Discovering the best of both worlds on a Malaysian holiday isle
By Melanie Lee
Photographs by Darren Soh
From the window of the arriving Berjaya Air turboprop, Tioman does indeed look like the slumbering dragon princess who, legend has it, was so enchanted by these warm, calm waters that she transformed herself into an island. Her dark green scales turned into Tioman’s lush rain forest; her talons into the granite boulders that pepper the shoreline; and her horns became the twin limestone spires of Mount Nenek Semukut, around which the smoke she contentedly exhales appears as swirls of cloud and mist.
Like the dragon princess, I, too, am captivated by the sparkling turquoise shallows that greet me as I walk down the JapaMala resort’s long wooden jetty. I can see pink corals and spiky sea urchins swaying serenely on the seabed below as multihued fish dart about like random firework sparks; I even spot a baby shark. When I finally get to the reception area, resident manger Aruni Sutchai chuckles at the incredulous expression on my face. “That’s why I tell everybody—Tioman has the best beaches in Southeast Asia.”
Located on the island’s southwest coast, the rustic-luxe JapaMala is one of only two Relais & Châteaux properties in Malaysia (the other is Villa Samadhi in Kuala Lumpur, part of the same group). Lanting Beach and the private cove it fronts are among the highlights of a stay here. Every morning after breakfast, what seems to be the majority of guests file down to the shore and stake their claim to a patch of sand, there to remain until the sun goes down. I’ve always been too restless for this sort of thing, but at the JapaMala, I’m seduced. I end up staying on the beach for most of the day, if only for easy access to the gin-clear sea and its teeming array of marine life.
A 12,000-hectare island off the southeast shores of the Malay Peninsula, Tioman is generally regarded as a diver’s haven. Since I don’t dive, it remained off my radar until a friend told me that Tioman served as a location for the 1958 film version of South Pacific, and that back in the 1970s, Time magazine ranked it among the world’s most beautiful islands. Clearly, I was overdue for a visit.
It doesn’t take long to understand Tioman’s allure. The largest of 13 islands in Mersing Marine Park, Tioman is covered in virgin rain forest that tumbles down to shoreline inhabited by fewer than 3,000 people. In 1972, more than 60 percent of its land was gazetted as a protected wildlife reserve. As such, Tioman retains that quintessential back-to-nature vibe that few tourist beach spots in Southeast Asia possess today.