Asia > Southeast Asia > Malaysia > Sabah > Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (TARP) is a park off the coast of the island of Borneo in Malaysia made up of five islands: Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik. The islands are popular destinations for snorkeling, diving, and spending time on the beach, and they also have resorts, jungle trails, and wildlife. They are very close to Kota Kinabalu, so they're easy to reach on a day trip or to spend a few nights.
The marine park is under the administration of the Sabah Parks Authority, which has the mandate to oversee designated protected areas and ensure their maintenance and upkeep as reserves while catering to tourists wanting to enjoy the natural beauty that Sabah has to offer.
The largest amongst the island group is Pulau Gaya at 15 km² of untouched dense rainforest. The Kampong at the Eastern end is a Kampong Laut with 6000 villagers.
Gaya Island boasts some of the best coral and un-spoilt beaches in the entire park. It has three resorts.
All five islands are partly forested, with a mixture of rocky coastlines and white sand beaches. They are located closely together, well within sight of each other and of the Kota Kinabalu city on the mainland. Gaya is by far the largest of the islands it has walking trails on it at 300ft, stray from the poorly marked route and you will very quickly be stuck in the deep ravines that drop away down to the sea, a guide is recommended. With Manukan coming in at a distant second, with a very good reef at the rear of the island.
Flora and fauna
The TARP islands are home to some areas of old growth forest. The Dipterocarpaceae family of tropical lowland rainforest trees can be found especially on the Gaya Island, the biggest of the group of five TARP islands. Tongkat Ali, a small ever red treelet growing to 15 m and Eucalyptus trees can be found on a nature walk within the islands. Mangrove trees also make up an important part of the coastal ecosystem within the park.
The Marine Park also has diverse wildlife. Pulau Gaya is home to hairy pig, long-tailed macaques, hornbills, monitor lizards which swim between the islands and the mainland, there are also snake, the green pit vipers are stunning, there are sea crates in the water, the yellow banded mangrove snake. Macaques aren't hard to spot if you hang around, as they like to come steal food. An albino python has also been seen there.
Pulau Sapi has much of the same wildlife, especially monitor lizards, which are easy to see on the trail.
The climate within the marine park is generally very good, clear, hot and sunny in the morning , cooling into late afternoon. The marine park is near the mainland and partially sheltered by the harbour and the Crocker Range.
The state of Sabah (and Borneo) is below the wind(typhoon), but, can still receive some rough weather and heavy rainfall during the Western and Eastern Monsoon seasons.
Every now and then the weather rolls in from the South China Sea and the water can be rough and murky.
With the available internet weather sites you will find more accurate real time information there to plan your days out.
Travel to the TAR Marine Park can be done by speedboats that can be caught at the 1 Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal in the northern end of Kota Kinabalu, along Jalan Fuad Stephens. There are about a dozen tour boat companies operating inside the terminal. All of them offer different boats with different departure times from both the terminal and back from the islands. Once chosen, passenger will have to stick to that boat and according operator for all his rides inside the national park. Prices are fixed: return boat trip to any of the islands costs RM23, two island hops - RM33, three island hops - RM43, four island hops - RM53 (as of 2016). A compulsory terminal fee of RM7 per person must also be paid at the terminal before departing. Your admission fee (usually RM20, but see below) is payable upon arrival to the first visited island, paid tickets should be kept and shown at the reception desk on any second island. Boats depart roughly every hour, with earliest departure at 8:00AM (but arrive a half hour early to get the tickets) and last departure at 4:30PM. The last return boats are at 4PM. You can choose to spend as little as an hour on one island, or all day, or hop in between islands depending on how many trips you purchase at the terminal. The trip takes 15-25 minutes depending on the island. Annoyingly, because the boats are scheduled, you have to pre-book what time you want to come back when you buy the tickets. For unscheduled trips one can charter a boat for RM204.
It is best to try and go to these islands during the week as the islands are a popular destination for locals and it can get busy during the weekend. The further the island is that you visit the less amenities on the island and also the more secluded. An alternative that avoids the hassle and expense of staying on the islands is to stay in Kota Kinabalu and head over to the islands on day trips. If don't want to face the crowds then pre-book your trip with one of the operators below.
Unless you are spending the night on the islands or have chartered a boat, the last boats back to the city leave at 4PM. Be on time, because the boat operators will charge you a large fee for after hours pickups.
Fees and permits
Admission fee: Non-Malaysian adults RM20, children under 18 RM15, children under 6 RM10, seniors over 60 RM15. Malaysians adults RM5, children under 18 RM3, children under 6 free, seniors RM3. Visitors with disabilities free.
The admission fee is separate from the boat fare and terminal fees (see above). Pay it at the first island you arrive at, and you'll receive a ticket which you can show at any other islands you visit to avoid paying twice.
The camping fee is RM5 for adults and RM2 for children.
Diving permits are RM50 for Non-Malaysians and RM20 for Malaysians.
This section updated February 2019. For up-to-date fees check with the internet or parks directly or Sabah forums.
If you paid for it when you booked your tickets, boats can take you from island to island.
- 1 Sulug. The least developed of the isles with no facilities whatsoever, visitors can opt to camp if they wish to stay overnight. The island is inhabited and dive operators have daily trips there for diving off the corals on the northern shore as it is one of the best site around in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
- 2 Mamutik. Island is also rather underdeveloped but is still accessible by jetty. Basic amenities like public toilet and shower are available. Chalets can be arranged with Sabah Parks if you don't wish to camp. This little island of slightly bigger than a football field is very diver friendly as it's ideal for shore dives, but due to the recent influx of the tourist hordes to this island, the shallow coral areas have mostly been trampled. Nevertheless, open water dive courses are conducted here with visibility ranging from 4 - 10m. PADI Instructor Examinations are also conducted here. Lifeguards are on patrol during the day. Bring along insect repellent, sandflies are a nuisance!. Gear up and walk to the shore for a dive!
- 3 Manukan. One of the most developed islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park due to its 1-km stretch of white sandy beach and pine-tree lined shores. Sutera Sanctuary Lodges have expensive beach and hill-side chalets here for rent, as well as a covered restaurant and a daily beach BBQ buffet spread. Other facilities include a snorkelling equipment rental hut, a small sundry shop, changing rooms. toilets and Scubadoo underwater scooters. Life guards are on duty on the main beach where there are also wooden tables and chairs for picnics. During the holiday season the island can get quite crowded, but makes for interesting people watching. Shallow water corals have all but been destroyed by stampeding holiday makers, but in deeper water and near the jetty area there are still vibrant fish life to be found. For those interested in hiking, there is a 1.5-km "jungle trek" paved walking path which starts from the base of the dock, and leads hikers through the forest to the opposite end of the island. From the end, you can either turn back or clamber down an unmarked path to the beach below. It is possible to walk along the south side of the island all the way back to the dock and the main beach if you don't mind climbing over a lot of rocks (accessibility may depend on the tides; use your best judgment).
- 4 Sapi. It's like Manukan, but smaller and is the second most developed island in the park. It has basic restaurant facilities, toilets (filthy), and snorkelling equipment rental. The Shangri-La hotel resort have their own staff and private beach over on the right of the jetty. There's a jungle trail around the island, and shallow water snorkelling offers some excitement. Where there was coral it has been trampled and stolen by the hordes of Chinese visitors it is very crowded and not at all relaxing. There is a sand bank to the north of the island, which, at low tide, makes it possible to cross over to the south western tip of Gaya island. There is a safe swimming area that is marked by a floating rope buoy line, swim beyond this and you risk being hit by the many fast transfer boats travelling between the islands and K.K. Also has a zipline from Gaya.
- 5 Gaya Island. The largest of the islands by far. Has undergone some development on its northern shores, and has 2 exclusive resorts. Sabah Parks headquarters are further to the south-western, unspoiled part of Gaya island. Sabah Parks HQ and Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures are set in a secluded bay with diving, snorkelling, jungle trekking, wildlife spotting and team building facilities. Gaya has a vibrant eco system both above and below the surface, lots of fauna and flora and beaches which boast no sand flies. Due to its seclusion the island is not overrun by tourists and thus has beautiful, unspoiled corals near the shore. As it is not such a major tourist destination Gaya is the most difficult island to reach. The Gayana Resort and the dive operator will arrange for their customers' transport. Gayana's scheduled boats are for customers only, but if you aren't staying the night, you can by a "day package" for RM60 (ask about it in the Gayana Resort office on the second floor of the ticketing hall at Jesselton Point). Otherwise, you may have to arrange your own boat. To avoid charter prices (RM200 and up), try arriving early in the morning or with a group. The island also has a zipline to Sapi.
- 1 Marine Ecology Research Center, Gayana-Eco-Resort, Gaya island. The program focuses on Giant Clam propagation and coral restoration. The Marine Biologists at the center offers insights to visitors to help create awareness on the importance of taking care of the environment. It is open to the public for day trip visits.
- Some of the islands have jungle trails:
- Sapi: A single 1.5–2 km trail through the jungle that circles the island. It's not overly strenuous, but it is a hike, so probably best to wear something other than flip flops. It takes an hour, give or take, depending on how fast you hike and how much time you spend stopping to look at animals. It's easy to spot two-meter monitor lizards, which will waddle away from you when they hear you coming. You can also see hermit crabs, smaller lizards, and hornbills.
- Manukan: A 1.5–2 km trail.
- Gaya: Extensive network of trails. It's possible to see macaques here—take the trail to the right, behind the toilets. Also look out for brown lizards, hornbills, and sleeping bats.
- Marine informative museum is also found here and options for those not inclined to swim in the sea can opt for swimming in the pool or take a hike along the nature trail.
- Water sports including boat and beach toy rentals are available on Manukan, Mamutik and Sapi.
- Zipline from Gaya to Sapi. If you're on Sapi, a boat will take you to Gaya and you zipline back; if you're on Gaya, you can zip over first and a boat will take you back. They say it's the longest island-to-island zipline in the world, but it's pretty fast – only about 20 seconds, over the water between the two islands. Unless you've never done a zipline before and you're dying to try, it's probably not worth the money. RM86 for non-Malaysians, RM64 for Malaysians (2019). Operates 10AM–3:30PM.
Diving and snorkelling
Scuba diving & Snorkeling is offered on all of the islands, but Sapi & Mamutik are now the busiest. Diving is offered by the several dive centers offering certification courses like PADI, SDI, Scuba :School International and open water beginner courses. Coral beds and marine flora is abundant here and dive spots can be found along all the designated dive sites in the Park. Several dive operators with offices in Tanjung Aru Plaza, Wisma Sabah, Plaza Tanjung Aru & KK Times Square (South KK) in Kota Kinabalu organize day dive boat trips to these islands. During late January - mid March the diving conditions in TARP can be impacted by plankton blooms and jelly fish.
Two full service dive centres provide services to TARP: Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures, based on Gaya Island, and Borneo Dream based in Kota Kinabalu). Both centres have good access to the surrounding dive sites.
- Borneo Dream, F-G-1 Plaza Tanjung Aru, Jl. Mat Salleh, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. A boat transfer service is available to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park for snorkelling or diving trips. Over 20 sites for diving and protected areas for snorkelling. Suitable for day trips. Goes to four of the main wreck dive sites on a regular basis. PADI Dive Boat, 10mx4m catamaran and a 9mx3m RIB, SDI resort dive centre, BSAC diver training centre, TDI resort dive centre and IANTD facility. Also offer SCR courses and training certified via the PADI with both a semi closed rebreather diver speciality course and closed circuit rebreather (CCR) training courses.
- Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures (DiveDownbelow), Gaya Island (Based on Gaya Island at the Beach House, nearby to the Sabah Parks HQ), ☏ , . PADI 5 Star IDC Dive & Adventures Centre, PADI enriched air Nitrox diver courses. Offer structured and guided snorkelling, sea kayaking and trekking. Can accommodate very large groups for team building events and adventure training. Camping ground nearby with basic toilets and showers for guests. 3 dive boats, 37ft, 35ft & 32ft. Programs include a free pick up from Kota Kinabalu city hotels
Sapi Island has a small shop with snacks, beach equipment, and a few souvenirs.
Restaurants are available on some of the islands. Expect the food to be overpriced and not especially good, but it'll fill you up.
You can stay on 3 of the islands, either camping or staying in lodges.
- Gayana Resort catering to tourists wishing to stay the night and enjoy the excursion in Gaya or island hop to the other islands is built on stilts and is sited in a bay on the island and offer chalet style accommodations complete with restaurant, souvenir shops and conference facilities.
- Manukan Island Resort For the avid diver, the reefs at Manukan Island offers excellent crystal water and beautiful corals. For those who want to enjoy the scenery, take a leisurely stroll along the nature trail or simply laze by the long stretch of beautiful beach.
- Bunga Raya Island Resort & Spais the award winning property that sits on Gaya Island. With 52 timbered villas that sits over the hills of Police Bay.
If wishing to travel to Sulug, Gaya and other islands please ensure you check with authoritative and reliable sources as to the safety of the trip prior to booking. The waters surrounding the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park can be subject to extreme weather events, especially in the middle of the Monsoon season when the seas may become quite rough.
As always, swimmers should be careful of dangerous ocean creatures, especially jellyfish. The park authority posts warning signs during jellyfish season (October - May), although you should stay vigilant at all times. Most jellyfish will cause a very painful sting or burning to the skin. A Jellyfish sting should followed up with first aid then treated with vinegar, further medical help at hospital should be given immediately.
The Eastern tip of Gaya Island, directly opposite the city of Kota Kinabalu, is populated by a Kampung Laut of 6000 mostly illegal immigrants. This part of the island is locally considered to be a dangerous area due to a high risk of crime. Most other locations on Gaya Island, however, including the Gayana Resort, Police Beach, and the dive center, are far from this part of the island.