A short boat ride from KK, the five islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park offer squeaky white sands, azure waters and hiking trails though areas of old growth forest and mangroves, with an abundance of wildlife both below and above the waters. It’s a highly recommend day trip, but you won’ t be alone. Unfortunately, much of the more accessible coral has been damaged by the ever-increasing hordes.
Crowds flock to the beaches daily and it gets busier weekends and holidays. For an overnight stay, most of the accommodation offered is top-range resorts, but camping is available on some of the islands (five ringgit fee per adult/two ringgit per child), with tents for hire for 35 ringgit. Daytrippers are gone by late afternoon, and you will have the island essentially to yourself.
Commonly referred to as TAR Marine Park, the park was named after Malaysia’ s first prime minister. The five islands, Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik, all have their unique characteristics and several can be visited in one day. Boats depart daily from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal at the northern end of Kota Kinabalu, along Jalan Fuad Stephens from 8:30-16:30, about every 20 minutes. It takes 15-20 minutes to get to the islands. The last boat back to Kota Kinabalu leaves at 17:00.
Most operators only offer trips to the more popular islands of Manukan, Sapi and Mamutik. Several companies advertise that you can visit five islands in one day, but in reality, the most any will take you to is three and you must arrive by 08:00 to do that. After 11:00 you will only be able to visit one island unless you charter your own boat, which costs 204 ringgit for one island plus an additional 50 ringgit per boat for special pickup times or overnight stays. The set price for the regular return boat service is 23 ringgit for adults, and 18 ringgit for kids plus a terminal fee of 7.63 ringgit for adults and 3.88 ringgit for students (with ID card) and kids. Kids above 12 are considered an adult and below two are free. Add 10 ringgit for each additional island.
A national park entrance fee of 10 ringgit for adults and six ringgit for kids (Malaysians three ringgit / one ringgit) is payable on arrival at the islands. If you are visiting more than one island, keep your ticket, as it’s only payable once.
Snorkelling equipment is available from the boat operators or venders on the islands all for the same prices of 15 ringgit for a set or 10 ringgit each for individual items. Some offer packages that include beach barbecues and water sports. If you set up your own barbecue on the islands, the fee is 5 ringgit per person. It is possible to dive in the marine park. The park fee for diving (in addition to the diving cost) is 50 ringgit or 20 ringgit if you are a Malaysian citizen. We recommend Borneo Dream. They have the best boat, experienced divemasters and reasonable rates of 300 ringgit for two dives.
Pulau Gaya’s name comes from the Bajau word “Gayo” meaning “big”. It’s unsurprisingly the largest of the islands. It was a settlement for the British North Borneo Company prior to it being moved to Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu. Pulau Gaya has been a forest reserve since 1923. It has 20 kilometres of hiking trails, and lovely beaches with great underwater life, but is one of the least visited. The resorts on the island offer boat services for their guests, but otherwise you’ll have to charter a boat to get here from the port. There is a (somewhat illegal) service that runs to the stilt village Lok Urai.
The small speedboats leave from near the Filipino market. Boats are crowded, life jackets are not always offered and waters can be rough in the afternoon. We were offered four ringgit for a one-way trip.
An alternative is if you visit Pulau Sapi, Coral Flyer offer “the world’s longest island to island zip-line” stretching from Pulau Gaya to Pulau Sapi. The 64 ringgit price includes a boat to Pulau Gaya. So you could in effect spend some time there before returning to Pulau Sapi via the 250-metre zip-line. The zip-line operates 10:00-15.30, and the company was apparently good enough for HRH Prince William, Sir David Attenborough and Bear Grylls.
Much smaller Pulau Sapi has one of the most beautiful beaches. Make your way through the Chinese tour groups to claim your spot on the sand. Lifeguards are on duty, and signs and flags warn of dangers in the sea. A small cafe opens 08:00-16:00 daily. Lockers can be hired for 10 ringgit and a changing room and toilets are available. A variety of water sports are on offer, and there’ s a dive operator if you haven’t pre-arranged a trip. If you are planning on doing the zip-line from Pulau Gaya, tickets are available from the entry booth where you pay the park fee. They will look after your bags, but if it’ s small enough, it’s very easily carried on the zip-line — you don’t get wet as it runs platform to platform. To escape the crowds on the beach, you can walk around the island in about an hour — you may see the one resident proboscis monkey.
Pulau Manukan is the most popular for daytrippers and most developed of the islands, with a couple of upmarket restaurants, shops, dive operators, water sports, and Manukan Island Resort. Beaches are patrolled by lifeguards. It’s not possible to camp on Manukan (too much competition for the resort), so if you wish to watch the sunset from Sunset Point, along a 1,500-metre path from the jetty, you’ll need to fork out for the fancy digs. At other times, the walk is a good way to avoid the crowds — we saw several monitor lizards, bird life and a very pretty paradise flying snake (chrysopelea paradisi).
Pulau Mamutik is the smallest island in the park. Facilities include a cafe, change rooms and toilet, and a dive shop. There are no resorts and it’s possible to camp. The beach is rocky, covered in broken coral and there are reports of a lot of sea urchins in the waters here.
Pulau Sulug is not on the usual three-island tour, so it gets fewer visitors. It’s difficult to convince the boatmen to take you there, unless you charter. There are no facilities, however camping is possible — you will need to take everything, including water.
As beautiful as these islands are, be aware that between March and August box jellyfish invade the waters here. They can be deadly. Lifeguards have vinegar available for first aid, but it’s a good 45 minutes by boat and vehicle to the nearest hospital. There are stonefish around the islands too — another reason to be vigilant about not stepping on coral.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 3rd October, 2016.