LABUAN is steeped in history and sadly, the lesser-known of the three Federal Territories.
The Federal Territory of Labuan, unlike its counterparts Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur, is an island located off the northwest coast of Borneo and facing the South China Sea.
Its proximity to Sabah and Brunei makes travelling a breeze for those who commute daily via ferry to the island.
Labuan is only 8km or a 20-minute boat ride from Menumbok, a small fishing town in Sabah.
While Labuan is the main attraction, the smaller islands of Pulau Kuraman, Pulau Daat, Pulau Rusukan Besar, Pulau Rusukan Kecil, Pulau Papan and Pulau Burong are popular among tourists for island-hopping.
Choosing this duty-free port as a holiday destination was frowned upon by some well-meaning colleagues, who suggested I ditch my plans and head to Langkawi instead.
“There is nothing to do there!” an editor exclaimed while another asked, “You can see Labuan in two hours. What are you going to do after that?”
Instead of listening to them, I decided to go down the road less travelled.
With only the Internet to turn to for help with regards to the island’s attractions, I picked out a few must-do things including visiting the Chimney, Layang-Layang Beach, Kampung Bebuloh, Kampung Patau-Patau, World War II Memorial, the market, island hopping and a short hike.
All of that in two hours seemed far-fetched so I turned to some friends, living there, for help.
The fact that I knew people on the island, including my neighbour Dr Ishvinder Singh Parmar, long-time buddy banker Sukhdev Bedi and Dorsett Grand Labuan general manager Susan Carlos, convinced me to head there.
Carlos’ offer to get her concierge team help plan my itinerary was weight off my shoulders.
Visiting Labuan’s water villages, Kampung Bebuloh and Kampung Patau-Patau, was interesting because living in houses on stilts over the sea can be unnerving for some but not for these villagers.
There is no need to experience the village by boat as it is well connected by roads, concrete walkways and wooden rickety bridges.
I met up with local tour guide and self-taught historian Willie Teo who knows everything there is to know about Labuan, past and present.
“The British wanted Labuan for its port and coal.
“The island previously under Brunei, became a British colony on Dec 24, 1846 and the town was named Victoria Town,” said Teo.
Sarawak’s White Rajah James Brooke, who was instrumental in dealing with pirates in the region, became the governor of Labuan in 1848.
Coal, Teo said, was mined in a few areas namely Batu Arang, Merinding and Tanjung Kubong.
In 1907, Labuan became part of the Straits Settlement.
When the Japanese took over in 1942, Labuan was named Maida Island by General Tojo, who also inspected two airfields under construction by the Japanese army.
“The first airfield survived to become Labuan airport today while the second airfield at Timbalai was never completed,” said Teo.
Some of the places associated with World War II in Labuan are the Allied Landing Point, Japanese Surrender Park and Labuan War Cemetery.
A Remembrance Day event, attended by war veterans near and far, is held every year at the Labuan War Cemetery to honour 3,908 fallen soldiers.
Within the cemetery is the Labuan Memorial commemorating men of the Australian Army, Royal Australian Air Force and the local forces of North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei. (source: www.dva.gov.au).
The names of soldiers of Indian Army, mostly from the 2/15th Punjab Regimen, are also found at the cemetery.
When it was time to go for a hike, one morning, we were advised that the hiking trail I picked was a little dangerous considering the downpour the island had experienced, a few nights in a row.
Instead, nearby the island’s most famous and historical landmarks, the Chimney, is a hiking trail leading to the tip of Labuan.
Visitors who are interested to experience this trail can ask for guides from the Chimney Museum.
The guides, Azmi Tahir and Mohd Jafari Gani, know the ins-and-out of Tanjung Kubong where the Chimney is located.
Here in Tanjung Kubong, back in the day, was a little town known as Edwards Town where British coal miners lived.
They will even show the various wells in the forest and even an anchorage point, a few kilometres away.
The Chimney is a reminder of the area’s glorious past.
It was believed to have been built in the early 1900s when coal mining was at its peak in the north of Labuan, under the administration of British North Borneo Chartered Company. Made of red bricks, the 106 feet Chimney is known as “punil” by the locals.
Muzium Chimney assistant curator Nurlina Hamza said this coal mining artefact was never used and was merely decorative.
The 3.4km hike led us to the Sunrise View Point and Raffles Anchorage at the Lebuk Temiang beach.
Raffles Anchorage is the old jetty for the transportation of coal, by the British mining company, by lighters down to Victoria town (now Labuan town).
This was the way coal was carted out of the area before the railway track in Tanjung Kubong was built.
A wooden structure of the jetty remains and still can be seen during low tide.
While walking down the trail in Tanjung Kubong, an odd cylindrical shaped building comes in sight.
This according to the inscription board nearby is the ammunition store, believed to be a storage place for explosives and artillery used by the Japanese soldiers during World War II.
The guides would lead us down to the seashore to the northern most part of the island – the tip of Labuan.
With our shoes partially soaked, we made our way back into the forest to a burial site.
Here, five tombstones were discovered, and it is believed that the dead were associated with the Labuan Eastern Archipelago Company.
Labuan also has local coffeeshops, waterfront restaurants, bars and pubs as well as duty-free shops for visitors.
With fishing a popular activity among locals at the water villages, visitors to the island have various seafood restaurants to check out.
A visit to the market and seafood suppliers for a spot of shopping to cart goods back home, is a good idea.
Having seen so much of Labuan during my short stay, I realised that my colleagues were never privy to its beauty, history and charming landscape as I was.