A number of years ago, I was on Tioman Island in the South China Sea, 20 miles off the coast of southeast Malaysia, listed as one of the most beautiful islands in the world by Time magazine at some point.
That’s because it was then seemingly unspoiled. It’s guitar-shaped, thinning in the middle. I’d stayed in a simple wooden chalet on the west coast for a few days with a friend I’d met whilst traveling in Thailand. He was talking too much and getting on my nerves at this point, yet we both wanted to go to the east side of the island, Juara Beach. To get there, there were two options: a sea taxi, sailing all the way around the north tip of the island and taking four hours (weather depending), or hiking through the jungle across the center of the island, three hours plus. He wanted to take the boat, that left one option for me, I was hiking across the middle of the island…
Tioman Island is a nature reserve, 13 miles long and 7.5 miles wide at the wide bit. It’s mountainous for the most part, up to 3,500 feet (not small mountains), dense with lush jungle, and populated with monitor lizards, giant flying red squirrels, monkeys swinging through the vines, an array of large insects, and I realized later, several types of killer snakes.
The island is also set in a marine reserve, so there are still fish to swim with. It’s great for diving or snorkeling on the coral reefs (although on the west side some reefs are bleached from rising sea temperatures). The surrounding emerald waters are beautiful and protected for over a mile out. The Juara Turtle Project, a turtle reservation, and a large cove is on the east side. The island is very sparsely sprinkled with Kampungs, villages in Malay.
I carried my smaller backpack as I’d left my larger bag in Kuala Lumpur, while exploring southern Malaysia over land, (and sea) — as you do — and it was one of those trips where I didn’t really know where I was going. Or for how long.
I left from around Tekek, where someone had told me about a pathway through the jungle, so I followed it. It’s pure jungle, luckily flatter than some of the island as you’re walking between ridges, but it’s still steep in parts. I had seriously no idea. There has since been laid some paved road for some of the way so that you don’t have to go through this.
I was completely blissed out in a whole world of hiking wonderment but also low-key looking forward to seeing the beach on the other side. After a couple of hours, halfway through my jungle trek I came across a clearing, and discovered a shockingly large hole, brimming, piled with plastic bottles. Boom. An absolutely startling amount of bottles. They were apparently from a resort on the southern tip of the island, someone later said.
Stunned by what I’d seen, I carried on my trek to the cove on the other side, and a few sprinkled A-frame wooden beach huts on Juara Beach, a ramshackle wooden rundown looking restaurant serving delicious BBQ’d fish and satay, rice and fruit — papaya, coconut, mango, that was it. Who needs anything else? And a monkey tied in a tree that I spent a good part of a week negotiating with the owners about freeing.
I’ve wondered now and again about that pile of bottles in the middle of the jungle, and how big it is by now, and couldn’t help but feel empathy for the local people who were welcoming tourists with their bottled water fixations, and just not knowing what to do with the empties but dump them in the jungle. It must be a massive problem on every tropical island frequented by tourists. Or they end up in the sea. We know that.
How did we so mindlessly come to this?
If we weren’t before, we now, more than ever, are mindful that we have to think about our own footprint when we travel. We have to be ethical travelers. Punto.
An ethical traveler takes their personal water container with them, at all times. De facto. Not just to the gym or the office. Woohoo you! This needs to be a side staple. Any design, reused plastic, titanium, stainless, glass, a squashed paper cup, we don’t mind… You can make a difference. Collectively we make a huge difference.
All hotels should provide us with filtered water, globally. This has to be a serious goal for the hospitality industry. And we should ask for it before we book. Remember when we used to ask if a hotel had Wi-Fi? Well now they all do. Because we asked.
Or you could sip on a coconut, which is better for you anyway.
There are a number of rustic places to stay on Tioman Island, from 5-star rustic to very basic rustic, which may be a wooden beach hut with a mosquito net covered bed and candles for light at night. If you veer toward the former we highly recommend the Eco-Luxe resort Japamala (who, among the amenities they offer for booking with them directly, will give you complimentary welcome drinks and “a cold towel” on arrival, and “complimentary spring or mineral water”. They haven’t gotten the memo yet…)
They have an assortment of unique secluded villas built into the flora and fauna, treehouse type chalets in the rainforest which runs down to the beach.
To get to Tioman Island take a boat from Mersing on the east coast of Malaysia. Although it is possible to fly in, it has to be specially arranged. Anyway, the boat trip is lovely.
Best time to visit is March thru October. BBQ seafood, salt-baked fish and homemade Sambal are some of the island’s specialities. You will not be disappointed.