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…

Malaysia’s lesser known highlights: Cameron Highlands

Our second trip to Malaysia included returns 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.

What was definitely true of our time in Malaysia is that the pace slowed considerably as we started to gear ourselves up, both mentally but also in starting to make real plans, for our return to New Zealand. Thus, four stops in three weeks felt like a good pace to set. So much has been written about the enjoyable albeit slightly chaotic capital KL, and the wondrous historic, culinary jewel of Penang. I thought it would be more interesting to focus on our treks to lesser known locales.

After a wonderfully social six nights in Penang, reacquainting ourselves with its history-rich streets and making new friends, we headed up to the centre of tea production in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands. In an ‘only on the road’ kinda story, we walked into our hostel and right into the Germans we had meet in Georgetown. So we extended the social vibes for a couple more nights…

It’s pretty much mandatory to do some kind of tour while in town, and there are many options for different combinations of the area’s many different attractions: tea plantations, strawberry farms, look out points, an ancient mossy forest, and so on. We lucked out and scored a knowledgeable, friendly, and very funny Punjabi guide (self-described, interestingly, but actually second generation Malaysian-born).

Coming from a country with both strawberries and plenty of forests, and having done tea in India, and seen it again in Sri Lanka, the tour was really just a ‘something to do’ choice, but I’m really glad we did. Nick brought the area alive, explaining the history of tea in the region, as well as offering a lot of additional hot-takes and commentary about Malaysia for free!

John Russell, son of a British administrative officer, brought tea to the area in the 1920s, when he bought a large tract of land and established the still functioning Boh plantation, now run by his granddaughter. From this time, it became a popular summer retreat for British elite types, and is now even more popular among local tourists – for the same reasons – as well as Japanese retirees (remembering that Japan occupied Malaya during the final four years of WWII).

You never see the Japanese retirees, they keep to themselves; by contrast locals were everywhere, especially as it was an end-of-Ramadan new year holiday weekend when we were in town!

The original South Indian labourers have largely left tea now, moving into other business and agricultural interests, and some have done very well. Sadly, they have been replaced by cheaper new migrants from Bangladesh. Our jolly guesthouse owner, the (grand)daughter of one of those original migrants, laughed when she told us that the Chinese tourists have not discovered Cameron yet, as there are no shopping malls here!

Aside from tours, the Highlands are known as a walker’s delight, offering a large number of tracks and treks, of varying length and difficulty, for visitors to undertake (or not) at will.

On our first day, we hiked up to the top of track number ten, offering us views back down and across the Highlands. Interestingly, we were met outside of our hostel by a local dog, who started following us, and seemingly knowing exactly where we were going, proceeded to lead us all the way to the top of the track.

We decided that that’s what local dogs do, and there were a number about: play tour guide for tourists, get in their daily exercise, and nine times out of ten, get fed as a reward. Unfortunately, we literally didn’t have anything edible with us, although had decided we’d find something to feed him once we got back down. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to wait that long, and ditched us at the top for another couple that’d come along. Charming!

On our last day we took the opposite approach, walking down track nine to find a waterfall – fairly lame – and continuing down towards a reservoir and power station. We didn’t quite realise how much down was involved, and were at the point of deciding whether to continue (whether our knees could handle it) when the heavens literally opened and, within minutes, we were soaked through. So it ended up being a jungle trek scramble back to the top. The waterfall was at least a little more interesting on the return!

We also ate a lot of curry. A lot. It was cold.

If the Highlands were cold and jam-packed with local tourists (see what I did there), then Tioman Island was the polar opposite: summer daze, stunning, and largely empty.

To be continued…