Malaysia's Pulau Tioman: The Complete Guide

Palm tree with boats upside down at beach, sunrise at Tioman Island.
  Thant Zaw Wai/Getty Images 

Pulau Tioman (Tioman Island), situated on the southeast coast of Peninsular Malaysia, quietly lures travelers from both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Although it’s not a “small” island when compared side by side with some of Southeast Asia’s other islands, Tioman holds plenty of appeal, especially for people who chase marine life for fun. You don’t come to Tioman for a good cappuccino or spa treatment or even decent food.

You come to join the giant barracudas on their hunt.

Lightly developed beaches are scattered around the coast separated by serious jungle. Harassment by monkeys and python spottings are somewhat common, as is duty-free beer at 50 cents per can. (Same as far away Langkawi, Tioman Island is designated as a duty-free island.)

Like other islands that require some effort to reach, Pulau Tioman rewards visitors with that rough-and-tumble tropical island feel.

How to Get to Pulau Tioman

Ferry: Most visitors get to Tioman via ferry from the port town of Mersing (you can also take a ferry from Tanjung Gemuk). Buses from Kuala Lumpur to Mersing take around seven hours. Once you get to Mersing, the bus terminal is about a 15-minute walk from the jetty where ferries leave for Tioman.

You'll take one of the three daily ferries over to Tioman. Plan on at least two hours for the trip. Timetables are affected by tides and storms, and boats sometimes have to wait until there is enough water to depart.

In the low season, only two ferries may be running. A lack of passengers may cause cancellation of the mid-afternoon ferry, so you’ll have to wait until the last one. Note: All visitors have to pay a marine park fee (30 Malaysian Ringgit, about $7.50) at a kiosk in the Mersing ferry terminal.

Ferries make different stops around the island, docking at the various jetties.

Plan to tell the crew where on Tioman you intend to get off. If you don’t have a booking, simply say “ABC”—local shorthand for Air Batang, a popular beach default.

Flying: Don’t count on flying to Tioman Island. Although Pulau Tioman has its own tiny airport (airport code: TOD), the service was suspended in 2014. Berjaya Air once operated daily flights from Kuala Lumpur. Instead, get to Mersing and grab one of the Bluewater Express ferries over to the island.

Choosing a Beach

Pulau Tioman has a handful of mostly discontiguous beaches dotted around different parts of the island. You’ll need to know ahead of time which beach you want to try first. The ferry staff will ask, and you’ll be expected to get off there, though prices are the same regardless of the beach. 

  • ABC: Officially named Air Batong, ABC is the default choice for budget travelers. The location provides some flexibility as you’ll be able to walk all the way to Tekek. The beaches aren’t great due to dead coral, but the snorkeling and sunsets can be excellent.
  • Juara: Often quiet no matter the season, Juara is pretty much the only beach option for staying on the east side of Tioman and arguably offers some of the best sand and swimming on the island. Unlike other beaches, there is very little dead coral. Reaching Juara requires getting off the ferry in Tekek then hiring a truck to take you over the steep hill in the center of the island.
  • Salang: Like Juara, Salang is another excellent strip of sand with great visibility for swimming. The southern end of the beach has some good snorkeling.
  • Genting: The boulders strewn along the beach at Genting make it even more picturesque. The walking path has a few more eating options clustered together than other beaches.

When to Visit Tioman Island

The summer months are best for visiting Tioman Island—specifically June, July, and August. As is usually the case, dry season is also the busiest season. Choose a “shoulder” month for good weather and fewer tourists. May is a good choice.

The rainiest months on Pulau Tioman are November, December, and January. Ferry schedules can become disrupted by storms during this time.

How to Get Around

Paved roads are very limited on Pulau Tioman, but that’s part of the charm.

Boats will transfer you between beaches for a fee. Otherwise, you can walk or rent a bicycle. Sometimes catching a motorbike with a sidecar is an option. Scooter rentals are an option in a few places, but you can't drive far.

Walking is the obvious choice, and that’s what most travelers do. ABC Beach, previously connected to Tekek by only a steep set of stairs, now has a scenic coastal path passable by bicycle or motorbike. You can walk from ABC to Tekek in about 30 minutes.

Once in Tekek, you can catch a pickup truck over the island to Juara. The steep, jungle road was initially carved by the Japanese in WWII but reopened and improved decades later. Don’t attempt to make the precarious drive with a rental scooter unless you consider yourself extremely proficient.

Good to Know

  • The only ATM on Tioman Island is in Tekek, the main village. You should bring enough money to last your whole trip in case the ATM is experiencing issues.
  • Decent Wi-Fi can be difficult to find at cafes and restaurants on the island. Ensure your resort has Wi-Fi if staying connected is important to you. Most residents rely on local SIM cards for access. Grab one for cheap if your smartphone is GSM compatible and unlocked.
  • Tioman is a “cat island”—the friendly felines are practically everywhere. You may have one living on your bungalow porch before you move in.
  • Monkeys and large monitor lizards are attracted to fruit and snacks. They’re fun to watch, but be cautious about leaving scraps or anything edible near your place.

What to Bring

Alcohol and tobacco are cheap when compared with the rest of Malaysia. Everything else should be brought along. Facilities for shopping and choices on the island are limited.

Bring sunscreen and all the usual beach necessities with you from the mainland. Snorkel gear is available for rent from every dive shop. No need to bring it from home.

Water shoes will be a big help for wading out in places plagued with sharp, dead coral.

Things to Do

The primary draw of Tioman Island is the remote feel and underwater life. For non-divers, snorkeling and kayak rentals are fun options.

For people who prefer life above the waves, Pulau Tioman isn’t necessarily rich with activities. It’s more a place to enjoy a book with a soundtrack of sea and birds. You’ll meet travelers from all over the world who come to enjoy the same.

There are numerous jungle trekking opportunities around Pulau Tioman. Trails often follow the paths cut for power lines; getting lost is nearly impossible, but downed trees and steep muddy scrambles turn even a brief walk into a sweat-a-thon. One popular trek is the walk from ABC to Monkey Beach.

Boat trips can be booked to Asah Waterfall, the exotic setting featured in the 1958 movie South Pacific. Some trips include lunch on a remote beach and snorkeling.

Snorkeling on Tioman Island

Snorkeling is a very enjoyable, inexpensive activity to enjoy on Pulau Tioman, so take advantage! Approach any dive shop and ask about renting gear and finding the best spots.

Rates are as low as $3, depending on whether or not you take fins. During jellyfish season between May and October, consider asking about renting a wet suit as well. The friendly divemasters will know if the small jellies have moved in to menace the water.

Organized boat trips to uninhabited islands around the marine park are an option. Although visibility and coral health are often better, you’ll be dropped into the water in a group of tourists splashing around in life jackets. For a more personal experience, just grab some gear and go! You’ll spook less marine life and be able to venture on your own.

The jetty at ABC is an excellent place to start. Although coral health isn’t the best, turtles, large barracudas, and lots of life frequent the area. Swimming north around the rocks from ABC toward Salang Village may even yield a blacktip reef shark or two!

Snorkeling around the roped-off marine park at Tekek is popular but feels a bit artificial. Runoff from the town hurts visibility, but the concrete reef attracts a lot of colorful fish.

Accommodation

Expect accommodation on Pulau Tioman to be mostly “rustic” aside from a handful of large resorts that occupy their own parts of the island. Most choices are in the form of bungalows, chalets, and villas. Fortunately, high-rise hotels haven’t taken hold on the island.

Accommodation is available for all budgets. Very basic beach-view bungalows with fan and mosquito net can be grabbed for $10-15 per night. The biggest splurge on Tioman is Japamala Resort, an upscale operation on the southwest side of the island that goes for US $150-200 per night.

If you plan to do a scuba course or a lot of diving, ask your shop about help with arranging accommodation before booking anything. They may have bungalows for customers or can help find discounted rooms.

What to Eat

Unfortunately, Pulau Tioman isn’t necessarily known for its culinary prowess. Fare is relatively simple: fried rice, noodles, roti, and lackluster attempts at Western food. Prices are a little higher than normal for Malaysia, and quality is much lower than the delicious treats in Kuala Lumpur.

Even in Tekek, you won’t find many more options. Seafood barbecues are available, but don’t buy into the fallacy that being on an island guarantees fresh seafood. There isn’t a market on the island, so fish is usually frozen and brought from the mainland.

One thing Tioman gets right, however, is the fruit. Coconuts abound, and drinking fresh coconut water is a great way to replace lost electrolytes. Bananas, papayas, pineapples, and other delicious fruits are inexpensive and delicious.

Buy a bag of fruit to enjoy at one of the two supermarkets in Tekek (a large pineapple can be had for only $1), but beware of the monkeys—they’ll take great interest in what you are carrying!

What Duty Free Means

Same as Langkawi on the other side of the Malay Peninsula, Pulau Tioman enjoys duty-free status. Travelers joke about beer being cheaper than water on Tioman, but that’s not too far from the truth. A bottle of drinking water costs around $1, double that on the mainland. A can of beer can be had for 50 cents.

Alcohol and tobacco are cheaper on Pulau Tioman than the rest of Malaysia. Shopping opportunities for souvenirs are few on the island aside from the duty-free shop in Tekek.

Warning: Don’t even consider taking alcohol or tobacco from Tioman into nearby Singapore. Customs authorities are quick to fine the many travelers who do so!

Staying Safe

Aside from the usual island nuisances and biters, Tioman Island is infamous for an additional pest: sandflies. Bites can swell larger and be even more itchy than mosquito bites, causing people to scratch until infections form. The bites are usually more persistent in appearance and annoyance than regular mosquito bites.

ABC and Juara both have their share of sandflies on sections of the beach. If you see other travelers with large, swollen bites, consider using a chair on the beach to avoid contact with the sand. Even a sarong may not be enough to keep them off of you. Repellents work, however, you’ll have to reapply between swims.

Monkeys are especially cheeky and emboldened on Tioman Island. Never encourage or feed them. Beware of ambushes when walking on pathways with food or snacks.

Dead coral disrupts swimming on some beaches. Try to enter the water in places where it has been cleared. Avoid walking on it with bare feet, and treat any minor nicks and cuts on your feet very carefully. Infections caused by marine bacteria in decaying coral could have you hobbling around for the rest of your vacation.