Tioman Island. A Journey to The New Paradise Lost
18th November 2018
“Little islands are all large prisons; one cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow.” Sir Richard Francis Burton
Hideaway. Hidden paradise. Discovered.
By no means did I dream of the wings of a swallow on Tioman, throttled by the tedium and apathy as Sir Burton was on the little island of his.
I spent 7 magical days in that remote haven, two hours away by ferry from Peninsular Malaysia. Although it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, my affection towards this place continued to grow day by day.
Mersing, our outlet to Tioman from where the jetty leaves, was a nightmare. It’s quite an unappealing place; I hardly took any photos. Tiny, untidy, clammy, with all the dirt, noise, and deviation typical of little port towns. Sorry to say that, but my poor reception of the town was further aggravated by the scruffy, damp place where we were staying overnight to catch the jetty.
Right, the jetty. The South China Sea gets choppy here, so the ferry schedule is published a month, two months ahead, and is prone to frequent changes. So much that you need to call the jetty service a day before your trip to check if you’re going to leave at all.
The times are also quite hostile and you need to arrive at the jetty station at least 90 minutes ahead. We chose the early departure, leaving around 6 am. As the jetty operator said: “The early jetty is too early, the late one is too late.” 100% true.
Going through the jetty check-in can also get annoying. Even if you have booked a ticket before (as we did), you’ll need to queue in three long lines – to collect your ticket, pay a marine park entrance fee (Tioman is part of Marine Park), and get your seat on the ferry. If you’re too late, your seat may not be guaranteed, even if you have booked.
We have seen people getting stuck with a pre-booked ticket, as they came too late. The jetty wouldn’t wait for them.
Not a Typical Paradise Island
Two hours later, we set foot on the island. My excitement slowly gives way to increasing disappointment. Where are the endless snow-white beaches I know from Goa or Sri Lanka? What about pristine, turquoise water? No vivid beach huts? No fancy hotels?
I have to admit, my first impression was far from delight.
And then, we started exploring…
Pristine Jungle and the Underwater Treasure Trove
Tioman’s appeal is unique. If you’re looking for 5-star resorts, or spectacular jungle hotels the likes of which abound in Seychelles or Maldives, that’s not a place to go.
The island’s charm lies in its wilderness unspoiled. Yes, there are hotels, but they’re not imposing. Sure, tourism replaced fishing as the main source of income on the island, but it’s not obtrusive.
You wake up with the sound of the turbulent tide, pass the day among the ubiquitous monitor lizards that stroll freely on the island and take leisurely swims in the local rivulets, and farewell the peaceful day together with schools of bats roaming the skies at dawn in search of their prey,
What to Do in Tioman?
Diving. Tioman boasts as one of Malaysia’s top spots for snorkeling and free diving. Again, we may not have appreciated that from the start, as Tioman waters don’t immediately strike you with their azure color. You can’t spot stingrays and tropical fish frolicking in the shallow waters as you will in the Maldives.
However, on most beaches, it’s enough to step a few meters away from the shore, where the water is still knee-deep, and you’re getting transported to a whole new setting. The rainbow coral reef out there is one of the best I’ve seen so far. Full of gigantic sponges, large schools of multi-colored fish, sharks and turtles – it has it all!
Hiking. Towering over the island are twin peaks of Nenek Semukut, ca. 700 meters high each. Regarded as the highest free-standing natural structure in Malaysia, the peaks may not be awfully big, but covered in the thick mist that shrouds the island, they make a challenging formation to climb. Another notable summit is the island’s highest mountain Gunung Kajar. For those who like leisurely climb, and don’t need to break any records, I wholeheartedly recommend the spectacular Asah Waterfall.
Jungle trekking. All of Tioman is a deep, thick jungle, rife with verdant, overgrown greenery, and full of endemic animals. If you’re lucky, you can spot here binturong (we did!), black giant squirrel, red giant flying squirrel, mouse deer or porcupine. Monitor lizards, bats, and giant ants are VERY common;)
HOW TO GET TO TIOMAN?
Apart from Mersing, ferries also leave from Tanjung Gemok. The two towns are about 40 minutes apart by car. The same ferry operators run jetties in the two places. We chose Mersing as we read that it’s more reliable in terms of water conditions, but I wouldn’t assume there’s much difference. If the sea gets rough, the ferry won’t leave anyway.
WHERE TO STAY?
The ferry from Mersing has four stops: Genting, Tekek, Air Batang, Salang. You can certainly look for accommodation around these locations. However, in high season, your choices will be limited. We were traveling in late July, and there were fewer than 10 places available on the entire island!
Hotels and resorts on the east side of the island are less frequent. Most of them will be located in a stunning village of Juara, where you can get by jeep, boat, or by crossing the jungle.
We stayed in Berjaya Hotel, about 20 minutes away on foot from Tekek jetty station. Although it seems like the resort is past its prime, we couldn’t complain about anything, and I’d come back there without a doubt.
We had a big room, with a quiet balcony overlooking the garden, the food was decent, and the setting – astonishing. For 7 days with breakfast, we paid around 500 euro (two people).
Here are a few pics from the resort:
A couple of other popular large resorts on the west coast are ABC Beach Resort (from what I can see on Tripadvisor, of a MUCH lower standard than Berjaya, however, located at one of the best beaches on the island), Melina Beach Resort, and Aman Tioman. In Juara, the best-known are Juara Ocean Chalet, 1511 Coconut Grove, and Juara Mutiara Resort.
If you are thinking about visiting Tioman and have some questions, give me a shout. In the end, what had seemed like a major disappointment for me at first, turned into one of the best leisure stays in my life!