When it comes to sand, sun and sea, Thailand usually takes first spot in Southeast Asia. But why not dodge the crowds and head to Malaysia where the colourful islands of Penang, Tioman, Langkawi and the Perhentian await.

Malaysia truly Asia sounds Tourism Malaysia’s campaign designed to promote the country to the millions of travellers that arrive in Southeast Asia each year. And although Thailand reigns supreme when it comes to visitor numbers – largely due to some spectacular tropical islands – there is no shortage of island gems in neighbouring Malaysia. Here is our list of the best ones.

Penang

Oftentimes called The Pearl of the Orient, Penang has it all. A rich history that in a western context dates back to the island’s discovery by Captain Francis Light in 1786 but which from an Asian perspective dates back to much earlier times when it was a busy Chinese trading port. Over the years, Penang has been influenced by the rich and diverse cultures from the Chinese and the Indian to the Siamese, Dutch and of course the British. As a result, Penang is a cultural melting pot where the island’s rich history is evident in everything from the arts to heritage and food.

The cultural centre of Penang is Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage site, whose charm lies in its rich cultural make up where colonial architecture, built during British rule, stand next to traditional Chinese shophouses, original five foot ways and places of worship. The city also has a high concentration of Armenian and Peranakan influences.

For those looking for sea and sand, Penang also delivers. The area around Batu Feringghi on the northern part of the island features long stretches of white sand beaches and a number of high end beach resorts with all the services and amenities of a tropical paradise.

Langkawi

Known as Langkawi the Jewel of Kedah, Langkawi is actually an archipelago with more than 100 islands off the northwestern coast of Malaysia. The main attraction here, and the largest and most developed island by far, is Langkawi Island with its population of about 60,000 people. The island was for many years a backwater – legend has it the island was cursed by a woman who was executed for alleged adultery – until former prime minister Mahatir Mohamad decided to turn it into a luxury seaside resort in 1986. Later on, Langkawi became a duty free island, attracting hundreds of thousands of travellers every year.

One of the main attractions on Langkawi Island is the cable car that runs 2,200 metres up a mountain side. At the top, some 700 metres above sea level, the view of the archipelago is nothing short of spectacular and on a clear day Thailand is visible in the distance.

Tioman

Tioman has been on travellers’ radars since the 1970s when Time magazine named it one of the most beautiful islands in the world. The island’s main claim to fame is the abundance of natural beauty, with some of the most pristine beaches in Southeast Asia and dense forest. Not a lot of people live on the island permanently so there is little in the way of culture and most travellers come to this island gem for its natural attractions which include several excellent jungle treks, world-class scuba diving and cute little villages where locals run guesthouses and hotels. Tioman’s proximity to Singapore means the island can get busy on weekends and shorter holidays when city-dwellers seek the sun.

Perhentian

The laid back atmosphere on the Perhentians initially made it a big hit amongst backpackers but in recent years more and more regular travellers are making their way to this gem, located off the northeastern coast of Malaysia. The two main islands in the Perhentians are Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Perhentian Kecil, with Kecil catering more to backpackers with its cheap accommodation and Besar attracting families and those whose idea of a perfect holiday does not involve beach bars with reggae music.

Like Tioman, the main attraction on the Perhentians is the nature, with especially scuba diving being spectacular. There is little in the way of culture, but the beaches more than make up for it and when the sand grains get the better of you, hire a local fisherman to take you out to sea for a couple of hours.

Sipadan

Located off the coast of Malaysian Borneo in the state of Sabah, Sipadan is a bit of a mecca in the diving world. Every year, thousands of divers make the pilgrimage to this diving paradise. An oceanic island, Sipadan rises like a column from the bottom of the ocean some 1500 metres below which means its diverse ecosystem supports the life of more than 3000 species, including green and hawksbill turtles, enormous schools of barracuda, manta rays, eagle rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and the occasional whale shark. The uninhabited island is a protected site and only 120 divers are allowed each day so it’s important to book well in advance.


Tips:

  • Check out the street art in Georgetown and it’s worth planning your trip around the annual Georgetown Festival, held around July-August.
  • On Langkawi, make a trip to Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls, also known as The Seven Wells, named after the seven natural pools along its path.
  • It is impossible to stay at Sipadan but nearby Kapalai and Mabul have accommodation options. Book well in advance.

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Lisa Lee
Lisa has travelled extensively throughout Europa and Asia writing for a number of publications and travel websites. She is an experienced diving instructor and when she is not chasing rays and whale sharks in remote island destinations, she can be found roaming around major cities in search of good food and entertainment.