In the late 1990s I was in Kuala Lumpur for a trade show just before Easter. I'd learned to dive about 6 months earlier and, having gone all the way to Malaysia, I wanted to get my fins wet again.The Easter break meant I could get about 5 days on the island without using much of my holiday allowance.
I did my research on good dive destinations and found Tioman Island. It's perhaps not the BEST dive destination - the Perhentians have a better reputation - but the good thing is you can get there by air. If you are back-packing on a really tight budget you can also go by bus and ferry but if you are going to all that trouble, you might be better with the Perhentians.
~Where is it and why might I have heard of it?~
Tioman lies off the North East coast of the Malaysian peninsula and is famous (if you could really say famous) for being the Bali Hai Island in the musical South Pacific. It's promoted as a paradise island and there are a number of good expensive resorts which means that you can fly there. The centre of the island is mountainous jungle and the beaches are clean with stunning white sands.
You'll need to take up to date advice on this as it's a long time since I went. I took a taxi to the old KL airport which has now closed down. I guess today you'd take the train out to the new airport. I flew with an airline called Pelangi Air - I don't know if they still exist - in a tiny little plane with about 16 seats. Cabin service consisted of a sealed cup of juice in the back of the seat in front and the co-pilot turning round, giving a big grin and a thumbs up sign. The plane flies low and isn't pressurised so as you hit the clowds, they stream into the plane - this is a bit freaky the first time but you get some great views.
These days you can go with an airline called Berjaya Air and in addition to flying from KL you can also fly to Tioman from Penang, Kuching, Langkawi, and Kota Kinabalu. You may struggle to get any European travel agents to confirm flights for you with the local airlines - I had to sort out the confirmation when I got to Malaysia. I think it cost abour £60 to £80.
The plane lands in a tiny aerodrome near to one of the fancy resorts. You stand around whilst they take your bags off the plane and then wonder what on earth to do next. I took a boat up to the top of the island to Teluk Salang where there are dive operators. Luckily I'd met a girl on the plane who also wanted to dive so we went hunting for accommodation together.
Looking back I really can't believe I just turned up on Good Friday without any kind of booking and stumbled around looking for something. In Salang you can find a wide variety of accommodation - at the far end of the village North from the jetty there are beautiful water bungalows with nice facilities but I headed south with my bags, unwilling to lug them too far. Locals hang around the jetty and attempt to lure you to their properties.
The first guy we found took us off to look at some cabins half way up a hill. He was too lazy to go up and just told us which one was on offer - we sweated up the hill to a grotty little place with a healthy population of bugs. No way were were going for that one. By the time we got down again, he'd given up on us, but someone else had given us a tip off. We found a cabin with aircon and a bathroom and paid about $20 a night between two of us. The landlord was sleezy and leery but he was a big lad and we both figured if he gave us any trouble, we'd be able to run faster than he could.
After my room mate headed home to France, I moved to a smaller fan-cooled cabin for $10 a night
There are 4 or 5 different dive operators in Salang. I was new to the game and I really didn't have a clue how to assess which would be best. The operator we went with was very laid back and disinterested in how much diving we'd done before. The kit wasn't a bit hit and miss - he didn't have a wetsuit in my size - and the whole operation was quite disorganised. I wouldn't stand for that sort of attitude now but at the time I was new and inexperienced and I didn't know better. We booked to do two dives the following day - which was my birthday.
The boat took us out towards a neighbouring island for two dives with lunch in between. I can't comment on the quality of the diving because these were my first post-qualification dives and I was so scared silly that I kind of doubt I even had my eyes open. The boat was crowded and the water rough and I spent the afternoon puking over the back having my back rubbed by a Danish policeman who kept telling me "Don't worry, it happens to everyone!"
That night a storm blew up and knocked out the diving for the next 3 days. If that happened to me now on a holiday I would be livid but instead I took it as a chance for some serious chilling.
~ What else can you do?~
In Tioman hammocking is considered a serious activity. I did a lot that. The place I was staying rented books so I lay around and read a few, wrote postcards, took long meal breaks and assessed the range of available banana pancakes on offer through the town.
There's a marked path over the hillsides that takes you to Monkey Bay - a beautiful secluded beach. I took a walk through the jungle with plate sized butterflies and howling monkeys which was tough but definitely worth a trek.
Warning - Watch out for sand flies if you lie on the beach - they ate me alive.
Tioman is perfect for....
... a short relaxing break by the sea without too much activity to tempt you.
....backpackers needing somewhere cheap
Tioman is not so good for.....
.....families with small kids - I have no idea what you'd do with them.
......serious divers - if you got a storm like we did you'd be gutted.
......anyone who likes everything really clean and nice and 'just so'