LOCATION, LOCATION, FRUSTRATION
If you don’t have the time or patience to read this blog, here are the two main things you need to know before booking this “resort”. THEY DO NOT CHANGE THE SHEETS BETWEEN GUESTS. If you’re expecting to sleep on fresh sheets that aren’t covered in the dead skin cells, sweat, and who knows what other bodily fluids of previous guests, then you have expectations that are too high for this place. Also consider that there is no shower on the premises, except for a bucket and a scoop. CUSTOMER SERVICE IS NON EXISTENT. There is no one in charge here. Don’t expect to be told when meal times are without asking, any precautions for snorkeling, what is going on with island tours, anything. Once they have your money, you’re on your own. And they demand their money as soon as you step foot off the boat…
Want the whole story? Grab a drink, a snack, a comfortable chair, and continue.
The pictures of Lato Lato Resort drew us in. Who wouldn’t want to stay in a resort that was built over a coral reef, only accessible by boat, and you could just jump in the water and snorkel whenever you pleased? Sounds like a vacation fantasy, right? Yes. Until you arrive and reality sets in…
We had been told in advance that it would be 400rm (about $100US) for a roundtrip from the airport to the resort. That included a driver from Tawau to Semporna, and a boat from Semporna to the resort. We communicated with Lato (the owner) via email and What’s App that we would arrive at the Tawau airport at noon, and that we were driving our own car. Now, when I tell someone I’m going to be somewhere at a certain time, I follow through. Because I hate to wait for people, and I hate for people to waste time waiting on me. I texted him when we left Sukau (about 4 hours away) and told him we were on schedule. Along the way, we noticed some side roads on a map that led to the ocean!! We went down one to explore, and wanted to explore a few more, but my concern for other people’s time overrode adventures. I said I would be there at noon, and we would be there at noon. I updated him again when we were about an hour away. He told us the bus would be leaving at 1pm. Um, why wasn’t this stated to us earlier? We would have spent that extra time vacationing, not sitting at an airport waiting for a driver! Ok, whatever, it’s an hour of my life. No biggie. Location over frustration!
We get to the airport at 11:58am, and return our rental car. I’m looking around for the guy with the sign. There’s no one. At 12:15, I send Lato a message. Soon after a guy walked up and said he was the driver and we’d be leaving at 1:30. This really hit me the wrong way. We should have been told that we weren’t having a private driver for that amount, and that we would have to wait on other people. Communication, it’s a wonderful, easy, and free thing. I expressed my displeasure to Lato on What’s App. He said he thought we would want to have lunch at the airport first. WHAT?! A) I had never mentioned anything about wanting lunch. B) Why in the hell would I want to eat lunch at the expensive airport???? It was just an excuse, and I recognized it as such. But I don’t appreciate such things, nor am I fooled by them. There was nothing to do except eat lunch, so we did. 33Rm (almost double what we have been paying for food) for crappy, disgusting “food”. Brian’s chicken was so gross he couldn’t even finish it.
At about 1:40, the people we were waiting for finally showed up and 5 of us piled into a van. I napped during the drive. Brian said he was shocked that I didn’t wake up from him digging his finger nails into me. Brian doesn’t scare easily, and he said this driver was the worst he had ever seen. Keep in mind that we have had a car for the past 5 days and have driven all over Sabah. We were no strangers to the driving habits of the locals. He said he was driving way too fast for the conditions, passing in very dangerous places, and that we narrowly missed a head on collision several times. Not impressed.
We arrived at the Semporna port, and our boatman was waiting there to take us to the resort. 45 minutes later we were stepping on to the deck of the Lato Lato Resort! And the water was spectacular!! The aggravation of the wait at the airport and the harrowing drive faded away. We stepped into the dining area, wrote down our names and passport numbers as we were directed to do, and were told that we needed to pay 800rm cash. 400Rm for the roundtrip transportation and 400rm for our hiking tour of Bohey Dulang island that we had booked for the next day. Handed over our money and were shown our room. And literally, that was it. No one welcomed us. No one told us the food schedule. No one said anything except sign here, give me the 800rm, here is your room. Location was still trumping frustration at this point, though.
The room had two twin beds, a fan, a toilet, a bucket, and a scoop. The bucket and scoop were the “shower”. We put our bags in and decided to head out for a snorkel! And I will say, the water is shallow, clear, and the snorkeling is nice. Not world class, but nice. Again, the location is pretty awesome. I wish they would have someone pick up the various trash that litters the reef around the resort though. It wouldn’t take a lot of time, and it would make the experience so much nicer to not come across junk. We then headed up to the main deck area. There are about a dozen rooms in the resort. There are a total of 4 moveable deck chairs made of heavy, uncomfortable wood with no cushions. And two of those are broken. All but one of the umbrellas are broken. Well, the one umbrella is broken, but can be made usable with a little work. But there were towels and snorkel gear on the 4 chairs, and no one in sight. It remained like this for a while. We learned that if you want to sit on the main deck, you have to get out there early and throw your stuff on a chair, whether you plan on sitting there right now or not. It’s really unacceptable to have this amount of seating for the number of guests who are here. Granted, you also get ONE wooden movable lounge chair in front of your room, but if you have more than one person (which most do), that’s not a viable solution. We ended up sitting on an attached hard wooden bench with no umbrella shade.
We were dealing with all of the little things because a) we really are not super picky travelers with huge expectations and b) location!! We hung out for a bit, then decided to do another snorkel. When we got back, I asked Brian to see if he could figure out when dinner was. They told him 7-7:30, but they were running late. It is important to note that they provide you with 3 meals a day. NO SNACKS. There is warm water and hot tea available all of the time, but that’s it. Luckily, we had a few snacks with us to carry us over between meals, because snorkeling is a lot of work!! (Seriously, it is- the currents are pretty strong). At 6pm I was hungry, but focused on watching a gorgeous sunset. At 7pm it was dark, and I was famished. At 8pm, when dinner was finally served, I was about ready to gnaw off my own arm. I will say this- dinner was good! There was whole fish of some sort (which I didn’t try), cabbage and carrots for the veggie (this is a staple at EVERY meal here), rice (this is a staple of Malaysia!), and some really tasty chicken in a sauce. I could not complain! There was watermelon and bananas for dessert.
We pushed our twin beds together and went to sleep. The fan sounded like a biplane, so we ended up turning it off in the middle of the night. The breeze through the windows was actually enough. We slept well.
Next morning, I woke up full of excitement! This was our big day to go hike the island!! Brian had talked to a guy last night and asked him when we were leaving (again, no one ever approaches you with any information- you have to ask). 10am. We went out at 6:30 to watch the sunrise and throw towels and snorkel gear on two chairs. Brian asked when breakfast would be served- around 7:30. We just relaxed on our uncomfortable chairs and waited. Breakfast was disappointing. A plate of noodles. They were good, but just no protein. But who cares! We are heading to a beautiful island to hike and explore!! Brian talked to another guy about when we would leave, who said 11 (it was 10 last night). Ok, we’ll snorkel first and then get ready. Got in a nice snorkel then came back up to the main deck a little after 10, just to be on the safe side. Took our towels off our chairs, since we’d be gone all day. There was a French couple in the dining area looking a little perplexed and talking with one of the guys about a boat trip to the island. Let me reiterate something here- NO ONE is in charge at this place. There are a bunch of random guys wandering around all of the time and a few ladies (very nice) in the kitchen. But no one is your point of contact or “go to” person for information- and remember only a couple of people speak decent English so if they aren’t around (they’re coming and going by boat all day), you’re just clueless. And when you do ask something, often times you are pawned off on someone else. So we started talking to the French couple. The only reason they even came to Lato Lato was to go hiking at Buhey Dulang (because it is supposed to be SPECTACULAR!!). They had hired a private boat that didn’t show up, and were trying to negotiate with the Lato Lato boat guys to get to the island. That’s when they were told the island was closed. The workers started talking Malay to each other, and we started speaking in hushed English to French couple. We started comparing notes. They had been charged 125rm for their roundtrip from Tawau and back. We had been charged 200rm (a difference of about $20US). It seems like the transportation charges change depending on how much Lato thinks you’ll pay, I guess. Frustrating. I hate being taken advantage of. Because I should also note that Lato does NOT mention the transportation costs in his listing, even though it is 100% required to get there unless you happen to have your own boat or helicopter…. Why? I assume so he can charge whatever money he needs at the time.
So the French couple was just out of luck- but they hadn’t paid yet. We had already given our 400rm for this trip, because it was the first thing they asked for when we got off the boat. I said that if we weren’t going, I needed my refund. Deer in the headlights look from the guy who spoke pretty good English. He said he couldn’t give me a refund, Lato had to, and Lato was in Kuala Lumpur (another worker corrected him and said Kota Kinabalu- but either way it was no where near Semporna and this resort). I said that wasn’t acceptable. He said no one here had 400rm- only Lato. At this point, I realize I’m being scammed and put my foot down. I have no issue standing up for myself. I did business with Indonesians and Filipinos for weekly for years and understand their business tactics. I even understand “island time” and “island mentality”, as I was partners with local Fijians in a business venture in Fiji. I said someone was going to give me my 400rm, period. They said they’d already bought the permits for the trip, so they would refund me 380rm. Um, no, you will refund me 400rm. If the island is closed, get your 20rm back from the park service. They insisted that I had to pay for permits that were of no use. I insisted that I wasn’t. The fact that they were willing to piss off a customer over 20rm ($5) is just insanity. They said to talk to Lato. I said I had already sent him a What’s App message. The guy said that Lato couldn’t respond. Bullshit. I know how What’s App works- two grey check marks mean the message has gone through. Two blue ones means it’s been read. He’d already seen the message. They said they could take me to another island. I asked what was there to do there. They said snorkel. Didn’t offer me a reduced price for the tour or anything. I told them I can snorkel here and not pay 400rm, so no thank you, I want my money back. Now, they tell me they are talking to Lato on the phone. After a bit, they hand the phone to me. Lato explained that I had to pay for the permits because they had already spent that money. At NO time did anyone inform me there was a permit even necessary to go to the island, much less that it was non-refundable. I told him that if the park service issued a permit that couldn’t be used, then he needed to get his money back from them, not me. He could tell I wasn’t going to back down, so he agreed and said someone would bring me my money. All this, people, over 20 effing ringgits. Nickel and dimeing me over a penny. For me it was the principal of the matter. For him, it should have been a matter of customer service. Now all of the workers are sitting down having a conversation about this- in Malay of course- for about 5 minutes. Finally, one of them leans over and hands me 400rm. Of course they had it the whole time. I knew they did. This was a 45 minute ordeal. Frustration at this point is overshadowing location….
So now we’re stuck here all day. And there is literally nothing to do but snorkel, and that’s really hard to do at low tide. Oh, and when we thought we were going out to the island, we took our stuff off the chairs and lost them. We went back to the room. A few people that were in our cabin area (it is split into 4 rooms) had left, so we took one of their chairs and sat in front of our room. We watched the cleaning ladies come and go. Brian said, “Did you notice that none of them had any linens?”. I hadn’t paid attention, but I said I knew what the sheets looked like in the room on the end because I noticed them when I went to the end of the deck this morning. The windows were closed, but we slid one open. The beds were made. It was the same sheets. Ok, maybe, just maybe, they have multiples of that weird design. (Sometimes I hope beyond hope when the situation is dire.) We went for another snorkel and then back to the main deck area. Our chairs were open! So we sat down and tried to arrange the broken umbrella so we didn’t get scorched. Why they don’t have a palapa over part of the deck, I don’t know… From here though, we had an excellent vantage point of the two rooms closest to the deck. We watched the cleaning ladies go in and out of both of them. They never had any linens with them. They are not changing the sheets between guests!! God, I was so skeeved out by this that I just wanted to leave immediately. It’s disgusting. We are not picky, high end travelers. We don’t expect a lot from the budget accommodations we book. But we are also AirBNB hosts (with almost 500 reviews from multiple properties) and understand guest service. We expect professional communication. We expect customer service and to be treated fairly. And we expect CLEAN EFFING SHEETS THAT HAVEN’T BEEN SLEPT ON BY GOD ONLY KNOWS HOW MANY GUESTS BEFORE US! None of those things were provided by Lato Lato Resort.
I really wanted to get out of here, so I What’s Apped Lato and asked if it was possible for us to go to the island tomorrow morning, before we had to leave for our flight. Here’s what someone with good customer service skills would say, “I’m sorry, but the island is still closed for hiking tomorrow.” Lato said that, but prefaced and ended it with a guilt trip for the 20rm he lost. All that did was make me more frustrated at this man and his “resort”.
We weren’t sure when lunch was served, so we walked up around 12:30. Everyone was there already and one of the three dishes was already gone. No idea what it was. We were left with the same whole fish from the night before, rice, and the cabbage/carrot dish. The fish had so many tiny bones in it that I was eating it in pencil eraser sized bites, trying not to choke to death on one. I ate half, and then gave up. The risk just wasn’t worth it. Plus, it wasn’t all that great anyway. Since there was a lot of them left in the pan, I assume other guests felt the same way. This same exact fish was the only “seafood” we were offered during our entire stay. Even though the description of the property states seafood as a selling point… For the rest of the day we just hung out. There are kayaks here, but they want 60rm ($15) an hour to use them. That is just ridiculous, like everything about this place (except for the location!). We did another snorkel. You really have to watch the tides though, because it is extremely shallow during low tide (less than waist deep on a short person). The last thing you want to do is scrape yourself on a coral head or get jabbed by one of the many black long spine urchins that are around. Of course, there’s no warning about any of this. I’m a degreed marine biologist, so I’m aware. But I’m guessing that’s not the case for most guests.
Now it’s 7pm, dinner time. Everyone was sitting in the dining area. 7pm passed. 7:30 came and went. 8 o’clock. People are getting antsy. We’re HUNGRY! It’s been 7-8 hours since lunch and we’ve been snorkeling and burning calories!! And remember- no snacks in between unless you have your own. Which I don’t think everyone did. If they’re too stingy to give you snacks, fine. Put in a paid snack bar. Maybe even with sodas or something other than water and hot tea. Something. A boat pulls up and unloads 3 Chinese girls and their fairly heavy looking luggage. The guy jumped off the boat, pulls his shirt up to his chest, and walks off. The girls are just kind of standing on the dock, trying to figure out what to do and maybe get some help with their luggage. After a couple of painful minutes of them standing there looking like “WTF?”, a woman from the kitchen came out and brought their bags up and got them checked in. Customer service, Lato Lato resort- try it sometime. No reason why the boat guy couldn’t have helped those girls bring their luggage up and direct them to the sign in sheet rather than just abandon them on the dock. Anyway, during all of this time we’re googling reviews on this place. We start translating the Chinese AirBNB reviews. We aren’t the only ones who have noticed that clean sheets are not provided….several people mentioned it. I was just completely grossed out at this third party verification of what we had witnessed. Another boat pulls up at 8:30 and unloads groceries. Remember, we’ve all been sitting here for an hour and a half. Not a single person has come out and said a word about when or if we were going to be fed, apologized for the delay, nothing. At almost 9pm, they finally set dinner out. That same damn fish, that same damn cabbage/carrot dish, rice, and….wait for it…scrambled eggs. Are you kidding me?? At this point, I could care less about location. It was full blown frustration with this place.
I did NOT want to go to bed. Not knowing that I would be wallowing in someone else’s filth. There is just ZERO excuse for this. Boats go back and forth multiple times all day. Have a spare set of sets for every room (that’s how our AirBNB is set up). Have a boat go back and do laundry each day. It really isn’t difficult. But it costs money. And that’s all this guy cares about is money. We got into bed and I just wanted to cry. Again, I have stayed in much more remote and primitive hostels than this in developing countries. I’m not a spoiled Hilton girl by any stretch. But clean sheets are not optional. Period. Hell, tell people to bring their own sheets if you don’t want to wash them. Or that they can rent CLEAN sheets from you. Don’t just be a cheap, lazy, deceitful “resort” owner trying to cut corners at the expense of guest hygiene. And let’s get back around to that word “resort”. This is not a resort. It’s a hostel with private rooms. I would expect to at least be able to take a shower from something other than a BUCKET at a resort. Hell, I’ve never even had to shower from a bucket in primitive hostels on islands in Panama where rain catchment is the only means for water (like here, I presume).
Next morning I was wide awake at 4am and counting down the hours until our boat for Semporna left at 1. The idea of dirty sheets had me restless all night. I got up to go pee, and because it was so quiet out, I could hear it hitting the ocean below…. Brian woke up and we came out to tag our chairs. Breakfast came out a little after 7:30. The same exact noodles from yesterday, but this time with one fried egg and 2 pieces of white bread with honey each. God. We headed back to the room to wait out the next few hours in the shade and go for one last snorkel. I told Brian about what I heard when I peed this morning. He said no, there’s a wastewater line hooked up to a reservoir tank. He showed me that, and I said “So why could I hear it?”. He got down on the deck and looked underneath our bathroom. Sure enough, the cabins on this end aren’t hooked up to the system. Everything goes right into the water where you’re snorkeling. Thank god we have full face masks and our mouths aren’t in the water!! Look, I’m no idiot. I’m aware the ocean is basically a big fish toilet and that ocean pollution in this part of the world is pretty serious. But just the thought of someone pooping on your head if you snorkeled under the dock was pretty eeeeeeeeew inducing. There should be better standards.
Update: I had most of this blog written the morning before we left. Between then and the boat ride outta there, two things happened that were good. #1: A boatman loaded a leaving guest’s luggage for them instead of making them do it. #2: For lunch, crab was served. I don’t eat crab, so I can’t attest to the taste, but it was there. Maybe because there were only 4 of us at the resort instead of 15. I dunno. But at least it was the promised seafood. See? I give credit where credit is due. There just isn’t much to give here… And that brings me to more headaches. Our boat was supposed to leave at 1. No boat at 1. No boat at 1:20, so I texted Lato. He said it was on its way. No boat at 1:30, 1:45, not until after 2pm!! And our flight left at 5. And on the ride back (which was at least a much better driver this time), I had quite a text exchange with Lato. During which he told me they had a wonderful tour to several beautiful islands planned for us and I refused it. WHAT?! No one said anything other than they would take us to a different island to snorkel. Communication and customer service would go so far…
We were so excited about this place. Like ridiculously excited. Now, I am sitting here with 4 hours to go before the boat arrives to get me out of here, and I can’t wait. Here are my suggestions for this place, and I don’t think any of them are out of line:
1. Tell people in advance what time the driver will be leaving. Then they can coordinate their schedules accordingly.
2. Tell people up front in the listing what transportation costs are, so everyone is paying the same rate and no one goes away feeling like they’ve been scammed. Because when you’re here, you are either snorkeling, sleeping (on dirty sheets), or talking to other guests. And guests share that information with each other. Same with excursion costs. Up front communication BEFORE there is an issue is called customer service. Try it.
3. CLEAN THE DAMNED SHEETS BETWEEN GUESTS. I can’t believe this even has to be a suggestion. My skin is still crawling…
4. Get some more deck furniture and fix the broken chairs and umbrellas.
5. Let people know about the different activities, what they entail, and what they cost so people can make an informed decision.
6. Vary up the meals a bit. More than 2 days of the same stuff and I would have started going a bit batty.
7. Designate someone as the person in charge, so guests know who to go to with questions or problems instead of just wandering around from person to person.
8. More than one access ladder in and out for snorkeling. This is kind of a no brainer…
9. Hook up ALL of the bathrooms to the wastewater containment system so people are flushing (with a bucket, btw) into the ocean.
If after all of this, you still decide you value location over frustration and Lato Lato is for you, here are my recommendations.
1. Bring your own sheets.
2. Bring your own snacks and sodas.
3. Bring sunscreen. You don’t need mosquito repellent- there are none out here.
4. Bring some cards or something to do if you get bored sitting around staring at the water for hours on end in between snorkels.
5. Bring your own snorkel. They have gear here, but….let me not even think about it. We have full face snorkels that are awesome!
6. Bring a powerpack to charge your electronics during the day. There is only electricity from 6:30pm to 6:30am. There is no wifi, but you can get a strong phone signal.
7. Ask for the rooms on the very end of the dock. They are furthest away from the very loud generator. You can barely hear it down here.
8. Let me repeat, bring your own sheets.