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There’s depth to Labuan - the International Garden Island of Borneo

Pictures courtesy of Labuan Corporation

Labuan, off the west coast of Sabah, is a well-planned island destination with a variety of attractions. It’s a people-friendly place, with many parks, lots of greenery and walkways. To top it all off, it’s duty-free, writes DEEPAK GILL.

Labuan’s safe harbour has always been popular with the seafarers of old who travelled the South China Sea and Brunei Bay seeking refuge from the monsoon winds and pirate attacks.  

They always called in at “Labuhan” –– a Brunei-Malay word meaning anchorage. Over time, it was shortened to sound like “Labuan”, hence the present name.

The chimnery that has never smoked fascinates locals and visitors alike.

Labuan has an interesting history and was under various empires over the past centuries. After the demise of the Majapahit Empire in the 14th century, Labuan came under the rule of the Brunei Sultanate. In 1846, the island was ceded to the British who declared it a colony of their empire and renamed it Victoria. In 1942, the British lost the island (and a whole lot more) to the Japanese, who renamed it Maida. 

After the war, the British resumed occupation of Labuan until 1963 when the island joined Malaysia and became part of Sabah. It acquired federal territory status in 1984 and was declared an International Offshore Financial Centre in 1990.  

Shipbuilding, ship repair, oil and gas are among the major industrial activities on the island. Other fast-growing sectors include banking and finance, tourism, and education.

Bustling business centre  

The Federal Territory of Labuan is about 10km off the coast of Borneo and comprises the main island and six other islets, and is known as the International Garden Island of Borneo.  

Labuan has everything one would expect of a tropical island. There are various beaches, and the secluded ones on nearby islands offer solitude. 

The surrounding coral reefs provide a glimpse into the delicate marine eco-system. Shipwrecks promise thrills for divers, and lovers of sea sports can enjoy an increasingly wide range of water sports and recreation.  

Monuments and memorial parks reflect the rich history of the island. From world-class resorts to five-star hotels, Labuan is well equipped as a venue for business meetings, conventions and exhibitions.

Wreck diving in one of the marine sports on offer in Labuan.

Formerly known as Victoria town, Labuan town is a bustling business centre with modern office and shopping complexes rising up around picturesque post-war architecture. 

Labuan Square is situated in the centre of town. At the heart of the square is an open-air stage, which is a popular venue for some of the island’s major events and performances. 

Downtown Labuan is mainly shophouses in a pedestrian-friendly setting. The town itself isn’t very large or busy, but the waterfront area is always a hive of activity. The landing berths are here, as well as Customs and Immigration. Barter trade is carried out in this area and glass noodles seem to be very popular with Filipino barter traders.

Largest war cemetery

There are several World War II historical sites, like the Labuan War Cemetery, the largest in Malaysia. 

This beautifully landscaped memorial garden is the final resting place of 3,905 war heroes who either died in battle or in captivity in Borneo. Row upon row of headstones mark the graves of mainly Australian and British soldiers, with some belonging to the Punjab Signal Corp and New Zealand forces. Many soldiers who perished in the brutal Sandakan-Ranau Death March of 1945 were buried here. 

The Peace Park has a large memorial mound with a bronze plaque etched with a renunciation of war. The park was built by the government of Japan and is well planned with gardens and pavilions. The small ponds with stone bridges and park seats are all Japanese-inspired.  

Another plaque commemorating the Japanese surrender is mounted on a stone slab near the entrance. The Surrender Point is where the 32nd Japanese Southern Army surrendered to the Australian Imperial Forces on Sept 9, 1945, which marked the end of World War II in Borneo.

Mystery of The Chimney

Coal mining was big in Labuan in the 18th century, and there is an expansive network of underground tunnels and deep wells which were mined from 1847 for 64 years at Tanjung Kubong.  

The area is dotted with pits and tunnels, and one can actually enter a low tunnel with the help of a short rope and emerge at the top.  

Close by is an archaeological mystery –– The Chimney, a 33m structure believed to be linked to the coal mining days. It is made from 23,000 red bricks from England, all neatly stacked.  

The Chimney was thought to be nothing more than a ventilation shaft. However, recent findings revealed that there were no traces of smoke or burning to suggest it was a chimney as popularly believed. Various hypotheses have been put forward as to its purpose. Some say it was an unfinished mansion, while others say it was a lighthouse. It has become an intriguing riddle that fascinates locals and visitors alike.

Outdoor attractions  

There are a couple of popular beaches in Labuan. The Layang-Layangan Beach has cycling paths and picnic tables shaded by large leafy trees. It is lively, with stalls, horse-riding and it also hosts the Peace Park. The Pancur Hitam Beach is one of the most developed beaches in Labuan, and a beautiful park extends directly onto the long sandy beach. 

There’s an exotic collection of Borneo birds at the Labuan Bird Park at Tanjung Kubong, though it’s quite small. It has three large domed cages, and is home to many of the 580 species of birds found in Borneo’s diverse habitats, from mangroves along the coast to forests in the mountains. 

One huge facility on the island is the Labuan Sea Sports Complex at the waterfront, the largest such centre in Malaysia. The modern amenities will enable Labuan to host more international sea sports events and championships. The complex houses the main sea sports centre, an administrative block, a marine biology museum, souvenir shops and eateries. 

The Labuan Marine Park is located 2km off the island’s south. The park encompasses 10 sq km of pristine water and three secluded and undeveloped islets –– Pulau Kuraman, Pulau Rusukan Kecil and Pulau Rusukan Besar. They feature long stretches of fine sandy beaches, jungle trails, quiet bays and a reef atoll. Rare butterflies and a prolific bird life add to the enchantment. If you’re into sea snakes, dozens (mainly kraits) will greet you at an atoll off Kuraman.

Diving and fishing

Divers head to Labuan due to the presence of four wrecks –– the Blue Water Wreck (Filipino trawler, sank 1981), the Cement Wreck (Japanese freighter, sank 1980), the American Wreck (US Navy WW II minesweeper, sank 1945) and the inappropriately named Australian Wreck (Japanese Navy WW II cargo & passenger steamer, sank 1945). Diving at these wrecks range from novice to serious wreck diving with penetration into the hulls.  

The Cement Wreck is most suited for novice divers. For the Blue Water Wreck, one must be an advanced diver with deep diving experience. To penetrate into the two wrecks or to dive the American and Australian wrecks, you must be certified in wreck diving or have logged time on wreck diving. 

Labuan also offers fishing. Clear blue waters teem with rich marine life. The warm ocean currents from the South China Sea provide abundant food for many game fish like tuna, dorado, mackerel, black marlin and sailfish. The best months for sport fishing are from February to June, when these big game fish, on their migratory route, pass through Labuan waters.  

For coastal fishing, the numerous coral reefs and bottom structures around Labuan yield good harvests of table fish like coral trout, garoupa and red snapper. The adventurous could head to deep waters at Semarang Bank, Hassel Foot, Glacier Rock, McKenzie and Jahat shoals. The mangrove swamps provide rich fishing grounds for estuary fishermen, where there are barramundi, mangrove jacks and terpon. 

There’s also the opportunity to sight proboscis monkeys, one of the largest monkeys in the world. The males are distinctive with their long pendulous noses and over-sized stomachs, and hang out with a harem of up to 10 females. They can be seen on the trees that line the banks of the Menumbok River, 20 minutes by boat from Labuan town. 

Labuan is accessible by air and sea, with daily flights on Malaysia Airlines. 

Air-conditioned ferries operate between the island and Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, on a daily basis. 

Source: The Star

Labuan Tour Packages

Half-Day Labuan Historical City Tour

2D/1N Labuan Sightseeing and City Tour

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