No-frills island time on Malaysia's Tioman

By Inger Vos

The world beneath its waters is the colourful attraction of this rough and raw tropical islet, writes Inger Vos.

Time to contemplate what to eat for dinner. Photo / 123RF
Time to contemplate what to eat for dinner. Photo / 123RF

Hidden behind the front door of our bungalow there's a small, colourful sign: "We are sorry to have to warn you to be careful of the fisherman. When they came ashore for mandi. As they sometimes steal from the balcony of the bungalow. Please check your possessions before going out for the day "

I found the sign a couple of days after the fishermen "came ashore for mandi" at the bungalow in Air Batang Village on Tioman Island, Malaysia.

Piled into a small dinghy they were, looking like they'd been offshore for weeks — not days — all gaping holes where teeth should be and leery faces, as I, big boobs squished into a bikini top, was about to go for a swim.

I dove under pretty quickly to avoid their stares; and a few of them threw themselves overboard, fully clothed in jeans and long sleeves despite the temperature being 30-plus degrees.

My partner, the Bald Pommy Bloke, helped rescue one of the more unfit of the motley crew, who was struggling to keep his head above water, bogged down by heavy denim and drinking in a fair amount of the South China Sea.

Their "mandi" was a pipe gushing fresh water sourced from the mountain rainforest that rose above and behind the village.

Later, we leaned on the railing of our balcony and watched them leave. They casually sauntered among the handful of bungalows on their way back to the beach.

Any chance of opportunism was lost under our gaze.

The fishermen are not the only thieves who might operate behind your back at ABC Chalet and Restaurant. On our first day on the island, we left a bowl of curry-flavoured chips on the balcony table while going for a quick dip to cool down. When we got back, the chips had vanished, bowl and all.

A large monkey on Tioman Island, Malaysia.
A large monkey on Tioman Island, Malaysia.

It took a fair amount of head scratching and questioning of sanity before a monkey was spotted over yonder, and the bowl eventually retrieved from beneath the balcony.

There were no signs warning about monkeys, but they became regular visitors, enticed by Bald Pommy Bloke handing out peanuts and other snacks.

Like most tourists, we visited Tioman Island — 20km long, 12km wide and 32km off the east coast of Malaysia, population 432, according to the 2008 Census — for its underwater world.

The island is surrounded by coral reefs, and all accommodation providers organise boat trips for snorkelling (about $30 for a day trip, per person), or you can laze, face down among the fishes, just off the beach.

Padi dive courses are in abundance, but I have a thing about having to take my face mask off underwater and didn't fancy sitting around in a thick wetsuit in the heat, let alone having to hit the books during a relaxing holiday. And there is something quite relaxing about making Darth Vader impersonations through a snorkel.

The snorkelling sites we visited — Renggis Island, Coral Island, Soyak Island, Marine Park, Monkey Bay and just off the beach at ABC — all threw up such an array of dazzling colour in fish and coral that my brain hurt after an hour or so in the water. Or it could have been that my face mask was on too tight.

Shark, sea snake, stingray, barracuda! I only knew the names of the fish that made my Darth Vader impersonations crank up a notch. Apart from Nemo and Dory.

Most tourists visit to explore the underwater world. Photo / Paul, Flickr
Most tourists visit to explore the underwater world. Photo / Paul, Flickr

We found green and hawksbill turtles in Tioman waters and reef sharks were always the order of the day; we could have watched them for hours.

The only thing that turned the underwater world into a not-so-tranquil experience was a boatload of tourists trying out snorkelling for the first time. With lifejackets on and heads above water, shrieking and laughing, they were oblivious that their flippers were chopping down towers of coral beneath the surface.

Thankfully though, it never gets crazy-touristy in Tioman. Four boats of about five or six people were the most we ever saw on our holiday.

Apart from snorkelling, our days in Tioman were filled with planning what to eat for our next meal.

A favourite was the fish sambal: succulent pieces of whatever was the fish of the day, fried and swimming in a hot, sweet, chilli sauce. The aroma of the spices cooking in the kitchen always set off a great coughing fit.

But we learned never to expect any of the restaurants to be open when we wanted them to be. Island time operates on Tioman, and kitchens and shops will close for the call to prayer from the local mosque, or for no rhyme or reason. It was common to see tourists wandering along the path of the village, looking for a place that was open so they could have something to eat.

Apart from eating and snorkelling, there is not a lot to do on Tioman.

There are barely any roads on the island, so the main way to get from village to village is by boat or to trek through the steamy jungle.

There is just one road across the island, between Tekek, the main village, and Juara Beach, and it's steep — a 45-degree incline in places. The locals have made good use of old car tyres to act as barriers on tight corners. You can catch a taxi to Juara from Tekek, but there is not much to do there either.

Air Batang has no roads, and the locals ply the one path along the shoreline on motorcycles with sidecars.

Yes, Tioman is a rough and ready island, no frills or bells or whistles. There are no swanky cafes or bars, or shops of any description — not even any selling tourist tat.

There is no shortage of dazzling fish and coral at the island's snorkelling sites. Photo / 123RF
There is no shortage of dazzling fish and coral at the island's snorkelling sites. Photo / 123RF

Apart from one big resort in the south, there are no swimming pools or sun loungers lined up on beaches.

There is an old digger on the beach at Air Batang — it's been deserted for more than a year, all rusted and going nowhere. And there are piles of old PVC piping, pyramids of shingle and builder's sand and an old, abandoned van, wheels off, that was once white but is now brightly graffitied with "Tioman", "Malaysia" and "Have a nice day".

The van sums up the essence of Tioman Island: bright, cheerful and rough.

Yet, look past the rough and the raw, the rubbish that can spill over into areas of no man's land, and there is a lot of beauty on this island: gorgeous bright flowers and tropical plants shaped into hedges border the paths at ABC.

We liked it so: the simplicity and no-frills.

Usually, the back-packer set breezes in and out in just a few days, so the accommodation owners were shocked that we wanted a bed for 10 nights.

"Are you a rich man?" asked Baha, whose family owns ABC Chalet and Restaurant and charges about $70 for an air-conditioned beachfront bungalow.

As a woman in Malaysia, expect to be ignored, even if you're the boss, the organiser, and in control of the purse strings on holiday. Malaysia is a Muslim country, after all, but thankfully, on Tioman, not too many of the locals are "good Muslims", according to Baha.

So showing a bit of skin isn't especially frowned upon, which is just as well on a tropical island where there is little to do besides swim — although there were two young Malaysian boys on holiday with their parents, their mum wearing a burqa, whose eyes nearly bugged out of their heads every time they saw me in my bikini. But that was about all the attention I got.

Also, because it is a Muslim country, alcohol is rarely served in any of the restaurants on Tioman. A large sign in Air Batang declares that any Muslim person buying, selling or drinking liquor will be liable for a fine of $1750, jailed for up to three years or get a whipping of no more than six strokes.

For the tourists, there is a duty-free shop in Tekek, run by a Chinese lady, and there are a couple of waterfront bars, knocked together from driftwood, which offer happy hour every evening — if they're open.

Sundown is the best time to sink an icy cold beer — or three or four — and watch the swallows and bats flit among the tops of the coconut trees, contemplating what's for dinner, and planning your next snorkelling trip.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.

A ferry service operates from Mersing and Tanjung Gemok, Malaysia. There are bus companies that operate a coach and ferry service from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Further information: See Tioman.com.my.

- NZ Herald

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