As capital of Sabah is not really a spectacular city. Therefore, most of the visitors look for one day tours from Kota Kinabalu to see the nearest attractions. First of all, there are several balmy islands just a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu. Perfect beaches and snorkeling conditions as the marine life there is incredible. Moreover, other one day tours from Kota Kinabalu will take you to watch Proboscis Monkeys, unique for Borneo Island as well as stunning spectacle of fireflies. Not far from Kota Kinabalu stands the highest pick of Borneo, surrounded by a lush green national park, famous for leisure activities.
The most interesting one day tours from Kota Kinabalu
I went for a few tours from Kota Kinabalu as I stayed there for a while and didn’t really like the city. I have proposition of 7 one day tours from Kota Kinabalu. I will describe them with details and give you an idea of the itinerary and practicals. I hope you will find the perfect choice for yourself!
1. Pulau Tiga – Survivor Island
Pulau Tiga one day tour is not the most popular island hopping tour from Kota Kinabalu, but it was definitely my favorite. It’s also called Survivor Island because the TV show “Survivor” shoot there the very first edition.
National Park Pulau Tiga consists of three islands: Pulau Tiga is the biggest one; Pulau Kalampunian Besar is the Sand Spit Island which is basically white sand and pristine waters; Snake Island is the Pulau Kalampunian Damit, very rocky and snakes like to hide in there.
Blue waters and coral reef perfect for snorkeling surround Pulau Tiga. There are plenty of naughty monkeys stealing iPhones and monitor lizards coming up close to get some food. Even though it’s forbidden to feed wildlife, they already got spoiled by the food left by humans. Island is also famous for the lush green forest where you can do a jungle trek during the trip.
The highlight of the whole Pulau Tiga one day tour is the volcanic mud bath which was so much fun! There are 3 mud volcanoes on Pulau Tiga with unique in Sabah geology features. Don’t miss that! There are showers, so don’t worry that you will be coming back dirty. Let me tell you the whole itinerary for Pulau Tiga one day tour, and you will want to go there straight away!
Pulau Tiga one day tour itinerary
The pick up time is between 7 30 and 8 am so that everyone can reach the Jesselton Jetty at 8 am. To Pulau Tiga you will need one hour from Kota Kinabalu, or even more if the waves are big and the boat has to go slowly. At first we arrived to the Snake Island and went to search for snakes. We found one sleeping under the stone.
Snake Island is rocky and tiny, so we quickly moved to the next point: The Sand Spit Island. This one was like out of the movie with the turquoise waters and fish swimming in it. I loved the walk on the white sand to reach the end of the island and see view of the Snake Island from there.
Finally, we reached Pulau Tiga at 10 30. We changed our clothes and hopped on the boat again for snorkeling. The boat took us to two spots around the island with a rich coral reef. Plenty of colorful fishes including Nemo, looked just mesmerising. If you are lucky, you may also encounter a sea turtle. We came back for lunch around 1 pm, and I was amazed by the food they served! Barbeque fish, crabs and shrimps were so delicious. There were also some veggies and grilled chicken. The monitor lizards stared at us while eating but it’s forbidden to feed them and any wildlife on the island.After lunch we got our energy back and were ready for a jungle trek. Optionally, we could just chill on the beach and work on our tan. However, after enjoying the enzyme bath in Indonesia, I was so curious to try the mud bath for the first time. OMG! How hilarious it was to see people moving in the mud like hippos. The mud is black, and getting in feels a bit disgusting but once you are there, it’s so much fun! The mud is so thick so that you cannot move fast, it looks even more funny in slow motion.
The best thing is that you can actually sit just rising your legs and the mud is lifting you up. Such a weird feeling! Almost like I was floating on the Dead Sea in Israel. There are some ropes inside, so you can pull them to move faster or perform some crazy movements in the mud. Going out is another story, because you are slippery like a fish and there is 1 kg of mud in your pants. It took a bunch of laughters to take everybody out of the mud and still, some people accidentally slipped in again. LOL! 😀
We took a shower near the toilets as taking mud to the sea will harm the corals. We left the island around 3 30 and arrived back to the jetty around 5 pm as the waves were quite big.
Pulau Tiga one day tour practical tips
From the things you need to bring, please remember about the sunscreen and hat, as well as a towel. There are showers on the island, but please respect nature and do not bring any chemical toiletries here, only organic shampoo and soap. If you are planning to have a mud bath, it’s smarter to take dark clothes/swim suit, because the mud can be hard to wash off the white clothes.
You may want to hike some paths on the island as Pulau Tiga is famous for the real, exotic jungle. You will have some free time after lunch when you can either relax on the beach or take your time for hiking and mud bath. The hike around the island takes 6 hours, so you cannot do it during the Pulau Tiga day tour, but it’s possible to do a short trek while you are there.
The boat is small, so it was quite an adventure to go on the bumpy waves, much better then any luna park I have been because real and more scary. If you are sea sick, sit on the back of the boat. The crew will take a good care of you and entertain you until you start laughing again.
Overall, I can highly recommend Pulau Tiga one day tour as it was lots of fun and beautiful nature as well as marine life. After visiting the Philippines, I thought I won’t find such stunning lagoons and paradise beaches here, in Borneo. How much I was wrong! Pulau Tiga is definitely the highlight of Kota Kinabalu tours. All with 1 Tour Adventure agency which helped me to organise everything. If you are looking to see their offer, check the website directly. Price for Pulau Tiga Tour ~ 80$.
2. Snorkeling tour to Mengalum Island
Day tour to Mengalum Island is a typical snorkeling tour where you get nearly two hours to admire the underwater life. Those who want to enjoy the beach and get some tan surely won’t get disappointed too. There are also hammocks to relax under the palm trees and plenty of free time to walk around the place.
Day tour to Mengalum Island starts at 8 am at the Sutera Harbour Jetty in Kota KInabalu. There will be a van to pick you up from the hotel or you can get there by yourself. After one hour and 15 minutes we arrived to paradise. The place is well-prepared with facilities for lots of tourists coming every day, where almost all are from China. There are toilets and showers as well as buffet restaurant where we had lunch.
Snorkeling activity takes place shortly after arrival but everyone has time to change clothes. The boat took us nearby the island on the coral reef. We put masks and life jackets on and hopped into the water to witness all the colors of fish possible. The water is shallow, and the corals are rich in colors and shapes which surely made it one of the best spots for snorkeling I have seen.
Mengalum Island is abundant in groupers, snappers, mackerels and other reef fishes, with a majority of hard corals, such as stag-horn corals, lettuce coral and table corals. You can spot clownfishes and butterfly fishes while swimming around the flourishing corals. After around 45 minutes we moved to another place and swam for another 40 min.
Lunch was a buffet with lots of vegetables, seafood and meat. After that we had free time to take pictures and enjoy the beach or just sleep in the hammock. We were ready to go back at around 2 30 and arrived back at the jetty in Kota Kinabalu at 4 o’clock. The trip costs ~ 80$.
Mass tourism on Mengalum Island
I have no words to describe the beauty of the island and the pristine waters rich in marine life. So many shades of blue I have seen only in the waters near Jaco Island in Timor Leste, Coron in the Philippines and Semporna, Malaysia. However, I have to point that Mengalum Island drowns in mass tourism from China. On the boat there were about 25 people, and I noticed several boats heading the same direction.
According to the itinerary, there is a welcome drink after arrival to the Mengalum Island. Nevertheless, it was far from what I imagined. The crowd of tourists moved from the boats and in the end of the jetty everyone could get a cup of tea. The cups were from non-recyclable styrofoam with just two sips of tea poured in it. Next to it a huge rubbish bin full of the empty cups. This is one of the fastest and silliest waste created on my eyes. At the same time, so easy to change if anybody would be aware of the responsible tourism practices.
The restaurant was huge, ready to serve hundreds of tourists. And as 99% of them are Chinese, the place was well prepared for shooting photos – swing on the beach, frame, hammock, signs to take pics with and so on. Nobody cared to take a walk for 200 meters, where the beach was already empty or swim in the pristine waters as the photos were more important. Well, on the other hand, good for me becuase I had the beach for myself.
In sum, Mengalum Island is absolutely stunning, but mass tourism just took the cherry from the top for me. I am sorry to say that, but there are just so many Chinese tourists in Kota Kinabalu and the nearby paradise islands are loosing their charm. Mengalum Island is not the only one soaked with mass tourism from China. Gaya Island, Manukan or Sapi, which I describe next are super touristic too.
3. Manukan & Sapi – the Twin Islands
Another great opportunity to spend a day on the paradise island is to visit Manukan and Sapi. The Twin Islands are under protection due to the cristal creal waters hiding rich marine life. Swaying palm trees and white beaches are perfect for sun-bathing and swimming. What’s more, Manukan and Sapi are just 15 minutes ride from Kota Kinabalu. The tour provides snorkeling gear and gives opportunity to scuba dive. Price ~ 40$.
4. Kawa Kawa river cruise & Fireflies watching
Kawa Kawa river cruise & Fireflies watching is one of the most popular one day tours from Kota Kinabalu. I was really curious to see proboscis monkeys for the first time. Moreover, after the light spectacle in Bohol, I wanted to see the fireflies again, as it looks incredible.
The tour starts in the afternoon in Kota Kinabalu center. First the bus will take you to see the pink Mosque in the university campus. We were not allowed to enter inside, so we just took a picture and continue the trip. We stopped on the way to try the coconut pudding. If you purchase the special package, you have the bbq mules in this place plus coconut pudding. If you didn’t purchuase the package, you can eather stand and wait for the others or buy the pudding…
After we arrived to Kawa Kawa river we went for a cruise for around 30 min. We saw few proboscis monkeys on the top of a tree. Even from the far I could see their big nose and belly. We came back to have a buffet dinner and shortly after that we went to catch up the sunset on the beach. We went back to Kawa Kawa river to take a boat for the final point of the tour – the fireflies watching. They were so many cute little insects on the trees, so they even came through our boat with their blinking light. They attract their partners in this way and gather around the blooming mangrove trees. We came back to Kota Kinabalu around 9 pm. Price for Kawa Kawa Tour ~ 56 $.
5. Mari Mari Village
For those who would love to discover culture of indigenous people of Borneo, Mari Mari village can be an interesting option. Mari Mari is a life museum, where you can see old traditional houses – long houses of Dayak people. Locals will wear traditional clothes and teach you how to shoot from blow-pipe or how to make a fire. You will have a chance to try traditional food and rice wine. It’s a great opportunity to spend a lovely day discovering the old culture which unfortunately vanished from Sabah.
Mari Mari Village Museum consists of few long houses. Each one depicts a different region and will display various clothes and traditions. The guests not only watch but also have a chance to participate, which makes this experience great fun for the whole family. Apart from the blow-pipe you will witness a unique method of cutting tree barks for making traditional warrior vests. If you are adventurous, you can try traditional trampoline-like floor located in one of the tribe houses. Moreover, you will see the performance of ethnic dance, the ancient ‘Magunatip’ bamboo-dance belonging to the Murut Tribe. Lastly, you will have a buffet meal with local cuisine and return to the hotel. Mari Mari village trip price ~ 45 $ (for half day).
6. Kinabalu National Park
Around 3 hours drive from Kota Kinabalu stands the highest peak from Himalayas to Papua – Mount Kinabalu with over 4000 m. height. Around the peak there is a beautiful high attitude area of Kinabalu National Park. Many people escape the Kota Kinabalu heat and head to Kinabalu Park to cool down and get some fresh air. No joke, in the villages up on 2000 m. the temperature at night can drop to 15 degrees Celsius. That was a moment I was freezing at night, as my body was used to tropical climate.
Kinabalu Park is full of attractions, from which apart form hiking trails, the most popular are hot spring and waterfalls. Definitely, you don’t have to be a hiker to enjoy the national park as it’s simply for nature lovers. There is also a lovely tea plantation and plenty of spots with a view on majestic Mount Kinabalu. Read more in my post on what to see in Kinabalu Park. Price for one day tour ~ 40$.
7. Old colonial train
The oldest steam locomotive of Borneo was transporting tobacco during English colony times. Now transports locals to the nearest towns and gives tourists the opportunity to experience the old vintage train ride. The North Borneo railway goes from Kota Kinabalu to Papar – town famous for its rice fields. It’s the only railway track in Sabah since 1896 which runs a 134km line. The tour includes breakfast and lunch in the steam train and pick up/drop off from the hotel. The engine runs on wood burning, which is very old, but more environment friendly type of steam. The passengers can enjoy lush green countryside and feel the romantic atmosphere of the past colonial era of British North Borneo.
Passengers board the train at Tanjung Aru Station which is also near the most beautiful beach in Kota Kinabalu. The train goes through picturesque countryside and near the coast of South Chine Sea. It passes through Kinarut, a traditional trading village and Kawang, home to Kawang Forest Reserve. Finally, the train arrives in Papar where passengers have opportunity to see paddy rice fields and go to the traditional market. After the passengers come back to Tanjung Aru Train Station and get a transfer to their hotels. Price ~ 100$.