Tioman Island, a small mountainous outcrop lying around fifty kilometres from the eastern coast of Malaysia is an idyllic kampung getaway of thick jungle, sandy beaches and clear green waters. In the seventies, Time Magazine declared it one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Plenty has changed in the last forty years, but the island lifestyle is still intact; there’s a slower pace of life here with very limited tarmac, little traffic and a lot of peace and quiet.
Tioman’s continued charm lies in the lack of development on the island, the majority of accommodation is simple chalets, owned by families who live on the same plot. Spend your days reading in a hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle, or snorkelling in calm, clear waters.
Tioman is open for business all year round, (unlike the Perhentian Islands, which close for the monsoon season). Good prices can be had in the low seasons, especially if you commit to staying more than two or three days. Like us, you can waste away your days in paradise for next to nothing.
Juara Beach is an incredible place to while away the hours
When to go?
- The low season is in the monsoon season from December to February or March when the ferry service is limited, Demand picks up in April and continues through until September and October. The dive season ends around November.
- Monsoon season is good for the surfers, as this brings in waves from the South China Sea on the eastern side of the island at Juara.
- Divers are best to visit from February onwards as the water temperatures and visibility improve, the earlier in the season, however, the less likely you will be able to visit the outer lying dive sites as the conditions and visibility may not be good enough.
Where to stay?
Tioman is divided into three main villages or kampungs that cater for tourists – Salang, Juara & ABC/Tekek.For the backpackers, it’s likely to be a choice between Salang and Air Batang, also known as ABC.
- We stayed in ABC, which was had enough choice and options but still had a quiet village atmosphere. There are plenty of accommodation options, with a dozen or more very chilled chalet sites; with the opportunity to camp for 5MYR a night (bring your own tent & have access to toilets & showers) or stay in a dorm for around 20MYR upwards. The cheaper and older chalets are generally to the right of the pier at ABC, whereas the left has more upmarket options, including A/C, unobstructed sea views & wi-fi. Walk-in prices depend on demand, but there’s definitely room to negotiate and the further set back from the beach, the cheaper. There are also a few beachside bars and you’re likely to see huge monitor lizards and monkeys roaming around the village. Most accommodation has some internet connection, check to make sure it’s included in the price – one place we saw charged 10MYR per hour!
- Salang is, I’m told is similar to ABC, same standards of accommodation and pricing but without any bars, although you can buy beer in one of the shops.
- Tekek is linked to the south of ABC, the other side of a staircase cut into the rock. It has a few roadside coffee shops which are cheap and sell drinks and snacks. The village of Tekek further along the walkway which has the only ATM on the island is home to the tiny local airport. Not as many accommodation options.
- Juara, on the other side of the island, has some very nice accommodation, which is generally a bit more expensive and family or couple orientated. It also has a few restaurants but it’s pretty quiet compared to the more lively backpacker side of the island. The beach, however, is the best on the island by a long way.
The island is mostly jungle, with a few marked trekking routes.
ABC to Monkey Beach & Salang
From the northernmost point of ABC you can trek firstly to Panuba Inn Resort (20mins) it’s the steepest, most challenging part of the trek to Monkey beach involving some ropes. Punuba Inn has a fancy restaurant bar and a sandy beach. The jetty is teeming with fish and good for snorkelling.
Another one hour of snaking, jungle paths takes you through to a beach followed by another ten minutes to Monkey beach – it’s quiet, with a fairly shallow beach so best to visit when the tide is lower. It’s another one or more hours walk from here to Salang. The path follows the power cables from village to village making it almost impossible to get lost. No shops or toilets at monkey beach – wear closed shoes, flip-floppers might struggle.
From here it’s around another ninety minutes to get to Salang, but once you’re there you either have to walk back the way you came or pay for a boat to take you home.
Tekek to Juara
From Tekek you can walk to Juara across the middle of the island through the Jungle, the distance is around seven kilometres and takes about 2-3 hours depending on your pace. It’s split into two sections, the first is a part-paved path running through the jungle with a lot of stair sections. The second part is walking alongside the road which runs to Juara, which is downhill and quite challenging on the walk back. Take lots of water and some snacks.
Just after the path merges into the road there is an old building on the right side as you walk towards Juara, the path alongside leads to a small waterfall and natural swimming pool. It’s very refreshing on a sweaty walk.
Juara has a few restaurants and a nice beach to enjoy before returning.
Snorkelling and Diving:
The Island has a lot of diving sites, a few wrecks and some shallow coral formations making it good for snorkelling and diving – the water is calm with generally good visibility making it a good place to learn.
To dive we paid 110MYR per dive with B&J Diving (in ABC) who we found to be well organised with good kit, comprehensive site briefings and European Divemasters. Ecodivers are also based in ABC.
Marine life varies due to the time of year but we saw abundant reef fish, various healthy corals, turtles, barracuda and black-tip reef sharks. At the right time of year, manta rays can also be seen.
There is good snorkelling from the northernmost beach in ABC – in front of Bamboo Chalets, before the trek to Monkey Island – the rocks snake around to the Panuba pier which has some decent sized coral formations, with lots of varieties of fish, healthy carpets, octopus, rays and sea cucumbers. Snorkel hire costs 10-15MYR per day – head out at low tide to see the most.
Eating and Drinking:
Food on Tioman is a bit underwhelming compared to most of Malaysia – prices, in general, are increased too due to everything having to be shipped over. One local explained they cannot grow anything on the island as it’s too thick with jungle and the monkeys would just steal it! Expect to pay around 8-10MYR for a fried rice or noodle dish, 25MYR for fresh fish.
ABC has the best budget options and Tekek has a few cheap local cafes. A big bottle of water costs around 2MYR on the mainland and 4MYR on the island; ask if the hotel has a UV purifier and you can refill your bottles for cheaper or free and not create more plastic waste.
Most places sell standard basic Malay food and western dishes, you’ll struggle to find really good Malay food. One street side restaurant with a burger cart outside (north of the ABC pier, by the first bridge) sells excellent Nasi Lemak for 2MYR an absolute bargain – but you have to get there before 08:30 at the latest or the locals snap them all up. The curry puffs are really good too and great value at three for 1MYR.
ABC also has three or four laid back beachfront bars selling three beers for 10MYR and playing reggae tunes as the sun sets and into the night.
There is no public transport system in place on the island. You might be able to get a good price with a boatman to get from beach to beach, but generally, expect prices to be quite high. You can hire a motorbike but there is not a lot of road, the main stretch connects Juara with the airport and Tekek. Local car owners act as taxi drivers on the island, I don’t think they are licensed or there is any kind of fare structuring and prices are seemingly at the whim of the individual – prices are high compared with Mainland Malaysia.
It’s apparently also possible to get a lift with the ferry from one village to another, some websites state there is a charge, while other sites say they either don’t charge or have stopped offering this service, worth checking out on the island.
- The ferry to Tioman leaves from Mersing, a six hour, (30-40MYR) bus journey from Kuala Lumpur.
- Mersing bus and ferry terminals are relatively close, around 5-10minute walk and taxi is not necessary.
- In the monsoon season, the ferry is only scheduled once per day and can be cancelled (sometimes for several days) if the sea is too rough, or there are not enough customers to make it viable.
- Singaporeans often travel to Tioman for weekends or diving breaks so ferries departing on Saturdays can be pretty busy.
- From March 1st the ferry schedule is extended to three or four crossings per day.The ferry costs 35MYR each way and takes two hours. The crossing can be rough. Currently only one company, Bluewater Express runs this route. Tip: Any travel agent in the cities will call through to check ferry schedules on a given day if you make out you might book the transport with them!
- It’s likely, in the monsoon season you will have to spend the night in Mersing – the ferry leaves around midday and connecting buses are unlikely to arrive in time. Hotel Embassy, near the bus station, is a good value, clean hotel. As of February 2014, there is a 5MYR entrance fee and a 20MYR National Park conservation charge to access the island. Total return cost is 95MYR.
- You can also fly directly from Kuala Lumpur with Berjaya Air, landing at the tiny airport in Tekek.
Where to go next?
- Buses leave Mersing to all over Malaysia and Singapore.
- Ferries also connect to the Perhentian Islands.
- Kuala Lumpur is around six hours away.
About the author: Ben Turland is a keen traveller who is currently eating and photographing his way around South East Asia and writing about his experiences both on his own website and for us as an ambassador. You can follow more of his writing on his personal blog.