Heading to Sabah to explore the exotic wilderness of Bornean Rainforest? Well chances are you will be flying into Kota Kinabalu (commonly called K.K) the Malaysian states capital and gateway to Kinabalu National Park while only a bus trip from Kinabatagan River and Mabul / Sipidan! But before you discard Kota Kinabalu as just another generic Asian city and skip town at the first available chance be sure to take a day to check out Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park – a gorgeous set of white sandy beach islands smothered in lush tropical forest and dropped in a sea of turquoise water!
I only had a day here and while the islands can be dived I was on a bit of a budget and just wanted to lay in the sun and perhaps snorkel and see a few fish. It’s really super easy to get here, no need to buy some over-priced package tour … Just head down to the Jesselton Pier in the downtown and go to one of the many ticketing counters. Don’t deal with unscrupulous sellers outside, the prices are fixed- it’s easy! A boat return to one island was 23 RM in 2016 while we opted for two islands at 33 RM – plus 6% tax. You also have to pay a 7.63 RM jetty fee and a 1 RM conservation fee which covers all the islands. If your in to snorkelling you can hire snorkels + mask now which is 10 RM and better than hiring on the islands (as you can only use on one) and if your heading to Brunei or Labuan after (like I was) sort your tickets early at counter 3!
All the islands have bathroom, showers, tables and food stalls so don’t let that influence your choice. There are photos of all the islands in the ticketing area which maybe help but otherwise in order from developed to least developed there is: Manukan, Sapi, Gaya, Mamutik and Sulug.
Gaya seems rather difficult to get to without a private boat however and Sulug seems to not even have a jetty so we opted for Sapi and Mamutik. I should first say our experiences where on Malaysian Labour Day so was very crowded, but still enjoyable. Much better to try go mid-week I would say…. Sapi we had two hours at which was enough as the island has a rather small beach and not much shade…. It was probably as busy as the other islands but you really notice it here. We went for a snorkel and saw clown fish and a few parrotfish but don’t expect much here in terms of wildlife, corals were trampled long ago and now only quite jagged ones are left…. Still the water was clear and warm so a worthwhile dip then we people watched on the beach till our transfer boat came. Boats seems to come everyone hour, don’t worry about the confusion and chaos… There is a method to the madness (as in most of Asia) it seems, though rather indiscernible – just show someone your ticket and wait patiently.
I would probably recommend Manukan over Sapi as while it is busier it has a long tree lined beach so plenty of space to spread out, but my favorite by far was Mamutik… Undeveloped, quiet away from the jetty and both shallow and deep water. Plenty of shade, a cute co-op food shop for a hot meal at reasonable prices (by western standards) and a generally quiet vibe!
We left at 9:30 spent about 2 hours at Sapi and then 4 hours at Mamutik, returning at 4:30 on the last ferry nice and relaxed. A great way to start or end a Borneo getaway that is often overlooked by many derisive Western travellers who told me K.K has nothing…. As a bonus tip check out the Le Méridien Kota Kinabalu terrace [on Level 2 FYI – just walk straight up] after a quick spruce up to enjoy the absolutely out of this world sunsets that K.K has (and two for one cocktails!) Seriously mind-blowing! And cap it all off with the famous K.K / Phillipino night markets which made right across the road – Delicious!