Bali Hai will whisper, in the wind of the sea Here am I, your special island! Come to me, come to me!
The words are from one of the many memorable songs in the 1958 film classic, South Pacific, but the special island is far from Hollywood fantasy; it is Malaysia’s own fabulous playground, Tioman Island. The musical certainly made Tioman famous in the west; in fact, Time magazine subsequently proclaimed it as one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the world and, in truth, Tioman is a paradise, a place of misty sunrises and golden sunsets. I’ve recently been to Bali Hai and I loved it.
At twenty kilometres long and eleven wide, Tioman is the largest of the islands of the north-east coast of peninsular Malaysia and it affords a variety of activities rarely found elsewhere. Waters of clear aquamarine and pristine white sand beaches invite lazy day’s beachcombing and snorkelling. The smaller islands dotted about Tioman offer splendid scuba diving and the rugged jungle trails encourage exploration. Troupes of monkeys prowl the trees overhead and massive monitor lizards move like miniature dinosaurs through the fresh water rivers of the interior. Few other places offer such a variety of splendid, and often empty, beaches, tropical rain forests, rivers and streams.
The permanent population of Tioman is small and friendly. There are only a few kampongs, or villages, and no roads as of yet. The most popular of the villages, Salang, Air Batang (or ABC) and Tekek, are on the west coast of the island. Most of the accommodations offered are on the west side of the island in one of these villages. But if you want to get away from it all, try Juara on the east coast instead. The less expensive places tend to be in Juara, ABC and Salang. The fancier lodgings are in Tekek or farther south. In most cases accommodation is in small wooden chalets usually facing the sea, or if off the shore, arranged in a comfortable oval-shaped compound with a grassy, hammock-filled space in the centre. If you are interested in a much more up-scale holiday, then you want the Berjaya Tioman Beach Golf and Spa Resort. Here you can enjoy international standards of lodging, a variety of restaurants, health and beauty treatments at the spa and, if you are feeling energetic, 18 holes of golf on an international championship course.
All of the villages are on beaches and each has a variety of restaurants specialising in freshly caught seafood cooked on a charcoal barbecue. There are bars aplenty although they tend to be a bit pricey. Try a cool, fresh coconut; it’s healthier. The island swarms with visitors from June to August, but tends to be quite deserted during monsoon season from November to February when ironically, some of the days can be quite nice.
Long days on the sun-drenched beach drinking something blue with a little umbrella in it tempt many. The main activities on the island which actually demand movement are scuba diving, snorkelling and hiking. The various dive centers offer courses, introductory dives for the curious, shore dives and boat dives. You can also arrange snorkelling trips with them. Some of the best snorkelling is at Pulau Tulai, but almost everywhere is good given the clarity of the water. Alternatively, if you are not drawn to the water, there is a fantastic hike of about seven kilometres from Tekek to Juara and a shorter one from Sabang to Monkey Bay. The walks can be steep and it is advisable to carry lots of water with you. But you will be in the real jungle with enormous trees, vines, creepers, monkeys, snakes, spiders, butterflies and lizards. Me Tarzan!
There are two alternatives for getting to Tioman from Kuala Lumpur, by surface and by air. Berjaya Air leaves from the old Subang airport, not Kuala Lumpur International airport. The airline is a subsidiary of the Berjaya Resorts group, and will fly you in a small, but safe, Dash 7 aircraft to the Berjaya Resort on Tioman. It will also accept passengers who are not staying at the resort. The landing on a postage stamp-sized strip between vertiginous mountains and the sea is an adventure all by itself. If you are not flying to Tioman, drive to Mersing, a small coastal town in the state of Johor, and from there take one of the fast ferry services to Tioman. The ferry will stop at each of the village jetties. Alternatively, if you don’t wish to drive, or don’t have a car, bus service to Mersing is offered by Transnasional Coach Services.
Tioman has become one of Malaysia’s premier tourist attractions. With so much to offer, it’s no wonder. Bali Hai, I hear you calling! Come to me, come to me!
This article has been edited for Expat Go