Escape to Tioman: where to get wet and wild on Malaysia's adventure island
Sitting like an emerald dragon guarding the translucent waters of the South China Sea, Pulau Tioman offers every possible shade of paradise. While many travel here with a relaxed beach holiday in mind, the island has enough activities to keep adventure-seekers occupied for at least a week. Chart-toppers include world-class diving and snorkelling, jungle hikes to waterfalls, adrenaline-pumping climbing and culinary exploration.
Swimming and beach-bumming
The idyllic palette of blue waters surrounding Pulau Tioman is impossible to resist. Dive into this ocean of delights at Juara. Located on the eastern (windward) side of the island, this little village has an impossibly gorgeous beach dotted with chilled-out bungalows that look right onto the sea. While you’re here, don’t miss an afternoon learning about turtles at the Juara Turtle Project. You’ll also find a dazzling blonde beach at Salang, on the island's north-west coast. This backpacker-friendly enclave is equally famous for its curious monitor lizards and thumping late night parties.
For a special treat, visit Nipah, a remote bay on the island's northwest coast where bioluminescent seaweed glows in the dark. By day, consider a swim by the river mouth at the end of the beach at Nipah, where cool fresh water mixes with the salty ocean in a swirl of stunning blues.
Diving and snorkelling
The underwater world around the island offers some of the best (and most accessible) diving and snorkelling in Malaysia. It’s also one of the few places in the country where you have a good chance of seeing pods of dolphins.
There’s good snorkelling off the rocky points on the west coast of the island, particularly those just north of Air Batang (ABC), but the best snorkelling is around nearby Pulau Tulai, better known as Coral Island. Snorkelling equipment for hire is easy to find (masks and snorkels are typically RM15 per day) at many places on the island, and a snorkelling day trip with boat transfers will set you back around RM40 to RM100.
Top dive sites include the 30m depths near Renggis, Coral and Labas islands, plus a handful of epic wrecks. Never been diving? Consider signing up for a four-day Open Water Diver (OWD) course. There are plenty of excellent dive centres on Tioman (such as B&J and Tioman Dive Centre), and OWD certification courses are priced competitively. Expect to pay about RM1100 to RM1200 for a four-day PADI OWD course and RM115 to R130 for fun dives. Discover dives (beginner dives that do not require pre-certification and include basic instruction), cost RM200 to RM250 for a half-day course.
Much of Tioman is roadless, with footpaths connecting the various kampung (villages) on its leeward side. These paths offer wonderful wildlife watching opportunities. Look carefully for snakes up in the trees, lizards in the rivers and the ever-present monkeys that are hilarious to watch. The hike to the Asah Waterfall from the island’s southern tip is a must for intrepid adventurers, while the day-long trek over the ridge of the island from Tekek to Juara will really get you acquainted with this wild kingdom.
Serious trekker? Local lore holds that the island is the final resting place of a dragon princess who stayed here to provide shelter to passing travellers. A three-day trek takes you to the princess’ ‘crown’ atop the summit of Gunung Kajang (1038m), an extinct volcano. Along the way, you’ll pass waterfalls and can spot monkeys, colugos (flying mammals that can soar 100m) and rare mouse deer along with an incredible variety of local plants, trees and flowers.
Want to really get vertical? A new climbing outfit out of Juara, Tioman Volcanic Rock Climbing, runs day-trips for top-roping and sport climbing on some of the island’s vertical cliffs. You can also head out with the guides for an adrenaline-pumping rappelling tour.
Malaysia is famous for its food, which blends flavours from India, China, Indonesia and beyond. There are plenty of good spots to sample this vibrant cuisine on Tioman – the fish, prawn and squid barbecue special at Air Batang’s ABC Restaurant is a top pick, while Juara’s Santai Bistro is a great place to sample regional delights including sambal prawns, tom yum soup and mixed vegetable salads.
Where to stay
Backpackers rave about the simple cottages in peaced-out ABC. Mokhtar’s Place costs less than US$20 a night and places you just a few steps from the water in a clutch of 16 basic-but-clean bungalows.
In Juara, a half dozen beach bungalows offer solid midrange value. Most of the rooms step directly out to the bedazzled white beach; open your windows at night to catch ocean breezes and be lulled to sleep by the sound of lapping waves. Top midrange Juara picks include the perennial favourite Rainbow Chalets and stylish boutique sleep Coconut Grove.
At the higher end, indulge at the Tunamaya Resort near Genting (on the island's southwest) for spa treatments, a gorgeous white-sand beach and top-shelf amenities. The Swiss Cottage Resort (swiss-cottage-tioman.com) in Tekek, between Genting and Salang, is an amazing mini-resort with wooden decks, Zen-inspired decor and ocean views that stretch to infinity.