On my first day in Sandakan I took a quick look around and then started planning my trip around Sabah. There was turtle Island, uncle Tan’s jungle stay and a PADI diving course in Semporna. I was so excited. I skyped with my parents to tell them my great plans. A couple of hours later I was on Skype again, devastated. I’d learn I was in an unsafe area and was in a state of panic.
The hostel was empty. The one girl in my room told me something was going on on Sabah, but she didn’t know what. So I started googling. I never expected the website of my government, and many other governments, to say that travel to this area of Sabah was not recommended. In fact, they advised to leave immediately. I’d never thought about checking the travel advise. This wasn’t a war area as far as I knew. I guess you just never know.
The negative travel advise was for the part of Sabah east of Kudat and Tawau. Sandakan was part of this area, although you didn’t see anything was wrong in the city. There weren’t many tourist, but I was not the only one. A problem with negative travel advise is that insurances won’t pay if anything would happen. My travel plan had some high risk activities on it.
So what was going on? On the 12th of February 2013 about 100 Philippine men entered Sabah. The different governments can’t agree on the exact date though. These men claimed Malaysian territory was theirs. It escalated in March and people were killed in a fight between the Philipines and the Malaysian military. Now the area is a Special Security Area. The Philipines were hiding in the jungle, that same jungle I drove through just one day before. The military was looking these men.
So I called the emergency phone number of the embassy. The friendly lady on the Phone kept saying she could only give the advise to leave, but couldn’t make me leave. I shouldn’t panic she said. She asked if I had informed the embassy of my travel plans. I didn’t even know you could do that! And, why would I? It appears that even in a relatively safe country you have to be careful.
After some thinking I decided to cancel all my bookings and book a flight back to Kota Kinabalu, safe area. After that I received a text message from the embassy: ‘the latest advise is that all travel to this area is strongly discouraged. There are safety risks that put the traveler in an immediate life threatening situation.’ Freaky! The next day I’m at the airport. I hear some tourist talking about their great trip through Sabah and start to doubt my decision. But I decide to follow the advise of the government. They probably know a lot more than I do. Maybe next time, I will check the advise before I leave. In 45 minutes I am back in Kota Kinabalu.