I am sure we have all experienced that feeling that you are being watched and this time I actually am. A cheeky monkey is peering over the roof as we sit enjoying an early evening glass of wine, hoping there might be some food for them. Monkeys are regular visitors across Tioman island, particularly early morning or evening but generally stick to themselves.
Tioman island is in the South China sea roughly 61km off the east coast of peninsula Malaysia, 39km in length and a resident population of 432 (there are way more cats than people and reportedly only 10 dogs on the whole island). The island is pretty much covered in dense jungle clad peaks with small pockets of beach settlements that are connected by boat, the roads and paths are few. The vibe is a a bit international back packers, local Malaysian families or more mature couples (e.g. us), wanting to experience something a little different.
The island is part of a carefully preserved marine sanctuary, fishing is illegal near it’s peripheries, although fishing charters are popular in the deeper waters. Marine protection funds have contributed to locals being trained in scuba diving and taught amongst other conservation skills, how to “grow” coral, thus preserving the coral gardens that are teeming with fish. Yes there is some bleaching and dead coral but there is also an abundance of pink, yellow and violet hues, brain and stag coral, plus a plethora of sea anemones, home to families of clown fish. Literally hundreds if not thousands of fish can be seen by simply snorkelling from the shore where there is coral, such as Tekek. For those keen to explore further there are snorkelling trips to other beaches and islands and of course dive trips and you can complete a certified dive course. Our trip to Renggis island, only 10 minutes by boat from Tekek sees us snorkelling with small reef sharks, turtles plus all of the other expected tropical fish.
Over the hill (from Tekek) in Juara on the east coast, the staff and volunteers at a sea turtle sanctuary protect the frequent turtle nests, and ensure that they are well looked after until the hatchlings are ready to head to the ocean. Watching 100 or so tiny turtles racing to the water is one of life’s amazing experiences. The release dates and times are scheduled, visitors are welcome to come and watch.
The beaches on Tioman are blessedly quiet with the only sound to disrupt the lapping of the waves being the putt putt of dive or fishing boats as they do pick ups or return to shore. There are no jet skis, no water skiers and no crowds. We find Tekek to be super quiet but a couple we chat to have come from Juara where life is even more laid back, zzz. The local people are gracious and lovely, it is an island full of warmth.
Accomodation on the island is varied, from back pack to the more boujee resorts such as Japamala. Bearing in mind that with few roads or paths once you arrive at a destination it is not always easy to move around, we forego a resort and head to the village of Tekek where we can choose different cafes to suit our mood, shop at the few local convenience (beer) or duty free stores (wine) and generally have more flexibility. A high percentage of Malaysia has a strong Muslim faith and while you are able to buy alcohol on the island, some (not all) restaurants allow you to bring this with you and some request that empties are taken away. Restaurants do not sell alcohol themselves. We stay at The Station in Tekek, this is at the southern end of the beach, a mere 10 minute walk from the ferry terminal, it is so quiet and there are never more than a handful of others on the beach or in the water. Our beach front bure is basic but clean and all that we need with air con, a small fridge, hot shower and a lovely hammock on our front deck to sit and gaze at the silky white sand and post card blue water. The days are balmy, with clear skies, some breeze at times and probably sitting around the mid 30s (celsius). The air conditioning at night makes things comfortable.
Not prepared to give up all the comforts of home we soon find our local caffeine fix with Cabana cafe – they have an espresso machine. Breakfast at Cabana is varied with eggs all ways and the local Kaya toast (coconut jam). There is a music stand in a corner at Cabana so there may or may not be a night life, we were well tucked away in hammocks with our books by then, so oblivious to what evening entertainment may be on offer.
Coconuts are plentiful on the island and a refreshing coconut water easy to purchase. With the volume of small mango fruit hanging from above, I imagine mango season is extraordinary. Due to the lack of arable land, most produce makes it’s way from the mainland. The ferry from Mersing (we choose the Cataferry option) runs the 2 1/2 hour journey at least once a day, stopping at villages along the coast, Genting, Berjaya, Tekek, Air Batung (knows as ABC etc… Mersing itself is accessible by road from both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore with the latter usually being faster despite the slow ride through immigration. Drivers from Singapore are easy to find online.
While the roads and pathways on the island are minimal, there is a 4wd drive (not motorbike safe) from Tekek to Juara and motorbike from Tekek to Air Batung and Berjaya. Push bikes and motorbikes are available to hire. You can also hike across the island to Juara (3-4 hours) and get a “taxi” back again. We opt for a jungle walk in the middle of the island with local guide Ari. Although I was hoping for some excitement of spotting the much written about pythons and maybe a king cobra or even a mouse deer, our hike instead involved plenty of chameleons, butterflies, and some pretty jungle flowers.
You can imagine my disappointment after a hike to ABC (4.5km approx each way) to hear that python are almost always spotted in a the branches of trees hanging above a stream. So much so that a makeshift sign has been posted asking people not to throw objects hoping to rouse the sleeping giants. Despite no python spotting it is a lovely seaside walk and Mawar Beach Restaurant a good spot to stop for breakfast, lunch or a cool drink. Also take time to spot the flying fox hanging form the trees in the park at the northern end of Tekek.
On the whole, island food is pretty simple and we find the best to be Malaysian local dishes such as curries, seafood fried rice, sambal everything, fried squid, sizzling bean curd and endless plates of sauteed kang kung (water spinach) with garlic. Sarang Seafood (5 minutes walk away from the Station) quickly becomes our go to. The staff are lovely, the food quick to arrive and the flavours are good. There are recommended restaurants in ABC but aside from the gate closing between the villages as 7pm and not feellng that keen on cycling at night, we are relaxed and happy to wander to our local.
Our days quickly pass and it is time to head back to Singapore and a day later home. While there are so many places in the world to explore,it isn’t always an easy decision to return to a destination but we both agree this is somewhere we want to to return to. Would our young adult kids like it? Hmm not sure, you need to like reading to start with as there is only so much snorkelling and walking to do. :)
*whatsapp is essential for all communication so set this up before you.
*request a room with a refrigerator, great for drinks and also for any snacks you may want to bring along. Alcohol is super cheap on the island so no need to haul this across the water.
* The tropical water can be slightly deceiving to the untrained eye so for those that suffer badly from sea sickness then ask and ask again before doing the 4-5 hour Coral island snorkel tour (from personal experience). The water can be flat but it can also be rough.
* take insect repellant although the sandflies were not that bad.
* Reef friendly sunblock is the way to go and brands such as Skinnies is available both in Aus and NZ.
* If you have access to an underwater camera or go pro then take it as the photo opportunities would be magical. We didn’t have this.
*cash is easiest and there is a one machine in Tekek, our meals are on average about $25 NZ for two, Tiger Beer around $1.50 and a bottle of rose around $17. Our accomodation was approx $100 NZ per night for 2.