Coasting the islands
Time Out Malaysia gives you the low-down on the best islands on either side of Peninsular Malaysia. Each isle offering everything from crystal clear waters and beach bars to Unesco sites and a relaxing time
Most countries are divided by physical boundaries – state lines, weather patterns, deserts or bodies of water. But divides go far deeper than that, where it concerns culture, history, religion and patterns of immigration. In the United States, for instance, the west coast has a different lifestyle from the east coast due to later immigration and warmer weather. The same can be said for many European and Asian countries where people from the north and south have different accents and levels of education, sometimes even looking different.
Likewise, in Peninsular Malaysia, there’s a marked difference between the east and west coast, and this is obvious in how the islands have developed and what they offer travellers.
Langkawi Come here for Superb resorts, Unesco Geopark, duty-free booze
Located in the northern state of Kedah, Langkawi is part of an archipelago of 99 islands and still has the ambience of a sleepy Malay village. The sea isn’t crystal clear and it can get crowded, but it has its own charm and the beaches are lovely, dotted with bars and cafés offering the cheapest alcohol in the country, which is very attractive to a large percentage of visitors.
Another big attraction is its status as a Unesco Geopark encompassing virgin rainforest and mangroves teeming with wildlife, as well as ancient rock formations, the oldest of which rose from the sea 500 million years ago. It’s no wonder that hotels like The St. Regis, Four Seasons and The Westin have set up shop here. And if a luxury resort isn’t your thing, there are quaint huts on the beach and boutique establishments to suit every level of comfort.
Penang Come here for Wonderful food, Unesco World Heritage Site, durian
If you’re looking for the idyllic tropical holiday, Penang is not it. Sadly, the sea leaves a lot to be desired and if you stay at a beach resort, the pool is your best bet for water activities.
But visitors don’t come here for a typical tropical getaway; they come to immerse themselves in the vibrant heart of George Town – its fascinating history, from the early 17th century traders to being the first British colony in Southeast Asia, has created a destination that appeals to all the senses.
Stay in a quirky heritage hotel, go on a durian plantation tour, cycle around George Town for a closer look at the funky street art and beautiful old buildings. Later, hit every hawker stall to taste centuries of nutritional amalgamation.
Pulau Pangkor Laut Come here for Tranquillity, family time, spa treatments
Within easy driving distance from Kuala Lumpur are two islands – Pulau Pangkor and Pulau Pangkor Laut. The larger of the two, Pangkor is a living island with fishing villages and a sizeable population. Pangkor Laut, on the other hand, is privately owned and only has one hotel on it, the Pangkor Island Resort with its lush chalets built over the water and private beach.
There’s nothing much to do here which is exactly why people come. And while it’s visually arresting, it lacks the island soul people want when on holiday.
Perhentian Islands Come here for Diving, island life, chilling out
There are two of them here – Besar (big) and Kecil (small) – and they’re on every traveller’s list of must-visit islands. These are the stars of the banana pancake trail with their huts, beautiful views, beach bars and dive shops.
There’s no culture, history or town to visit. The locals are there for the sole reason of perpetuating the business of tourism. Perhentian Besar is quieter and attracts a mature crowd and families, while Kecil is backpacker central.
Pulau Tenggol Come here for Diving, getting away from it all
Tenggol isn’t on the mass travel radar yet as it’s a small, underdeveloped island located at the far end of Terengganu Marine Park. This is the perfect example of an East Coast island – unassuming and stunning.
Diving is the biggest activity and the marine life here is phenomenal – whale sharks pass by in March, April, September and October as part of their migratory routes. Accommodation is limited and very basic; nightlife non-existent.
Pulau Rawa Come here for Seclusion, romance, private beach parties
This tiny island is an anomaly and located on the east coast of the state of Johor, which isn’t actually an East Coast state. Privately owned by the Johor sultanate, there are only two resorts there meaning only a limited number of people can visit at a time.
There is literally nothing here – no shops, bars, restaurants, dive schools. All you can do here is swim, snorkel, tan, take short walks, read a book and nap. The water is super clear, the sand ridiculously white, and if there was an island that made the east versus west coast divide seem so wide, this would be it.
You can see whale sharks swimming by on their migratory routes along Pulau Tenggol