Malaysia’s lesser known highlights: Tioman Island

Our second trip to Malaysia included a return to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, while adding on the perhaps lesser known Cameron Highlands and Tioman Island to our collection of experiences. They are places at the opposite ends of multiple scales: one featuring tea plantations and a cool climate, the other a chillaxed tropical island far removed from the mainland pulse. Part one, covering the Cameron Highlands, is here.

According to legend, Tioman was formed when a Chinese dragon princess was flying over the area, on her way to see the Singaporean prince she was in love with. A sudden storm forced her to seek refuge, and she noticed a beautiful area in the crystal blue waters of the South China Sea.

She lay down and, when she awoke, found beautiful fish swimming in and around her legs, animals taking shelter on her body, and travellers relaxing on her belly. Charmed by what she had created, she decided she wanted to remain there forever, rather than locked up in a palace, and thus transformed herself into an island.

Tioman today retains this sense of charm. It is pulse arresting, and we felt the rhythm slow, right, down, as soon as we landed. This is not an island dense with resorts, international brands, and mass tourism; most everything is locally owned and tourism is real-time island styles.

Because islands are disconnected from mainland/large(r)-scale resource networks, their finite boundaries force a certain innovativeness and a more take-it-as-it-comes approach into the local culture. You can’t get uptight about things that are just not feasible, or cannot be dialed up quickly.

We based ourselves in Tetek, Tioman’s most populous kampung (village), which really doesn’t mean anything. It’s on a part of the island that has the only road extending north and south a little way, and over the island to the other side. It also has an ‘airport’. Beyond that it’s forested tracks and boats in and out only.

We hired bikes to explore the road, taking us up to Air Batang, which is more popular with backpackers, and then south passed one of the island’s big resorts, which was so eerily empty it looked like the setting for a Hitchcock-meets-the tropics movie!

All of this was achieved at pace set ‘very slow’, an alluringly hypnotic state.

At our southern terminus, passed the end of the sealed road and onto dirt track, we were rewarded with an hour or so at our very own tropical beach. No bungalows, no shops, no traffic, no people. Total seclusion. If ever there was a Robinson Crusoe moment, this was it!

Later that night, 4am to be precise, our slumber was disrupted by a sudden howling wind. It quickly transformed into a wickedly terrifying storm of intense rain and lightning that literally flashed across the sky, illuminating the darkness below in bursts of menacing silver light.

I sat outside and watched the show, the low low tide making it look like we were waiting for a giant wave to come rushing in. I can’t tell whether I was excited or scared, or whatever the word might be that describes both at the same time.

However, it’s not desert island adventures that brings people to Tioman, it’s those crystal teal waters that first attracted the dragon princess. Today, people come here to snorkel and dive in amongst her legs, now transformed into coral reefs that encircle the island and teem with colourful and vibrant life. Pick a spot, any spot, and you’re guaranteed a good time.

Our pulse was set so slow that, in fact, we couldn’t bring ourselves to dial-it-up and do much more while around. Swim, snorkel; swim, snorkel. We did manage an above-water kayak on our last day; paddling out to a small islet and returning with yet another stellar sunset at our side.

Our last evening also provided the trip’s humourous highlight. We met Bernie, the drunk German, who regaled us with his story of visiting New Zealand forty years ago (!!!), and being lured off the Auckland-Wellington train at Palmerston North by a pretty lass who, it transpired, already had a boyfriend. His three-day stay there, possibly/probably drinking with gang members, is certainly emblazoned on his memory, and he returned to our fair isles a further three times.

Before he gets too old, he wants to bring his wife to visit the place he calls the best travel experience of his life. We promised we’d take him back to P North, and see if we can find that boyfriend, Skip, with the cobra tattoo up his neck. New Zealand being the half-a-degree of separation type of place that it is, I bet we could do it, too! Activate the Kiwi grapevine…

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