Beach Guide: Malaysia
Malaysia is a country of contrasts; while the western peninsula is filled with sprawling modern cities, its eastern regions are some of the least explored places on earth. With so much diversity in one country, it should come as no surprise that Malaysia’s beaches are hugely varied, offering everything from luxury sea-side resorts to untouched beach wildernesses.
If you’re interested in an up-market resort holiday, look no further than the island of Pulau Langkawi. Langkawi can be reached from Georgetown by boat or plane. There are also regular flights to and from Kuala Lumpur. Langkawi is a tropical tax-haven, and some luxurious hotels are to be found on the secluded beaches around the island. The main town can feel a little busy and commercial, but with duty-free alcohol available everywhere, it’s good for a party. Pulau Tioman, on the east coast, boasts some of the most picturesque beaches in the country – you might even recognise it as the setting of the 1958 movie South Pacific. Tourism has lead to rapidly accelerating development on the island, so don’t be surprised when you stumble across elaborate, lavish hotels along the beautiful beach-front. Tioman is now accessible by plane, so expect even heavier development within the next few years.
Secluded Beach Getaways in Malaysia
If you ever feel the need to escape the pressures of urban life, then Malaysia is home to some of the most secluded and tranquil beaches in Asia, if not the world. The Perhentian Islands, on the east coast, contain blissfully relaxed beaches – even their name, “Perhentian”, means “stopping-point”. Drop everything and concentrate on unwinding on the tranquil Besar island, or hop on a boat and enjoy the lively backpacker bars on Pulau Kechil. Unlike Langkawi or Tioman, alcohol is heavily taxed on these islands, which has perhaps saved them from becoming overcrowded party destinations.
For the adventurous traveler, Malaysian Borneo is a good place to explore remote and untouched beaches. Even the captial city of the Sabah region – Kota Kinabalu – is only fifteen minutes from Pulau Mamutik, a desert island inhabited only by diving instructors. For beginners and experts alike, the beaches of Mamutik are a great place to explore Borneo’s marine wildlife. Serious divers should head south to Sipadan, which is a strong contender for the best dive-site in the world. Expect to see wild sea-turtles drifting serenely past schools of barracuda, against a backdrop of startling beautiful coral.
Langkawi Beach Guide
With its 99 islands strung like beads across the Andaman sea, Langkawi is a tropical treasure-trove for any beach-lover. Several years ago, in an attempt to stimulate tourism, the Malaysian government made Langkawi a duty-free zone, and travelers have flocked there ever since to get their hands on cut-rate alcohol and tobacco. Since alcohol is taxed so heavily on the mainland, inexpensive drinks are an attraction for international and domestic travelers alike. But a trip to Langkawi isn’t about drinking and smoking – the real magic of the islands lie in the astonishing beauty of their protected beaches.
The biggest island, Pulau Langkawi, contains all the main shops, hostels and resorts, along with an international airport. This makes it very easy to access from Kuala Lumpur – just hop on a budget flight with Air Asia. But if you have time to kill, take the picturesque boat trip from Georgetown. Boats also run from Satun in southern Thailand. The main town in Langkawi is Kuah, which is often flooded with shoppers and tourists and can feel a little commercial. Cenang Beach is the most popular (and most crowded) beach on the island, but can still feel tranquil on a good day. Budget hostels and upmarket hotels stretch out towards the sand in equal measure, so Cenang Beach is the perfect place to rest up for a few days as you find your feet and organize day trips to the smaller islands, or longer stays in the more remote bays.
Langkawi Beach Activities
Like most island destinations in Malaysia, Langkawi’s beaches are notable for their excellent scuba diving. Tropical fish and colorful coral abound in the warm waters around the islands, and many of the larger resorts offer their own diving lessons. The place to go for all nature-lovers is Pulau Payar Marine Park, a protected reserve of beautiful coral reef, which is perfect for diving or snorkeling. Langkawi’s natural beauty is its real selling-point, so make sure you arrange a day-long boat trip around the islands to check out the breath-taking landscape.
Sailing is a growing interest amongst Langkawi’s visitors. The beach authorities have recently completed the construction of a new marina at Telaga Harbour Park, so yachts are more readily available for hire. Although rental is pricey, there’s nothing like sailing slowly from island to island as you explore the archipelago and find hidden, secret beaches. And since Langkawi’s warm waters are so sheltered and calm, it’s a great place for novices to learn the ropes.
Beach Guide: Perhentian Islands
Huddled together off the eastern coast of Malaysia, the tiny Perhentian Islands are slow and quiet, and the perfect destination for anyone seeking a little tranquility. In the Malay language, “Perhentian” means “stopping-point” – the name dates from when Malaysian sea-traders would stop off at the island to rest before continuing their journey north into Thailand. These days, travelers are still coming to the Perhentians to find rest and relaxation on beautiful ivory beaches.
The main islands are Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kechil. Besar is the biggest island, and boasts some gorgeous remote beaches. Both islands can only be reached by boat from Kuala Besut on the mainland. There are cheap and regular speedboats, but you can also travel in style on a traditional wooden longboat, which tends to be more expensive. In general, accommodation is a little more up-market on Besar – there are a handful of lavish resorts, hidden away on the more isolated beaches. The other hotels and diving schools are concentrated along the main stretch of beach-front, which manages to remain blissfully quiet.
Long Beach Backpacker Scene
Travelers on a tighter budget tend to gravitate towards Long Beach on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. The backpacker hostels and bars make this stretch of beach a little rowdier than Pulau Besar, and offers the closest thing you’ll find to a nightlife on the Perhentian islands. Alcohol is heavily marked-up on the island, so it’s not the best place for a binge. As should be expected, diving and snorkelling is excellent around the island, and there are plenty of dive-centers scattered across Long Beach. The water is incredibly clear, and the islands are just a short boat-trip away from some beautiful marine wildlife reserves.
The monsoon season wreaks havoc with tourism on the islands, so it’s important to plan your trip carefully if you want to take full advantage of the beautiful Perhentian beaches. From November to February, the islands shut down, with only a couple of the more expensive resorts staying open. If you feel like braving the rain, however, there’s nothing quite like having a deserted beach all to yourself. During the dry season’s peak tourist months (July and August) competition gets fierce for the best accommodation. It’s better to book your hotel or hostel before arrival, especially on the weekends. This is partly because the beaches of the Perhentian Islands have become so popular with international travelers on long trips round south-east Asia. Everyone seems drawn to these oases of calm – the perfect place to slow down, kick back, and unwind.
Beach Guide: Tioman Island
The beautiful beaches of Pulau Tioman were first made famous as the setting of the 1958 movie South Pacific. Since then, tourism has intensified on the island, and Tioman’s gorgeous landscape has slowly filled with new developments. The recent addition of a small airstrip has made Tioman much more accessible – flights arrive regularly from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur – but has also accelerated other construction projects. Already plans are underway to build a luxury marina at Kampung Tektek, on the western side of the island. So if you want to see the Tioman beaches in all their unspoiled glory, you should get out there sooner rather than later.
Cheap and regular ferries run to Tioman from Mersing on the mainland. Salang Beach is the most popular destination on the island, with some nice hotels, and plenty of bars and restaurants. Like Langkawi, Tioman is a duty-free zone, so alcohol is significantly cheaper than anywhere on the mainland. The beaches of Tioman are often rockier than the other Malaysian islands, but Salang Beach boasts luxuriantly soft sand. Berjaya Beach is equally beautiful, and is the place to go if you’re looking for something more up-market. Outside Berjaya, hotels are generally clean and friendly, if a little rough and ready.
Diving around Tioman’s Beaches
The beaches around Pulau Tioman offer some of the best marine wildlife anywhere in peninsular Malaysia. There are dive shops scattered all over the island, and PADI diving instruction is offered everywhere, for all skill-levels. The waters around Tioman are incredibly clear, so conditions are perfect for snorkeling. The rocky areas are particularly good – you can check out all kinds of tropical fish and coral, without having to make a deep dive. Snorkels and masks are available for hire almost everywhere. Ask in your hotel, or pick them up from any of the dive centers along the beaches.
If you really want to get away from it all, there are a couple of remote yet accessible beaches dotted around the island. Juara Beach, on the eastern side of the island, is a wide sweep of pristine sand, with very few tourists. If you’re feeling adventurous, a one-hour jungle trek from Salang will bring you to the isolated Monkey Beach. Avoid bringing food – the monkeys can get a little pushy. Traveling off-peak, in monsoon season, means that you’ll have most of the beaches all to yourself. The rain is heavy in November and December, but if you travel in January or February you should expect weeks of uninterrputed sunshine, and miles of deserted, tropical beach.