Labuan is not Sabah.
It’s its own Malaysian territory 8 km off the coast of Sabah that comprises a main island and a tiny archipelago. From Kota Kinabalu it’s about a three hour ferry journey, and after a short layover in Labuan you can ferry onward to Brunei for a total travel time of about 6 hours.
That beats the 8 hour bus ride, plus you get a 2 hour layover in the wholesome main city to eat a durian lunch.
Wholesome might be a surprising word to describe Labuan, given the island’s role as both a depot for oil tycoonery, international finances, and duty-free shopping.
In nearby Brunei you can’t even buy some of the items for sale in Labuan, like alcohol and cigarettes, and it’s estimated that a fair amount of the cigarettes sold in Sabah were illegally smuggled the few kilometers over the water.
This has led some to call the island “Sabah’s Sin City,” despite the fact that Labuan is very much not Sabah. According to this Wikipedia entry, you should be careful not to get that confused.
Despite this shady introduction, the actual main city of Victoria is a sleepy, quiet town with wide sidewalks, pedestrian friendly signs and – get this – drivers who stop and wave when you cross the street rather than politely nicking you as they zoom by.
It was like an alien planet devoid of motorbikes, sidewalk trash, or too many cats. I even spotted orange trash cans at most street corners.
From Kota Kinabalu
Jess and I decided to take the ferry from Kota Kinabalu, in part because a boat ride sounded scenic and fun and also because I was keen to avoid any more time spent on the bus. This way, we spent four hours in transit and two hours exploring the durian scene somewhere new.
Durian lunch sounded good to both of us.
That morning we bought tickets straight to Brunei at the Jesselton Ferry Pier in downtown KK. It cost us 56 RM ($17 US), plus an additional 5 RM for a pier fee once we arrived in Labuan.
The ferry departed at 8 AM sharp, and we were on our way in a torpedo-like boat with tinted windows that made everything a very strange shade of blue.
Arriving in Labuan
After three hours of blueness, we arrived in Labuan, hungry and ready to go on the durian prowl.
We had arrived a little after 11 AM, and as we stepped off the boat the heat wave hit me. Was it possibly hotter in Labuan than in Kota Kinabalu? A comparison on Weatherspark indicates probably not, but still. It was hot.
Luckily, there was a baggage drop at the exit so for only 2 RM each we didn’t have to haul luggage around with us.
Everything in Labuan would turn out to be easy-peasy.
As we left the Ferry Pier, we spotted those friendly pedestrian signs I mentioned earlier. Which pointed us in the direction of the fruit market, no time or sweat wasted.
The Fruit Market – Pasar Besar Labuan
We found the fruit market within 10 minutes, probably five. Like many markets in Sabah, it was a large barn-like building that was open on two three sides.
The meat section was in a concrete and stucco building directly opposite, which says “Pasar Besar Labuan” in large blue letters.Just so you know you’re in the right place.The market place was quiet, the few vendors lazily waving fans in the oppressive mid-day heat.
The floor was swept and mopped, without even a smattering of rotting vegetable matter or fish scales.
There were no strange aromas of blood or chicken guts or even the algae smell of tubs of live eels. The whole market was just fruits and vegetables, categorically arranged in tidy rows and piles and bunches.
When all the fruit was expensive, I was hardly surprised.
Not only was the majority of the fruit being shipped in from mainland Sabah, Labuan was clearly a class up.And so a kilo of longkong that might cost 2 RM in KK was 6 RM here. I couldn’t wait to see the durian prices.
Pickled Wild Mangos
We began snooping around the market, looking for durians. I noticed that a lot of the vendors had stacks of tubs filled with what looked like fruit.Looking closer, I saw the unmistakeable white flesh and speckled brown skin of the binjai (mangifera caesia)
“Binjai?” I asked the quiet lady hovering just behind the tomatoes in the photo below.
She nodded. “Pickle. Binjai pickle.”
Binjai is the same fruit as the Balinese White Mango or the Wani that I proclaimed to dislike so strongly in Bali. I’ve been coming around to it, slowly, but it’s still not in my top 10 and I wasn’t compelled to taste the pickles. Later we would see pickled binjai, or jeruk binjai, as well as another wild mango called Bambangan, all over the markets of Brunei.
It was just one more reminder of how close were were to Brunei. The people of Labuan even speak a dialect that is closer to Bruneian Malay than Sabahan Malay.
We didn’t see any durian.
There was not a single durian at the market to be found, and in fact we thought we were out of luck.
We had just turned away from the market toward the shady canal lining one side of the street when Jess pointed in excitement.
There was durian to be had somewhere. And it was close by.
Labuan Durian Street
Less than fifty meters down the street from the market was a durian stall. And then another, and another. There was a whole row of durian stalls.
As we stopped to take in the beautiful sight, a cluster of kids gathered, demanding a photo. It would be difficult to take another photo without them.
The durians looked a bit old, but we were just happy to find some. These durians came from Sabah.
Labuan, being almost entirely flat and in the middle of the ocean, is not exactly fertile ground for growing durian. But apparently people really love to eat it, and as there was an impressive amount of durian.
As we made our selections, the kids jumped with excitement, all giggles and craziness.
Westerners buying durian stops people in their tracks everywhere in Asia. It must have been extra exciting on this sleepy island.
I think we chose well.
None of the durians were named. This ambrosial yellow piece caught my eye, so we bought the container for 12 RM.
We also bought a small durian for 7 RM a kilo, which the vendor said came from Sarawak. They were small and full looking, with tiny thorns and a round, pear-shaped body. Each durian was less than one kilo, and ours came out to 5 RM.
The surprise was just how much flesh there was inside. The husk was thin, and each full-bodied locule opened up to mouthfuls of bitter, creamy goodness.
We definitely considered buying another one.
There were a lot of them, all small and all held together with rubber bands to help them survive the long journey and days off the tree.
If this is a variety you recognize from Sarawak, please tell us in the comments! I’d love to eat this durian again.
After a couple of durians, we headed back to the ferry pier. We would be in Brunei in an hour, and didn’t want to spoil our appetites.
I would always recommend taking the ferry to friends traveling from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei.
As someone who gets carsick by winding or lurching bus travel (brake happy drivers being a norm in a lot of Asia) I prefer to go by sea anyway, but the fact that it takes less time overall is a major perk.
You also don’t have to get multiple passport stamps as you cross through Brunei’s isolated Temburong area, back into Sarawak, and then into Brunei again.
PLUS there’s durian in Labuan.
Just be ready to be photobombed.
Find More Durian
Here is a Durian Hunting Map in Malaysia to get you started on your epic durian journey. Just click each pin to jump to a blog post about that location!