Malaysia in a Heartbeat: Kota Kinabalu’s Islands

The pristine beaches of Manukan Island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

The pristine beaches of Manukan Island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

You can sleep when you’re dead.

At least that was my motto during my brief stay in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

My trip spanned two and a half days, with much of my time devoted to an assignment for Asian Geographic. With so many early morning starts, coupled with traveling and scorching heat, I was severely sleep deprived for most of the trip. I would have done some unspeakable things for some decent coffee, which is not easy to find in Southeast Asia.

As soon as we landed in Kota Kinabalu, I began to explore.

Evidence of Malaysia's involvement in World War II when Japan attacked Kota Kinabalu.

Rusted bomb shells on display at Manukan Island and evidence of Malaysia’s involvement in World War II when Japan attacked Kota Kinabalu.


Beers & boats. Enjoying Asahi, a dry Japanese beer while cruising out to Sapi and Manukan Islands.


One of the many vibrant green islands on route to Sapi and Manukan Islands.

150 ringgit ($50 CDN) later, I was on a private chartered boat took me to two beautiful tropical islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu known as Sapi and Manukan. Another 50 ringgit got me four beers to take along for the ride.

Fishy business on Manukan Island.

Fishy business on Manukan Island.

My tour guides came in the form of two really nice, middle aged Malaysian guys, who smoked a lot of cigarettes. I gave them one of my beers.

Coasting the azure waters of the Pacific, beer in hand, clad in shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, I thought of my Halifax friends who were likely staring into a computer screen for the majority of their internships. I felt lucky. Escaping the office was pure bliss. This was a work-cation.

The first island Sapi, was small and very touristy, packed with many visitors from China, Hong Kong and Korea. I spent about 15 minutes strolling along the beach and snapping photos before we were off to the larger, more impressive and less busy Mankukan Island.

After strolling down a long, wooden dock I saw grown man feeding a school of fish with a sizeable smile etched on his face. I was in paradise.

Manukan reminded me of the set from Jurassic Park. Instead of abandoned laboratories and dinosaurs stalking through the jungle, I found deserted bungalows overgrown by ferns and palm trees, and one very large monitor lizard.


A monitor lizard roaming about Manukan Island.

Common in Southeast Asia, monitor lizards are like iguanas on steroids, but smaller and less vicious than Komodo dragons. It was the largest lizard I’ve seen up close. With no one else around, the scaly character caught me off guard. I jumped as he crawled across my path. It was harmless and proved to be a cooperative photography subject. Out of fear of agitating the reptile, I employed the use of my zoom lens.

I spent the rest of my time relaxing on the beach thinking about nothing in particular and particularly nothing.


The touristy beaches of Sapi Island. I enjoyed Manukan Island more because of its quieter atmosphere.

As beautiful as Manukan was, it was upsetting to see bleach containers, Coca Cola bottle caps and other plastic containers strewn across the island’s idyllic beaches. Some people can be so ignorant. I wouldn’t have even dared to put a cigarette out there.

Just a few hours of cleanup would have made a tremendous difference. Humans ruin everything that’s beautiful on this Earth. I left Manukan upset with the mess. If I didn’t have to race back to my boat, I would have collected and disposed of some of the trash.

This was the only shortcoming and it was an awesome day. Approaching the boat, sweat tangoed with my eyes and the sunburns on my sun-soaked German-Canadian skin began to sting. It was time for the indoors. As the mainland came into focus, wished I had more time to explore the rugged, yet serene terrain of these two stunning islands off of Kota Kinabalu.


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