Travel Food Story – Scuba Diving in Borneo

Picture this – You are on one of the most beautiful & remote islands in the world, with the best scuba diving and bio-diverse marine life you could ever experience, the clearest water and the nicest people – basically HEAVEN…. and then you find out most of the food being offered at your resort is highly processed and tainted with MSG, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and other additives, etc. This happened to me and here’s the story on how I dealt with it.

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Earlier this year my husband and I celebrated our 6th year wedding anniversary at one of the best diving spots in the world called Sipadan. Mabul island, where we stayed, is located off the east coast of Borneo in Malaysia and it took 2 days of traveling, a 1.5 hour car ride and a 1 hour boat ride to get there from Thailand. Mabul is definitely one of the most remote locations we have ever been and we knew we were going to be a captive audience at the resort and the food choices offered would be limited.

Borneo MapWe spent a week in this overwater bungalow (pictured below), in the middle of absolute paradise. It felt like we were on our honeymoon again 6 years earlier in French Polynesia. The water was just as clear and even more fish to see, it was just breathtaking! Obviously, there weren’t any french bakeries, local farmer’s markets, or restaurants nearby and basically nowhere to buy food except the resort store (which didn’t have anything but highly processed snacks, candy and soda). The best we could do on Mabul was to buy coconut water and fruit from a nearby village but that was it.

Of course I had my travel food but this was our last stop at the end of a 3 and 1/2 week journey away from home and our stash was getting limited. So to say I was a bit worried about the food and what I would be eating, is an understatement! I did manage to pick up 7 lemons in Kuala Lumpur on the way into Borneo, so I would at least have my lemon water with cayenne habit covered.

IMG 2992The first night we arrived, we took a look at what we would be eating each day. Breakfast & dinner were served buffet style and included an assortment of raw veggies and fruits (which was great). For lunch, the resort sent picnic lunches to the dive site for you to refuel between dives.

For dinner our first night, the hot food looked tasty but suspicious.  I asked the manager if she knew if MSG or other additives were used in the food and she said she was almost positively sure it didn’t. For some reason my gut reaction was not gelling with what she told me and it was written all over my face that her answer wasn’t good enough. She finally suggested after dinner that I speak to the kitchen directly and make sure my requests were answered definitively. I found it a bit odd at the time that the manager said I couldn’t speak to the kitchen until after my meal, but I just went with it…because for goodness sakes I was on vacation and didn’t want to start an argument.

That night, because my husband and I eat pretty much exclusively vegetarian (unless we can trust the meat source) when traveling, asked for a vegetarian meal which was not offered in one of the buffet choices. Out came fried tofu, covered in a thick brown sauce with vegetables and white rice.  I tried some, but filled up on raw vegetables and fruit. Seeing what kind of vegetarian option they served me, I remember sending an email to my friend Max that night saying I was going to become a raw vegan for that whole week living off my bags of trail mixes, nuts, seeds and whatever raw produce that was served. This was going to be the only way to stay clean, I thought.

After dinner, as the manager promised, I had an opportunity to go back into the kitchen and meet the chef. He was more than accommodating and showed me the packages of spices and powdered sauce mixes they used on almost all the food. Looking at list of ingredients I saw on the processed food packages, I could feel my head starting to spin. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a picture of these packages, but I figured I could probably find them on the internet instead of freaking out the chef with the request of a photo, especially at the beginning of a week long stay. (I needed him on my side!)…I still haven’t been able to find the package of “Lipton – Brown Sauce” on the internet. The package was written in Chinese, but thankfully had the ingredients listed in english. The “brown sauce” they used to make my tofu definitely included MSG, along with probably every other harmful crazy ingredient I’ve ever mentioned on here! My worst nightmare.

Luckily, after a polite request to only make our food with salt and pepper and nothing else… (including the margarine they served instead of butter)…. we didn’t have to worry any longer. Rosy, the lead cook in the kitchen made us some incredibly delicious food during our visit that didn’t include any of these additives from the sauces. She would check with us each morning and ask us if what she was making was ok. She even made special soups for us and a popular Malaysian dish called Roti Canai from scratch with vegetable curry that totally blew us way.

Meanwhile, all the new friends and other guests we met ate the food loaded with these additives and I bet probably wondered why we were getting such special treatment. I have to be honest here, it was so sad for me to watch all of these people on their vacation eating this food, not knowing and really not caring enough to ask. To think we could have been eating potentially toxic food for a week, is a horrific situation that thank goodness I know now how to avoid. You just have to ask. But most people simply won’t do this and that’s why food companies continue to make profits on selling us chemicals instead of real food and even in far off places like Borneo!

In the future whenever I travel and know my food options could be limited, I will always send an email ahead of time to the hotel listing out the ingredients I would like to avoid and confirm with the kitchen staff upon arrival.

This tip came really useful in my recent trip to Charleston, SC too… which you will hear about soon.

So if you take one thing away from this blog post, it’s this. Ask about what is in your food!  It’s worth the extra effort. And don’t be shy!

And the best part… You’ll save a lot of time from having to do a detox when you come back home :)

Here’s a snapshot some of the eats during our time in Borneo…click on the + to read the description.


I filled up my plate with as many fresh vegetables and fruits I could eat each day.

For lunch while diving, I usually resorted to having Suzie’s Thin Crisps with Raw Almond Butter Packs.

Believe it or not, I had just enough oatmeal, raisins, dates and walnuts to make breakfast for me and my husband every morning before long days of diving. I used the last portion on the last day just before we left for home.

I ate more watermelon than I ever have in my entire life. Watermelon is on the “Clean 15″ list and is considered less risky to eat non-organic.

Rosy’s daily soup for us, included this simple broth based vegetable soup with tofu. 

I really liked the stir fried noodles with cabbage that Rosy made for us more than once.

These Navitas Naturals Power Snacks were a godsend between dives. Did you know you can burn up to 500 calories for every 45 mins of diving?

There was no shortage of fresh fish and white rice. Of course I didn’t eat much of the rice, but at least I knew it didn’t have additives.

This was our picnic meal one day while we were Scuba Diving, needless to say, we didn’t eat it – it definitely wasn’t vegetarian!

Steam veggies were a staple every night and something we could rely on and trust.

I enjoyed the assortment of raw vegetables, I filled my plate full of them any chance I got.

Homemade Roti Canai with vegetable curry. This doesn’t look like much, but it was to DIE for.

Pistachios and oranges, made good supplements to what they offered for lunch during diving.

The best treat after diving. Fresh coconut, pineapple, and a little coconut palm sugar blended with ice!

One of my hobbies I wish I could spend more time on is underwater photography. Here’s a look at some of my favorite moments taken from the waters of Borneo. Enjoy!

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Got any interesting travel food stories to share? I’d love to hear them, as I bet other readers would too.

Thanks for reading and going along on this journey with me.

Food Babe

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26 Responses to “Travel Food Story – Scuba Diving in Borneo”

  1. Denise

    I really enjoyed reading your post. We recently took a very long road trip from Florida to Pennsylvania to New York and back and took two coolers of food for our daily meals along the way. I appreciate your commitment and candid approach to how you solved your food concerns. Thanks so much for sharing. I enjoy your blog.

    Reply
  2. Jennelle

    What a timely story! Actually, I kept thinking of your blog last week when I was on my Caribbean vacation (6th anniversary trip, too, incidently). I generally eat a whole food diet when I cook at home and at restaurants I can trust around town. I was a little worried when I read the descriptions of the food offerings at our resort, but I thought, how bad can it be if I don’t eat clean on vacay? It’s only going to be a week, right? I guess my system disagreed because I had terrible G.I. issues all week and felt overall really crappy, which kinda put the damper on vacation fun. We had a buffett for lunch and dinner on most days as well, and I tried to make sure I got plenty of fresh fruit and plain yogurt, but I don’t think it as enough to overcome the rest of the food offerings. I told myself next time I needed to check out the blog entry about the food you pack for travel and make sure I have something decent to eat no matter what the food options are where I’m staying. Also, I came home feeling like a tick and bloated, I’m sure from all the salt, MSG and everything else, so now I’m trying to catch up on detox with a hot lemon water every morning (trick I learned on your blog) and lots of plain green tea and raw veggies.

    Thanks for all the great info as always! I really enjoy reading your blog. Also, your underwater pics are FANTASTIC!

    Reply
  3. Cady

    I am headed to Portland, OR for a week on Saturday and I think it’ll be fairly easy to eat cleanly there, meat choices included. There’s a lot of support for “farm to fork” style eating. I’m psyched!

    Reply
    • fireflyglows (to Cady)

      Portland is amazing! I’m from there and have been eating healthy for over 20 years..Thanks to living in the health food store utopia! So much great food in Portland, so little time..

      Reply
  4. Tiffany

    You’re very brave! I know I have the right to and I know I should ask about what’s in my food when I am in situations like that, but it’s easier not to. It’s easier not to make a fuss and to avoid a potential scene. Thanks for standing up for what you believe in. It’s give me the courage to do the same!

    Reply
  5. Mireille

    Hi Food Babe!

    Another great post! You are gorgeous by the way!

    Ok so my question: How much do you trust what restaurants list on their website as their ingredients? I recently read a post on foodrenegade.com (http://www.foodrenegade.com/decoding-labels-restaurant-iced-tea/) about being more judicious with the iced tea you order and just because it’s ‘unsweet’ doesn’t mean it is totally clean. For example, some restaurants will claim freshly brewed tea while they secretly use Lipton concentrated tea that is LOADED with high fructose corn syrup even though it’s considered unsweet. Dunkin’ Donuts says that their unsweet iced tea is made from nothing else except freshly brewed leaves. How much faith can we have in that they are telling the truth?

    Reply
  6. crystal

    hey food babe!

    great post :-) bf and I are taking a trip to punta cana to an all inclusive place and im a little worried ab the food there. i’ll be sure to bring some of my own goodies though. :-)

    Reply
  7. Kristen @ Enjoy This Organic LIfe

    wow, looks amazing! Beautiful underwater shots!

    Just stumbled across your blog for the first time last week and I am in love! You share such valuable information, thank you for sharing and inspiring.

    Reply
  8. Jana

    dear foodbabe!
    what a lovely homepage and so many useful food tips you have got here! indeed you are so right about asking what we get served, thanks for making everyone aware!

    I love underwater photography too-its so much fun, feel free to check my latest pictures from the amazing Italian island Sardinia!
    sunny smiles from tulipland Holland

    Reply
  9. kate

    Great post! I just found you thru Lisa Leake and am fascinated by your blog! Thanks :)

    Reply
  10. crystal

    foodbabe! forgot to ask, bf and i are going to good food on montfort on fri, what entree do you recommend?

    Reply
    • Food Babe (to crystal)

      Oh .. I think I’m late. What did you get?

      Reply
      • crystal (to Food Babe)

        not going anymore :-( bday dinner plans were changed to terrace cafe

  11. ElleX

    I am loving your website. You have inspired me to speak up when traveling and eating out. Thank you.

    PS…I found you via 100 Days of Real Food.

    Reply
  12. Anne Franke

    Get article and I loved your underwater photos. I would live underwater if I could!

    I really got a lot out of your PB2 article. Learning to eat clean is an adventure to say the least! It does take time especially when traveling and I never thought to plan ahead as you suggest by contacting the hotel restaurant. I once paid for a carry-on bag just so I could take my food!

    Reply
  13. Laura S

    I am going on a cruise next month to Turkey and Greece with my hubby and 18 month old baby. Any tips for traveling and eating on a cruise ship and with a baby? I will bring as much nut butter and sprouted bars as I can, but it is hard to bring an extra bag for food when traveling with a baby. Thanks.

    Reply
  14. Rebecca Firesmith

    Thank you so much for the great article. I am just starting to juice and eat plant based foods. I had been wondering what i would do when we travel out of the country, esp somewhere like where you were. So much wonderful knowledge about how to handle healthy eating when out of the country. I am curious how you managed to transport fruits and veggies out of the country and into another. I would love to hear how you handled this.
    Thanks again for your wonderful blog! It is helping me a lot with my change over to healthy, plant-based eating. I have so far lost 4 pounds in 5 days. I am so pumped!!
    Becky

    Reply
  15. ???????? ??? ??

    Thanks for the new stuff you have exposed in your short article. One thing I want to comment on is that FSBO human relationships are built as time passes. By releasing yourself to owners the first end of the week their FSBO will be announced, ahead of masses start calling on Wednesday, you develop a good interconnection. By giving them instruments, educational elements, free accounts, and forms, you become a strong ally. By using a personal curiosity about them and also their scenario, you develop a solid network that, in many cases, pays off once the owners opt with a broker they know and also trust preferably you.

    Reply
  16. Marilyn

    not all places are so accomodating. I travelled to Jamaica last year while still recovering from C. Diff. We brought a lot of our own safe food so that just in case I had to, I wouldn’t starve, but it was like I was crazy asking for steamed vegetables or anything without all kinds of disgusting chemical brews heaped on it. I haven’t travelled since.

    Reply
  17. Patricia McBride

    Dear Food Babe,

    Were all of those pictures listed above taken by you and your husband?

    Please tell me which camera you used! I would like to buy an underwater camera.

    Best,

    Patricia

    Reply
  18. Heather McCurdy

    I just about gagged at the tofu and brown sauce. So true, you have to watch out at the resorts! Another good option I found, if offered, was the omelet bar. When we stayed in Leh, near himalayas, the fresh veggies would get you so you almost had to eat the crap. Lovely pictures and it looks like you had an amazing time!

    Reply
  19. Maxine

    We have been carrying our own food for many years and have had stares and comments from friends who thought we were nuts. Wonderful to know there is a movement now to be aware of our food no matter where we are. Thanks so much for your posts, photos and inspiration. As for what we take–on planes we actually carry cut up chicken (we eat meat), veggies, fruit–finger foods that we can eat easily, won’t spoil (I put water in a double small sandwich type bag and freeze flat. TSA won’t take ice away. We take almond butter snacks, nuts, seeds and anything else we would normally eat as a snack.

    Reply
  20. Katie

    Funny you should post this, as I was just worrying about the food they’ll be serving when my fiance and I go on our honeymoon! It’s an all-inclusive resort in Antigua, so I’m sure our choices will be limited. I don’t know that I’ll have the guts to ask them! Plenty of fruit, veggies, and my own snacks!!

    Reply
  21. Neysa

    I’m new’ish to clean eating and we’re making a slow transition to vegan. I’ve always avoided soy but so many vegan/vegetarian recipes call for it.

    Do you consider tofu safe? Asking out of sheer curiosity since it would make life easier if I could eat it!

    I have two young sons who I worry about as well.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Assistant to Food Babe (Krista) (to Neysa)

      Food Babe rarely eats soy but if she does, it is always organic.

      Reply
  22. JMC

    Roti Canai is absolutely amazing (at least the ones I’ve had). It is one of my favorite Asian dishes. Oh gosh I wish I could get my hands on a good quality one right now.

    I like how you approached it very kindly and just asked around. I too will try that next time. I believe saying “My doctor said…no MSG, no canola, etc.” is a good backup in case there is any pushback. That or “I’m allergic to…” Unfortunately no one will respect an individual’s choice but if his/her doctor said it then “okay for sure!”

    Reply

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