- Posted June 7, 2013 by
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Pulau Tioman, Malaysia's Paradise Island
Of the string of 64 volcanic islands that collectively are known as the Seri Buat Archipelago, Pulau Tioman, part of Pahang Marine Park, off Peninsular Malaysia’s East Coast, is by far the largest. Not to mention the most stunning. So magnificent is Tioman’s setting that in the 1950’s it was the location for the Hollywood musical South Pacific.
This reef-fringed jungle-covered island has since evolved from movie set to virtually uninhabited back-packer haunt in the early 1980’s, to the popular idyllic holiday island it is now.
Today, Tioman boasts 6 distinct villages, all but one served by their own jetty. In addition, there’s a pleasure yacht marina and a basic airport for the one airline that operates here. And a new resort is completed along its sandy coastline each year.
Yet, none of these developments has in any way diminished Tioman’s status as the de facto holiday paradise location for Singaporeans and Malaysians. In fact, Europeans, Australians and Americans, too, are now making their way to Tioman, after their countries’ respective Survivor-type reality shows have, at one point or another, been recorded near Tioman.
I was one of the 1980’s backpackers. In those early days, the journey from Malaysia’s mainland sea town of Mersing was undertaken by bumboat, a languorous 5 hour crossing. After wading ashore, you’d be awaited by smiling sarong-clad villagers, who’d then lead you to your A-frame “room”.
Back then, our Tioman weekends usually consisted of swimming and snorkeling in a pristine coral-peppered sea, feasting on tropical fruit and endless marveling at this breathtaking edge-of-the-world oasis.
Fast-forward 30 years and Tioman’s main draw is the same pristine coral-peppered sea. To be sure, over the years, the various coral reefs found here have waxed and waned, the result of periodic bleaching episodes, due to fluctuating water temperatures and other factors. But this year (2013), the resilient coral reefs have been staging an especially dramatic growth-spurt. Their bright colors have returned in full, and by sheer surface area too, their bounce back has been impressive, undoubtedly the direct result of the foresight of Mr. Abdul Jamal Mydin, who, in 2010, as director general of Malaysia’s Department of Marine Parks, ordered Tioman's main reefs to be closed down for a season when it was clear these were under environmental stress.
It's a decision that has since paid dividends; In April of this year, when I visited Pulau Renggis, one of Tioman's better-known reef sites, the coral gardens were as radiant and rich as I'd ever seen them. Coupled with the near-30 meter visibility of the sea water, it's easy to see why Tioman is such a haven for the countless scuba divers and snorkelers that pack the fast-ferry plying the Mersing-Tioman waters daily.
But Tioman offers another natural treasure: its lush tropical jungle. In fact, Tioman is one of the few places in the world where you can spend the morning reveling in a turquoise-colored sea, followed by hiking through a verdant rainforest after lunch.
Jungle trekking and hiking have been gaining popularity in Tioman ever since the elusive Rafflesia flower was discovered here. But apart from Rafflesia, there’s another reason why Tioman’s jungle is drawing hikers from far.
When I ventured into Tioman's ages-old jungle, I felt like I'd stepped into Jurassic Park. This is as untouched a jungle as you'll ever get to experience. Its sights, sounds and smells lend it an almost prehistoric feel. From the odd-looking trees, armed with foot-long spikes, to the incessant din emanating from the cicadas in the canopies overhead, to the gravid musky air that envelops you, the entire place breathes a throwback primordial atmosphere.
Days after my hike, I learned that scientific expeditions to Tioman’s rainforest are still discovering hitherto unknown and endemic species of flora and fauna to this day. I was only half-surprised. Interestingly, many of these newly-discovered species display more similarities with their distant cousins in Borneo than those in Peninsular Malaysia, testament to Tioman's long tectonic history and a time the island was still connected to Borneo's mass.
Naturally, visitors keen to recharge their batteries by simply lounging by the resort pool, or getting pampered at the spa, can also get their fix in Tioman, because the island's kampongs, the Malay villages, have retained their laid-back tropical island charm and traditional service.
No matter what your preference, accommodations and budgets run the full gamut here, from traditional shacks built by locals, to high end boutique retreats run by Malaysian hospitality professionals.
And since kite-surfing, windsurfing, kayaking and angling are on offer in Tioman too, you’ll unlikely be for want of things to do.
If CNN voted Tioman’s East Coast in the World's 100 Best Beaches list, then it's safe to say that Pulau Tioman truly is Paradise Island.