Malaysia is known as a food haven, with friendly locals, the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, and many sun-kissed tropical beaches. It’s the latter that attracts plenty of tourists each year, both local and international. Some, like Penang and Langkawi, are famous, attracting thousands of tourists all year long, while some are hidden gems waiting to be discovered by those looking to venture off the beaten path (to the beach). Here they are, in no particular order:
Note: Pulau means island in Malay.
They are called the Perhentian Islands because there are two main ones: Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Perhentian Kecil. They are a group of beautiful islands off the northeast coast of Terengganu (not far from the Thai border) which have achieved iconic status on the backpacker trail. The water here is said to be so clean that you can snorkel right off the beach and still see a diverse array of aquatic life. Fishermen turned tour guides will also take you out in their small boat for a day trip to swim with sharks and turtles. The nightlife isn’t exactly wild, but there are bonfire bars and wandering fire artists lighting up the beaches at night.
Although part of the Malaysian state of Pahang, Tioman is actually reached from the Johor town of Mersing. There’s also a direct ferry from Singapore. It gained fame when Time magazine named it one of the world’s most beautiful islands in the 1970s, and has now become a firm fixture on the tourist trail, retaining much of the natural environment and wildlife that first made it famous. For first-time visitors to Tioman, the giant monitor lizards that roam the kampungs (villages) in search of food may be scary at first, but people get used to them – eventually.
Located right by the border with Thailand, Langkawi is part of the Malaysian state of Kedah, not Perlis which is in fact directly adjacent. There’s a legend here about a woman named Mahsuri who cursed the island when she was executed for alleged adultery. Makam Mahsuri (Mahsuri’s Tomb) remains a popular tourist spot on the island. Langkawi was turned into a duty-free resort island in 1986, and its growth has been spectacular, with high profile resorts dotting its sandy shores. The best way to take it all in is on the 2,200-meter-long cable car, which rises some 710 meters above sea level. There are plenty of hotels and resorts here, but the most notable recent addition is the St. Regis Langkawi, which has won numerous accolades since opening its doors in 2016.
The Pearl of the Orient has a long and illustrious history. Once a glittering jewel of the British empire, the island is proudly parading its past – the UNESCO status granted to historic Georgetown in 2008 guarantees that. Perhaps the only island on this list that sees street food as its greatest attraction instead of dazzling beaches (not that it lacks those), foodies from the world over come here just to savour local delights like Penang laksa, char kuey teow, prawn noodles, cendol, and more. Alongside a raft of improvements designed to attract even more visitors, including investment in public transport, pedestrianization schemes and a schedule of new cultural festivals and fairs, this magnificent island – only slightly smaller than Singapore – is once again making its mark on the world stage.
Many Malaysians often forget that Labuan is an island. Located off the coast of East Malaysia, sandwiched between Sarawak and Sabah, Labuan is one of Malaysia’s three Federal Territories. Its special status as an international offshore financial centre and free-trade zone has allowed it to attract outside investment from the financial sector. If you’re not involved in the financial services, there are other reasons to visit such as wreck diving. Over the years, numerous ships were sunk in the shallow waters off Labuan, making it ideal for novice divers. These are simply known as the American, Australian, Blue Water and Cement Wreck.
Little more than a coral reef with a runway, the tiny island of Layang-Layang (also known as Swallow Reef) is located some 300 kilometers northwest of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Surrounded by pristine waters that drop to 2,000 meters, Layang-Layang is often ranked as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world due to its remarkable array of marine life. Thanks to the Navy’s presence, the coral reef has been spared the explosive damage caused by dynamite fishing and other destructive practices, leading to underwater visibility of more than 40 meters. Particularly of note are the schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks, which can sometimes number in the hundreds, though you can also expect to see manta rays, dolphins, barracuda and turtles.
At the end of 2002, following a long dispute with Indonesia, the International Court of Justice ruled that the island of Sipadan was Malaysian. Sipadan is often rated as the world’s best dive site, located in the centre of the planet’s most bio-diverse marine habitat. In order to protect the fragile ecosystem of this Malaysia holiday destination, in 2004 the government ordered all of the dive resorts off the island, banned night dives and set a limit of 120 divers per day. It seems to be working, as the island’s surroundings are clean, pristine and teeming with life. However, reports of kidnappings and piracy in its waters may have served to deter visitors to the island as well. Hardcore (daredevil) divers, this island is perfect for you.
Pulau Redang was a well-kept secret by nearby locals, but in 2000, it was chosen as the setting for Hong Kong movie “Summer Holiday” (夏日的么么茶) which featured Cantopop star Sammi Cheng and Taiwanese heartthrob Richie Ren, along with popular Malaysian singer Michael Wong. The success of the film led to a sudden influx of tourists, both local and overseas. With excellently preserved coral, the main attractions of Redang are snorkeling, diving and the crystal clear waters. Don’t forget to take a photo at the famous More Moe Tea Inn which was featured in the movie!
There aren’t many chances to stay on a Sultan’s private island, but Pulau Rawa is exactly that. Owned by the family of the Sultanate of Johor, Rawa is a small island 16 kilometers off the east coast of Johor. Due to its exclusivity, Rawa attracts tourists looking for a more secluded vacation. While the west coast is postcard perfect, the rest of the shoreline consists of inaccessible, dramatic rocky cliffs that plunge directly into the sea. To check these out, take the easy way and rent a canoe or hike up steep steps to the summit of the island for a spectacular view. There are only two resorts on the island, and it can fill up fast on weekends with Singaporeans, so book those rooms early.
*Side note: Lawa means pretty in Malay; we think it’s an acceptable mispronounciation in this case. 😉
Despite measuring just eight square kilometres, Pangkor is a firm favourite of locals for beach getaways, perhaps even the most popular. It is one of the country’s most accessible islands, yet it is overwhelmingly the preserve of Malaysians, who head there every long weekend for a little rest and relaxation. There is little in terms of nightlife but instead you’ll find uncrowded sandy beaches, a huge variety of amazing local cuisine and friendly people. Similar to Pulau Tioman, huge monitor lizards can be seen roaming the island, but will usually avoid humans. One of the more exotic sights here are monitor lizards lazily sunning themselves on huge rocks at the seaside.
(List adapted from: CNN Travel)
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Just watch out for those monitor lizards! (Just kidding. Sorta.)