The Most Beautiful Islands in Borneo

The islands off mainland Borneo make the area even more beautiful than you may have realised
The islands off mainland Borneo make the area even more beautiful than you may have realised | © Lesly Derksen /Unsplash
Sam Bedford

Borneo is home to more than 800 islands, with the majority clustered off the Malaysian state of Sabah. You’d be hard-pressed to explore them all properly – the snorkelling, scuba diving and mud spas alone will occupy you for long enough. Instead, here’s a quick rundown of the most beautiful islands in Borneo.

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Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

Established in 1974, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park consists of five islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. Regular ferries and shuttles will take you to each of the islands from Jesselton Point. Gaya, the largest, sits closest, with steep forests, mangroves, hidden bays and a floating village. Hiking and birdwatching are favourite activities here. A short distance to the southwest is Sapi, separated from Gaya by a shallow channel. You can enjoy some of the best beaches in Sabah here, plus snorkelling, diving and the occasional sight of sea turtles. Manukan, the second largest and most popular island, has a developed tourist infrastructure including chalets and the option to take part in watersports. Mamutik, the smallest and least visited, and Sulug, the most isolated, will intrigue the adventurous.

The five islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park each have their own appeal

Pulau Tiga

Pulau Tiga, the youngest island in Sabah, formed after a volcanic eruption in 1897. After featuring on reality TV show Survivor, the island, with its dense rainforest and mud volcanoes, grew in popularity as a tourist destination. Today, you can stay overnight at the Pulau Tiga Resort and enjoy the therapeutic mud volcano spa. Getting to the island can be challenging. First, you need to reach Kuala Penyu, just over 100km (62mi) southwest of Kota Kinabalu, before taking a boat to the island.

The natural wonders of Pulau Tiga make it a must-visit island off Borneo


The small archipelago of the Mantanani Islands, to the northwest of Kota Belud, features some of the best diving locations in Sabah. More than 20 diving spots around the islands include unexplored areas as well as three shipwrecks. Several species of stingray and seahorse plus large schools of fish and the occasional dugong live off the coast. Other activities on these relatively unexplored islands include sea kayaking, relaxing on pristine beaches, sunset cruises and simply island-hopping between Mantanani Besar, Mantanani Kecil and Mantanani Lungisan.

Sunrise over the Mantanani Islands is an everyday spectacle

Layang Layang

Layang Layang, also known as Swallow Reef, is a former military base in the South China Sea. The real beauty here lies in the water. With its unspoilt depths resting 300km (186mi) from Kota Kinabalu, the area maintains a refreshing lack of fishing and commercialisation. There are a total of 12 dive sites and a 20m (66ft) lagoon with beds of coral that house a variety of marine life. Lucky divers might see pygmy seahorses, manta rays and barracuda along with whale sharks, bottlenose dolphins and hammerheads.

Scuba diving to the colourful coral of Layang Layang is a breathtaking experience


Off the eastern coast of Sabah, an hour from Semporna by boat, is the small island of Sipadan. Protected since 2005, the island lacks accommodation and tourist facilities, giving it an unspoilt appearance. Certified divers can join a day tour, which visits several unexplored areas. Expect to see swarms of barracuda and turtles, among many other forms of marine life. It’s a rare privilege – due to the island’s protected status, only 120 diving permits are issued each day. Non-divers can visit and snorkel through the coral reef.

The seafaring Bajau Laut people are firmly at home on the water

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