Labuan Travel Guide
Off the beaten track in a part of Southeast Asia that is already lesser travelled, the island of Labuan doesn’t get many mentions in the travel media. Yet, it has much more to offer than offshore banks and duty-free shopping – with war history sites, water villages, a stunning beach, and more, you’ll find plenty to do here over a stay of several days.
Start your time on this island territory by visiting the Labuan Museum. Within its halls, you’ll find a variety of exhibits that will explain the history of human habitation on the island stretching from prehistory.
Other topics covered include the days when the Brunei Sultanate ruled the island, the ethnic diversity of Labuan, and its modern-day designation as an offshore financial centre.
This island also played a big role in how World War II unfolded in Borneo. Many Allied soldiers fought and fell while attempting to defend this corner of Southeast Asia from the Imperial Japanese. The bodies of these brave men and women rest in dignity within the immaculately kept grounds of the Labuan War Cemetery.
Laid in rows across a wide field, almost 4,000 military personnel from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Malaya now rest easy after being kept under depraved conditions as POWs. Some were forced to do the infamous Death Marches across Borneo from Sandakan, a horrendous practice which killed all but 6 who were forced to perform them.
There is information online for those want to visit the graves of relatives – when you do visit, dress respectfully and keep your voices down so those who gave everything for their country can be remembered in the appropriate way.
Japan’s vice grip on Borneo didn’t last much longer, though – by 1945, Allied strikes had their armies on the run. Within a week of landing in June of that year, Australian forces had secured control of the island from their Axis foe.
It took until September before Japan officially conceded defeat, a month after suffering a knockout blow at home in Hioshima and Nagasaki. A monument known as Surrender Point can now be found where the handover of control took place – surrounded by beautiful gardens and adjacent to a mesmerizing sea beach, the peace that followed that long-awaited day has since held – we can only hope it will continue in perpetuity.
As in the rest of Malaysia, Islam is the dominant religion. While many halls of worship in this faith look relatively similar to each other, the An’Nur Jamek Mosque stands out from those with more contemporary designs.
Noted for its modern architecture, it appears to outsiders to take on the form of a spaceship. Within, you’ll find sizable prayer halls and a peaceful atmosphere. As with any mosque, dress conservatively and ask a local, and you may be allowed to tour its grounds.
Want to explore a unique community while in Labuan? Take a side trip to the Patau-Patau Water Village. Set up by Brunei Malays who came over to Labuan in the 1930s, it was damaged in World War II, then repaired, setting the table for its continued existence today.
Built on stilts over the shallow water and connected by pathways, it is a fascinating place to wander. Just be respectful of the local residents – don’t peek into or walk into open doors unless you are invited in by the owner. If you are interested, several houses offer a homestay program – inquire with the local tourism board soon after your arrival in Labuan.
Learn about the wildlife that lives beneath the waters of this island by visiting the Labuan Marine Park. A modern facility with cool architecture inside and out, you’ll find aquariums, touch tanks, and exhibits which showcase and explain the flora and fauna which call the oceans off Borneo home.
With no admission charge, this museum is a great place to go as a family if the weather is refusing to cooperate during one of your days in Labuan.
As you tour the island, make room in your schedule to see The Chimney. While many believe to be a mining ventilation shaft, it is not completely understood what its true purpose was, even more than a century after it was built.
While you may be left to speculate on the answer to that question, definite information is given at the adjacent museum about the generations of coal mining that went on at this site, making it worth the trip to the northern tip of Labuan.
Rain may be a prominent fixture of your time in Labuan, so when the sun breaks out, take advantage of it by spending a lazy day at Layang-Layang Beach. Draped by white sand with brilliant blue water, it is a wonderful place to be on a sunny day. The locals take good care of this space as well – it has won awards from the UN for its cleanliness, a distinction which residents take seriously.