"The Semporna Wonderland" Photo Exhibition by 223 GO! / 5 sept - 30 sept 2009 @ Casual Poet

An Obscure Paradise
Each time I mention Sabah’s Semporna, my friends’ reaction would either be a ‘What?’ or a ‘Wah!’ It takes an hour and a half to drive from Tawau Airport to Semporna. (Just what is so shocking about Semporna?) It may be a small, reputable town, but it often leads me to islands that are surprising, or have been left off the coast.

I ramble to people about the uniqueness of Semporna. Their reaction is typically exclamations of “What? Did you say ‘Semporna?’ What’s that?” Well, a picture tells a thousand words. So in a situation like this, I would silently fish out a few pictures of this wonderful place. Generally, sighs of surprise would ring out after the fifth picture.

For the past half a year, I have been visiting Semporna twice a month on average. So to me, the awe of this place diminishes with each visit. But I also understand my friends’ reaction. The blue sky, white clouds and the villagers in the pictures all seem unreal. To me, even the actual views remain as an impression of a world beyond our world.

On my first trip to Semporna which lasted five days, my friends and I visited different islands every day. Our itinerary then was: to get up at seven, wash up, finish breakfast by eight, and leave for an island.

The islands are scattered. We set out from our beach resort and took an hour or so to get to them on a motor-boat. We went to two islands per day. If we had more time to spare, we would visit a neighbouring kampung before we returned to the resort at dusk. After a shower, we had dinner then went to bed early. The next day, it was the same routine but a different route to other islands. Four days after this ‘adventurer’s itinerary,’ we had stepped onto at least eight islands, some of which are not even found on the local map.

Perhaps you find it difficult to imagine how a place off the coast looks like. Well, I felt the same obscurity before I visited Semporna. But after I did, I was blown away by its sights. They are unbelievable.

The Sea As Their Home

I’ll try to explain what I saw. Dispersed across the vast sea, about 10 families came into my view. (A ‘district’ usually holds less than 20 families.) They had built their homes on the sea, using the rare attap roofs to shelter the young and the old.

For these families, their transport tool was a boat made from a big tree that had been dug almost hollow. The sea folk depended on it to get around and to visit their neighbours. For those without homes, they lived in bigger tree-boats all year round. The stern would be the kitchen; the middle the living and sleeping area. If you are thinking, ‘So the bow would be the balcony?’ then you must be just as optimistic and cheerful as the islanders.

Now, this is a compliment and not sarcasm. If the islanders are not optimistic enough, how will they ever survive such a poor environment? I saw them decorating their ‘houses’ with ‘limited resources’ like old and broken ornaments and colourful bottles they had picked up. These sea folk are also known as ‘sea gypsies’ (a name locals give to sea dwellers with no identities, an inspiration from the ‘forest gypsies’). From their faces, I saw joy as vast as the sea.

For play, they tied a rope under their stilt house and swung on it toward the sea. No restrictions. Just freedom and happiness. The huge net beneath the rope contained their dinner. A family in the middle of the sea. So poor they did not live in a place with an address. Yet so rich as to have seafood everyday, where the fresh catch would be ‘whipped up’ in their stern-kitchens.

To prevent accidents, the sea folk cleverly placed the dangerous cooking equipment, like the stove and kettles of boiled water, on another boat. Besides the basic survival skills, the women I met were also ‘armed’ with beauty secrets. How did they prevent their skin from cracking under the cruel sun? They pounded guava leaves then mixed it with tapioca flour (their staple food) and made face masks of whitening effects.

Waves of Discovery

Every time I write a travel entry, I would remind myself not to use words that exaggerate my meaning. However the Semporna trip did leave me with much delight to exclaim about. Events were so unexpected that I often missed catching the sights with my camera.

It seems a little contradictory then to say that our purpose of visiting Semporna was to take pictures. However, circumstances and purpose often collided. We were attracted to and distracted by the surroundings, and in the end, missed our photography opportunities. Luckily, some of my group mates were more focused on the task. They managed to document everything.

Exactly what had whisked my attention away?

Besides the unique house design, the people, young and old, male and female, all fit into the scenery. They may all be refugees but they had entirely different lifestyles.

Those living in the middle of the sea were still okay, but not so for those living on the island. Those islander refugees had escaped from Philippines in an engine-less boat. One could only imagine how they had paddled over with their hands and feet.

Unfortunately, the tough journey had not made them curb their vice. I saw gambling dens in where everyone in the family gathered to play. Both adults and children were overjoyed in the ‘activity.’ Behind the den was a cemetery. A riotous bunch of people gambling near the solemn cemetery was a considerably rare sight, too?

With a surface area the size of three basketball courts, this is the place they had escaped to, the place that will mark the rest of their lives.


我总是一厢情愿,逢人都滔滔不绝地说着仙本那有多么地独特。而人们总是恍若听错,再三向我求证:“嗄?仙本那?那 是 什 么 来 的?”Well, A picture tells a thousand words. 这种时候,什么都无需要多说,只要出示几张照片就可以了。若无意外,一般人在看毕第5张的时候,就会“哇”声四起。

















---- TEXT by Sai Fong / PHOTOS by 223 GO!

i have known Sai Fong and her little company 223 GO! since last year, when we hosted a couple of their travel talks in the store.

223 GO!, if you don't already know, is a quirky, alternative travel organizer that combines travel with photography (and a big dash of love and laughter -- i added this part myself, because i think this is really what they're about), with destinations that include Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and soon Taiwan and Korea, and itineraries that include cycling overland and gasping collectively at the beauty of the Angkor Wat.

we're very happy to announce that we will be working with 223 GO! on getting our little travelers' club up and running. nothing fancy, just a destination, a group of like-minded people, and off we go....

and one of the destinations that we will be going to (if enough people decide to join us), will be Semporna, the wonderland of crystal clear waters and amazingly blue skies.

solid plans will be announced in awhile :)

end of this month (we will announce the date later), Sai Fong and our friends at 223 GO! will also be dropping by the store to share some stories on Semporna. come and join us, ask questions, marvel at the photographs, and then decide if you want to join us at this little paradise on earth.


"The Semporna Wonderland" Photo Exhibition by 223 GO!
DATE: 5 sept - 30 sept 2009
VENUE: Casual Poet

> the official 223 GO! website


September 1, 2009 at 9:34 PM kelly said...

incredible! I can't wait for this.

September 2, 2009 at 11:46 AM Edric Hsu said...

This is the perfect place for me, the kind of Paradise I'd been searching for! Thanks for the recommendation! ;)

September 3, 2009 at 1:24 AM ginny said...

these pictures look awesome :D

September 3, 2009 at 11:45 AM Cookie Cutter said...

Oh my! I look at the pics and can't stop going "the water! the water!". It's amazingly clear!

September 8, 2009 at 9:59 AM WendyMama said...

Hey I will be going to Semporna this month. After viewed the photos that you took, can't wait to see the great scene with my eyes!

September 10, 2009 at 10:59 PM Anonymous said...


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