Fishermen walked past me, tourists with large bags and brightly coloured bathers wandered past me and boats at Jessleton Point began to fill; all heading to different islands in search of sun, snorkelling or sleep (yes, there are hotels on some of the islands just off Kota Kinabalu!). I was people watching, picking up freshly baked Malaysian delights and a fresh coconut on the way.
Sabahan’s are known for being relaxed and easy-going. After a few weeks travelling through Indonesia, it was nice to be told that the only thing I had to do was “relax and enjoy life“. I was off in search of some quality island time at Mari Mari Sepanggar Island.
Welcome to Mari Mari Sepanggar Island
Set a 15-minute boat ride from Jesselton Point, you’ll be docking at Sepanggar Island. This private island has recently been opened to the public who come through local business, Mari Mari who also run lodging on Sepanggar Island and nearby Mantanani Island.
Each day, just a few dozen people are allowed to visit the island. When I visited, there was eight of us, including one family and a couple who had stayed overnight on the island, plus the staff, on this island paradise.
For a half day trip, it’s great! Escape from the bustle of downtown Kota Kinabalu to the white sandy beaches, fishing, snorkelling and diving opportunities, and a jungle walk. Hammocks strung between trees call to you to come nap, beach volleyball and a few other games to play, but trust me – you’ll be distracted by the bright aquamarine coloured waters.
Should you want to stay overnight, the island offers basic rooms at a very reasonable price. There are a sprinkling of hill chalets and one spacious beach chalet. All of them have views of the beach and cityscape beyond.
One of the main appeals of Sepanggar Island is the opportunity to go snorkelling to see some of Sabah’s brightly coloured fish!
The coral at Sepanggar Island is little worse for wear near the island due to the proximity of the city, local villages and boat use in the area. If snorkelling if important to you, I’ve been told that the waters at Mantanani Island is a little further away (around 45 minutes by boat) but offers much better diving opportunities with visibility of around 30 – 40 metres!
Meeting the locals
Sepanggar Island is home to a mix of animals and (temporary!) humans. Many of the staff who run day-to-day operations are locals from the nearby village and the guides often spend nights there. Then there are the animals.
As I sat on the deck to dry myself off before lunch, I couldn’t help myself and patiently waited for the cats to approach. One was so busy cleaning herself that she looked up in surprise mid-lick.
Like much of Sabah, the island is also home to monkeys.
The monkeys are looking for food and so if you bring food to the island please tell the guide and store it in the storage area provided. If not, prepare to have your bag raided by these cheeky creatures. Also, if you want to photograph them don’t smile. This is a general rule for monkeys everywhere but showing your teeth is considered a sign of aggression in their world and when I smiled, just once, instead of running away from me when I got closer the monkeys attitudes changed completely and they began to get aggressive and baring their teeth.
I decided to stick with the cute cats and locals after that!
3… 2… 1… Relax
Sepanggar Island is the perfect place to escape the bustle, overcome your jet lag and simply relax.
From what my local friend told me, there aren’t a lot of public beaches in Kota Kinabalu so the affordable price of a day trip to the island is worth it if you want to swim, relax and adjust to island time.
I’m a bit more of an action girl so would have liked to see a few more activities or even better snorkelling conditions, but as a half-day trip, it was just right amount of time in the water, eating and relaxing. I just wish my friends had come with me so we could have played beach volleyball!
A note about the water: Malaysia is a developing country. On the surface cities, such as Kota Kinabalu, with their shiny shopping centres, developed roads and big hotels, look like a city you may find in Australia, the USA or Europe. Underneath the surface, things are a little different. As a developing country, Malaysia is growing and industrialising quickly, but in some areas, they aren’t able to keep up with the growth. One area is with garbage.
If you get closer to the Sea Gypsy Villages or homes that are built on the waterways, you’ll see rubbish littering the water. Your guide may even joke, seriously, about not falling in. Plastic bottles may litter the sea and toilets in those areas are sometimes little more than a hole in the floor. While you’ll have toilet facilities akin to back at home when you visit Seppangar Island or any of Mari Mari’s properties, there will still be rubbish.
Mari Mari does their best to keep this rubbish out. My guide to the island even spoke to me about it telling them that the team does what they can to make sure the beach is as clean as possible for visitors with pollution nets surrounding the beach, but some still get through and they haven’t cleaned up the backlog from years before Mari Mari managed the island.
While I was swimming, I noticed it. It wasn’t until I saw a paddle from one of the groups kayak, white and weathered with age, that I took action. I took the paddle back to land and, very slowly, swimming along the surface picking up the noticeable rubbish. Chip packets, styrofoam noodle cups, and drink containers. Aerosol cans, plastic cutlery, even diapers littered the bottom of the sea. The pile mounted on land and before I had the chance to take a photo it was cleaned up and taken away. So, I started again. Two hours later both my piles had disappeared and I headed up to the dining area for lunch and some more cat pats.
Don’t criticise the business. They do try to clean up the beach and the waters to ensure the best experience for their guests, but if you see some garbage pick it up and bin it. They’ll appreciate it and you are making the water a little cleaner, a little nicer, for the next person to visit.
Mari Mari Sepanggar Island
Cost: the Island Excursion half-day experience, including one snorkelling session, costs RM218 (around AU$65). Additional activities such as scuba diving, fishing and accommodation can be added on. All prices can be found on their website.
Notes on what to bring: First and foremost, while there are some drinks available on the island you should bring your own snacks. These should be kept in the guest tea room if you are staying overnight or in the storage space if you are day tripping to the island. There are monkeys on the island and they are notorious for stealing food, even right from your hand.
Also, please do me one favour. Kota Kinabalu has some of the world’s most harsh sun as you are at around 5° north of the equator. This means that the sun is hitting the earth at almost a 90° angle. Please, please, PLEASE use 30+ sunscreen or greater and remember to reapply every hour or so. I did not and learned the hard way by having terrible sunburn and sunstroke.
Don’t say you don’t burn. You will. Slip, slop, slap. Bring your sunscreen, rashies, boardies, and a good hat!
How to get to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Sabah is situated in Malaysia, on the island of Borneo which is divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei to the north, and Indonesia to the south.
There are no direct flights to Kota Kinabalu (BKI), Sabah’s biggest city, from Australia but it is easy to connect in Kuala Lumpur (flying Malaysia Airlines or AirAsia), Bandar Seri Begawan (flying Royal Brunei Airlines), or Singapore (flying Singapore Airlines connecting with regional sister airline SilkAir).
There are also a number of direct flights from South Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other regions of Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu.
For more information on travelling to Sabah, check out the Sabah Tourism website.
I was a guest of the Sabah Tourism Board.
All thoughts, opinions, and sunburn experienced was, as always, my own.