The mention of Labuan draws puzzled looks among many Malaysians. Where is it located? Is it part of Sabah? No, Labuan, named after “labuhan” or harbour, is the second Federal Territory of Malaysia after Kuala Lumpur. Located off the state of Sabah in East Malaysia, enchanting Labuan is known as “the Pearl of Borneo”.
On the other hand, for those who have heard of Labuan, most did not see a reason to visit this offshore financial hub. Why would they, when they have no business that require the financial services offered?
Of Sun, Sea, Sand and Surf
The Federal Territory of Labuan is made up of Labuan Island and its surrounding six smaller islands. Therefore, this is really a paradise for those who cannot get enough of the beach and sea. Island hop to Pulau Rusukan Besar, Pulau Rusukan Kecil, Pulau Papan and Pulau Layang-Layangan, to get your dose of sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling or even diving.
One of the best experiences to be had at Pulau Papan is to sail into the sunset on a Parahu Larai (sail boat). For only RM15 per pax, the boat takes 8 – 10 passengers, 4 – 5 on each side. It is a therapeutic feeling to sail into the sunset far off in the horizon, with the wind blowing through your hair, leaving all worldly worries behind.
Famous Wreck Sites
Divers would be delighted to know that there are a few famous wreck sites off Labuan waters to appease their underwater adventurous spirit. The four identified vessels are SS De Klerk, USS Salute, MV Tung Hwuang and Mabini Padre.
SS De Klerk, also known as Australian Wreck, was a Dutch merchant vessel that hit a mine and sank in 1944, killing 339 people. Meanwhile, USS Salute, or American Wreck, was a World War II US Navy minesweeper which also struck a mine. It sank in 1945, taking along with it the lives of nine American sailors.
As for MV Tung Hwuang, or Cement Wreck, it was a freighter that transported cement to Brunei for the construction of the Sultan’s new palace in 1980. Finally, Mabini Padre, also known as Blue Water Wreck, was a Philippines fishing trawler which caught fire and sank in 1981.
Wreck diving off Labuan waters vary in difficulty and requires different skill levels. MV Tung Hwuang is said to be one of the easiest to explore and most suitable for divers who are new to wreck diving.
Surrender Point & Peace Park
Based on the above two wrecks from World War II, SS De Klerk and USS Salute, it is obvious that Labuan was a hot spot during that period. Occupied by the Japanese 37th Army for more than three years (1942 – 1945), the Allied forces headed by the Australian Army, launched an attack to repossess the island, starting with its airstrip.
Within four days, most of the main island, including its main town Victoria, was secured by the Allied forces. This caused Japan to surrender, and it was done formally at a spot now known as Surrender Point, near Layang-Layangan Beach.
Surrender Point is located within Peace Park, a park built by the government of Japan in 1982 as a memorial to peace and to preserve the memory of Japanese soldiers who fought and fell on this island, as well as civilians who perished as a result of the war.
Centrepiece of the park is a large mound with two prominent curved walls ringed by tropical rocks and pavilions, not unlike a Japanese garden. This Labuan Peace Park is one of three Peace Parks in the world that was built by the Japanese government.
Labuan War Cemetery
Erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Labuan War Cemetery is the final resting place for 3,908 war heroes who were killed during the Japanese invasion of Borneo in the early 1940s. More than half of these graves are identified.
They included Commonwealth soldiers from Malaya, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and India, Prisoners of War, as well as those who perished from the Sandakan Death Marches. Believed to be the largest war grave in Southeast Asia, among those who are buried here are Victoria Cross medal recipients, Sergeant Thomas Currie Derrick (1914–1945) and Corporal John Bernard Mackey (1922–1945).
Every year, a delegation of Australia and New Zealand war veterans, descendants and friends, alongside local leaders, attend the annual Remembrance Day at Labuan World War II Memorial, located within the grounds of the cemetery.
Duty-Free Shopping Haven
Labuan’s duty-free status is a major attraction for tourists, as they enjoy exemptions of custom duty on a range of imported goods, including confectionery, textile, leather products, liquor, perfume, pearl, cigarettes and dive equipment. Is it any surprise that Labuan is a shopaholic’s haven? With the scheduled completion of the RM70 million BVO Premium Outlet, Malaysia’s first duty-free premium outlet in the first quarter of 2019, the Federal Territory will be elevated into a premier tourism destination.
Labuan is very much unexplored when it comes to tourism. There is still plenty to see and do, even if water activities, history and shopping are not interesting enough for some. Did you know that one of Labuan’s best kept secrets is its glorious sunset? It has to be seen to believe!
Note: Photos by Labuan Corporation, Department of Marine Park Malaysia (Labuan), Zahariz and Emily2U. An edited version of this article is published in the August 2018 issue of Malindo Air in-flight magazine.
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