|Nazri’s Place, Air Batang, Tioman Island.
This time exactly two weeks ago I was in the middle of a sweat-drenched 10-kilometre walk on an island Time Magazine once described as one of the 10 most beautiful in the world. Sure, that title was bestowed back in the 70s and Malaysia’s Tioman Island has dined out on it ever since, but wouldn’t you?
I’d actually set out on-foot in search of a pharmacy to buy some rehydration salts having suffered a bit of heat-stroke with the previous day’s 10k jungle trek over the island’s mountainous interior. Wise man that I am, when I found only a closed clinic in the main town of Tekek (30 minutes walk from the village Air Batang / ABC where I was staying) I decided to keep walking in the midday sun. Heading south and doing my best to not properly recover from the heat-stroke and dehydration, I wanted to see what some of the island’s other beaches, bays, villages and resorts looked like.
Not that my patch of Tioman wasn’t good enough. This visit was somehow my fourth going back to 2008, all staying at Nazri’s Place on the southern tip of Air Batang. I’d become like the tourists I used to / still make fun of: the people who keep going back to the same spot year after year. Why not check out new places!? My defense is that I still explore countries and locations I’ve never been, it’s just that Tioman (and Nazri’s in particular) has – almost against my will – got me hooked. And even if I keep coming back, at least I always make sure I discover new parts of this incredible island.
Speaking of which, charging through the mild-nausea of over-exerting myself two-days in a row in the equatorial heat, I saw for the first time the beauty of the small private beach at the Berjaya Resort golf course and found an eerie condo / resort that looks only a couple of quiet years away from being reclaimed by the jungle. Best of all, I started walking down a dirt jungle path towards a turtle sanctuary I’d heard about but never previously reached.
Bumping into two Kiwis on the way, they gave me their stick, warned me of the excitable monkeys and pointed me in the right direction. They were correct – the monkeys didn’t really want to budge from the middle of the path so a protective stick came in handy as I made my way through the lowland jungle towards one of Tioman’s countless deserted, white-sand beaches. No turtles in sight in the middle of the day, but their tracks clearly were visible on the beach. I forgot any whiff of ill-health, whipped out my snorkel, jumped in the sea and reminded myself of my occasional great fortune.
|The beach at Nazri’s Place.
And days like that are really what Tioman is all about. It’s an island big enough that there are always new beaches, new coral reefs, new mountains and new wilds of jungle to discover. And yet the island is small enough (136 square kilometres of dense, oversized tropical jungle, fringed by 245 kilometres of coastline) that you’re not overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving the stretch of sand you’re staying at.
That stretch of sand is specific for me: from the restaurant at Nazri’s Place to the rocky headland that separates Air Batang village from Tekek village. This patch can’t be more than 80-odd metres, but while I never stop searching for the next amazing beach to visit, I’ve found the beach I want to stay at: soft sand, swaying palms and casuarina trees, the Sunset pizza bar with the best pizzas I’ve had in Asia and good snorkeling right off the beach. They even let you choose the music as you watch the sun go down and chat with fellow travellers about adventures had and to come.
Nazri’s Place is firmly in the 2-star category, which for Air Batang actually makes it quite fancy. Air-conditioned rooms, hot showers and some rooms with TVs and mini-bars! But that’s part of the charm of this very relaxed, very Malay village. You walk the two kilometres of Air Batang’s coastline and pass photogenic chalets with unpretentious names like Mokhtar’s Place, My Friend’s Place, Mawar’s Place and just to mix it up, YP Chalets. None of the accommodation is flash – indeed much of it is very basic – but it seems to attract some of the most approachable tourists I’ve met anywhere in the world. Not many Kiwis, but a handful of Aussies, plenty of Brits and lots of German, Dutch, Danish, Spanish and Belgian tourists who are drawn to Tioman Island and in particular, Air Batang.
So why Air Batang and why Tioman instead of more glamourous islands like the Perhentians or the more developed, easier to get to islands like Langkawi or those found further afield in Thailand? It’s almost as if the Malaysian government doesn’t know what to do with Tioman. It’s natural beauty is so remarkable that years ago they encouraged tourists by making it duty-free and wasting a ton of money on a bland concrete boardwalk and an almightily soulless marina at Tekek – the island’s main town but a place few tourists ever stay. It’s also sad to see the naturally striking bay and village of Salang blighted by the crappiest-looking two-storey food-court in the history of crap-looking food-courts (though the snorkeling around Salang is just as breathtaking as ever).
And while there are a couple of high-end properties on the island like the massive Berjaya Resort and the acclaimed eco-resort Japamala, Langkawi or Penang this is not. Perhaps in light of what development there has been in recent years being uninspiring, this overall lack of investment is a blessing. This also explains why the largely unchanged Air Batang specifically seems to be thriving in a way that a thoroughly non-commercialised village can thrive.
Whereas once the Western backpacker crowd may have preferred the more visually spectacular village of Salang, Air Batang now appears unequivocally the best bet for budget-conscious tourists who want natural beauty and an authentic, relaxed atmosphere with no garish development. The best advice I could give Salang would be to knock down most of what’s been built (that food court has to be seen to believed) and start again. The best advice I could give Air Batang would be to keep on keeping on.
Back to the island’s overwhelming positives, it’s important to note that nowhere on Tioman have I ever seen any poverty nor anybody trying to sell you something on the beach. There are also virtually no dogs – I saw one and I think he was a guide dog. This place might not be wealthy, but alongside the world-class jungle and snorkeling / diving, Tioman’s (and especially Air Batang’s) content, almost timeless Malay fishing-village vibe is part of why tourists like me find themselves unable to stop returning. Air Batang doesn’t even have a road wide-enough for cars – just a concrete path parallel to the beach that’s shared by pedestrians, cyclists and the occasional motorbike or motorbike plus sidecar.
|The white sands and clear turquoise waters of Coral Island.
Beach-wise the Perhentians are consistently whiter but the jungle there is much smaller. Langkawi has amazing beaches and jungle plus a much wider range of accommodation including top range hotels, though Tioman is drier during the middle months of the year. Truth is, it’s hard to go wrong with Tioman, the Perhentians or Langkawi.
As far as Tioman’s beaches go, there are the pretty, golden sand beaches like the ones at Berjaya and Salang, there are private white-sand turtle-sanctuary beaches like the one just south of Berjaya, there are the soft, near-white sands of Nazri’s Place and Juara (a surf beach in the monsoon season) and the white-as-chalk stunners of Coral Island.
Underwater is even better. I love that I can snorkel straight off the beach at Nazri’s and this year was the first time I’d simultaneously snorkeled with not one but two turtles right in front of the restaurant. There are good coral formations, interesting fish life and no problems with visibility.
For the best snorkeling there are the four-to-six-hour return trips you can do from Nazri’s that cost just 85 RM (about NZ $37). Coral Island is a small protected island (no development allowed) a 10-15 minute boat ride from the Air Batang and Salang villages. The jungle is ringed by sand as white as the famed Whitehaven Beach in Queensland’s Whitsundays. The surrounding snorkeling is magic and the experience of bright coral, abundant fish life and swimming above scuba-divers and trying to catch their bubbles as they floated serenely to the surface was surreal. A rocky outcrop next to Salang village was just as good and if the sands of Monkey Bay on the way home to Air Batang weren’t as shockingly white, they were only less perfect because Coral Island had already shown us perfection.
Back at Nazri’s, Nazri himself – a charismatic Malay man who must be approaching 70 years – continues to slowly expand the resort he first started as a bunch of simple A-frame huts in the 1970s. A new reception area is being constructed and rooms to be upgraded, but Nazri is determined they’ll always be space for the budget travellers who have descended upon Tioman since Time Magazine made that pronouncement 40 years ago.
Here are my 50 favourite photos from this year’s Tioman trip and see below* for details on how to get to the island.
|The Sunset Cafe / Bar at Nazri’s – Anita still makes the best pizzas in South East Asia.
|Same as above.
|The restaurant at Nazri’s.
|Doing the 10k jungle walk to Juara with a couple of adventuresome Belgians.
|Love that jungle.
|I love the jungle, but jungle rib cramps aren’t so much fun. Though at least I look good.
|The quiet northern end of Juara on Tioman’s east coast.
|The steep jungle road from Juara back to Tekek. Experiencing this in the back of a 4WD was an awesome ride.
|One of the newer wings at Nazri’s Place.
|The view from the garden area at Nazri’s to the beach and sea.
|Lazy afternoons at the Nazri’s Place beach.
|The beach at the northern end of Air Batang / ABC (Nazri’s is at the southern end).
|More accommodation at Nazri’s.
|The beach at Nazri’s Place.
|The headland that separates Air Batang from Tekek.
|The beach at Nazri’s.
|Selfie time at my favourite beach – Nazri’s Place.
|The headland at the southern tip of Air Batang, the large Berjaya resort in the far distance.
|From the southern end of Tekek looking north.
|One of the beaches at Berjaya.
|A beautiful small crescent beach by the Berjaya Resort golf course.
|The jungle path where I met some Kiwis who gave me a stick to ward of the monkeys.
|The turtle sanctuary south of Berjaya Resort / village.
|The turtle sanctuary with the slightly eerie resort on the hill that I feel the jungle wants to reclaim.
|Sunset at Nazri’s.
|The jungle soccer pitch next to Nazri’s Place.
|The best sunset I’ve seen in four visits to Tioman Island.
|Same as above.
|Same as above.
|The colours of an Air Batang sunset with the jetty in the middle.
|The same sunset.
|The place I like to think of as “my beach” – the view from Nazri’s restaurant to the headland before Tekek.
|It’s not Tioman without giant monitor lizards.
|One of the great characters of this year’s trip – an English gent named Clayton who has found his bit of paradise at Nazri’s where he is enjoying an extended stay.
|Outstanding snorkeling at this small island just a few hundred metres from Salang village.
|The clarity of the water from the jetty at Salang blew my mind.
|Same as above.
|Countless fish, as seen from the jetty at Salang.
|Nazri’s Place front-on – not too bad a spot is it?
|A family of monkeys doing some grooming.
|A perfect, empty beach on Coral Island.
|The whiteness of the sand, the bright turquoise and blue of the water – the stunning Coral Island.
|Coral Island as seen from our snorkeling boat.
|Snorkeling at the small rocky island near Salang.
|Same as above.
|Sucking in the stomach for a nice holiday snap.
|One of the beaches of Monkey Bay – only slightly less gorgeous than Coral Island.
|Another beach at Monkey Bay, north of Air Batang and before Salang.
*Getting to Tioman has become a whole lot more difficult with Berjaya Air no longer offering direct flights from KL or Singapore, though expensive chartered flights are available. This means that the only way to the island from KL is a seven-hour bus trip followed by a two-hour ferry ride from the nondescript town of Mersing. Be aware that ferry times vary and many tourists have to stay overnight in Mersing if their bus from KL doesn’t arrive in time. It is possible to charter reasonbly-priced extra ferries if there are enough people.