While Kota Kinabalu (KK) in Sabah state, Malaysia has a vibrant nightlife and charming nature reserves, its most popular tourist spots are its islands. Tourists from neighboring Brunei, Indonesia, and other Malaysian states travel to KK to go island hopping.
So when my friends and I made a side trip to KK from Brunei, that’s exactly what we did – island hopping in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Aside from the fact that it was the peak of summer heat, my friends and I really love beaches so we thought it would be nice to hit one on our first group trip abroad.
When I was researching about our itinerary prior to the trip, I had a difficult time looking for information about island hopping. I got the details of where to go and what to do but I didn’t know the most important thing to consider – the cost!
The government websites gave different information and some blogs are outdated. So I decided to compile this list of tips to save on cost, effort, and time when planning to bask in Kota Kinabalu’s famous islands.
1) Be early.
Jesselton Point (JP) is where you’ll find all the boats going to the islands. If you travelled by ferry from Labuan or Brunei, this is the same terminal you arrived in. (READ: #CrossingBorders: Brunei to Kota Kinabalu by ferry)
It’s best to be in JP early – around 8am to 9am – to skip the long lines of tourists booking boats, especially if you’re going on a weekend. If you weren’t able to eat in your hotel, don’t worry. There are many food stalls that serve delicious Malaysian food at cheap prices in JP.
Many tourists tend to arrive an hour or two before lunch time so you might have to wait long for boats or pay more for “private boats.”
The weather in Sabah is quite consistent so this is applicable almost all year round. This won’t be as big a problem if you go on a weekday but it’s still best to be first in your chosen island, right?
Tip: KK is a pretty small city. Taxis don’t even turn their meters on when you ride them. You should not pay more than MYR 15 to MYR 20 (if it’s really far) from your hotel to JP.
2) Book your trips in the ticketing center.
There are many barkers outside of JP who will try to sell you a ticket or book you your own boat for the day. The prices here are very high compared to the actual prices of tickets – I also saw tour agencies online that ask MYR 400 for 4 people for 2 islands.
While this can be tempting, especially if there are many tourists lined up, you can save a lot by just being patient. Thankfully, we went island hopping on a Monday so there weren’t that many people. We just went straight to the ticketing counter.
The actual price is MYR 25 for a return trip to one island. You will need to tell the agent what time you want to go home – or if you’re planning to visit more islands, what time you’ll transfer. Two islands will probably cost around MYR 35. The last trip going home is at 5pm.
There’s an MYR 7.20 terminal tax for JP and an MYR10 (price for foreigners) conservation fee for each island. You’ll pay the terminal fee when you pay for your fare and the conservation fee every time you dock on an island.
You’ll join other tourists in the boats when you book through the counter. Unless you’re a big group and you plan to see as many of the islands as you can, I don’t think it’s necessary to book your own boat for the day. Remember to keep your ticket from getting wet. You’ll need it to board your boats.
3) Just rent your equipment.
If you’re like my friends and I who just want to enjoy the beach and not really go diving, there’s really no sense in bringing your own equipment. You can rent everything from snorkels, life vests, to flippers in JP.
And it’s quite cheap! For an entire day of use, we only paid MYR 15 each for the snorkel and life vest.
If you’re not planning to go snorkelling, don’t bother renting a life vest. You will be lent one when you ride your boat.
4) Bring food, mats etc.
We decided to go to Sapi Island, a smaller less crowded island in the marine park. It only takes 10 minutes from JP to Sapi and we immediately paid the conservation fee after we arrived.
The next task was to find a place in the shaded areas of the beach. To our surprise, the beach was already full! (See number 1) Worse, we didn’t even bring mattresses to sit or sleep in. We had to pay MYR 30 for a table and chairs – and a guarantee from an old lady that she will look after our things whenever we leave.
The thing about famous tourist sites is that you have to pay for almost every move you do. This was our experience in Sapi. At the middle of the day, while waiting for the afternoon sun to cool down, we got bored so we bought playing cards to pass our time.
It’s good that one of my friends actually bought some drinks and chips before we went to JP. We saved some money on snacks and drinks – but not on meals. We forgot to bring our own lunch and bought our meals in the island, which are 50% more expensive than the prices in KK center.
Useful tip: Bring as many food and drinks as you want. They don’t really limit the amount you can bring in the island as long as you clean up your thrash.
5) Don’t rely on your guides.
…even though they speak Filipino!
Our guide offered us lunch for MYR 80 for 4 people. He said the food would be a seafood buffet. But when we looked around the island, we didn’t see any shops offering a buffet. We checked the only restaurant for meal prices and found out that ordering there was far cheaper.
While the guides are trustworthy, they, of course, want to earn some extra money. If you don’t have the extra money, just buy your meals straight from the shops in the islands (or see number 5).
6) Go around the island. Don’t stay where the tourists are.
The portion of Sapi where the dock and the shops were was crowded. Though we rented a table around this area, we couldn’t really relax because there were too many people.
Good thing my friends decided to walk around the island. That’s how they discovered another beautiful patch of beach, just a few hundred meters away from where we were staying. There were very few tourists who ventured there!
We decided to spend the entire afternoon in the small patch of beach we discovered and it felt like we were alone in the island! It was perfect for photos because there was no one to block the view.
For some real tranquility, in whichever island you go to, never stay in the tourist-y area. Explore the other beaches around the island. I don’t suggest exploring inland though. Since these islands are natural reserves, you might encounter some dangerous wildlife if you go too far in land.
7) For maximum enjoyment, stay in 1-2 islands.
If you really just want to enjoy KK marine park, 1-2 islands per day would do. I don’t see the point of trying to cram so many islands in one day if your goal is to relax and unwind. Just imagine the hassle of packing up your stuff and moving out every 2 hours.
If you really want to see all the islands, visit them on separate days. I don’t think there’s much difference between what you’ll see though unless you’re into diving.
Overall, we enjoyed Sapi island for its clear waters and beautiful scenery. But for those who’ve been to Puerto Princesa or Coron in Palawan, I think you’ll appreciate KK less.
We didn’t have time to go around KK’s other nature reserves and cultural spots. I’d definitely go back to KK to visit those – and climb Mt Kinabalu – in the future.