Vagabond Tales: Kidnapped in Borneo

As a disclaimer, I have never officially been kidnapped in Borneo. For a very uncertain period of about 15 minutes, however, things were starting to look that way and the mental unrest was all the same.

The idea of being kidnapped in Borneo is not without precedent. In April of 2000 there was a much publicized incident in which 20 international tourists were kidnapped from the island of Sipadan by the Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf. Abducted in the night by armed men brandishing assault rifles, the remarkably unlucky group of tourists were shuttled 90 minutes by speedboat to Jolo, a small neighboring island belonging to the Philippines. Although all the Sipadan hostages would eventually be released, there would be future hostages taken by Abu Sayyaf who would be found decapitated in the jungle.

Nevertheless, I somehow found myself on a cramped minibus navigating the dense jungle roads of Northern Borneo en route to the island of Sipadan. Famous in the scuba world for having some of the best wall diving in all of Asia, the island presented visions of sea turtles and reef sharks that obscured the harsh realities, which may or may not have been lurking all around me.

To be fair, nine years had transpired since the Sipadan kidnappings and tens of thousands of tourists since that time had successfully made voyages to Sipadan without becoming a ransom piece. PADI even held one of their international conferences there.

When the minibus made an unplanned exit down a sketchy dirt road, however, the wheels of media-induced paranoia began to slowly churn into motion.In an effort to transport ourselves from the town of Sandakan – a festering hole of a city, which shockingly used to be home to the highest concentration of millionaires on the planet – to the coastal town of Semporna, I had opted to share a small minibus with my wife and eight other foreign tourists. Two Americans, two Germans, two Finnish speaking gentlemen, one Israeli and a curious Englishman who had somehow managed to teach himself the Malay language in a period of about three weeks.

It was a neatly packed little metal box of Westerners just rife for the taking.

Statistically, kidnapping should be the least of my worries in this situation. In Robert Young Pelton’s legendary travel series “World’s Most Dangerous Places,” he lays out the facts, which show that statistically the most dangerous form of transport on the planet is a shared minibus in Southeast Asia. The chances of my dying in a head-on collision with the various other minibuses all adhering to the non-existent traffic laws are far greater than the likelihood of being targeted for an international ransom showdown.

Again, once our driver made an unexpected turn off of the highway and down a narrow dirt road, however, the fear of crashing was replaced by the fear of being videotaped in front of an Arabic banner hanging on a wall. Granted, this isn’t Pakistan, but the Malaysian state of Sabah still sports some hardline Islamic fundamentalists. Furthermore, the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers had actually departed that fateful evening from Semporna, the town where we were headed.

**As a highly relevant side note, I recognize the intrinsic and massive differences between peace loving Muslims and Islamic fundamentalists who adhere to misguided interpretations of the Quran. I have no problem traveling in countries where a muezzin announces the calls to prayer, and I feel safer in many of these places than I do in bad neighborhoods of American or European cities. With so much fear being broadcasted over the airwaves nowadays, however, you’ll have to excuse my mind for even going there for a brief moment since our modern-day world is saturated with such images.**

Bouncing further and further down the dirt road it became glaringly apparent this was not the way to Semporna. We hung a left, then a right, and then two more lefts before we were on narrow ribbon of dirt leading through the teeming green jungle. In the ten minutes or so which had transpired since departing from the paved highway our repeated attempts to communicate with the driver had gone unanswered.

“Umm…excuse me. Is this the way to Semporna?”


“So…where are we going?”


Even the self-taught Englishman attempted to make some inroads in Malay.

The only response was furtive glances in the rear view mirror, a cracked piece of glass where we could momentarily make contact with the pupils of his eyes.

Finally, just as the confusion was beginning to turn to angst, our rickety van pulled up in front of a collection of wooden shacks surrounded by a semi-functional barbed-wire gate. Columns of smoke rose from smoldering piles of leaves and the incessant sounds of the jungle provided the only break in the silence.

If ever there were a rebel jungle compound it would be in a place that looked exactly like this.

Still not having informed us as to where exactly we were, our driver hopped out of the van, slammed the door behind him, and proceeded to walk part way behind the wooden hut closest to the van.

As the driver casually strolled into the compound all of us hostages inside of the van strained our necks so as to be able to watch as he lit a cigarette and proceeded to get in an argument with an unseen person standing behind the hut.

In my mind it went something like this:

“I brought you the van full of foreigners, now I want my money! That’s not the price we agreed upon! What do you mean I’m going to have to tie them up myself! Ugh…fine”.

Tossing his still lit cigarette onto the damp grass our driver then reached out for an object, which at this point I was almost certain was going to be an automatic weapon.

“Unbelievable,” I trembled. “This is actually happening.”

I squeezed my wife’s hand and hoped for the best. I can only assume the others in the car were somewhat on the same wavelength, as the vibe was undoubtedly tense.

Then, in a moment which will forever cause me to doubt the paranoid ramblings of my mind, our driver emerged from behind the shed holding an…


He was holding a small, peaceful, sleeping child. If ever there were a sign of pacifism and calm then it was in the shallow breaths of that sleeping Malaysian child. Cradling his young daughter in his arms, our driver gently kissed her forehead and told the rest of his family it was time to leave.

This was not some military compound where they beheaded innocent travelers in a political and religious global war. This was his family’s house and he was here to pick up his children.

Cramming his wife and four children into an already packed van our relieved group humbly endured the remaining 45 minutes of the ride to Semporna. I, for one, internally hung my head in shame for allowing my mental demons to get the best of me.

Here before us was not a terrorist operative but a hard-working man just trying to make a living to support his wife and children, a human trait that defies religious affiliation, language-barriers and the image which might grace the cover of your passport.

This, I feel, is one of the greatest gifts of international travel: the ability to witness firsthand that regardless of geopolitical stereotypes, religious affiliation, general ethnicity, or what modern media may lead us to believe, we’re all just humans trying to make it in this world, who work jobs to survive, love our families and strive to sculpt the most comfortable and successful lives possible.

So no, I have never been kidnapped in Borneo. My mind, however, has been a hostage of the largest kind.