I have been a big fan of weekend getaways since I moved to Asia in 2009. I usually take 1-2 days off for a long weekend, which does not affect my work too much, but my mind can still get some rest. I have visited South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore , Malaysia and Vietnam on my numerous weekend trips from Hong Kong /Shenzhen over the years. My last destination was the world’s top dive spot – Sipadan in Malaysia.

Sipadan has been long on my list of the places to go and after I had to cancel my trip last year, we finally made it this July. Sipadan’s barracuda point has been often voted the best diving spot in the world. At the barracuda point, you can see huge schools of jackfish, barracudas, turtles 3-meters long and many many reef sharks in just 10-15 meters. You can read more about diving in Sipadan for instance here.

It is fairly easy to get to Sipadan from Hong Kong or Shenzhen. The cheapest flights are usually with AirAsia to Kota Kinabalu and then from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau. Unfortunately, the timing of the flights will force you to stay overnight in Kota Kinabalu on the way to and from Sipadan. It means that you will need at least 4 days off work to finally dive the barracuda point. Let’s have a look at the optimal schedule of your short trip from Hong Kong.

  • Day 1: Flight from Hong Kong at 7:50 pm (note it is “almost” after work flight, just get out of the office early) to Kota Kinabalu (Flight AK238). You can stay overnight close to the airport at the C’haya hotel. The hotel is just 10 minutes from the airport and offers good value for the price. There are few decent restaurants close to the hotel including Chinese, Indian, and Malay.
  • Day 2: In the morning you can fly with AirAsia AK6260 at 9:00 am from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau. Usually, your resort in the Sipadan area will arrange transport from here for you. First, you take a minibus to Semporna (around 2,5 hours) and then speedboat to Mabul, Kapalai or Mataking (1 hour). You will arrive around lunchtime, ready for afternoon dives at your house reef.
  • Day 3: Sipadan or house reef diving
  • Day 4: Sipadan or house reef diving
  • Day 5: After breakfast, you will leave for Semporna and Tawau, transfers are arranged usually by the resort. You can take the 3:05 pm flight from Tawau to Kota Kinabalu with AirAsia. As you will get quite early to KK, you may opt for a nicer hotel in the downtown, which can be Le Meridian or Hyatt Regency. Both hotels are very centrally located to enjoy some great local food. On my previous trip to Sabah, I stayed in the Jesselton hotel, which is an institution in KK, but I was not very impressed. However, it is much cheaper than the 5* options in KK. The best sunsets in KK can be seen from the Tanjung Aru beach between the city center and the airport. In the evening, You can go to the KK’sport for fresh seafood or choose local Chinese restaurant with the famed meat and bone soup( 肉骨茶).
  • Day 6: Get ready for early flight from KK, so that you can make it to the office today. I did take the 6:25 am AK237 flight with AirAsia and made it to Central in Hong Kong at 10:00 am.

There are limited options for accommodation that allow you to dive the Sipadan island. Diving at Sipadan is controlled by the government and a limited number of permits is issued each day. Each of the resorts below has given quota for the permits. Only the Seaventures Dive Rig has guaranteed dive permit for Sipadan for packages from 3 nights above. Yes, this means you need to stay in the Sipadan area for at least 3 nights to get a guarantee that will make it to Sipadan. Resorts with Sipadan permits quota are listed below:

  • Kapalai resort (picture below)
  • Sipadan Mabul  Resort
  • Mabul water village and Mabul water bungalows
  • Mataking island resort
  • Borneo Divers Mabul Resort
  • Seaventures dive rig (pictured above)

You can find more info about the resorts here, but you should book directly with the resort to get the best price. I chose the Seaventures Dive Rig for the following reasons:

  • Best price in the area
  • Guaranteed permit for Sipadan
  • Best food
  • Unique experience living on a rig
  • Great atmosphere with bunch of dive enthusiasts
  • Absence of Chinese travel groups with children

Diving around the house reefs around Mabul and Kapalai is rather average. Most of the corals in the area are death and the visibility is rather low.

The dive sites at the Sipadan island are world-class with beautiful corals and abundant marine life. The Balicasag and Apo islands that belong to the best of Philippines have comparable corals and maybe better visibility, but the Sipadan island is still one level above when it comes to density of life underwater.