Sun, sea and sand in Kota Kinabalu – island hopping in Tunku Abdul Rahman National park

Borneo offers some of the most spectacular wildlife in Asia and Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah is a popular destination and good base to explore Northern Borneo. And if you want to combine the nature and wildlife with some time in the sun on a sunny beach, you don’t have to go far – you can hop on a speedboat and head to the islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu!

On my previous trips to Kota Kinabalu (KK for locals), I came for the amazing wildlife. Seeing the Orang Utans in Sepilok or in their natural habitat in remote Danum Valley are once-in-a-lifetime experiences worth traveling around the world for! For some sun & sand, Tunku Abdul Rahman National park is a popular choice – it consists of 5 small islands you can see from the KK waterfront. Gaya is the largest island, with three (expensive) beach resorts. Their beaches are private and you’ll need reservations to visit. There are also some illegal settlements making the public parts of the island less attractive. The islands Sapi, Manukan and Mamutik are open to visitors and have beaches and offshore snorkeling.
I went to the biggest of the three, Manukan. The ride on the small speed boat is a bit bumpy, but only takes 15-20 minutes. You arrive at the wooden pier and can see the the long stretch of sandy beach stretching along the tree-covered islands.

TAR NatPark b - 3Manukan is popular with tour groups and you’ll have large groups of visitors enjoying their included lunch under tent roofs right behind the beach, hanging out on the main beach in front or snorkeling just off -shore. There are also a restaurant, small shop with snacks, drinks and beach necessities as well as public showers and toilets. While I appreciate the infrastructure, it was surprisingly busy and not the remote island experience I expected!

TAR NatPark b - 5After overcoming the initial shock, I headed East along the beach, ducked underneath the wooden pier we arrived on – and entered a part of the beach that was much more peaceful. I shared it only with a handful of other people and found a shady spot under the trees to relax and pretend I was on my private island! It was well worth the 5-minute walk!
TAR NatPark - 2While I wouldn’t recommend Kota Kinabalu as a beach destinations, it’s a nice day trip from the city and a relaxing beach break from the nature and wildlife. Surprisingly, Tanjung Aru beach in Kota Kinabalu is easier to reach, yet has fewer visitors than the islands, making for a great alternative if all you want is sand, sun & sea! Read more here!

Travel Tips: You can visit any one of the islands on scheduled boat rides, hire a boat for a trip of your own or go with a tour operator to visit one, two or all three islands on a day trip! The small speed boats leave from the Jesselton Jetty and take about 15-20 minutes. The ticketing hall is on your right on entering the pier and there are a number of operators stelling tickets with different prices, schedules and restrictions. The return ticket for one island, including terminal fee and park fee is around $10. Tickets for 2 or 3 islands in one trip cost more and some operators require multiple travelers for a booking! The small boats are fast – they fly over the waves and it can be a bit bumpy – consider taking medication if you get motion sick easily!
TAR NatPark - 3I would not recommend to visit the islands on a tour – it’s easy enough to do on your own and being herded in a group onto the island and having lunch in a crowded tent doesn’t leave much of the island feel!  Do make sure to keep your ticket and take a photo of your boat and it’s number when you get to the island: It’s a lot harder to find your boat for the return trip than you think – there are lots of boat coming and going and they all look the same! Be on the pier early for your return trip and ask the local staff, so they can point you to the right boat!
If you are traveling in a group and want a more personalized experience, you can charter a boat and tour all the islands to see a little more!

Either way you go, I hope you enjoy your day on the beach!

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