Coming from: Serasa Port, Muara, Brunei Darussalam
Going to: Labuan Port, Federal Territory of Pulau Labuan, Malaysia
Documents required: Passport
Waiting time: 5 min (Brunei), 5 min (Malaysia)
Distance from Bandar Seri Begawan: 30 km (to Serasa, another 30 km across the sea to Labuan)
Labuan is Borneo’s Tijuana. From many urban areas on “mainland” Borneo, the offshore island is in daytrip distance. Its neighbours are the small sultanate of Brunei Darussalam and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Brunei is a dry country: Sharia applies, alcohol is forbidden. In Sabah and Sarawak, while legal, it is heavily taxed. And Labuan is tax-free! A bottle of Filipino San Miguel Beer costs 4 Ringgit (a bit less than 1 CHF or 1 USD) in a Labuan bar – in Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu they charge 16 Ringgit for the same. No wonder Labuan has become the hotbed of sin of the area. As a result, the island is not only famous for drinking, but also for its brothels.
Cheap alcohol: The main reason to come to Labuan.
Both Borneo and Labuan are geopolitical peculiarities. Borneo is the world’s only island that belongs to three different countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. But that’s not all: The Malaysian part of the Island is again divided into the states of Sarawak and Sabah, and the federally administered offshore island of Labuan. In 1963, when Sarawak and Sabah joined the Malaysian Federation, they were granted some special autonomy rights.
One of them is the control of their borders. Therefore, the authorities of the two states check and stamp all passports, even of those travellers just crossing from Peninsular Malaysia or even between Sabah and Sarawak. Labuan, in that sense, is part of Peninsular Malaysia. Although it is located just 15 km from Borneo, Malaysians and Bruneians will have their passports controlled when travelling there. I just observed one difference: Other than on the Peninsula, here the Malaysian Immigration doesn’t put a sticker into the passport.
We left Brunei for Labuan on a grey rainy season morning, with the earliest boat available. The boat was almost empty. Apart from the geopolitical peculiarities, the border crossing was in no way special. In both ferry terminals, Serasa in Brunei and Labuan in Malaysia, the controls were quick and superficial, due to the small number of travellers. There were no border markets, aggressive touts, truck and their drivers or any other of the usual border appearances.
A tame border: Immigration checkpoint at Serasa ferry terminal
Charmless and dull
The town of Labuan, however, offered some of those appearances. It was a dusty arrangement of nondescript concrete building, lacking any charm. It was not even ugly, just dull, faceless and uninteresting. We had been looking forward to start the visit at the café warmly recommended by a guidebook, but it turned out to be shut down. That left plenty of time to discover the place – too much, unfortunately. I found a couple of bar alleys, all empty because of the morning hour; and stinking. I suppose the brothels are located in the same district. It could have been mildly more interesting to visit the place by night. But then, there would be no boat back to Brunei; and anyways I had already been to Pattaya on this trip. To the Borneans, this place must be what Tijuana is to the Californians, but with its small scale and belonging to Muslim Malaysia, it will hardly impress any international visitor.
Downtown Labuan: Neither beautiful nor desolate.
And that was it (although there would have been some sights like an old chimney at the other end of the island). We spent the rest of our time in one of the less appallingly looking restaurants, tried a cheap Filipino beer, and hit the ferry again – back to dry Brunei.
Transport: Six to eight boats cross daily from Serasa to Labuan and vice versa, taking between one and 1.5 hours. The first ones leave around 8 a.m., timetables are available on https://www.brudirect.com/m_ferryschedules.php. The crossing (one way) costs 15-20 Dollars in Brunei or 30-50 Ringgit in Malaysia. Labuan also has regular boats to Limbang, Lawas (both in the Malaysian state of Sarawak) and Kota Kinabalu (Sabah State).
Accommodation: Serasa Port has no hotels, but Bandar Seri Begawan and other Bruneian towns are nearby. Labuan Port is located in the town centre, with many hotels around.
Food: Both ferry terminals have a kiosk with a modest range of food and drinks. In Labuan, there are many restaurants in the town centre, where the boats arrive. None of them looked particularly tempting to me, though.
Money exchange: There are exchange booths in both ferry terminals.