Return to Sabah — Kota Kinabalu, Part 6: Island Hopping

Never have we spent so many days in Kota Kinabalu. The city is usually a gateway to the rest of Sabah. Most people arrive in KK, stay one night, then leave to go to wherever it is that they are going to in Sabah. However, following our day with Serrene, who recommended that we go island-hopping, which we were planning to do at Semporna, we decided to take her advice and spend one more day in KK.

On the boat ride to hop islands


To get to the islands, we went first to the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, where we gathered more information. Almost as soon as soon as we parked the car and walked towards the ferry terminal, we were accosted by an agent of the one of the tour operators. He wanted us to engage his company’s business, but we first wanted to gather information.

He followed us all the way to the pier, even thought we told him, in Malay, that we haven’t made a decision yet, and to wait. At the pier, he got a colleague to speak to us in Chinese, thinking that we were from China. We were so annoyed with this guy that we resolved not to give him our business. When we walked back to the ferry terminal building, we snuck inside through an adjacent row of stalls to avoid him, and we approached one of the cashiers to get information.

Welcome to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park!

We found out that there are 5 islands you can go to, which form the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. In the distant past during the Ice Age, when the sea level was much lower, the islands could clearly be seen to form part of the Crocker Range of mountains on the mainland. However, when the ice melted and the sea levels rose, the islands became isolated from the mainland.

The islands are:

1. Gaya (‘big’)

2. Sapi (the sound of a mowing buffalo)

3. Manukan (‘fish’)

4. Mamutik (‘for shell collection’)

5. Sulug (commemorates the ancestry of the Sulu peoples of Sabah)

Map of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, and its five islands.

For some reason, we could not go to Sulug that day. We could choose between 2 to 4 islands to visit. To strike a balance, we decided that visiting 2 islands would be sufficient. Thinking we could go to visit the stateless villages on Gaya, we chose this as the first island. However, the cashier lady informed us that no, we could not go there. Most of the island area is privately-owned by the resorts, and inaccessible unless you’re staying at the resorts or taking a activity package by one of the tour operators.

For those who enjoy water sports such as scuba-diving, snorkelling, banana boat, parasailing, etc, these islands are for you. However, we did none of these activities, and just wanted to go see the islands. The cashier told us that, in this case, we would be able to access only a very small strip of shoreline on Gaya Island, at the Padang Point. Hence, we decided that Gaya would not be one of our choices. Instead, we chose the neighbouring Sapi, which is the 3rd largest (or smallest) island of the five.

Since we already picked a small island, our other choice would be Manukan, the second largest island. Actually we need not have done so, for even a small island is difficult to enjoy fully in an hour, which is the amount of time we had on each island.

Since we were speaking in Malay to the cashier lady, who was really nice, she gave us a tip. When we go over to the islands, they will ask us to pay a conservation fee, which is separate from the boat fee. The conservation fee is RM5 for locals, but RM20 for international visitors. Most of the tourist attractions in the national parks of Sabah have this conservation fee. She told us to tell them, in Malay, that we are locals, so that we can pay the lower rate. It’s not entirely a lie, since both Baby Crab and Sook Yeen come from Malaysia. It’s a half-truth. 😅

The cashier lady printed out for us a receipt and the boat ticket, and directed us one of the boat operators. We told her that we haven’t paid yet, but she said the boat operator will handle it. The boat ride for each person to 2 islands was RM45. As it was our first time here, we followed her instruction. We asked the boat operator about making payment, but they said told us that would come later. They processed our ticket, then directed us to collect our lifejackets.

We were told that we had to keep our lifejackets on the whole time, since we were not scuba-diving. Even if we were to go snorkelling, we had to keep them on. If we decided not to, and left the life jackets on the shore, someone else could come by and take it without us realising it. In addition, if we ran into trouble while snorkelling without life jackets, we would be taking our own risk. Maybe their insurance policy doesn’t cover customers who take off their life jackets.


We proceeded to the pier where we waited for our boat to come. At the pier and at every island, there is a coordinator who arranges the boat to come and pick up the customers. Our first stop was at Manukan. From above, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug form a smiley face, with Manukan as the mouth. We alighted at the jetty and walked towards the shore.

Welcome to Manukan Island!

Some parts are rocky, some parts are sandy.

The sea is beautiful!

About half the island is occupied by a resort. The coordinator briefed us on what we can and cannot do, then left us to explore the island on our own for an hour. He also told us that due to incoming bad weather, we need to wrap up our island hopping by 3pm, instead of the usual 4pm. We later find out from another coordinator that this is not true, and that the first coordinator probably just wanted to go home early that day. 😅

Coordinator briefing

Coloured flags at the lifeguard stations are used to indicate warnings about the water conditions.

Map of Manukan Island, near the jetty.

The sand on the shore where most people were at is soft and fine. We walked till we could no longer go any further. The sand here, at first glance, was coarse and rough. However, on closer inspection, we found that it’s not actually sand, but bits of dead coral and seashells. We amused ourselves with the dead coral for a while before heading back to the other side of the shore to play with water.

Many ‘stones’ on the beach

They turned out to be bits of dead coral.

Some are colourful.

Like so

Some are broken down houses for marine life.

Greg and Baby Tilapia chose not to enter the water, but Sook Yeen and Baby Crab did. The shores of the 5 islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park all face the mainland, so the waves are not that strong.

It’s fun to go into the water!

Not going into the water can be fun too!

As there are many coral reefs around the islands, many fish and marine creatures live in the water. This makes the water very clear, and the teeming marine life makes snorkelling around the islands very interesting. We don’t snorkel today, but Baby Crab does succeed in scooping out some fish from the waters.

Small fish in the water

Soon, it is time to leave Manukan and head to our second island.


Welcome to Sapi Island!

Although Sapi is many times smaller than the neighbouring Gaya, there is more public space available. From the jetty, we could see the small stretch of public beach on Gaya, and we were glad we didn’t choose to go there.

Behind us is Gaya Island. You can see the tiny stretch of beach which is Padang Point.

We hadn’t eaten lunch, so we ordered instant noodles and fried chicken wings from the first food stall we saw on the island. We ate our hot food with one eye open for predatory monkeys looking to steal food from the tables.

Simple but delicious!

Most of Sapi is covered with forest, with about 5km of nature trails. During low tide, it is possible to walk across a sand bank to Gaya, wading in the shallow waters. But it was not low tide when we were here. There’s not much to do here if you don’t snorkel. While we explored the island, we came across one of these nature trails and decided to follow it to see where it led.

Hiking at Sapi Island. Beware of sandflies!

For seasoned hikers like us, the trail posed minimal challenge, although it was narrow at parts with a steep drop facing the sea. At one point, there was a muddy patch where a slip would have resulted in a fall down the slope. We threw some stones onto it to increase traction before crossing it. The trail is not well-maintained, like many other tourist attractions we visited.

At one point, the trail forked. We chose to go left until we decided to turn back due to lack of time to explore further. On the way back, we went down the right side for it was very short. It led us to a platform which we initially thought was a viewing deck. But we soon realised that it was actually a flying fox zipline linking Gaya and Sapi, but is now closed. We suppose that island hopping in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park must have been much more fun in the pre-pandemic days than it is now.

We wanted to stay longer at Sapi, but when we alighted at the jetty, the coordinator had asked us what time we wanted to head back, and suggested we go back at 3pm. The hiking ate up all our time, and when we asked the coordinator if we could go back at 4pm instead, he said no, because he had already arranged for the boat to come at 3pm, and the boat will not come back just for 4 persons who wanted to stay an additional hour. Maybe he wanted to go home early too.

The waters are so clear!

Having no choice, we headed back to Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal. Back on the mainland, we remembered that we hadn’t paid for our boat ride yet, and no one has asked us to make the RM180 payment up till now. We decided to go back to the main building where we spoke to the cashier lady. But when we reached, the cashier counters were all closed, and there was no one there to accept our payment.

So we got a free island hopping experience. Not that we wanted it to be free, but we didn’t know any better 😓.

However, if we paid for it, then our verdict for the day here at KK is that unless you snorkel or scuba-dive, or are expecting a relaxed, nothing-to-do day, it is better give island-hopping a miss for now. But since it was free, it was okay.

Maybe things will be better after the tourism comes alive again. We will be back to check.

At least we got nice photos of us.


Sulug Island can be seen from Tanjong Aru Beach.

Since we had spent the whole day on various beaches, Baby Tilapia suggested that we visit one more beach on the mainland before going back to the hotel. We went to Tanjong Aru Beach, which is just next to Kota Kinabalu International Airport. The beach faces west, so it is a recommended place to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, there are many clouds in the sky when we went, so no sunset for us. From the beach, we could also see, in the distance, the Manukan, Mamutik, and Sulug islands.

Such a beautiful view!

The beach is very flat. When the waves retreat, the water forms a mirror that reflects the sky. Loads of little holes and balls of sand dot the beach. If you move slowly, you can see tiny crabs scuttle about, quickly withdrawing into their holes if they sense your presence.

Crabs and their holes
Baby Crab and Baby Tilapia looking at baby crabs. Photo by Sook Yeen.

Beside the beach is also a local pasar malam. It is lively, but the food is so-so, even though we were hungry. You have to eat at the food stalls though. If you choose to sit at the round tables with a sea view, you will be asked to pay RM3 to rent a table 🙄.

One thing we have experienced throughout our Sabah trip is that there are many free experiences that are now chargeable. Want to take photo of a nice view? Please pay RM2. Want to sit at a table with a nice view? Please pay RM3.

It’s okay. We’ll just find another place to see the same view without having to pay.


This being our third night in Kota Kinabalu, we originally wanted to stay at Stanton Hotel for one more night. However, the family room that the four of us sleep in is booked today, so we opted to stay at Serrene’s other hotel, Stanton City Hotel. Initially we reserved a family room, but when we reached to check in, we discovered that the family room has only one queen bed and one single bed, not enough for the four of us. So we opted for two double rooms instead.

Stanton City Hotel is located directly across the road from Sutera Harbour Golf & Country Club. It overlooks Kampung Sembulan.

View of Kampung Sembulan from Stanton City Hotel

Parking is not free though; it’s RM2 per entry. The ground floor has a number of eateries and convenience shops, which means we don’t need to drive out for dinner. We have dinner at Grill Fish Restaurant, which we have been smelling since we checked in at the hotel in the morning.

It’s supposedly the best ikan bakar in Kota Kinabalu, and was quite crowded. We found it acceptable in taste and presentation. However, the prawns were not fresh. The food is a little pricey, but after our bad experience at Welcome Seafood Restaurant on our first day at KK, we have greatly lowered our expectations and are not so disappointed now.

We have one more post about our time in Kota Kinabalu, before we share with you our adventures in other parts of Sabah.

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