Sipadan Island - Being there, Part 2

by B. N. Sullivan

Pulau SipadanYesterday, I began to tell about what it was like to stay at Sipadan Island in 1993. These days, staying on Sipadan Island is not allowed. Following a 2004 decision by the Malaysian government, lodging facilities on the island were closed down in an effort to preserve Sipadan's fragile ecosystem. Divers can still visit the dramatic walls and lush reefs of Sipadan on day trips, but they must stay elsewhere. In 1993, however, there still were a few facilities on the little island where visiting divers and sport fishermen were accommodated. Those 'resorts' were only for the hardier breed of traveler, however.

We stayed at an establishment called the Pulau Sipadan Resort (PSR), which could accommodate about 25 to 30 guests at a time. The place was well run -- clean and organized, with a friendly and competent staff who did an amazingly good job, given what they had to work with.

The accommodations on Sipadan were adequate, but spare. As I mentioned yesterday, the island was (and is still) without electricity and other utilities. Each of the lodging facilities had its own generator to produce electricity for its own use.

All supplies used on the island -- fuel for the boats and generators, foods, beverages, cleaning supplies, and so on -- had to be imported by boat from mainland Borneo. Potable water was regularly delivered to the island this way as well, arriving in large plastic bladders. Potable water was a precious commodity on the island, and it was carefully rationed.

Lodging consisted of small thatch-roofed huts, with virtually no amenities, save for beds and some plain wooden shelves. The huts had no running water -- much less bathrooms.

Aside from the resorts, there have been no permanent human settlements on the island, in part because there is no reliable source of fresh water on Pulau Sipadan. When the resorts were established a system was devised to tap into a brackish water source in the island's interior. That water was unsuitable for drinking or cooking, but good enough for bathing and cleaning.

SipadanBathing on Sipadan entailed a ritual that became a part of the adventure of the place. PSR had a single bath house for everyone to use. It was an oblong structure made of concrete blocks. Inside, a row of stalls lined each side, and at the end of the corridor between the rows of stalls were a few sinks. The toilet stalls were on one side of the building, and on the opposite side were the shower stalls. As best we can recall, there were six toilet stalls, and six shower stalls. Nothing too unusual so far.

The bathing ritual began outside the bath house where prospective bathers lined up at designated hours, carrying their towels, robes, soap, and shampoo. Alongside the path leading to the bath house was a stack of plastic pails. Each bather was instructed to pick up a pail.

Near the door to the bath house, a few PSR staff manned a charcoal fire over which a very large cast iron kettle was suspended. In the kettle, fresh water simmered, warmed by the charcoal fire. Just before entering the bath house, each bather held out his or her pail, and the staff used a large metal dipper to fill the pail with warm, fresh water.

Each of the shower stalls had a pipe -- no shower head -- that emitted lukewarm brackish water. We soaped up and washed with the brackish water, and then poured the fresh water from the plastic pails over ourselves to rinse.

SipadanBy the way, we were never alone in the shower stalls: several pairs of eyes always watched us as we bathed. The eyes belonged to creatures from the island's dense jungle behind the bath house. The creatures -- mostly large Monitor Lizards, and the occasional Coconut Crab -- liked to hang out in the bath house.

The lizards, which were between one and two feet long with a hefty girth, liked to walk along the tops of the partitions between the stalls, and from that vantage point, they 'monitored' the bathers. This was a bit unsettling at first, but it soon became apparent that they only wanted to watch, and by day three, we just ignored them.

The big crabs were more difficult to ignore. If they felt challenged, they would rear up, holding out their rather large pincers in a threat display. Those pincers are capable of cracking open coconuts -- hence the name 'Coconut Crab' -- so when one appeared in a shower stall where we were standing naked, we were inclined to behave in a way we hoped the crab would not perceive as unfriendly.

Of all the aspects of the Sipadan bathing ritual, though, the thing that became legend among the guests was that big iron kettle of water simmering over the fire outside the bath house door. The daily allotment of warm, fresh rinse water was welcome, of course, but that big pot also evoked cartoon-inspired images of cannibal tribes. After all, this was Borneo. We all joked that, should we see sliced carrots and onions floating in that kettle one day, we would know we were about to become soup!

Next, for Wordless Wednesday, we will post a photo of one of Sipadan's reef creatures. After that, we have a few more stories to tell about Pulau Sipadan.


  1. Coconut crabs! I think I'd rather go smelly. The Monitoring Lizards sound like fun, though.

  2. Sounds like Survivor but with luxuries I bet they would love to have!

  3. @ Lavender - Those coconut crabs were BIG land crabs. They were all over the place. The shower, and especially the fresh water rinse, was welcome and worth the trouble. When you are doing five dives a day, the issue is being salty, not smelly.

    @ Kathy - "Survivor with Luxuries" - ha ha, that's a good one -- actually quite an apt description. Thanks for that. ;-}


  4. That would be a blast to experience, heck I would rather have the coconut crabs and lizards watching me shower than the cockroaches in some of the flea bag motels I have had to stay at !!

  5. Bobbie, have you ever wondered to become a story teller?!

    Even without your photos I got a clear idea about the island. The bathroom part was hilarious. I'd freaked out encountering the coconut crabs. Never heard of those. Great that those didn't settle in Hawaii!

  6. @ Bernie - You know, I prefer the crabs and lizards to cockroaches, too. Good point!

    @ Pua - Thank you. I'm beginning to think you are one of my biggest "story" fans. :-D

    And yes, we can be glad that we don't have those coconut crabs here in Hawaii. They're a bit ill-tempered -- and they also steal things. We saw one skittering away with a teacup on its back that it had stolen from the kitchen.


  7. Sounds like such a nice trip and some place I wouldn't mind visiting. It would take me a while to get used to not bathing alone (lol!). Thank you so much for sharing all of this!

  8. Yes, nowadays the government does not allow people stay on the island and limit the visitor a day. When we want diving in the island, we should order through vacation agent that serve for vacation ti Sipadan island.


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry