Gaya Island – black area or overlooked gem? Part 1

Gaya Island with Mount Kinabalu in the background

Gaya Island with Mount Kinabalu in the background

What? Water Village, Island

Where? Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Ratings: *** See it before it disappears. With the massive crackdown on illegal immigrants beginning in August, most of the illegal village will probably be destroyed.

Lost Ratings **** Visit a part of the city that even the locals stay away from.

Pulau Gaya, the largest of five islands located off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, has always been an integral part of the city. Clearly visible from KK’s jetty, the nearest point of this island is only about 10 minutes away by speedboat. The name of the island is derived from Gayo, the Bajau word for big. But the island itself means different things to different people. To the tourists, it is the location of a resort with rooms above the water, and a place for jungle-trekking. To the locals, it is the source of all the city’s woes. But to the island’s inhabitants, it is their home away from home.

It can be said that Pulau Gaya was the forerunner of Kota Kinabalu. Before the British North Borneo Company even established Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu), they had already started a settlement on the island in 1881 and remained there for 15 years before it was burnt down by the rebel Mat Salleh. It was only after that that the British moved to the mainland opposite. The island was then left to the fishermen who built a small village at the eastern end of the island (the part facing the city). In 1923, Pulau Gaya was declared as a forest reserve, and in 1974, together with the other 4 smaller islands, it was established as Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, Sabah’s second state park. Only a small portion of the island where a few water villages are located is excluded from the boundary of the park.

Recently, I had a chance to see up-close the water villages for myself and to do some jungle-trekking on the island. No one knows for sure how many people actually live in Pulau Gaya, but there are estimates of over 8000 people. Of these, only 2000 are registered voters. Even if you minus out the children, that would still leave a huge majority who are either unregistered voters or more likely, illegal immigrants.

Directly facing Kota Kinabalu is the notorious illegal settlement of Kampung Pondo. In July 2006, a police team went there to look for suspected drug-pushers and the resulting confrontation left three police officers seriously injured and one suspected drug-pusher dead. The locals consider this area to be off-limits. Firearms and smuggled goods have been found stashed away in some houses. Still, it is not fair to paint everyone who lives there as a criminal. Most of them make an honest living as fishermen, trading at the Filipino market or working as boatmen transferring people to the islands, even if they are legally wrong to be in this country. The entire village has actually been destroyed a few times. During Chong Kah Kiat’s tenure as the Chief Minister of Sabah, a huge operation was conducted to get rid of the illegal immigrants and all the houses were dismantled. Within a short period however, the houses have been rebuilt and the village has sprouted like a mushroom again as if nothing ever happened.

Kg Pondo mosque

Kg Pondo mosque

Speedboat to Gaya Island used by locals

Speedboat to Gaya Island used by locals

Not all the island’s inhabitants are illegals though. To the right of Kampung Pondo is a village populated by local Bajaus and Ubians. The pride and joy of the people here is its secondary school, SMK Pulau Gaya. Established in 1989, the school looks more like a floating water chalet with its brightly-coloured jetty. The school is the mark of the dedication of its teachers and students and shows that with the right attitude and character, anything is possible.

Bajau village

Bajau village

SMK Gaya

SMK Gaya

Be careful. While a look at the village from a boat is ok, travellers are advised not to set foot in the illegal settlement.

Getting there: Charter a boat from Jesselton Point Jetty. There are many tour operators. Tours to Gaya Island are available. Do not use the illegal boats.

Part 2:



  1. penjejak_kasih said,

    September 24, 2008 at 3:40 AM

    thanks 4 info………..u did a great job for ur blog…..i know ur written is a fact and u do a reserach right??
    keep it up……..
    publish more story about gaya island because i am born and grow there once………

  2. hody said,

    February 26, 2009 at 9:56 AM

    Hi, there! so is save to explore in this island right? because i am planning to go there someday! 🙂

    • losttraveller said,

      February 26, 2009 at 11:13 PM

      yeah, it’s safe. Er, but depends on where you want to go. Some tour operators do combine Sapi Island with Gaya Island trekking. And there are beautiful resorts on the other side. But I wouldn’t recommend going into the illegal village. It is a big island, and the resorts and trekking and village are on different parts.

  3. hody said,

    February 26, 2009 at 9:56 AM

    sorry i mean safe

  4. hh78 said,

    April 6, 2009 at 3:48 AM

    I went there once too, went to the school. Nicely done and a totally different environment. Imagine yourself learning science in a “floating” wooden chalet like structure and you are surrounded by the sea. Ventured into the local villages but advised not to set foot at the illegal territory. Yeah, illegal immigrants is a serious problem there. I was informed by a teacher that one child might register several times to enter school with different identities. And one thing for sure, not all locals dare to go there!

  5. Paternus said,

    April 13, 2009 at 10:46 PM

    Hi… who are you lost borneo man? thanks for your short articles, it’s help for outsiders to visit this island. Keep up your good work, go futher to that island and tell more story about the school. I be more interested in SMK Pulau Gaya in your view story… k….. thanks.

    • losttraveller said,

      April 14, 2009 at 4:40 PM

      You are welcome. Do my best. Will not be in borneo for a week or so though. going somewhere…

  6. yy said,

    September 6, 2009 at 10:26 AM

    hello..i’m a student and i’m very interested in your articles. currently,i am doing a project which is sited in pulau gaya,particularly in kg pondo for my study. Do u have an IM so it might be easier to get connected to you?

    • losttraveller said,

      September 6, 2009 at 11:19 PM

      yy and lv,

      you can email me at this email address
      But I’m afraid my information on Kg Pondo is limited to what I managed to get from the Internet only.

  7. lv said,

    September 6, 2009 at 3:02 PM

    yeah im a student too, maybe a classmate with mr/ms/mrs yy.. i’ve been looking for info and nothing much could be used to support our research.. hope you can help us 🙂

  8. Baris said,

    April 4, 2010 at 2:14 AM


    Thanks for your information! I am coming to KK soon and would like to do trekking in Gaya (the 3 main trekking routes). I just want to know whether it is safe and allowed to trek alone or having a guide is a must or recommended? How is the safety on the trekking routes? And is there any jetty schedule between KK and Gaya?

    Thanks a lot!

    • losttraveller said,

      April 4, 2010 at 5:28 PM

      Hi Baris,

      It is safe to trek without a guide or ranger, but let the staff (at the entrance where you pay for the conservation fee) where you intend to go. There are many boat companies at Jesselton Point that transfers guests to any of the five islands once they have the required number of passengers. Boat transfers are roughly once per hour.

      • Baris said,

        April 5, 2010 at 4:17 PM

        Thank you!

  9. Baris said,

    April 8, 2010 at 3:55 PM

    Hi my friend,

    One more question I have. Would you recommend long trousers and robust hiking boots for the hike or shorts and flip flops will also be enough? I am quite experienced in hiking, just want to know whether it is an easy to walk trail or is it more real jungle where I have to fight through brushwood on unmaintained trails? I want to save as much weight as I can since I will need to carry my stuff with me all the time.

    Thanks again!

  10. losttraveller said,

    April 8, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    Hi Baris,

    it’s a very easy to walk trail. No bushwhacking needed. But I have only walked on the shortest trail. Don’t know about the long one. Should be ok I think.

    • Baris said,

      April 9, 2010 at 3:06 PM

      sounds ok with simple gear. thanks a lot for your useful information on this website!

  11. Christopher Wong said,

    August 5, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    As a fellow Sabahan. Its my responsibility to share with you my knowledge regarding Pulau Gaya & the “ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT” staying there . I’ve spent 2 weeks staying in Kampung Pondo, the so called “Black Area” of the island, trying to get the first hand account of the villager’s livelihood. I found out that most of them are very friendly people, non-stop inviting you to visit their home and treat their guest with sincerity. I don’t deny that there were few drug dens built there, but even the drug addicts will not come to disturb me when I was there. Basically, I should say that this village is still safe to visit, as long as you don’t bring to much cash with you.

  12. July 15, 2012 at 10:58 PM

    all about negative perception of pulau gaya was not true. csr politeknik was there doing csr for more than 1 yr. Until now it is 100% safe, as long as you don’t disturb their traditional culture and confronting with them. they are all muslim human being like us and very humble and friendly.Pls go and see it before make any comments..

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