Discover LABUAN, the small Borneo island with amazing beaches, great seafood, and a gripping WWII history.
Often referred to as the Pearl of Borneo, the island of Labuan is often overlooked as a vacation spot, but has a lot to offer in terms of nature, food experiences, seaside holidays and rich history. As the second federal territory in the country, Labuan is made up of the eponymous Labuan Island and the six smaller islands of Daat, Papan, Burung, Kuraman, Rusukan Besar and Rusukan Kecil.
Previously part of the Brunei Sultanate, Labuan was ceded to the British in 1846, becoming part of the empire for 115 years. Labuan is also home to a number of significant World War II (WWII) sites, as it bore witness to the Battle of Labuan, which was a major part of the British’s Borneo WWII campaign. A yearly "Remembrance Day" ceremony is conducted in full military tradition on the Sunday closest to November 11 at the Labuan War Cemetery to honour 3,908 of the fallen WWII soldiers. Located along Jalan Tanjung Batu, the Labuan War Cemetery commemorates soldiers from Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Northern Borneo, and the Punjab Signal Corp, who either died during battle or in captivity during WWII. Built and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is the largest war memorial in Malaysia.
The Japanese occupied Labuan from 1941 to 1945, and officially surrendered to Australian officials at a place now known as Surrender Point, located near Kampung Layang-Layangan. This spot was also reportedly where remaining Japanese soldiers performed mass hara-kiri, a ritual suicide as a way to maintain their dignity after losing the war. Next to it is the Peace Park, which was set up and maintained by the Japanese government as a mark of remembrance for fallen soldiers and civilians during WWII as well as a promise of peace and friendship between Malaysia and Japan.
Those wanting to know Labuan history in detail should also visit the Labuan Museum. Meanwhile, for history buffs who don’t mind walking, check out the Labuan Heritage Trail, which starts at a mysterious 106-foot stacked red brick structure nicknamed “The Chimney” and ends with a panoramic view at the tip of Tanjong Kubong, visiting places such as Gedung Ubat - believed to be a Japanese ammunitions cellar, along the way.
Of course, Labuan also has much to offer as a laidback beach destination. Rusukan Besar Island is a hidden gem for avid snorkelers as there’s much to see underwater, from the huge amount of corals and microplanktons to the various colourful swimming fishes. Occasionally, one can even spot blacktip sharks and turtles nearby. You can also do other water activities such as kayaking or simply laze around sunbathing and picnicking on the island. Rusukan Besar is also home to a newly opened turtle hatchery, and forms part of the Labuan Marine Park along with the neighbouring islands of Rusukan Kecil and Kuraman. Those wishing to stay overnight on Rusukan Besar can rent one of the A-frame chalets, which serve as the island’s only accommodation. The facilities are fairly basic, so travellers would do well to stock up on whatever they might need from the main Labuan Island.
Also not to be missed is Labuan’s two water villages of Kampung Bebuloh and Kampung Patau-Patau. Mainly inhabited by Bruneian Malays, houses in these villages are built at the water's edge, out of wood and on high stilts, which are then joined together by a maze of wooden walkways. Look forward to activities with the friendly villagers, including in traditional cake-making and tasting of kuih sapit, kuih jala rangup and roti jala, and their many story-sharing sessions.
Located in the heart of Labuan town, the 5-star Dorsett Grand Labuan is one of the more luxurious places to stay at. Meanwhile, 4-star hotels include the Palm Beach Resort & Spa (formerly the Sheraton Manikar Resort) at Manikar Beach, and the Tiara Labuan Hotel at Tanjung Batu. For those on a budget, cheaper OYO hotels and private rentals are fairly easy to find. Alternatively, opt for one of the many homestays around the island, such as the beachfront Pilly Homestay at Kampung Layang-Layangan or those located at the water village of Kampung Patau-Patau.
Fresh and cheap seafood is almost everywhere in Labuan. Locals often flock to Warung Jeliti at Jalan Bebuloh for lunch. Some of their must-try dishes include their special fish cooked in tangy gravy, prawns in yellow coconut milk gravy and local salad with chilli paste. There’s also Mr. Crab Seafood & Steamboat Restaurant at Jalan Kinabenua, where their special pumpkin crab and Thai-style steamed abalone are highly recommended dishes. Other popular seafood haunts include the Mawilla Yacht Club Seafood Restaurant at Tanjung Batu, and the Nagalang Seafood Restaurant at Kampung Nagalang. Labuan also has a hip, Instagramable café of its own: The Mortar Café & Lounge at Lazenda Centre. While prices at Mortar Café may seem slightly steep in comparison, their durian cheesecake and coconut yoghurt gelato are rather amazing.
Labuan’s various local desserts such as punjung (a cone-shaped dessert made from rice flour and wrapped in banana leaves), kelupis (glutinous rice and coconut milk rolls wrapped in nyirik leaves), jelurut (sweet, creamy kuih made from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk and wrapped in lined nipah leaves) are among the must-have delicacies of the island. These kuihs are easy to find at the island’s local weekend Pasar Tani market. Also not to be missed is Ramsey Point: the street fare is mostly inexpensive, with the additional bonus of free live music.
Labuan is about 115 kilometres southwest of Sabah’s Kota Kinabalu and 50 kilometres from Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan. As Labuan is an island, your best bet of getting here really is to fly directly into Labuan Airport. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia both service the Kuala Lumpur – Labuan route via KL International Airport (KLIA), with a one-way flight taking about 2 hours and 25 minutes.