With only a short boat ride from Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, the island of Gaya is a healing refuge for both men and creatures.


From the deck of a speeding motor boat scuttling along at 25 knots, I saw Sabah’s capital; Kota Kinabalu in a hazy silhouette. It was only a matter of minutes until KK, as endearingly called by the locals, disappeared from my view and gently melted in the surrounding colors of blue and green and patches of turquoise. Akin to an artist mixing pigments, only this time, it’s made by nature’s exquisite hands.

The saliferousness of the sea water saturated the September air as the motor’s engine continued to break the waves that hindered our path to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park in Malaysia’s sliver of the island of Borneo.

Somewhere in this vast expanse that lies within 6°N and 116°E of the equator is a place that speaks to you.

I have been here once. I still remember the stilt houses of sea gypsies and my trip to the Kinabatangan river, Malaysia’s second-longest waterway rife with wildlife. Playful Pygmy elephants laze around and feed along its river banks as hornbill hovers above. Then there were the treks along the war memorial trail that often lead to uncharted jungles with the unsettling prospect of running into head-hunters and blowpipes.

A canopy villa with views of the jungle

As I looked out to the open sea, its redolent vistas began to feel existentially familiar. It seems nothing has changed since my last sojourn except that this time it’s going to be a different experience.

The Malaysian Borneo is primarily mountainous with impenetrable areas of ancient rainforest, but just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, an approximate 15-minute boat ride lies Gaya Island in Malohom Bay.

The Sabahan captain, who I think could not have been more than 25 years old, directed our attention to a throng of bright multicolored clown and parrot fish glistening like jewels under the midday sun as our boat began to touch the side of the jetty.

A minute later, I found myself on an island swaddled by lush rainforest tumbling into the South China Sea swarming with coral reefs and diverse marine life. On my left, fronds and all sort of foliages swayed and fluttered under a cerulean sky. Looming over the horizon, the stunning silhouette of the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago – Mount Kinabalu.

Cocooning in a canopy villa, perched atop a hill with leafy views of the jungle and a peek of the ocean on one side, I can pretend that I am in some Rudyard Kipling novel. Each villa reflects a tribal vibe with heady design influences from Sabah’s indigenous inhabitants – the Kadazan, Dusun and Dayak people.

It was not so long ago when the resort first welcomed inveterate travelers who set foot on the island. More than just a hidden escape, Gaya Island Resort by Malaysia’s prestigious YTL group serves as the island’s caretaker, carrying out environmentally-sustainable practices and conservation initiatives with its marine and wildlife center in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

The marine conservation center of Gaya Island Resort

Photo above: The Gaya Island Marine Center houses a coral nursery and offers marine education rescue program. The resort provides a dedicated turtle hotline number to call as well as a safe house for sick and injured turtle for treatment and recovery.

Named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the three-kilometer protected area is Sabah’s second national park. It consists of five beguiling islands with names that suggestively tell a story – Manukan (which means fish), Sapi (the sound produced by a mowing buffalo), Sulug (in honor of the Sulu people of Sabah), Mamutik (a shell collection) and Gaya (loosely translates as the big one). Once part of the Crocker Range massif, the islands ended up separating from the mainland right after the last ice age.

Sea turtle in a conservation center

Among the rocks and mangroves stood towering trees with roots suspended in midair. As if on cue, monkeys would swing from one branch to the next disturbing sleeping iguanas and herons on migratory rest. Wild boars rummaging in the thicket, snakes and monitor lizards are all too familiar sights in the middle of the jungle. Somewhere in this natural sanctuary, connects man and nature even closer. Oftentimes, these relationships develop as bonds.

The first time I laid eyes on “Bobby”, a rescued sea turtle, I felt a shared kinship. His origin was unknown. Although the fisherfolk that found him floating almost lifeless on sea for days believed that he must have drifted from the north of Sandakan near the Sulu Sea. They brought the sick sea turtle to the resort to be nursed back to life.

Sea turtles often mistake plastic debris for jellyfish and ingest them as if they were food. As a result, this leads to serious health complications and possibly death.

I visited Bobby several times during my stay when not doing a guided trek into the jungle or swimming underwater. I learned later on from the resort’s resident marine biologist that Bobby will soon be released after a six-month healthy recovery. While a part of his limb will forever remain inoperative, he will live for a long time and his kind as long as humans cease harming the ocean.

A secluded beach in Tavajun Bay in Sabah

A walk on the beach

Afternoon sunset in Gaya island in Sabah, Malaysia

While Bobby, the sea turtle was enjoying his rehab program, I allowed myself to warm up to the resort’s pampering program for its guests. So I catch up on life’s little pleasures – laze by the the pool, a Piña Colada and a book in hand, went out for an afternoon picnic nibbling on local delicacies served from earthen skillets, hopped on a yacht to catch a sweeping sunset and retreated to a private beach in Tavajun Bay, a stone’s throw away from the resort.

On the island, time is set by the push and pull of the tides. To be on it is to detach from the quotidien as well as to unwind in its lull and rhythm. The island’s idea of a contemplative conversation and self reflection. As I looked out onto the open sea, I thought about the creatures, the resident caretakers of the island and of Bobby. I wondered what his reactions would be when it’s time to finally return home.

The night came softly that evening, sweet as a nectar and sticky as a sappy wax from a tropical tree. The sky was full of stars and the waning moon timidly lit the hushed landscape. After two days of bliss and sun-dappled moments, my bags were all packed except my travel diary stubbornly waiting to be momentarily put away.



This website made of love strives to produce FREE CONTENT.
Help me tell more stories and keep this website free of any advertisement by supporting Flying Baguette in inspiring more people and connecting you with other cultures and communities around the world. Donate a little or as much as you can afford to keep the magic of Flying Baguette going for years to come. Support by clicking the icons below ⬇️


  1. What a pristine place to visit. This sounds right up my alley! Beautiful beaches to relax by and nature to observe. I love that they nursed the sea turtle back to health – and that you visited him a few times. I can’t belive you had the strength to leave this idyllic paradise after two days. That would be difficult!

  2. Borneo is truly a paradise on earth when it comes to biodiversity and natural beauty.
    It would be fabulous if, once and for all, human beings realized that wildlife must be protected for the good of the planet.
    Fortunately, there are rehabilitation centers for endangered animals that allow them to be rehabilitated and later returned to the wild.
    Let’s hope Bobby has a happy life in freedom!

  3. Bobby lives! But where is his picture??? I loved hearing his story and the happy ending to it. Still sad that so many sea creatures get affected by our carelessness. Great to learn that there are rescue fascilities and centres onsite, I often get the impression South Asian countries do not care too much about animal welfare, so hearing about their conservation efforts is positively encouraging.

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

  4. Piña coladas, mesmerizingly peaceful views, tropical island life and beautiful local animals. Sounds like paradise to me. Reading about Bobby makes me both sad that things like that can happen to a turtle just looking for food, and happy that the rehabilitation was successful. It must have been nice to get to know him while visiting.

  5. I was on the island of Borneo but only got to Brunei in the north.
    I so wanted to get into the jungle area and explore the beaches but time constraints meant I had to limit what I could do on the island.
    The photos here are beautiful, were creative and shows the majestic scenery to its best.
    Sound like the visit to see the sea turtle was a well worth it and a good opportunity to connect with nature.

  6. A dear Malaysian friend has been encouraging me to visit this area for years. You’ve convinced me. I won’t meet Bobby but that’s a very good thing. What a great story of rehabilitation and care from the locals. The beaches are beautiful and look like the perfect place to while away a couple of hours.

    Lyn | http://www.ramblynjazz.com

  7. We have long wanted to visit Borneo to see the national parks and explore its dense and fascinating jungles. Although the orangutans are best known as the primary draw, as they are probably the most famous residents, the other wildlife is so important to this amazing ecosystem. It was lovely to learn Bobby’s story and about his rehab, with the glad news of his imminent release back to the sea. Gaya Island resort looks to be a wonderful place to stay and it is so great that it also serves as a marine and wildlife centre as well as striving to be sustainable. Thank you for introducing us to this amazing place – one day we will see it for ourselves!
    Mitch & Colin from Very Tasty World