next big RORO boat out. I’m not sure about the others because we had to buy our ticket and board so I didn’t have time to find out, but Galaxy’s schedule is as follows:

Menumbok to Labuan
Mon – Sat, 6.00am and 11.30am
Sun, 3.30pm

Labuan to Menumbok
Mon – Sat, 8.30am and 6.30pm
Sun, 6.30pm

  • The RORO ferries take 2 hours and cost RM5 each. The fast boats only take about 20 minutes and cost RM17.50 each, I believe they leave when full. So it’s just a matter of whether you’d prefer to throw time or money at the crossing.
  • Regardless of which boat you take you’ll still need to pay the RM1.50 port tax at the desk opposite the Galaxy counter.
  • It’s RM5 in a Grab to the airport from Bandar Labuan.

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