The overtly Islamic vibe around town was confirmed by finding that my habitual Roti Canai brekkie was singularly unobtainable in Lahad Datu, with the few muslim restaurants who had bothered to open up at all being perversely barricaded shut by a curtain of sweetie stalls, Ramadan's grip was particularly tight here. Presumably the sweeties were retained for later as nocturnal treats, or could it just be that Islam managed another hypocrisy in tolerating surreptitious nibblings? That was a surprise to me in this nick of the woods, not what one expects of Borneo at all, but I had to guess that the legacy of the Sultanate of Sulu was still felt and helped betray nearby Mindanao's reputation for fundamentalism. Failure to find a net cafe or the offices of the odd tour operator rather re-affirmed my stance to make tracks south today, the out of town attractions of the Danum Valley Conservation Area and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve would have to remain unexplored. Though I baulked at the kind of money which had been variously quoted it was still a shame to be missing out on such rare promises as recently discovered pygmy elephants, but in the absence of clear information I felt I didnt have much choice anyhow.
A minibus to Semporna was slow to fill up but eventually blessed me with the requisite 2 and a half hour back seat crush, and in spite of what the guidebook promised, away from the westerly Crocker Range it was still a remarkably undulating trip which occasionally revealed unprecedented vistas of great unmitigated swathes of oil palms stretching to the horizon. Smoke belched from the stacks of processing plants and trucks loaded with the red and yellow nuts bimbled about everywhere. The Madai Caves were another consideration I resisted along the way, until Semporna materialised disturbingly grubby and dilapidated. The contrasting quirk of a taxi shark and tour tout who pounced on me straight from the minivan were no big deal but told a story, and it was in search of an acceptable bed that I quickly learned of Semporna's Jekyll and Hyde demeanour which sported both the grungiest town centre I had witnessed in a long time, yet harbouring in one isolated modern corner a full on travellers ghetto of Western menus, decadent drinking dens and various double standards. It shocked me to find the tourist provision so overt and yet upon reflection I should have foreseen it, Semporna was the jumping off point for Sipidan Island, one of the worlds most revered dive spots. Remarkably for the want of availability I ended up at an immediately adjacent resort, the stilt elevated Dragon Inn was a marvel in being a network of longhouses entirely suspended above the sea, and though more than a little basic as regards ablutions and affording zero bugproofing it was an attraction in its own right at 2 quid a night. Declaring it too late to search out the sole terrestrial attraction out of town, I elected for a stroll around Semporna's shabby streets and rickety boardwalks which revealed the same wide ethnic diversity, spontaneous candour and unaccustomed scum factor as Lahad Datu.
Semporna managed to take it one further though in a fantastic stilt village comprised more of grocery stalls and a fish market than dwellings, and the list of firsts was cranked up with the discovery of sizeable octopus for sale, enormous clam shells discarded in piles once denuded of meat and the rich tapestry of seacraft boasting the novelty of twin outrigger canoes with angular prows. The Philippines lay only 20 minutes away by means of one of the faster ones and it showed. At another time that would have been an irresistible allure but I had steadfastly resolved not to convolute my escapades any more than they already had been. Perhaps another insight into that land was also gleaned in the tremendous swathes of garbage and flotsam on a scale which gave the rats the confidence to scurry about brazenly in the open, a large water monitor slinking past nearby surely confirmed it. Remarkably contoured offshore islands and mainland promontories compounded by more happy hankerings from the locals had me smiling inside more so than in a long time however, and it really was palpable to have literally turned the corner and entered a different locale, the Celebes Sea. And had it not been overcast, paradise would have been upon me. Sad to say then that I had to revert to the travellers ghetto to avail myself of apparently the towns only acceptable curry house, though I redeemed myself in promptly walking out on the party scene at one of the "dive bars", it only served to encapsulate why I hated being a tourist. It was a snobbery and I knew it but not being a diver helped me in assuaging the locals with my Bahasa rebuke "Saya tidak turis" (I'm not a tourist), whilst revelling in my cranky, cynical resolve that to party was a stereotype I did not want to be. Decently priced beer and a spritzy air-con net connection sure came in handy though. Catching up with the Cherrypickers later that night drew me into another sad debacle whereby the moist semi-clad environ of diving was exchanged for another, it proved that for most the holiday couldnt possibly be complete unless you danced on the dodgy plywood tables, got off your face on cheap "bucket" cocktails before getting off with someone on your tour you barely knew let alone had anything in common with beyond talk of what marine life they had seen. Man, thank fuck I was a miserable cynical bastard.