Visiting the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park from Kota Kinabalu
The Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a group of five islands lying just off the coast of Borneo. They all boast white sand beaches, snorkelling opportunities and a chance to relax just minutes away from the city. As backpackers we were a little hesitant about the costs of getting to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park and whether we would be able to do it independently, avoiding the hordes of tour groups.
The verdict? We managed to have a really enjoyable day snorkelling, sunbathing and even a jungle walk. It was a little more expensive than our usual spending but that couldn’t really be avoided. So yes, we would recommend visiting Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park from Kota Kinabalu but we’d do a couple of things differently.
So here’s a round-up of the practicalities, costs and tips for a great day trip to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
Which islands to visit in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
It’s possible to do a full day island hopping tour and visit all five islands in one day. But you only get a short amount of time on each and as they are all fairly similar it’s best just to pick one and enjoy maximum relaxing time.
We chose to visit two islands and wish we had just gone straight to the second one as it was far less crowded and the snorkelling and beaches were just as nice as the first island. Below is a quick summary of what to expect from each island.
Gaya Island: This is by far the largest island in the park and is home to a few resorts. You can only visit here with an organised day trip or if you’re staying at one of the resorts, which actually sounds really amazing. So if you have some more time check out the resort prices here.
Sapi Island: This is the most popular island for tourists and we went here first on our day at the National Park. As with all the islands it has a small white sand beach and some spots for snorkelling. Unfortunately while we were there the reef was closed off because of low tide and from what we could see a lot of it was dead anyway. There were still plenty of fish to see in the area but there were also a couple of hundred Chinese tourists hanging around too. We wouldn’t recommend Sapi if you like peace and quiet.
Manukan Island: We stopped by here to drop some other people off and from what we could see it looked fairly quiet (although apparently a lot of the tours head here after Sapi and we arrived just before them). This is the longest beach of any of the islands so there are more spots for snorkelling and more chance of finding a secluded spot.
Mamutik Island: We spent an amazing afternoon sharing the beach with 3 other people on Mamutik Island. There was lots to see while we were out snorkelling and there are also plenty of facilities on the island for diving and kayaking, including glass bottomed kayaks.
Sulug Island: This is the least visited of the islands and you’ll find hardly anyone else there. As a result it can be harder to find a boat that will take you out there (although it’s the same price as the other islands) and there are no facilities on the island. But if solitude is what you desire then this is a good bet.
How to get to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Ferries take about 15 minutes to reach the islands of the National Park and start from around 8:30am. Head down to Jesselton Ferry Terminal and purchase your ticket inside the big hall from any of the tour agencies. They are all registered and the prices are the same. The only thing that might differ is the return time. We asked around and found a boat returning at 4pm instead of 3pm to give us a bit more time.
A return trip to one island costs 22 MYR plus 7 MYR terminal fee.
Two islands costs 33 MYR plus 7 MYR terminal fee.
Entrance to the National Park costs 20 MYR for non-Malaysians. You only need to pay this on the first island you arrive on, then simply show the ticket at any other islands you visit.
The boats leave Jesselton every 15-30 minutes and return times are usually 3pm or 4pm or you can arrange to come back earlier if you just want to do a half-day trip. If you are visiting 2 islands you’ll change island at 1pm.
Tips for your day trip to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Snorkel gear can be hired when you buy your ferry tickets and costs 10 MYR for the day, no deposit required. You can also hire a life jacket, fins or a beach mat, all of which are 10 MYR.
A buffet lunch on any of the islands will cost 45 MYR per person. The food looked decent but this was also a peaceful time on the beach as everyone was busy eating. We decided to save ourselves some money and bring our own snacks for the day.
Scuba diving is available on all of the islands but most likely needs to be organised in advance. On Sapi Island you can also do sea walking where you wear a weight belt and a tank and walk along a rope line at the bottom of the ocean. This costs 250 MYR per person.
Don’t expect a huge amount from the snorkelling as most of the coral reefs around the islands are dead. But there are plenty of fish including clown fish and a some very brightly coloured ones. For 10 MYR it’s definitely worth checking it out. We read that Sapi had the best snorkelling (which is why it gets so busy) but in our experience we saw just as many fish at Mamutik and had the water virtually to ourselves.
Camping is allowed on the islands and it is a great way to enjoy the beach without anyone else once all the tourists head home in the afternoon. It’s also a beautiful spot to camp and costs just 5 MYR per person.
Sustainable travel in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
There are rubbish bins on the islands but most of this rubbish is likely burnt so try to minimise what you bring with you. Take your lunch with you in a reusable container or take your rubbish back with you.
The coral reefs are in pretty poor condition and are often roped off to protect them during low tide. Respect these rules and don’t go past the ropes just for a photo opportunity as we saw so many people doing!
Try not stand on the coral if you are snorkelling and make sure you wear reef safe sunscreen like this one.
There is a 20 MYR fee per person for entrance to the National Park. You can find more detailed information about the projects this money contributes to on their website.