Sabah’s version of Las Vegas, Pulau Labuan – an archipelago of seven islands – is Malaysia’s only duty-free federal territory. It’s not as glitzy and glamorous as the City of Lights nor is it as sleazy or dicey, but it’s got an indefinable swanky flair. Comprising the 75sqkm Pulau Labuan and six smaller islands (Pulau Burung, Pulau Daat, Pulau Kuraman, Pulau Papan, Pulau Rusukan Kecil, and Pulau Rusukan Besar) Labuan lies eight kilometres off the coast of Sabah.
Part of a federal territory governed directly from Kuala Lumpur, the island’s basically a giant airport terminal with duty-free purchases to be had at almost every corner. Its main settlement is Bandar Labuan – a town that’s light on character yet with a few attractions, namely the Labuan Museum and the Marine Museum.
Transport in Malaysia is generally a bargain. Taxis are reasonably priced and generally most drivers are candid and fares are either flat rates or calculated using meters. The country’s got a good network of inexpensive buses and trains and flights are cheap if you book in advance.
As with most destinations within the country, Malaysian Airlines Systems (MAS) operates flights from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu to Labuan. Labuan’s a popular duty-free stopover particularly between the Kota Kinabalu and Brunei routes. There are also passenger ferries, express boast, car ferries and speedboats that ply the course from Kota Kinabalu, Limbang, Lawas and Muara to Labuan – although schedules are prone to changes. There are no scheduled ferry services from the peninsula to Labuan.
Getting around Labuan
Transport in Malaysia is generally a bargain. Taxis are reasonably priced and generally most drivers are candid and fares are either flat rates or calculated using meters. The country’s got a good network of inexpensive buses and trains and flights are cheap if you book in advance. As with most destinations within the country, Malaysian Airlines Systems (MAS) operates flights from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu to Labuan. Labuan’s a popular duty-free stopover particularly between the Kota Kinabalu and Brunei routes. There are also passenger ferries, express boast, car ferries and speedboats that ply the course from Kota Kinabalu, Limbang, Lawas and Muara to Labuan – although schedules are prone to changes. There are no scheduled ferry services from the peninsula to Labuan.
Good to Know
Labuan shares many of Malaysia’s national holidays such as New Year’s Day (January 1), Labour Day (May 1), Independence Day (August 31) and Malaysia Day (September 16) but there are a few holidays celebrated here that are indigenous to the region. Namely Federal Territory Day (February 1) and the Harvest Festival (May 30 & 31). Labuan, along with Sarawak, is one of the only two regions in Malaysia that doesn’t have a public holiday to celebrate Deepavali.
Labuan’s weather is the same as the rest of Malaysia’s climate – hot and humid, temperatures rarely drop below 27 °C and sometimes even reach sweltering 38 °C. Rainfall in Labuan is much the same as in the rest of the country especially during the monsoon season from November to February.
Theft & Violence
Brunei’s national lingo is Bahasa Malaysia, which means, simply, Malay language. The situation is complicated by the presence of more than few other racial groups in the country. Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien and Tamil all form significant minority languages; in practice, you’ll be able to get by with English in all but the most remote areas. English remains the most prevalent means of communication between the different races and it’s the lingua franca of business in the region.
Internet, Time & Phone Calls
Featuring an advanced telecommunications infrastructure, Labuan is steadily gaining recognition as a global financial offshore centre and most large hotels will be able to provide you with wireless internet access.
The archipelago is 16 hours ahead of US. Pacific Standard Time – there are pay phone banks located throughout the island where you can make telephone calls. Either direct-dial long-distance or simply purchase pre-paid calling cards from either convenience stores like 7/11 or procure them from TM offices or post offices.
Malaysia’s three main cell phone providers are Celcom, Maxis and Digi. If you’ve got global-roaming services with your home cell-phone provider, then it will lock onto one of these networks. However if you don’t have global roaming facilities, then simply purchase a pre-paid SIM card with any of the country’s cell-phone networks. You can purchase starter packs at certain convenience stores or Digi, Celcom or Maxis kiosks for less than RM15 – Celcom has the best network coverage for Labuan.
Money & Taxes
Brunei was once the proudest empire in Borneo with its sultans receiving accolades from regions as distant as Manila. Yet by the end of the 19th century the emirate was crumbling as European forces chipped away at its territory and absorbed it into their new colonies. Eventually the Sultanate was whittled down to 5765sqkm, a tiny portion of its erstwhile size. Then came the discovery of oil in the town of Seria in 1903 and the tiny Islamic Sultanate experienced a dramatic turnaround. To date, Brunei’s lucrative resources have resulted in its becoming one of Southeast Asia’s richest nations.
Brunei’s legal tender is the Brunei Dollar (BND) – each unit of currency is broken down into 100 cents and you’ll see it written as B$, or simply $. Denominations come in B$1, B$5, B$10, B$50, B$100, B$500, B$1000 and B$10,000; coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents.
Travellers are encouraged to use traveller’s cheques as this is the safest and most convenient way of carrying around money. They can be cashed at most Brunei banks, licensed moneychangers and some hotels, upon presentation of a passport – some shops even accept these cheques as cash.
Brunei’s banks’ opening hours are pretty standard – Monday to Friday 09:00 – 15:00 and Saturday 09:00 – 11:00. Most of these establishments charge a few dollars transaction fee for cashing travellers’ cheques. On the other hand, major credit cards are another safe, reliable, widely accepted and easy method to carry out transactions – American Express, MasterCard and Visa can be used at most upscale hotels, restaurants and shops in Brunei.
Customs & Local Culture
- As in the rest of Malaysia, public displays of affection are considered taboo in Labuan. Malaysia’s a Muslim nation and most residents frown upon overt displays of affection – even holding hands! However there are no hard-and-fast rules especially for non-Muslims – tourists are given a lot of leeway but most locals will consider too much touching to be inappropriate.
- Malaysia is home to a good number of mosques, Hindu shrines and Buddhist temples and Labuan is no different. If you’re planning a trip to visit one of these houses of worship, do dress modestly – some of these places of veneration forbid entrance to those who are dressed inappropriately. Women, in particular, are expected to be dressed in outfits that are not too revealing.
- English is Labuan’s lingua franca especially in business transactions. Although locals revert to their native vernacular amongst themselves, you’ll find that most residents will happily converse with you in Manglish (Malaysian English).
- It is considered bad manners to wear your shoes in someone’s home.