It's Kota Kinabalu's iconic beach, as much a part of the local lore as Bondi Beach is to Sydney or Copacabana is to Rio de Janeiro.
Tanjung Aru (Malay for “Casuarina Beach”) can be found just four miles south of the Sabah capital in Malaysia: a 1.3-mile stretch of coarse sand facing the west where locals can be found gathering for picnics, beach games and posing for sunset selfies.
Travelers to Sabah can join the locals gathering on Tanjung Aru's short esplanade, Prince Philip beach Park and late-night food court.
The down-to-earth, absolutely authentic ambience makes Tanjung Aru a great place to relax, gaze at the sunset, and dine on seafood caught only hours earlier.
Tanjung Aru's Lay of the Land
The beach's proximity to the Kota Kinabalu International Airport might detract somewhat from Tanjung Aru's romance, but don't worry, much of the action takes place at the beach's furthest remove from the runway.
Starting at its northernmost point (where the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru stands) the beach curves gently in a general southward direction for about half a mile: this stretch known as First Beach is Tanjung Aru's most popular area, containing its best hotels, hawker stalls selling top-flight Malaysian street food, and clumps of locals enjoying typical beach sports like frisbee, football and skimboarding.
After First Beach stands the Prince Philip Park, built in the 1960s and looking a little run-down. The shady trees have some interesting, Borneo-only residents hiding within, including blue nape parrots and oriental pied hornbills; many locals like to settle down to a picnic at this spot.
Past the Prince Philip Park you'll find Second and Third Beaches, not as popular considering their uncomfortably close distance to the airport runway but still popular among locals as a site for tai chi, beach sports and fishing.
Watching a Tanjung Aru Sunset
“Spectacular” fails to describe the nightly sunset viewed from west-facing Tanjung Aru Beach.
Most activities come to a halt, as onlookers watch the final moments as the sun dips below the water, with Mamutik Island and the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park silhouetted in the foreground. Even if staying in Kota Kinabalu, catching a taxi to Tanjung Aru for dinner and a sunset is well worth the effort.
Travel blogger “Abena” stopped by Tanjung Aru one sunset and was impressed by the effort put in by locals enjoying the lightshow.
“The unofficial dresscode here is flowing maxi dresses in bright colours, statement jewelery and cute sandals,” Abena observes. “I noticed some women pass by me wearing high wedges and glamorous dresses and I thought, that’s a bit much for the beach – I mean it’s Malaysia not the Cote d’Azur.
“Next thing I knew a whole flock of women had strutted onto the sands and were posing like peacocks. I had never seen anything like it. Suddenly the people became more awe-inspiring than the sunset!”
Eating at Tanjung Aru Beach
Aside from enjoying a long, flat stretch of beach for walking or jogging, the only other real activity to enjoy around Tanjung Aru is eating.
The open-air food court offers centralized seating surrounded by dozens of stalls offering great Malaysian noodle dishes and fresh-caught seafood.
Fish, lobster, stingray, and a variety of shellfish are sold by weight and stir-fried or grilled to perfection.
Most menus vary little between stalls. Instead, shop around to take advantage of discounts generated by fierce competition. Depending on business, some food stalls stay open for drinking and socializing well past midnight.
Depending on the season, vendor carts selling Southeast Asia's infamous durian fruit set up outside of the food court. Love it or hate it, Tanjung Aru is a great, open-air place to try this pungent fruit for the first time.
“Tanjung Aru is famous for its beach but there are plenty of good eats as well,” writes food blogger SabahEats. “From authentic Chinese food to good simple local kueh, Tanjung Aru town is a perfect starting point to discover the food culture of Kota Kinabalu.”
SabahEats covers Tanjung Aru's wide range of food options, including Tuaran Mee's handmade “gold noodles”; and Malaysian nasi lemak breakfast at Tanjung Aru Wet Market – read his article for the complete list.
Getting to Tanjung Aru
Tanjung Aru is located only four miles south of Kota Kinabalu; the ride takes less than 15 minutes by taxi or 20 minutes by bus.
Public buses and minibuses to Tanjung Aru leave regularly from City Hall and Wawasan Plaza in the southern part of Kota Kinabalu. Take the #16 buses signed "Tanjung Aru Beach" and turn around in the parking lot of the food court – the last stop – before heading back to the city.
Let your driver know if you want to get off at the backpacker's hostel or at a hotel prior to the beach. The one-way fare is typically around MYR 1.50, or 30 US cents. (Read about money in Malaysia.)
You can avoid crowded public transportation by flagging a southbound taxi to Tanjung Aru Beach for around MYR 15, equivalent to about US$3.30. Ensure that your driver uses the meter before getting inside!
Does Tanjung Aru Have a Future?
And yet all of this might be wiped off the map and changed into something completely different in a few years; a new, 350-hectare waterfront development aims to transform Tanjung Aru into a high-end resort district, ostensibly addressing beach erosion while creating “a world-class waterfront destination”.
The Tanjung Aru Eco Development (TAED) plans call for new buildings along Tanjung Aru, with at least seven new resort/hotels on the drawing board, as well as condominium complexes with over 5,000 units. The blueprint also includes walking and cycling tracks; an ecology center; a 133-hectare Greg Norman-designed golf course; a marina; and a beachfront promenade.
The plans have engendered both guarded optimism and vehement opposition.
“Tanjung Aru is iconic to Kota Kinabalu and it holds a deep place in the hearts of the people here,” write Annabelle Funk, SM Muthu and Jefferi Chang, coordinators of the NGO Save Open Space Kota Kinabalu. “It should remain a long and uninterrupted beach with plenty of parking and direct access to the beach, as it used to be.”
TAED boosters believe that skeptics' fears are unfounded – the improvements will redound to the benefit of present Tanjung Aru users.
“Tanjung Aru beach will be rejuvenated and cleaned up while Prince Philip Park will be expanded to 12 hectares or more than double its current size,” TAED project manager Peter Adam explained. “The beach and park will continue to remain public.”
The city's top authority concurred: “I also want my children and future generations to be able to enjoy it,” Kota Kinabalu Mayor Datuk Yeo Boon Hai said. “I will have failed in my duty as a mayor if I didn't take the people's views into consideration.”