There Are Tropical Islands, And Then There’s Tioman

It might be a trek to get to Tioman, but the little Malaysian diving star rewards with reefs teeming with turtles and an utter disregard for clocks. By Jeninne Lee-St. John.

Jul 13, 2020

It takes forever to get to Tioman Island. It took the dragon princess who, the myth goes, was flying to visit her love in Singapore so long to cross the South China Sea that she set down to nap here and turned into the island. Slightly less dramatically, it took me 24 hours door-to-door from Hong Kong, requiring an overnight stop in Singapore before a car picked me up at 5 a.m. But even if you’re based in the Lion City or Kuala Lumpur, it’s a three- or five-hour drive respectively to the harbor at Mersing on the east coast of southern Malaysia, and then an up-to-two-hour ferry to Tioman.

For a few years you could catch a plane, but the island’s tiny airport has been shut for a while. That’s just as well. The famous dive sites have gotten increasingly crowded over the years, so there’s no need to step up accessibility. Besides, slow travel is so soothing, particularly when it’s purposeful. The very draw of Tioman is its diametric opposition to city life: its undisturbed slow lorises, colugos and endemic walking catfish, its bottlenose dolphins playing in clear-blue waters, its leeward-side string of small villages dotted by beach-hut hotels spread along beautiful shorelines fronting rainforest so thick and terrain so rocky that the easiest passage among them is boat-hopping along the crystalline coastline. After necessarily cultivating Zen during so much time at home, by the time the island reopens to tourism, we’ll all have a lot more patience—a trait Tioman rewards in even the most nonchalant of travelers.

The ferry times, in length of journey and hour of departure, depend on the tides and the seasons. And “time” on Tioman is a concept loosely applied—if for your trip back to the mainland the boat arrives, say, nine minutes ahead of schedule and you’re not yet on the pier, it’s haul ass or change your flight home til tomorrow. On any day during your lazy sojourn on the island your watch might read a loose interpretation of breakfast time, but hitting up the three restaurants on Salang Beach could confoundingly reveal that one or all of them were on an even more sluggish clock. “Party party last night,” the shirtless guy lounging in front of the pharmacist (also still closed) might volunteer by way of explanation. No, this is not a place for Swiss precision.

This is a place where I went over to Kelek town to pick up some duty-free booze and use the island’s sole ATM, and to hire a local boatman for a tour of the island. He tooled south past two more coves before I realized that his pace wasn’t just unhurried, but exaggeratedly so, and no it wasn’t because he was playing it safe for the tourist. Several SOS calls on his old 2G brick phone and a couple of nautical miles of putt-putt-puttering slowly south later and one of his friends with a properly working motor finally caught up. After spending half an hour suppressing the fear that any passing wake would capsize us and no one in the world would know, I then got to worry about—no, sorry, laugh off as a great adventure—climbing from one bitty boat to another in the middle of the open ocean.

Forty-five minutes later, I’d hiked to the top of Asah Waterfall. It was just a white-capped stream in dry season, which explained why I was the only person there, but it was still pretty, the sun glinting through the trees onto the wet butter-cookie-colored rocks. Back at the bottom, I petted an ebony kid—as in goat—on the beach belonging to the family of farmers whose front yard bled into the glassy bay, which I swam in to cool off before returning to my waiting boatman. Legit trekkers can hire a guide for an aggressive three-day hike through the wildlife reserve to the summit of inactive volcano Gunung Kajang. Sailing past its cloud-capped twin peaks, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could scale its sheer rock faces.

The impenetrability of much of Tioman is one reason its protected species like bearcats, mouse-deer and only-on-Mount-Kajang slender litter frogs remain safe, and why small-scale conservation work are effective. Juara Turtle Project (volunteer program from RM700 per week), based on the one habitable cove on the east side, monitors and protects green- and hawksbill-turtle hatcheries around the island and conducts releases of baby turtles a few meters before the tideline as soon as they hatch to best simulate natural conditions. Likewise, super-eco Japamala Resort (doubles from RM954) does its best to blend.

You know a hotel is going to be awesome when it manifested during a rave. Back in the early aughts, founder Federico Asaro, who had run dive cruises for a decade, was in Tioman for a full-moonish festival on the beach. “The party was really boring,” he told me, “so I went off staggering through the jungle and came upon this derelict site.” He created what’s now a 16-key luxury–tree house resort without cutting any trees or displacing any boulders; the buildings are made of recycled wood, the fixtures hand-carved by craftsmen on the island, and, in lieu of paint, walls are decorated by mixing sand and twigs with cement (it’s classier than it sounds). The plastic-free resort doesn’t import any of the food in its three restaurants (“You will not have a truffle here”). Biodegradable toiletries and other amenities in the hillside chalets and beach villas are locally made and rooted in Malay traditions. “Guests have to live among the animals,” Federico said, and if he weren’t so charming it would feel less like a promise than a threat. “Docile pythons will wrap around the chairs and the staff will have to remove them and place them on a tree.”

Japamala’s signature feature is its long pier jutting out westward over the sea. Aside from its practical purpose as the landing spot for the resort’s good-looking boats (private surf-and-turf transfers are available all the way to Singapore and KL), with its seafood grill and daybeds, it’s the perfect place to partake of the complimentary sunset cocktails. “Wellness is about copious amounts of wine,” Federico told me (though, there is an Ayurvedic spa, too). No wonder 40 percent of their guests are repeats and some of their regulars come for a month at a time.

They’ve fallen for the magic of Tioman’s lush far-flungness. A magic that even cuts through the crowds you might find at the most popular dive sites up north, little barrier islets and reefs and mangrove forests, caves and wrecks, too. I went out with Salang Bay Divers —who, during my visit, were working on an all-natural coral rehab program with Ocean Quest Global—several times. A great thing about Tioman is its options: you can strap on a tank and walk into the ocean from the beach or down the steps of the jetty, or hop a boat to an offshore site.

On a single day, my dive boat was encircled by a pod of dolphins who splashed around us for some 10 minutes, then we docked in a clear shallow cove and snorkeled in the mangroves with a black-tip reef shark; later, I swam into Salang Bay for a golden-hour dive that ended with a surprise encounter with a hawksbill turtle. When the ferry back to Mersing arrived nine minutes early the next morning, I had a serious debate with myself as to whether to run for it. I wasn’t ready to reset my clock.

Inspiration

There Are Tropical Islands, And Then There’s Tioman

It might be a trek to get to Tioman, but the little Malaysian diving star rewards with reefs teeming with turtles and an utter disregard for clocks.