Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A day in Labuan

Dr. Harimohan Narayanan
     Living in Brunei Darussalam, a small country in Borneo Island, Labuan was just an hour and half away separated by sea and ideal for a day’s holiday.  Labuan, itself an island surrounded by six smaller ones, was part of Malaysia, though peninsular Malaysia was pretty far off separated by vast expanse of sea.  Labuan belonged to East Malaysia and part of Sabah.  Before 1946 it belonged to the Sultanate of Brunei which was handed over to the British under a treaty, later it became part of Malaysia in 1963 and the island itself is now a federal island and a duty free port.

     It is famously known as the pearl of Borneo as it is part of the Borneo Island.  It has a population of just below 1,00,000 and is a booming center for oil and natural gas offshore explorations, industries and trade.  It has the Financial center which can be seen on its coast as a blue modern landmark a symbol of its progress.  Its duty free status makes it very famous for shopping specially for liquor and Chocolates which are available at very moderate prices and in immense varieties.  Labuan is also called the Chocolate island.  

     So, on a lazy Saturday morning I decided to make a day trip to Labuan.  I had stayed one night earlier in Labuan but I hadn’t gone around much then.  There are a lot of modern ferries that took one to Labuan in comfort from Brunei.  They started from Maura port in Brunei which was around 30 km from my house in Jerudong.  So I started early and drove to Muara port in the excellent highway reaching in half an hour.  There was parking facilities and the terminal was very comfortable.  There were boats every half hour and also a big Jingar which carried vehicles.  I opted for Suria ferry which I was told was the fastest and the most comfortable. It left at 8.30 am.  

   After immigration at Brunei end where my passport was checked and security clearance done, we were allowed to alight the small but comfortable air-conditioned boat.  It was not very crowded and I could sit comfortably.  There was a movie running  'Captain Philip' and that was very apt for sea travel.  Soon we left Brunei moving across offshore installations, big steamers boats etc.  We reached Labuan quite quickly.  The horizon was very nice with the blue colored financial center looming prominently.  After berthing we had to go through Malaysian immigration.  Even though normally Malaysia requires visa from Indian nationals,  Labuan had a special privilege for short stays it did not ask for visa but checked your multiple re-entry visa from the country you came from. 
     Walking out of the terminal I was into the heart of Labuan city itself.  It was a busy place with plenty of shops and neatly manicured roads.  There were a lot of cars and taxis and the sun was already up and it was warm.  I asked a couple of taxi drivers about my going to two landmarks I had in mind.  One was the Chimney, a structure known for its tourist attraction at the opposite end of the island and the second was the  war memorial and cemetery of second world war soldiers from different countries of the world. 
     They were quoting different prices.  But I was actually more keen on going by local transportation instead of by cabs as one was more exposed to the local flavor then and I was all alone travelling with just a camera and myself.  So it was good that I took the local bus itself.  I walked to the bus stand and found out that bus No. 6 would take me to the chimney around 30 km away.  The mini bus was comfortably cool and had a sprinkling of locals who were friendly and amused to see a bespectacled Indian walking around with a hanging camera.   The driver told me that it would cost three Malaysian  ringgits around 1 Brunei dollar or fifty rupees and he would tell me when to get down.  So I just sat back and relaxed, we passed through the high way looking at schools colleges houses markets etc. 

     Slowly the landscape became slightly more forested, greener and one could see short hills though Labuan was known to be generally flat.  The winding roads with green canopies, the winking sea between the trees, the dark clouds which had gathered and cool winds made the trip a very pleasant one.  Most passengers had got down by the time.  I reached the chimney and I too got down there.  The chimney itself was built around 1900 CE.  A red bricked structure around 160 feet height and a chimney below.  None knew its exact purpose though there have been several speculations as at the time coal mining was present.  One view was that it's part of an underground tunnel conduit but, on excavation, no such connections were found.  It could have been a sort of light house as it was near the beach and there was no evidence of burning in the chimney too!

     The government has constructed a very nice park and a small museum near the chimney.  I could get a free orange juice from a stall set up for some rally going on that day.  The climate was cloudy and cool.  After going around and taking selfies I came out and waved  at a small minivan which was part of the city transport.  I got into the front seat with the driver and told him I would like to reach war memorial.  He replied it wouldn’t go there but one could reach town and then go from there which I agreed.  There was an elderly woman sitting behind who spoke very good English.   She felt somehow I was a reporter or writer and need to be told and shown Labuan well.  So she talked to the driver and told me we will take you around once we reach town and show you how much Labuan is progressed recently.  Well, I couldn’t ask for more than that!!

   And so after reaching bus terminal with just the three of us we first went to the War memorial.  In 1942, Japan had taken over Brunei and Labuan and was ruling it.  In 1945 the allied forces with Australian, Indian soldiers landed in Labuan and in the battle ensued Japan had to surrender.  There were lot of casualties in the battle and the place is filled with neatly painted white tombstones of unknown soldiers.  On the opposite side of the road was a cemetery with names on the tombstones too.  There was a couple of memorials and one of them was dedicated to the soldiers of the Punjab regiment from India.  Later we drove to the elegant golf club of Labuan and the botanical garden.  There was also a water park.  I was shown the international school, the colleges, the mosques, the lone Gurudwara and the two churches of Labuan.

Dr Harimohan Narayanan
 Coming into the town we drove through the Labuan walkway, the port, the
 Sunday markets, and the big financial center where I got down, paid the driver some money and thanked the lady for the information provided.  I went into the complex with a food court and lot of duty free shops where so many varieties of chocolates at bargain prices and liquor were available.  Later I took a cab into the port area and went into an Indian restaurant to have lunch.  I still had an hour to kill.  So I walked around the many shops in town, sat on a pigeon filled square and rested and later with laden purchases came back to the ferry station to return to Brunei in my ferry.  It was a great day well spent too!
(The author is  a Keralite physician working in Medical Oncology department of the Brunei Cancer Center. He is an enthusiastic traveler and writer as well) 


  1. Nice to read.. it gives a feeling that we also were accompanying you in the trip. Great!
    Thank you very much.

  2. It was a piece of cake to my pair of eyes...factual,fanciful, and well written.Thank you for sharing a day in your life with us though we don't know each other. You know what really connect us is our stories, real or imagined.Thank you.

  3. Already added to the reserve bucket list!
    Labuan, here I come(futuristic)


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