Tag Archives: Kunak

Madai Waterfall and Tongkat Ali Hill of Kunak, Sabah

Madai Waterfall

Waterfall is a delightful view and always be part of the painting about paradise. The bigger it is, the happier the visitors. That’s how the 40-Meter Madai Waterfall drew me to Kunak, a small town in Lahad Datu district. In fact, many European and Asian tourists had come for it. I have visited many waterfalls of Sabah, and Madai Fall is one of the most impressive.

entrance to Madai Baturong Forest Reserve Nature Center, Kunak
The 5-storey high Madai Waterfall is located in 3,436.50-Hectare Madai Baturong Virgin Forest Reserve Nature Center, which is managed by the Sabah Forestry Department and opened to the public since 1999. Madai Cave is also part of this reserve.

Madai-Baturong Forest Reserve Nature Center, Kunak
Pic: Madai Waterfall is inside Pusat Sejadi Hutan Simpan Madai Baturong (Madai Baturong Forest Reserve Nature Center) of Kunak.

As Madai-Baturong Forest Reserve Nature Center is a public park, anyone can pay a small entrance fee to enjoy Madai Waterfall. Below is the ticket rate:

  • Malaysian: Adult: MYR2.00 (≈USD0.66); Below 18: MYR1 (≈USD0.33)
  • Foreigner: Adult: MYR5.00 (≈USD1.66); Below 18: MYR2 (≈USD0.66)

Madai Waterfall

Madai Waterfall is very accessible. It is so near that you can hear it, once you walk into the park. Remember to bring insect repellent, as mosquitoes might be around.

entrance to Madai Waterfall
Pic: the wooden staircase to Madai Fall.

wooden staircase to Madai Waterfall
It is only a 1-minute walk. The boardwalk is quite steep, be careful..

huge Buntui plant
Pic: huge Alocasia odora next to staircase. This plant has the largest undivided leaf in the world.

Madai Waterfall picnic site
Pic: Madai Waterfall in the sight!

Madai Waterfall of Kunak
Pic: the “twin” Madai Waterfall. After heavy rain, both will merge into one huge vertical fall. Though the water is murky, it is clean and cooling.

Madai Fall
Due to the powerful splash, the air was filled with flying droplets. When the morning light shined through them, it created fascinating rays of light. Such a lovely view.

warning notice at Madai Fall
Pic: the warning sign near the Madai Fall.

Any water activity such as swimming is prohibited, because the waterfall pond is deep. Basically, this waterfall is meant to be watched only. Anyway, you can soak your feet in the shallow water, like most people do. Anything beyond that is on your own risk. There is no lifeguard around to stop you or to save you.

Air Terjun Madai
However, some visitors can’t resist to take a swim under this beautiful waterfall. A ranger told me that he saw a very deep hole in the center of waterfall pond after a 8-month drought. Madai is in a limestone area, so I wonder if this hole connects to an underground cave or river. Well, I’m just guessing.

Want to see Madai Waterfall in motion? You may watch the 90-sec video below:

Click Here to see wider video

Kunak Waterfall
During weekends and holiday, many locals come here to swim and picnic. Some of them taking bath (with soap) or washing their dirty plates in the stream, which flows to Tingkayu River. It’s not right.. 🙁

waterfall and green moss
Pic: dense moss behind the Madai Fall.

waterfall pond
The park opens from 8am to 5pm every day. The waterfall is quite crowded afternoon.

Pic: gold found at Madai Fall?

Wishing Tree

Besides Madai Waterfall, I found an interesting tree in Madai-Baturong Nature Center. The local calls it a “Wishing Tree” (Pokok Hajat).

wishing tree in Madai Baturong Nature Center
Pic: the wishing tree is standing near the entrance of canopy walk.

wishing tree
It is a tall tree, which is locally known as “Kayu Ara” (Ficus species, Moraceae). Many birds will gather on this tree during its fruiting season.

wishing ribbons on tree root
Every ribbon on the tree root is a wish of the asker. Probably it works, so there are hundred of ribbons on this wishing tree.

Kayu Ara tree
Whatever, it is a tall and magnificent tree to look at. I wish it will stay strong and healthy forever.

Bukit Tongkat Ali

Bukit Tongkat Ali (Tongkat Ali Hill) is another attraction in Madai Baturong Forest Reserve. This hill is named after a herb Tongkat Ali (species: Eurycoma longifolia, Nicknamed “Asian Viagra”), which is famous for the medicinal properties of its root that can increase testosterone level and treat erectile dysfunction.

Tongkat Ali
Pic: Tongkat Ali tree

starting point to Bukit Tongkat Ali
Visitors can hike to Bukit Tongkat Ali via a 1 KM trail in the park. When you enter the park, just turn right and follow a small road that leads you to a small bridge and rest shelter. The trail starts at a paved path behind the shelter.

trail to Bukit Tongkat Ali
Though the trail is less than 1 KM, it is steep and tiring. The trail is paved with cement. It is supposed to be a good idea. However, the moss cover on the cement becomes so slippery that, after rain, the trail turns into a skating route. In some sections of the trail, I had to hug the hand rail to descend carefully.

shelter on Bukit Tongkat Ali Hill
Pic: the last shelter on top of Bukit Tongkat Ali (Height: 169 Meters).

I was told that Bukit Tongkat Ali was abundant with wild Tongkat Ali, but I only saw one or two. Probably some impotent visitors pluck it. I was also told that I could see Madai Hill from the top of Bukit Tongkat Ali, but such view was obstructed by dense trees.

Sorry to say, spending nearly 2 hours walking up and down Bukit Tongkat Ali is simply a waste of time.

Public Amenities

Madai Baturong Nature Center have some basic amenities in place for visitors.

canopy walk
Currently (as of Nov 2012), the canopy walk is closed for maintenance until further notice. Too bad, this 119-Meter long and 40-Meter high canopy walk, which is connected to three giant rainforest trees (Seraya Urat Mata, Oba Suluk and Merbau species), is a main attraction of the park, besides Madai Waterfall.

public toilet
Pic: public toilet

The toilet is very clean and deserves MYR0.30 (≈USD0.10) per entry.

Pic: the Canteen (named Kantin Sri Baturong Madai) in the park

This canteen sells common food items such as fried rice and noodles, as well as cold and hot drink. It was closed for holiday during my visit.

food stall
Pic: there is another small food stall near the gate, but they are selling drink and light snack only.

shower room and Muslim prayer room
Pic: (left) shower and changing room, (right) Muslim prayer rooms or Surau

parking space
Pic: ample parking space for 20 to 30 cars.

Their rest house is closed and the Exhibition Hall is not ready (as of Nov 2012). You still can camp in the park for a small fee (MYR3 for Malaysian, MYR5 for foreigner). I hope they will upgrade the facilities and amenities there ASAP to attract more tourists.


I heard hornbill near Madai Waterfall. At night, there are mouse deer wandering in the park too. The rangers mentioned a bird with a funny local name “Burung Kopi Susu” (Milk Coffee Bird). According to them, this is a small black bird with white stripes on its wings. This bird is common there and can be seen around 5pm. It sings very well, so people trap and trade them as pet. I wonder what bird it is. Magpie Robin?

Oriental Magpie Robin
Pic: Is Magpie Robin the “Milk Coffee Bird”?

How to Get There

Going to Madai-Baturong Forest Reserve Nature Center is easy but far. Madai Waterfall is 15 KM north of Kunak town and 71 KM southwest of Lahad Datu.

Madai Baturong Forest Reserve Nature Center Kunak at roadside
Pic: Madai-Baturong Nature Center is just next to the Lahad Datu↔Tawau highway.

By Bus: If you take Long-Distance Bus from Kota Kinabalu city to Kunak or Tawau, you can ask your bus driver to drop you right in front of the park, which is at the roadside (15 KM before Kunak). The bus fare is MYR50 (≈USD16.67) one way and the ride takes 8 hours.

By Flight: Take a 45-minute flight from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu, then spend an hour on taxi to reach the park.

Below is the location map of the park:

View My Sabah Map in a larger map

For more information, you may contact Kunak Regional Forestry Office:
Address: P.O.Box No 2, 91207 Kunak, Sabah, Malaysia.
Tel: +60 89-851863

Photos taken in Kunak, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Tabawan the Pearl Island, Lahad Datu, Sabah

Tabawan Island

(Note: the island resort is closed) Whenever divers come to Sabah, they will think about Semporna and Sipadan only, as if there is no good dive sites in other part of Sabah. FYI, Tabawan Island (Pulau Tabawan), which is also known as Pearl Island, is a new gem inside the Coral Triangle zone of Darvel Bay. For many decades, the pearl farm of Tabawan Island has vigilantly safeguarded the surrounding waters to keep thieves and trespassers away. Recently they start to allow divers to visit the island, and an accommodation, Tabawan Eco Dive Lodge, was built for the tourists.

Map: location of Tabawan Island
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The security of Tabawan is tight. There is a police base, equipped with radar, stations on the island. We even saw a patrol boat on duty. Since no outsiders can come near, the corals are spared from destructive fishing methods such as fish blasting (fish bombing) and cyanide (poison) fishing. The size of the sea fans and various other corals are so big, making Tabawan one of the most impressive scuba diving destinations in Sabah. This is really a good news to people of Kunak town, as they try to promote the tourism in Kunak, and they were lack of island attraction.

jetty of Kunak
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The tour operator told me that the name “Tabawan” was from Chinese words “大把湾”, which means “so many bays”. It is quite a close description of Tabawan coz this largest island off Kunak really has many bays, with calm water suitable for pearl farming. To go to Tabawan, you could book a diving trip with Sulawesi Sea Safari, which is a dive operator bases in Semporna. By boat, it takes about an hour to reach Tabawan Island from Semporna. For my trip last month, we departed from the jetty in Kunak, so it took only 20 minutes.

Calm sea of Darvel Bay

Calm sea of Darvel Bay

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Because Tabawan Island is located inside the Darvel Bay and surrounded by many islands, the sea is very gentle and suitable for diving all year round, unlike other remote islands which have rough sea and easily affected by bad weather. The boat ride was not very bumpy and the sea was so calm that it even reflected the cloud like a mirror. The sea water is very clean too, another critical requirement for pearl farming. But the sea is dark blue color and look really deep, kind of scaring me a bit.

Click Here to see more photos of Tabawan Island >>

You will see dozens of “bagang” on the way. Bagang is a traditional fishing structure used by the local fishermen (usually Bugis people) to trap the fishes (mainly the small Bilis fishes). They will lower the fishing net into the sea in the evening, use light to attract fishes gathering over the net, then lift the net for the fish caught. I also saw Bagang in the sea near Pitas, they share the same concept but the design look a bit different.

Pearl farm of Tabawan Island
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Very soon I reached Tabawan Island and saw their pearl farm on the sea. The pearl farm is actually some wooden frame structures float in deeper water, and you could see pearl oyster cages hanging from this structure. The pearl farm is run by a Japanese company, and they have an office on the island. I was told that they will move the pearl farm to other place as this site is less suitable for pearl farming now. But no worry, they may keep the farm around as an attraction. I cannot imagine if government builds the coal power plant near Darvel Bay, as the coal power plant will release water, which contains harmful metals such as mercury, into the sea and pollute the Coral Triangle.

Please join our Facebook anti-coal plant group to oppose coal plant. If the government insists to build coal plant, I will penalise the Barisan Nasional politicians with my vote in next election because long year of ruling has made them arrogant and deaf to the voices of rakyat (citizens). You really think that a new coal plant can solve all the black-out problems? Don’t be so naive.

Tabawan Eco Dive Lodge
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Tabawan Eco Dive Lodge is the only accommodation on the island. Currently they are expanding but a few lodges are already ready to host the tourists. The facilities are quite basic at the moment but they already have a dive center on the island. They will also install air-conditioning in some rooms. The lodge is good enough for a group of 10 to 20 divers. Day trip package, with 2 dives and lunch, is also available. This island has no other resident, so the island forest is mostly intact and we even saw a wild boar hanging around the lodge.

Tabawan Island
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We did two dives in House Reef (26 Meters deep) and Turtle Station (15 Meters) around Tabawan. I didn’t dive in Sea Fan Garden and the operator is still trying to discover more dive sites around the island. The visibility was about 5 Meters. This time I rented a camera with underwater housing so you could see the pictures of the dives. Well, I am not so familiar with the setting of this Olympus compact camera and it affected my buoyancy so it was a bit of struggle to take photos under the sea. Ok, after hearing all these excuses, you could expect the quality isn’t good. Anyway, it is better than nothing.

Diving in Tabawan Island

giant clams

huge table coral

big coral
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Personally I think Tabawan is one of the best place to see coral groups because they are huge, rich in variety and high in density. Many grow bigger than a human. We saw sea fans, black corals (which is not black), table corals, blue corals, staghorn corals, plate corals, brain corals, barrel corals, etc. We didn’t see turtle and barracuda that live here and the fishes are not big. But it is rich of macro-life, we spotted filefish, dancer fishes, convict blenny fish ball, cuttlefish, nudibranch, striped catfish (dangerous!), giant clams, lobster, shrimp fishes, razor fishes, tubeworm, flatworm, starfish, etc. The underwater current was not strong so the dives were quite relaxing. We also dived under the pearl farm and saw the hanging pearl oyster cages.

Crown-of-thorns starfish
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During the diving, Su, one of the divemasters, spotted a Crown-of-Thorns, a weird starfish with 15 thorny legs. He caught it and left it on the shore to perish. According to Su, crown-of-thorns eats corals so it is a pest to coral reef ecosystem. It is also very sly. Once caught, it will release a chemical to warn its kind. If you see many crown-of-thorns, you better organise the elimination with a few divers to catch them all in one go. If you catch only one, the rest will sense the danger and go hiding before you come back for them again. As nasty as it looks, its spines are poisonous. Sound like a sinister creature that deserves to be killed.

Pearl farm manager
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After the dives, we dropped by the office of the pearl farm. The manager is a gentle Japanese and he is telling us how a pearl oyster is cultivated and harvested. Basically they insert a tiny round-shape “seed” into the oysters to induce them to produce pearls after many years. This is a high risk business that needs years of intensive care and monitoring. He also showed us the specimens of two pearl types, gold and white (creamy white actually). The white pearl is more valuable than the gold one, which is about 10% cheaper. You can tell the color of the pearl inside an oyster from its shell color, which is same as the color of the pearl.

The round pearl is for making jewellery and the irregular-shape pearl is the raw material to make cosmetic powder for smoothening skin. Wow, some pearls cost more than 2 months of my salary and I almost wanted to put them into my pocket while nobody watching. Haha.. just kidding. Someone (not the pearl manager) told me that pearl is like jade, which has “life”. A pearl “grows” over time. It would “die” if a pregnant woman touches it.

Click Here to see more photos of Tabawan Island >>

So that’s all about my pearl adventure. If you want to go to Tabawan Island, you may contact Sulawesi Sea Safari to arrange the diving / snorkelling tour. They also have a lot of info and pictures in their web sites.

Tabawan Island
Click Here to see more photos of Tabawan Island >>

Photos taken in Kunak, Sabah Malaysia

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