Best time to go: April to July. November to February is monsoon season.
Duration: 3-4 days ideally
Travel time: 4.5 hours – 6 hours (can be longer!)
Tioman is the largest of the islands off Malaysia’s east coast which also include Pulau Besar, Pulau Rawa, Pulau Sibu and Batu Batu as well as a whole lot more.
Despite being 39 km long and 12km wide, it has few permanent inhabitants largely because of the dense rainforest covering the majority of the entire island.
Instead, there are small villages (Kampongs) situated at various points along its coast, which have become a haven for local and international tourists looking to enjoy the island’s best assets – its beautiful coral, abundant marine life and white sandy beaches. There are even some ship wrecks for the scuba enthusiasts – leftover remnants from both the British and Japanese Navy, who operated around there during the Second World War. All of this is set against the lush greenness of the tropical jungle background.
You won’t find the Shangri La, Grand Hyatt or any other major hotel operator on Tioman however. Like the other islands nearby, Tioman is made up of small Malaysian-owned resorts. You can still find a luxurious retreat but it will be independent and boutique – one of the things that makes Tioman stand out from other Malaysian destinations like Langkawi or Kota Kinabalu.
We visited during the Easter long weekend in April 2017. We had been to Pulau Sibu and Pulau Besar the previous year so had a fair idea of what to expect but we were still excited to get there. Part of the reason for going back to this group of islands is you don’t need to get on aeroplane to get there so you can literally be on a paradise-like beach within a few hours from leaving Singapore. And for some islands, you can even escape for a normal weekend without having to take any time off.
Tioman, though, involves a bit of a longer journey and traveling on a public holiday has its drawbacks, as we were to find out for ourselves.
Getting to Tioman from Singapore
There are a few different options for getting to Tioman (normally a shared van or hiring a private driver) but they all involve crossing the Singapore-Malaysia border and driving to Mersing where you get a boat to Tioman. Which means what time you choose to leave Singapore is a critical factor in deciding which option to go for.
As we were leaving after work on the Thursday before Good Friday, we knew the traffic at the border crossings was going to be crazy busy with cars and bus loads of people going home for the public holiday as well as people like us looking to escape Singapore for the weekend.
So after doing a quick Google search, we found a ferry which left Changi Ferry Terminal at 8pm and arrived at Tanjung Belangkor at 8.30pm where there was little or no queue for immigration and customs checks. You can book a return ticket for $39 on the Tanjung Belungkor website.
We weren’t in any hurry to get to Mersing so we decided to give it a go. We booked a driver to collect us from Tanjung Belungkor ferry terminal to take us to Mersing, where we booked a local hotel for around $30. We had reserved tickets for the first ferry to Tioman at 0930 the next morning, meaning we could be at the resort, and more importantly, on the beach by Friday lunchtime.
Miraculously, all the ferries and boats went on time (by no means guaranteed!) and we were actually on the beach by 11.30am. Yet it still felt like a bit of a trek to get there, for what was effectively just 2 nights on Tioman island. But after we spoke to other guests who’d traveled from Singapore by bus and private car, we felt a bit vindicated in our efforts as their journey had taken twice as long as ours had.
Mersing to Tioman is more straightforward and you can take the public ferry, which departs three times a day. There is only one ferry company – the Bluewater Express – and you can book tickets directly on their website or through one of their official ticket providers (we used easybook.com). It can still be a bit crazy at Mersing jetty, and often frustratingly confusing so even if you’ve pre-booked your tickets, give yourself plenty of time to work your way through it!
Where to stay and what to do in Tioman
Compared with Besar, Sibu or Rawa, there is a much wider range of accommodation on Tioman to suit different budgets. From backpacker accommodation; beach huts and cottages to luxurious rustic resorts and a whole range of mid-range resorts in between.
Having not had a weekend away for a few months (I know, we shouldn’t really complain) we opted for the latter. We stayed at the Japamala Resort – a tiny resort made up of just 13 villas and chalets – a mixture of seafront, cliff edge and treetop accommodation.
The resort offered the same excursions and activities as everywhere else in Tioman – the favourites being a tour of the island (which usually lasts the whole day); trips to explore the Renggis islands and the Asah waterfalls (rumored to have featured in the movie South Pacific); snorkeling and scuba adventures; and even jungle treks to see the local wildlife.
With only two days on the island, we decided just to chill out and relax at the resort. The Japamala has some beautiful clear waters and decent coral just off its beach so we didn’t have to venture far to see the marine life that Tioman is famous for. We even spotted a tiny shark although we were gutted not to find a sea turtle.
Other than that, we lay on the beach, read a book, kayaked, had a few cocktails and got caught up in island life. Read our ultimate hotel review of the Japamala Resort.
As the restaurants at Japamala close around 10pm and the nearest village is a 45 minute trek through the jungle, there wasn’t much partying or nightlife for us, although we could probably have found some if we’d really wanted to in one of the bigger Kampongs. But we were pretty happy to be tucked up in bed by 10.30pm every night.
If you want to escape for a beach weekend at a resort like the Japamala Resort then two nights is enough but if you want to properly explore the island, give yourself 3-4 nights to let you unwind and relax and do the excursions.
If you live in Singapore, be more organised and get a flight out of Singapore to enjoy a public holiday weekend and come to Tioman any other time. Queues at Changi airport are so much more organised than the road crossings.
Avoid the border crossing queues by taking an extra afternoon off and cross the border before peak times and stay an extra night and come back on the Monday as opposed to a Sunday. Or ideally if you’re just visiting Singapore, go midweek (Mon-Thurs) and escape the queues all together!
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