Labuan: A very surprising and welcoming island

I featured Labuan Island in a recent interview on 6PR radio.  This article was written for Grand Dorsett Labuan.

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Grand Dorsett Labuan

I’m standing in the lobby of the Grand Dorsett Labuan amidst a crew of Dorsett Grand Labuan staff. They are about to perform their welcome song for my crew, an assortment of trekkers from various parts of Australia who have recently completed the Sandakan Ranau Death March Trek, retracing the footsteps of Prisoners of War in 1945.

I’ve been pulled into the group and handed the song sheet which is in English and Bahasa Malay. I keep up reasonably well even though I don’t know the tune and speak very limited Bahasa Malay.

The one image I have of this experience is looking up from my song sheet across at the singers alongside me as they belt out the line, “We welcome you to Dorsett Labuan!” and they’re singing with smiles on their faces. They’re not embarrassed and there’s no reluctance to show their pride and enthusiasm for their hotel.

My group of trekkers are spellbound. Many have travelled throughout the world and it’s the most heartfelt greeting any of them have received in a hotel. I used to think being gonged on arrival and handed a peach iced tea was pretty special but these guys are the best I’ve seen at welcoming guests.

The Dorsett Grand Labuan is the only five star hotel on the island and just minutes from the airport, waterfront and the busy town centre. The hotel receives regular awards for its customer service and with their singing staff I think they also have a good chance of winning Malaysia’s Got Talent.

Labuan Island is a territory of Malaysia off the western coast of Borneo and to the south of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. It can accessed easily by plane or ferry or if you’re slightly more adventurous, by speed boat. Electing the speed boat route takes 20 minutes from the mainland and you motor past islands, shipwrecks and red hulled offshore drilling ships waiting for their next job.

The island has a wonderful pace about it and even the traffic is slower than you’ll find in other parts of South East Asia and distinctly more courteous.

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Labuan:  Where even a Ferrari will slow down to let you cross the road.

While most tourists come for the great duty free shopping, particularly the textiles and technology, there is also a very good museum with free entry located five minutes’ walk from the Dorsett Grand Labuan. The colourful history and cultural themes of Labuan is well documented with many interesting and interpretive displays.

The first Governor of Labuan, James Brooke, was better suited to his original inspiration for coming to Borneo in the 1800’s.  After some strategic discussion at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Brooke set off across the South China Sea to rid Borneo of its Pirates.  He was better at being swashbuckling than sitting behind a desk but those who took his place have done a magnificent job of creating an island where the shopping is brilliant, the history is rich, the hawker markets are cheap and delicious and the diving and fishing is just about unbeatable anywhere in the world. For those with a love of reality tv, Survivor Island, where the first ever Survivor series was set, is located nearby to the north and tours allow you to wallow in the same mud pools as the contestants, including a nude Richard Hatch.

My trekking group have come to Labuan to bind together the Sandakan Death March Trek that began with many days of trekking through mountainous Borneo jungle and then riding a stock carriage train to the coast, then a fast boat to the island. Every step we’ve taken and the stories we have talked about have led us to Labuan War Cemetery, the final resting place for the few whose remains are known and the many who are only ‘Known Unto God’.

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Labuan War Cemetery

As we walk the lines of memorial graves we think about the Australian and British Prisoners of War who perished at Sandakan and Ranau and on the three death marches in 1945. We think about how the final 15 prisoners were shot and killed 12 days after the war had finished. From 2434 Australian and British Prisoners of War, only 6 survived.

We stand in front of Richard Murray’s grave. He stepped forward from a line of men and said that he alone stole rice, knowing he would be killed. Stealing rice was a capital offence and he sacrificed his life so that others may live.

We stand in front of Captain John Oakeshott’s grave, a doctor who had the opportunity to escape but decided to stay with the sick. He was one those killed 12 days after the war had ended.

As a fighter jet from the Royal Malaysian Air Force flies over the Cross of Sacrifice at the cemetery we also remember the sacrifice of so many local people from Sabah and Sarawak who were killed during World War II and the bravery of those who provided assistance to the prisoners.

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The Royal Malaysian Air Force pays tribute to the fallen from the Empire.

It is a beautiful war cemetery, well maintained by Labuan authorities and staff are on site Monday to Friday from 7am to 4:30pm.

While the trek has been physically exhausting the walk through Labuan War Cemetery has been emotionally exhausting. Returning to the Dorsett Grand Labuan, our group is quiet and some choose to just sit in the lobby while others go off to breakfast, for a swim or a play with the resident sun loving cat.

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Susan Carlos is a wonderful General Manager of the Grand Dorsett Labuan but this cat is truly in charge.

For each us, in our own way, we find the space to reflect on our journey. I’ve cried during this trek but for now I am smiling. As I remember the staff at the hotel who sang to us I know I have to come back and share this experience with others, for the history of the past and for the friendships of the future.

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Back to Borneo, the race is on!

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