Tioman: The Dragon Island of Pahang

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Mersing Harbour Centre where the ferry ticket and Marine Park fee counters are located
Mersing Harbor Centre where the ferry ticket and Marine Park fee counters are located

By Teja

I marveled over how the ferry from Mersing could be so full, and yet Tioman itself seemed so vacant. It must be unusual, I thought, as the resort 4-wheel drive made its way from the ferry terminal in Tekek, up the narrow cross-island road through the hilly island jungle, and meandered down to Juara village.

Learning Reef Check Eco Dive survey procedure on land
Learning Reef Check Eco Dive survey procedure on land

For I was there early in the Covid 19 pandemic era, during Malaysia’s first domestic movement restriction relaxation, and tourism had a glimmer of hope to revive.

I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete my Reef Check Eco Diver training when the pandemic hit, but we got it under control within a couple of painful lockdown months. And there I was, after all.

Given the pressure on tourism businesses due to the pandemic situation, I decided I would lengthen my trip and stay at two of the island’s beaches, rather than only where the Reef Check training would take place.

I picked Juara as the second beach, mainly because it was on the opposite side. I thought this might give me a different underwater experience.

Yachts in Tioman marina near Tekek
Yachts in Tioman marina near Tekek

The Two |Sides of Tioman Island

Tioman Island doesn’t just have the two beaches, of course. Shaped vaguely like a thumbs-up sign, the island is large enough to have several villages and beaches all around the rounded bottom, plus one on the ‘thumb’. The shape is supposed to be a naga dragon serpent, who turned into an island when she lingered there on her way to the South China Sea.

Due to the relatively large size of the island, the villages are not necessarily squeezed against the coastline. As a result, unlike the smaller, flatter islands on the east coast, much of Tioman’s regular village life is land-side rather than wholly sea-oriented, even though most people are fishermen and boatmen.

Sidecar scooters are the preferred vehicle by locals in Tioman
Sidecar scooters are the preferred vehicle by locals in Tioman

Tekek village is considered to be the ‘capital’, being the largest and where most of the island’s community activities happen. Hence, the Reef Check office is there, and it will also be where the island-based Eco Diver training takes place.

Stepping off the jetty and out the terminal building, I crossed a bridge over an inner channel and immediately came upon shops and eateries.

Tekek’s little town still felt active with a degree of commerce, despite the lack of tourists.

The motorcycle-with-sidecar, which is Tioman’s preferred vehicle, were seen still carrying goods (and people) around.

Nestled in the curve of the bay on the side facing the peninsula, Tekek’s brown sand beach is gentle and calm. Coconut and casuarina grew on the upper shore in between homes and chalets. A marina lies across the jetty, yachts peacefully at anchor alongside smaller boats.

Juara beach in Tioman Island
Juara beach in Tioman Island

Juara beach, on the other hand, faces the open sea. Although there was also a village, the tourism business felt more typical in that they spread along the beach without mingling with village homes. Behind them, the tropical jungle rises up the steep hills. Tioman has several jungle waterfalls that you can trek to, which are mostly more accessible from the Juara side.

The Juara side was also windier, with higher waves. Indeed, among Tioman’s beaches, Juara is the one with waves suitable for surfing. Its beach is a paler sand, and less gently sloped. Due to the timing of my visit, I had it almost entirely to myself.

Marine conservation on Tioman

Tioman Island (or Pulau Tioman, in the local Malay language) is the biggest island in the 9-island group that comprises Pulau Tioman Marine Park. Established in 1994, Tioman Marine Park boasts of some of Malaysia’s best coral reefs.

Since its gazettement as a Marine Park, conservation efforts have been undertaken, which are becoming more community-led over time.

Little Planet activity centre within Juara Turtle Project
Little Planet activity centre within Juara Turtle Project

Juara Turtle Project

Juara Turtle Project is a turtle conservation effort initiated by Malaysia’s Fisheries Department in 2001. Since then, it has gradually transitioned to become a fully independent, NGO-run project.

Located at Juara beach (hence the name), you can join them on a volunteering trip which will see you being involved in nest patrol against poaching activity, turtle egg transfer to the hatchery, hatchling release, data collection, and educational talks.

Depending on qualifications, you may also have the opportunity to help with coral rehabilitation and waste management projects. Time commitment for volunteering trips is a minimum of one week (7D6N).

You can also just drop by to their information centre, if you happen to be on Tioman for a holiday. Their project site is located at the far south end of Juara beach. Walk past the Barat Tioman Beach Resort, continue past 1511 Coconut Grove, and you’re there.

Juara Turtle Project website: https://www.juaraturtleproject.com/

Volunteer trip prices:: RM1000 (Dormitory) / RM1500 (private room) /pax /week

Learning Reef Check Eco Dive survey procedure on land
Learning Reef Check Eco Dive survey procedure on land

Reef Check Eco Diver training

Reef Check Malaysia is the local chapter of the California-based marine conservation network, the Reef Check Foundation. Reef Check’s work in conservation and citizen scientist education in Tioman began in 2014, with an island-based office and the launch of a community-led conservation initiative, Cintai Tioman (i.e.; Love Tioman).

Today, they are a partner of Malaysia’s Marine Park authorities, and conduct annual coral reef health surveys for many of Malaysia’s islands. The coral reef health surveys are done using their Eco Diver methodology, mostly by island-based and volunteer divers.

If you are already a certified diver, you can sign up for their Eco Diver training programme and get qualified to join one of the Eco Dive surveys. Once passing the pool-based screening (normally in Petaling Jaya in the urban west coast of Malaysia), the remainder of the training typically takes place on Tioman over 3 days.

Underwater practice for Reef Check Eco Dive qualification
Underwater practice for Reef Check Eco Dive qualification

Once qualified, be on the lookout for the Eco Dive survey calendar, usually published at the start of the year. Tioman will definitely be one of the survey sites, but there are many other survey sites around the country as well. Eco Dive surveys typically take place over 3 days (over a weekend).

Reef Check Eco Diver website: https://www.reefcheck.org.my/ecodiver-course

Course fee: RM900 (Peninsular Malaysia) and RM950 (East Malaysia)

*does not include travel costs, accommodation, equipment rentalsM

Marine Park Jewel

If you favour travel destinations related to nature, make sure to plan enough time on Tioman to see both the underwater as well as the terrestrial biodiversity on your tropical getaway. Although tourists do visit for short holidays, you can easily spend a couple of weeks here, shifting from beach to beach. Tioman is a lot more suited for a long-stay trip compared to other islands which are much more geared towards short-term holidaymakers.

Tioman Island is among Malaysia’s natural jewels. Located within the relatively shallow Sunda Shelf outside of the volcanic Ring of Fire, it is characterised by stable geologic conditions and relatively mild seas. Thus, like other islands off the eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia, coral reefs developed over the centuries around its waters, supporting a high marine biodiversity. Over 300 species of coral species have been recorded, as well as several endangered coral fish species.

Many of Malaysia’s Marine Parks are also tourist islands, which is an activity that usually predates their gazettement. However, although Tioman suffers similar stress to its reefs as the other tourist islands, surveys have found that its reefs are among the most resilient in Malaysia, maintaining a high proportion of coral cover in good or excellent condition.

Although I chose to stay on opposite side beaches in case the underwater reefs are different, they weren’t really. You can see the reefs around Tioman and nearby islands via snorkelling or SCUBA diving excursions, whether organised by your resort or from independent tours. Many dive centres on Tioman are certified members of Green Fins, which promotes sustainable SCUBA diving and snorkelling tourism.

However, this ‘dragon island’ also has unique terrestrial biodiversity, which was actually protected even earlier than its marine ecosystem, although the protected area has shrunk since.

Along with several protected mammal species such as the elusive mousedeer, Tioman also has two endemic species: the walking catfish, Clarias batu, and the Kajang slender litter frog, Leptobrachella kajangensis. Jungle hikes are becoming an increasingly popular tourism activity.

It is possible to trek to the Tioman ‘mountain’ peak. However, this is a 3-day trek through jungle, and requires a guide.

Accommodation buildings of The Barat Tioman Resort
Accommodation buildings of The Barat Tioman Resort

Where I stayed on Tioman

On Juara beach, I stayed with The Barat Tioman Beach Resort. It is a fairly conventional resort with the option of typical hotel rooms in its main building or villas on the beach. It has its own dive centre, an in-house restaurant and bar, and a swimming pool. The in-house restaurant also has a good vegetarian menu section, which is uncommon at local island eateries.

Its activity center can help you organize recreational activities, ranging from snorkeling trips, water sports, hikes, games, bicycle or scooter rentals, and island touring. The Barat is located near the south end of Juara beach. This is good for a quieter holiday, but it is further from the other cafes and shops closer to the village and jetty.

In Tekek, I stayed at the Swiss Cottage Tioman, mainly because its dive centre is Reef Check’s partner to conduct the Eco Diver island-based training. The Swiss Cottage rooms are all close to the beach, and are either bungalow chalets or terrace wood buildings.

Beachy, Laid Back Vibe

With a beachy, laid back vibe, it nonetheless has an in-house restaurant mainly for breakfast and lunch, and can also organise excursions for both water activities and jungle hikes. The Swiss Cottage is at the far end of Tekek’s south beach; again, this makes it good for a relaxing stay, but there is a (short) walk to shops.

4G data services are available in Tekek most of the time. However, Juara only gets 3G, and it’s not very reliable.

That said, Tioman’s tourist accommodations are different from most other tourist islands on Malaysia’s east coast. There is a good mix of resorts and islander-owned B&Bs. The unique thing about Tekek is that the local B&Bs are intermingled with the community. This means you could stay at a chalet and have an islander neighbor, and walk over to the convenience store for groceries in the same way as a local.

In Juara, despite local houses only amounting to about 20 homes, chalet buildings are spaced very close, and give it the feeling of a village. This in itself is a stay experience that you might want to choose while in Tioman specifically. If you’re lucky, there might be a wedding. Tioman islanders typically invite tourists to their wedding feast, even sending formal wedding invitations to chalets & resorts!

Looking towards the inner channel from outside Tekek ferry terminal
Looking towards the inner channel from outside Tekek ferry terminal

You will likely also need to spend the night at either Mersing or Tanjung Gemok, where the ferry terminals are, depending on the ferry schedule during your trip. Both are small towns with only budget accommodation options.

I went via Mersing, and stayed at the Sakiza View Hotel to be as close to the ferry terminal as possible. Unfortunately, there was a fair at the waterfront that night, and I could only get to sleep after midnight. The Seri Malaysia Mersing would probably be more comfortable, and the extra distance is not meaningful, unless you’re walking with luggage.

Getting there and around

Located just off the border between the Malaysian states of Pahang and Johor, Tioman Island has the unique situation of belonging to Pahang, but being more commonly reached from Johor. The primary transport option to go to Tioman is by ferry, although you can also charter small boats. You would need to get to either Mersing (in Johor) or Tanjung Gemok (in Pahang) and take the ferry from terminals there. Get to these towns by bus or driving. There are no rail or air options that are convenient.

Mersing is the larger ferry terminal, and there are more ferries departing from there compared to Tanjung Gemok. There are two ferry companies operating the route, Cataferry and Bluewater. Ferry times may vary across the year to accommodate the tide. Tickets range from RM40 to RM200 depending on date and fare class. You can buy tickets online, or at the on-site ticket counter. In Mersing, this is located in the Mersing Harbour Centre building across the road from the actual jetty. The Marine Park fee counter is also in the same building.

Silhouette of a row of bicycles parked on the end of Tekek jetty at sunset
Silhouette of a row of bicycles parked on the end of Tekek jetty at sunset

The ferry trip itself is relatively pleasant. Tioman is located just near enough to the mainland to be easily reached by boat, yet just far enough that it isn’t the half-hour speedboat runs of the Terengganu islands to the north. Cataferry boats are faster than Bluewater, but even then the trip is at least 1.5 hours, and can go up to 2-3 hours for Bluewater. You can get 4G data reception for the entire ferry route to Tioman.

On Tioman Island, there are two ways of going to other beaches (aside from hiking). You can charter a speedboat either via your resort or host, or from the kiosks of independent boat services. The latter are more common on more popular beaches like Tekek and Paya Beach.

The second option is to take the Naga Shuttle boats, which has a schedule like a bus. Tickets are RM20 per trip for Malaysians and RM40 for non-Malaysians. Note that the Naga water taxis go to the beaches along the west coast of Tioman, but do not go around the island to Juara.

Teja

 

Teja is a sustainability professional, who blogs about insightful travel and sustainability in her free time.

 

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