An island regularly labeled one of the world’s most beautiful remains so, and, appropriately, we fantasize about an escape to Tioman Island.
According to legend, Tioman Island is the final resting place of a beautiful dragon princess. While flying to visit her prince in Singapore, the beautiful maiden stopped to repose in the azure waters of the South China Sea. Enraptured by the beauty of the island, she never left and so Tioman took the form of an island in her image.
I get the dragon princesses’ inclination. I grew up watching Gilligan’s Island, and I have always dreamt/had nightmares about being shipwrecked on a deserted island. Some movies, like Blue Lagoon, romanticized it while others, like Castaway, deglamorized it, but these remote tropical islands have always held a mysterious allure.
A long time ago, I studied Art and Art History, specifically Paul Gauguin, and further fantasized about throwing in the whole western train wreck culture for some Polynesian dream, but alas I was born a few decades too late to be a fauvist escapee and a few decades too early to be an influencer.
But, enough about me, let’s get back to getting lost on Tioman Island.
Every island-hopping traveler knows Thailand with its spicy food, welcoming and storied culture, legendary party scene and scenic beaches, but fewer travelers take waterways less traveled and visit Thailand’s twin to the south, Malaysia.
Those who do will be rewarded with even more scenic beaches — many untouched by man, living and thriving corals to explore, and spicy food that rivals the cuisine of its far better-known neighbor to the north.
If you are lucky, you might wind up feeling marooned on Tioman Island, as in Blue Lagoon marooned, not Castaway crazy marooned. Here’s our family’s Tioman takeaway in two parts.
Tioman Island is a 2-hour ferry ride off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. If time is of the essence, you can easily take an hour’s flight from the capital, Kuala Lumpur, close to where this peninsula tapers down to Singapore. Alternatively, you can take a three-hour taxi or bus ride from Singapore, but, if you do plan around the border crossing as the lines are very long during rush hour and on weekends.
Whether you arrive ticketless of you book in advance, the Ferries at Mersing are a bit difficult to negotiate. You may or may not have to pay a nominal Marine Parks fee (RM30 for adults and RM10 for kids) depending upon whether or not the counter is open.
You’ll need to wait in two lines, and it’s never very clear if you are in the right one. The cost for a round trip ferry is about USD 25 per person. They can be purchased in advance here. We highly recommend advance booking as it prevents you from waiting in one of the frustrating, and perhaps unnecessary, lines at the Ferry station.
I’d love to say the queues and the waiting were the hard part, but the hard part is actually the seats. Ouch. Hope you have ample cushioning because this is NOT the lap of luxury — it’s not even Luxury’s rear end. If you have island-hopped around Thailand, this is not that. Lose your expectations because you will be confused and uncomfortable for the 1.5-2.5 hour journey depending on the weather and where the ferry stops.
The ferry can make a total of six stops, depending upon the passenger list. The stops are in no apparent order: Genting, Paya, Tekek, ABC, Panuba, and Salang Jetties.
Tekek is the largest town on the island and most visitors, though not all, pass through this stop on their visit. Most hotels will send shuttles to pick up and drop off guests from the Ferry Terminal. Be sure to arrange this with your hotel prior to your stay.
If you harbor any fantasies about getting a one-way ticket to some deserted tropical island, Tioman is for you. There are only two proper roads, covering a fraction of the 24-mile-long, eight-mile-wide island, so boating is the best way to get around.
Those who love perfect beaches, temperatures, and crystal azure seas will be rewarded with vibrant, thriving coral gardens the likes of which people pay tens of thousands of US dollars to see in the Maldives—and they are much healthier and vibrant.
Glistening azure waters wash up on a seemingly endless procession of crescent bays, all fringed with pale sand beaches. Perfect sandy beaches give way to rainforest, densely covering the granite slopes of its central mountain. The small range of hills culminates at the far south of the island in the twin peaks of Nenek Si Mukut and Batu Sirau. According to the aforementioned legend, these peaks represent the spine of the dragon princess who stopped to rest at Tioman.
FINDING NEMO & SWIMMING WITH SHARKS
A grand display of tropical fish awaits you in this underwater aquarium. You need only walk less than 1km from your resort to swim to it. We saw clown fish, sharks, sting rays, eagle rays, and virtually every colorful tropical fish you can imagine.
We stayed at the Berjaya Resort, which is the largest resort on the island. Though the hotel has some shortcomings, it’s attractive to divers and snorkelers for its proximity to Renggis Island. The island is considered the second best spot on the island to snorkeling and dive. And, you are virtually guaranteed a chance to swim with black tip reef sharks.
We went out three times to the Island and encountered a family of reef sharks on every snorkel. We were close enough to take this photo with an ordinary Sony Action Cam FDR-X3000, so yes, this close. Fear not! These sharks are harmless and will swim from you, never to you.
The Berjaya Resort where we stayed has an onsite Dive Center where you can learn to dive. They operate two times daily ferries out to Rengiss island for those who prefer to snorkel.
Though we spent the better part of our two-week holiday underwater, we discovered some land-based activities that were also worth checking out. The island has numerous waterfalls that you must visit. Some are harder to get to than others. Pressed for time, we went to one that was a very short and easy trek on our way to Juara Beach in the south-east part of the island.
JUNGLE TREKKING AND WATERFALLS
Another worthwhile activity away from the beaches are visits to many of the surrounding waterfalls. To get there, we took the one road that stretches across the island west to east. We negotiated a fare with a local taxi driver to take us to Juara. The road is narrow, winding, steep and full of holes, but you get there. At the top, the driver stops at a waterfall. We take a short hike down, and it’s worth the trek.
The interior of the island consists of mostly jungle and is dotted with waterfalls ranging in height and grandeur. Some are easier to get to than others. We chose an easy trek, but we’d choose a harder one on our next trip. The waterfalls are refreshing and beautiful.
If you take a day-long jungle trek, you are likely to encounter monkeys, large monitor lizards, and even chameleons if you are lucky.
Ranked the 21st most beautiful beach in the world by the CNN, plan at least one day to visit this beautiful and very remote beach. Many visitors book both the short jungle trek and waterfall trip in conjunction with a day at Juara.
The beach is solitary, and pretty much perfect if you like long undisturbed stretches of beach all to yourself.
Wherever you are on Tioman Island, you are likely to encounter mischievous marauders known as Long-tailed macaques. Monkeys are everywhere and the best entertainment on land. The locals say they only like the tourists, but they didn’t seem to like us much. Local restaurants place stuffed tigers by the entrances supposedly to scare off the monkeys who think they are real tigers. The monkeys travel in large groups and spill from the trees as tourists walk by. Though they are harmless, they will gnash their teeth and growl at you if you get too close so give these little guys some space.
HAPPY HOUR AT THE BEACH
The best way to enjoy the sunset on Tioman Island is on the beach. Enjoy this magical hour every day at any sunset bar or simply with your toes in the sand. Wherever you watch the sun dip into the sea in a colorful display, you are unlikely to be disappointed on Tioman island.
Tioman Island is no Thailand in ways both good and bad. Tioman is still very much off most travelers’ radar as Thailand grows increasingly overcrowded. This is mostly due to the fact that it’s not that easy to get there. The island is probably not for you if you like nightlife. It virtually doesn’t exist other than cover bands in lazy beach side bars and bustling happy hours. There is very little to disturb the peace, and the only drama comes in the form of the scenery or a passing tropical storm.
Why, then, has this island gem been forgotten? In the eighties, tourists from Europe flocked to Thailand looking for raving nightlife in Thailand, and Malaysia was left behind, and still, no one comes to Tioman for raves.
Tioman Island is for you if want to relax, snorkel, dive, or simply chill with few distractions. It’s no surprise to me it ranks on many magazine’s annual Most Beautiful lists. Being so hard to get to has helped Tioman to retain its charm and beauty. If you feel like checking out of civilization for a little while, maroon yourself on Tioman Island. You won’t regret it. In my next post, I will let you in on just how to escape to Tioman Island.
Stay tuned for Part 2: How to Plan Your Escape to Tioman Island.