Diving enthusiasts and island lovers alike would already be aware of the existence of Sabah, a Malaysian state located on northern Borneo (itself the largest island in Asia and the third largest in the world) that’s peppered with hundreds of small but beautiful islands.

However, outside of the usual Pulau Tiga (well known for being the filming location of the reality show “Survivor”), Pulau Sapi, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Gaya (the latter four are popular among tourists due to their close proximity to the state capital Kota Kinabalu, making them easily accessible), many are probably not aware that the Land Below the Wind has other beautiful islands to offer.

With close to 400 hundred islands dotting the waters surrounding Sabah (the Department of Survey and Mapping Malaysia (JUPEM) reported in 2011 that the state has 394 islands), local and foreign tourists definitely have a sea of choices to pick from. Though do note that not all these islands are developed for tourism.

The next time you’re thinking of a tropical getaway or a scuba-diving adventure, why not book a trip to the following islands instead? These may not pop up in people’s minds as often as the above mentioned ones do, but they do offer the same (if not more) tranquillity or excitement, whichever one you’re looking for.

Mantanani Islands

(Photo source: | Orange Cat Travel | @mylaansibin Instagram)

Having only been commercialised recently, Pulau Mantanani’s natural beauty is largely undisturbed, offering a tranquil and scenic getaway for weary souls. Located in Kota Belud, on the north-west coast of Sabah, it is a little out of the way for a standard vacation in the state, but its secluded location is what makes it perfect if you’re looking for a completely rejuvenating stay away from the hustle and bustle of your daily life.

Made up of three islands, Pulau Mantanani Besar (Big Mantanani Island), Pulau Mantanani Kecil (Small Mantanani Island) and Pulau Lungisan, the biggest is the most developed for tourism as it is able to accommodate the construction of resorts and hotels, which nowadays can be found very easily with plenty of offers online.

While the biggest island does offer the most activities, there is an island-hopping itinerary offered that allows tourists to go snorkelling, scuba diving or bird watching at the two smaller islands. Mantanani used to be famous for dugong sightings, unfortunately this is a rare occurrence now. 

What tourists look forward to nowadays are these instead: the Blue Tears and Milky Way. The first, also called Blue Ice, refers to the luminescent plankton that glows blue in the dark. The latter is, well, the Milky Way, which is clearly visible in the island’s night sky.

Mataking Island

(Photo source: Mataking Island Facebook)

Tawau has no shortage of beautiful islands for scuba diving, the most famous being Pulau Sipadan – even the presence of pirates doesn’t hamper divers from the world over to flock this popular island’s rich underwater world. But there are other islands in the Celebes Sea that are worth a visit, among them is Pulau Mataking.

Made up of Mataking Besar (Big Mataking) and Mataking Kecil (Small Mataking), the bigger of the two is the main tourist spot. That’s not to say the smaller island goes neglected, in fact one of the recommended activities on Mataking is taking a leisurely stroll on the narrow sandbar dubbed Moses Walk that connects the two islands. Interestingly, this is an activity that’s available daily – but only during low tides! Moses Walk disappears underwater once the tides come in.

Aside from enjoying the many dive sites and natural attractions the island has to offer, think turtles and peacocks, another major must-try for tourists here is the Underwater Post Office. You read that right, you can post your letter underwater here! Sunk in March 2006 to create an artificial reef, it remains one of the world’s few functional underwater post offices.

Jambongan Island

(Photo source: Oh! Media Facebook | HAFIZ911 PHOTOGRAPHY)

Despite being the second biggest island in Sabah, Pulau Jambongan has yet to be fully developed for tourism. It doesn’t have the fancy trappings of its other fellow Sabahan islands, but this makes it all the more suitable for those who are looking for a more adventurous vacation.

If you’re looking to test your physical and mental strength as a fisherman, this island located in the Paitan Bay in Beluran is the place for you. Join the locals as they set out to sea everyday to bring home various types of fish and crabs, as well as other seafood. 

If not casting the net wide, you can give the fishing rod a try and test your patience as you wait for a fish to take your bait, which probably won’t take long given their abundance in the crystal clear waters. 

Again, bear in mind that this island, though located not far from the more touristy Pulau Banggi (largest island in Sabah and Malaysia), offers more basic accommodations and amenities. However, for nature lovers, the diverse flora and fauna more than make up for the humble facilities.

Balambangan Island

(Photo source: Laili Basir Facebook | SAVE Balambangan Island Facebook)

About a decade ago, Pulau Balambangan gained heightened fame due to a mermaid sighting. Yes, mermaid. An amateur video showing the decidely creepy-looking mythical creature crawling around on the island went viral. It has since been debunked as a hoax but while that may be fabricated, the beauty of the island sure isn’t. 

Located off the northern tip of Borneo, in the Kudat Division, as part of the Tun Mustapha Marine Park, various private villa, resort and hotel accommodations on the island can be found on Airbnb. With its scenic ocean view, it’s the perfect place to unwind and rejuvenate yourself. 

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can explore the island’s caves too. (Or look for the “missing treasure”? Legend has it there is a shipwreck somewhere in the island’s waters that sunk along with gold and other valuable treasures).  

There is currently a Facebook page that calls for the stop of silica sand mining on the island, as locals worry that it negatively affects the coral reefs and alter the island’s ecological traits.

Bodgaya Island

(Photo source:

At 8km long and 1.5km wide, it is the largest island in the Tun Sakaran Marine Park on the east coast of Sabah. Pulau Bodgaya is among the three out of the park’s eight islands – the other two being Pulau Bohey Dulang and Pulau Tetagan – that are remnants of a large extinct volcano, marking part of its rim, according to

An overnight stay won’t be possible here as there are no major tourist accommodations on any of the islands in this marine park. But you can book a stay at the resorts at nearby islands, such as Pulau Bum Bum and Pulau Pom Pom, which will provide day tours to Tun Sakaran Marine Park islands.

Still, a stop by this island is worth it for an unforgettable snorkelling or scuba diving experience in the clear blue water. You can also get a glimpse of the daily lives of the Bajau Laut (Sea Gypsies) people. Did you know that the Bajau Laut children can dive underwater for a long period of time without scuba gear? Now that’s a cool trick you could bring home on your next trip!

Since you’re already in Sabah, might as well give its local eateries a try too, especially the ones serving unique traditional foods!