Tioman Island: Malaysia’s refreshing alternative to Thai party islands.
A few years ago on a trip around Malaysia and Thailand I decided to experience first hand some of the ever popular Thai islands that were renowned for their paradise like beauty and atmosphere, choosing to head to Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Despite the water being turquoise and the beaches stunning I soon came to realise that these islands were not the epitome the tropical paradise that I had envisioned. Although their party atmospheres were fun, they were just yet more places that had lost their uniqueness and peaceful spirits to mass tourism, with only tie-dye t-shirts, plastic buckets of cheap alcohol and neon paint left to fill the gap.
As it turns out, the tropical paradise I was searching for on the Thai islands I found just further down the coast in Malaysia. Malaysia has a whole host of unsung little postcard worthy islands, overshadowed by the popularity of Thailand but offering just the same beautiful scenery and a less touristy experience, which really drums home that popular is by no means better.
The thing I loved most about staying on Tioman Island compared to the Thai islands was how blissfully underdeveloped it still was, being a holiday destination for only locals and a minority of backpackers. Commercialism had not yet taken a hold on Tioman, so there were no annoying touts on the beaches trying to flog you fake sunglasses or people pushing you to eat at their restaurant, making it the perfect place to get some real escapism from the rest of the world for a little while.
Don’t get me wrong, the beaches on the Thai islands were beautiful, but the traces left behind by the beach parties and the persistent sales pitches of taxi boats, jewellery and drinks by the locals made them lose a bit of their shine. On the other hand all the beaches on Tioman Island were not only extremely beautiful, but also very peaceful and very much left how nature intended. It’s actually where I found one of my favourite beaches I’ve ever been to so far, Monkey Beach. Sat away from the villages in a completely uninhabited part of the island and only reached by boat or by trekking through the jungle, Monkey Beach was the epitome of a tropical desert island beach, with turquoise water, beautiful yellow sand and no civilisation in sight (except for the odd monkey).
Things to do
Okay now I know that Koh Phangan and Koh Samui are not exactly hot spots for diving and snorkeling unlike their sister island Koh Tao, so naturally Tioman Island was going to be better on this one. That said, the diving and snorkeling on Tioman was very good. As a protected nature reserve, it’s shores are filled with extensive coral reefs, colourful fish and other marine life, with lots of trips available so you can go and explore.
Trekking however was something all three of my islands had to offer. On both Thai islands I found the walking routes were a lot more developed, they had sign posts and were frequented by more people. Where as on Tioman Island it was just you and the jungle with the general instruction to not stray too far from the power cables that marked a faint path through the foliage. Trekking gave me a great feeling of adventure and was also a good way get away from the sun and the beaches for a day, although I enjoyed trekking on all the islands I did enjoy it on Tioman a bit more as it was a more of a rugged and authentic experience.
As Malaysia is a much more of multi cultural country, the food options are a lot more diverse compared to Thailand. Both countries offer amazing and delicious food, but I preferred the choice that Malaysia offered, with Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian dishes being common place on all menus, as opposed to Thailand where it was mainly just Thai – something that stretched to the islands I visited also.
With the rise in popularity of Thailand’s islands among international tourists, the price of everything has risen too, so these places now seem expensive for South East Asia. Whereas Tioman island has not seen such inflation with food, activities and accommodation is still really cheap, meaning it is a great island alternative for those on a budget and was great for me as a backpacker as my money went further.
As Tioman Island was less developed, without even any proper roads connecting the different villages, there was also a lot more wildlife around the island. On the Thai islands the most wildlife I saw was the hostel owners cat, whereas on Tioman we had a family of chickens living under our beach hut, prehistoric like monitor lizards lounging around in the villages’ rivers, and monkeys swinging among the trees. As well as being interesting to watch, I loved seeing that the people here still shared the island with these animals rather than pushing them out with concrete and bricks.
I’m not saying that all Malaysian islands are better than Thai ones, and that there will be Thai islands out there which will offer a completely different experience than that of Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Plus if you want somewhere with a busy nightlife then Thailand definitely has much more to offer you. But if you are looking for a less touristy experience, something more authentic and adventurous or if you are on a bit more of a budget, I would really consider not just Tioman island but any of Malaysia’s little hidden islands instead, it might just be the best thing you ever do.