Five small islands, coral reefs, and 12,185 acres of pristine water make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park situated just off the coast of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Located only five miles from Kota Kinabalu, the islands offer an easily-accessible respite from the noise and traffic of Borneo's largest urban center.
The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is deeply tied to the history of Borneo. In 1882 a British trading company established a post on Pulau Gaya, one of the marine park's five islands. They named their settlement "Jesselton" after the Vice Chairman of the company. After being destroyed, the settlement was later moved to the nearby mainland and was eventually named Kota Kinabalu in 1968.
Local families flock to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park on weekends, however the islands are tranquil and nearly-empty during the week. Each of the five islands has its own distinct vibe and draw.
- For other nature reserves in the country, read our list of National Parks in Malaysia.
At 51 acres, Manukan Island is the second-largest in the park as well as the most popular with locals. With restaurants, chalets, tennis courts, and a public swimming pool, Manukan Island is certainly the most developed . Hiking trails cross the interior of the island for nature walks. A dive center exists on the island that rents snorkel gear. If you wish to stay overnight, call 088-243629 to inquire about accommodation.
"Cow Island" is a 25-acre island claiming the best beaches in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. Popular with divers and snorkelers, the island is only lightly developed with toilets, picnic shelters, and cookout facilities. Sapi Island is the only island in the park home to macaque monkeys. Read more about avoiding monkey attacks.
Tiny, 15-acre Mamutik Island is literally overrun with local day trippers on the weekends because of its close proximity to the city. Mamutik is developed with toilets, showers, picnic facilities, and a diving center. The soft-sand beaches on the east side of the island provide excellent swimming in the mornings at high-tide; the rocks and coral make swimming less enjoyable in the afternoons. A small cafe on the island sells food and drinks.
On clear days there are majestic views of Mount Kinabalu from Mamutik Island!
Largest of the islands, Gaya Island is 3,700 acres of dense, virgin forest surrounded by the South China Sea. Although there is an excellent white-sand beach at Police Bay, Gaya is more about the hiking trails. The island remains relatively undeveloped despite being home to one five-star resort.
The large water village on the opposite side of Gaya Island has been declared as a high crime area and tourists are strongly advised by the police not to go there.
Quiet, unspoiled Sulug Island is furthest from the action. The 20-acre island is lightly visited by day trippers making it a prime choice for peaceful camping. Toilets, showers, and picnic facilities are available on the island. The beach is mostly rock and coral rather than sand.
Diving in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park
The coral reefs in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park are in excellent condition and boast an impressive variety of marine life. The shallow water and weak currents make for easy, long-lasting dives. Several Kota Kinabalu dive shops maintain presences on the islands and advertise a variety of dive packages along with the usual PADI courses. The cost for leisure dives (certified divers only) starts at $80 for two dives. Divers must pay an additional $16 per day for a diving permit.
Whale sharks sometimes make an appearance in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park between November and February when the plankton is blooming. Sapi and Mamutik are usually the busiest islands for diving.
- Read more about the excellent diving in Sabah.
Camping in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Camping directly on the beach is an excellent way to enjoy the islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. Tents (about $20) and sleeping mats (about $5) can be purchased from the large department store in KK Plaza; an outfitter shop in Wawasan Plaza also sells camping gear.
The large monitor lizards patrolling the islands may look like komodo dragons but are harmless. Mosquitoes are a problem on all the islands; read about how to avoid mosquito bites. Campers on Sapi Island should beware of the macaque monkeys.
A camping permit costs $1.60 per person regardless of the length of stay.
Getting to Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Speedboats to all five islands depart from the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal at the north end of Kota Kinabalu; the journey takes between 20 - 30 minutes. Boats begin running around 7:30 a.m. and make the last trip to the islands around 4:30 p.m. There is no solid schedule for the boats, although they do depart regularly. You must purchase your ticket inside the terminal from one of the many companies then wait at the dock for enough passengers to fill a boat.
The final boats back to Kota Kinabalu depart the islands at 5 p.m. If you miss the last boat, you will be charged a $16 fee for the return journey.
- Read more about Malaysia travel.
Costs, Fees, and Permits
- All boats have a fixed price of $5.50 for a return ticket to any island. If you wish to go island hopping, the transport from one island to the next costs an additional $5.50 per island.
- Before departing from the ferry terminal, you must pay a $2.50 tariff fee at a separate counter; the tariff is not included in the ticket price. The tariff for children under 12 years old is $1.25.
- Upon arriving at your first island, you must pay a $3.25 conservation fee; children under 18 cost $2. The conservation fee is only paid once regardless of how many islands that you choose to visit.
- Camping is allowed on some islands; a camping permit costs $1.60 per person.
- Divers in the marine park must pay an additional $16 per day for a diving permit.
More information about the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park is available by phoning the Sabah Parks office: 088-486432 or 088-486430.