Malaysia is not only known for her tropical rainforests, diverse culture and food, but also for her beautiful and exotic islands. These islands mostly feature glimmering white-sand beaches and lush vegetation, attracting both local and foreign tourists.
Because of their crystal-clear waters and beautiful coral reefs, many of these islands are also popular for diving and snorkelling.
In fact, Malaysia is internationally renowned for having some of the best diving spots in the region, thanks to the diverse marine life found in our waters.
But you don’t have to dive or snorkel – or even swim – to enjoy an island holiday in Malaysia as there are plenty of other activities that you can do like kayaking, surfing, “sea walking” and paddle boarding. These days, you will also likely find lots of tourists dancing and posing for the cameras in funny ways, creating content for their social media pages ...
Of course, when planning for an island holiday in Malaysia, the first thing you need to do is to find out the best time to go.
There are two monsoon seasons in Malaysia: The Southwest monsoon starts from late May to September, while the Northeast monsoon lasts from November to March. The latter mostly affects east coast states in the Peninsular Malaysia, the west of Sarawak and east of Sabah. This is the season to avoid when planning your holiday as rainstorms may occur.
The Southwest monsoon season is usually drier and sometimes even warmer than usual, except in Sabah where it tends to rain.
Still, to avoid going at a “bad time”, you may want to check with your travel agent or hotel/resort on the island of your choice. Some resorts located on the east coast of the peninsula are even closed for business during the monsoon seasons for safety reasons.
Here are just a handful of islands in Malaysia that are worth checking out.
Lang Tengah, Terengganu
The coastal state of Terengganu is blessed with plenty of beautiful islands and beaches, so it is a very popular state for holidaymakers looking to get their tan on. Lang Tengah may not be as large (or well-known) as its neighbouring islands – Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Redang – but it is still a lovely spot to get some rest and relaxation.
In fact, some people prefer to holiday in Lang Tengah as it doesn’t get as crowded as the other two islands during peak periods.
There’s a spot somewhere on the island where turtles are said to nest, so if you go at the right time you might just witness a turtle or two laying their eggs there.
Some parts of the place are rocky, while tiny shards of broken coral can sometimes be found on the shore (tip: get yourself a pair of water shoes!). But you will forget all these minor inconveniences when you see the sea’s gorgeous gradient blue hues.
Pulau Redang, Terengganu
Whether you want a beach with a lively environment or something more peaceful, this slice of heaven is perfect for you. Pulau Redang is one of the nine islands in the Redang Archipelago, which was gazetted as a Marine Park in 1985. This means that all the nine islands – some of which remain uninhabited – are under the protection of Malaysia’s Department of Fisheries.
Redang is also one of the largest islands off the east coast, and is home to a variety of corals and underwater creatures, making it a very popular destination for divers and snorkellers.
There are some trekking trails in the island’s interior too, so if you need a breather from swimming in the sea, you can put on your hiking shoes and check out the jungle.
Pulau Perhentian, Terengganu
There are actually two main islands here – Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kechil – and they are located close to the Thai border. They both boast some of Malaysia’s most stunning beaches and superb diving, and is a good option for families and large groups as there are plenty of accommodation options.
If you’re interested in diving, some of the marine life species you can see here include black-tip reef sharks, barracuda, blue-ringed octopus and pufferfish.
Visitors can also explore the tropical jungle that covers much of the terrain of the islands, or head to the Turtle Sanctuary Beach that’s situated on Perhentian Besar.
Pulau Kapas, Terengganu
If you’re looking for a truly relaxing holiday, then Pulau Kapas is one of your best options. Since it is located only 6km to the east of Marang in Terengganu, it is very easy to get to.
Pulau Kapas is a little rustic as it is not highly developed as a tourist attraction, but this means it is a great place for locals who just want a short escape from reality ... In fact, this island is perfect for a day trip!
Apart from just lazying around on the beach with a good book, you can also do some water activities like kayaking and paddleboarding.
Pulau Sipadan, Sabah
You can’t talk about diving in Malaysia – or in the Asia Pacific, really – without mentioning Pulau Sipadan in Semporna, Sabah. Sure, some of us may remember it for the wrong reasons ...
You see, in the year 2000, 21 guests and resort workers were kidnapped by six Abu Sayyaf terrorists. Everyone was eventually released safely, and the island later became off-limits to the public; only military personnel guarding the area were allowed to land there.
In 2002, Sipadan – which, at the time, had been the centre of a territorial dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia for years – was officially awarded by the International Court of Justice to Malaysia’s National Security Council. Thanks to this, the government was able to protect the area’s marine and wildlife resources further.
Sipadan is tiny with only 12ha of land area. But we all know size does not matter, as the island has tons to offer in terms of marine life and views. This is partly due to the low human activity, though perhaps this may soon change.
In 2008, Sabah Parks allowed a total of 120 divers and visitors on Sipadan using a permit system. In 2019 that number was increased to 176. Hopefully, the increase in divers per day will not spoil the beauty of the island or disrupt its spectacular megafauna, which includes one of the greatest concentrations of hawksbill sea turtles and green turtles on Earth.
Visitors would need to get their permit to dive at Sipadan from registered operators, which are listed on the Sabah Parks website (https://www.sabahparks.org.my/services/diving-sipadan).
Don’t worry if you can’t get a permit though, as there are plenty of other beautiful islands in Semporna that you can go to, Pulau Mabul, Pulau Mantabuan, Pulau Sibuan and Bohey Dulang.
Pulau Lankayan, Sabah
Off the coast of Sabah in the Sulu Sea, is a little island that resembles a pearl. Lankayan Island is located within the Sugud Island Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA), and therefore is blessed with a diverse marine life. As the area is protected, no fishing activities are allowed anywhere here, although eco-tourism activities like diving and snorkelling for are permitted.
This serene piece of heaven is surrounded by an unending pure white sandy beach and covered in lush tropical island flora on its topside.
More than that, Lankayan is also a hatching and feeding habitat for green and hawksbill sea turtles, which come ashore to nest. Visitors then get the chance to witness hatchlings released into the sea, particularly between June and September. But don’t worry if you don’t get to see any baby turtles as there are usually plenty of adult turtles swimming around the chalets during the day, alongside sharks, stingray and other wondrous sea creatures.
And don’t forget to check out the birds, too!
Pulau Mantanani, Sabah
A relatively unknown island in the northwestern coast of Sabah, Pulau Mantanani is actually a group of three islands. The whole place is not highly developed just yet – although there is a luxury resort on one part of the island – which is great because you get to enjoy its true natural beauty.
There are many diving spots around the islands, all well-known for their diverse marine life. Some of the creatures you can see are the blue-ringed octopus, pink-eyed gobbles, imperial shrimps and even seahorses.
Trekking is also possible here, as the middle portion of the 2km-long island is made up of thick, lush jungle.
Mantanani is a superb place to watch the sunset on the horizon, making the island an ideal location for weddings or wedding photography sessions.
Pulau Rawa, Johor
Pulau Rawa is Johor’s pride and joy, a beautiful coral island that’s named after white doves (or “rawa”) which are plentiful in the area. It is a relatively small island, and to get there you would need to take an hour-long ferry ride (30 minutes by private speedboat) from the Mersing Jetty. There are usually not that many tourists on this island, which is a plus point rather than a downer!
One of the geographical features of Rawa is a sheer vertical cliff that makes for a spectacular selfie backdrop.
There are several aquatic and terrestrial species like fish, squid, jellyfish, octopus, Malayan sea eagles and reptiles living in and around the island. Blacktip reef sharks are also said to feed in the waters off the island.
Depending on the accommodation you choose (there aren’t that many here), some of the activities available on Rawa include water sports like kayaking and snorkelling, hilltop jungle trekking and beach volleyball, while barbecues nights are also regularly organised.
Pulau Pangkor, Perak
Did you know that Pulau Pangkor in Perak is a duty-free island? There aren’t actually that many varieties of shops here, but since most people go to the islands for some fun in the sun, sea and sand and not for shopping, it’s not really a problem.
Pangkor is steeped in history as this was where the Pangkor Treaty, or Perjanjian Pangkor, was signed way back in 1874. (Specifically, the treaty was signed aboard the HMS Pluto, which was docked somewhere between Pangkor and Lumut.) Other historical attractions include the Dutch Fort and Batu Bersurat.
A large part of Pangkor is a fishing village and many who live here make their living as fishermen. Tourists and visitors now get the chance to experience life in the village too, via cultural tours and walks. Naturally, the seafood options here are amazingly fresh and delicious, too.
Of course, you can’t go to an island without checking out its waters and beaches. There are several on Pangkor: Pasir Bogak Beach is where you go for snorkelling, while at Teluk Nipah, you can find some entertainment and fun cultural activities.
Pangkor Laut, a tiny island nearby, is where the exclusive YTL-owned Pangkor Laut Resort is located.
Pulau Tioman, Pahang
Pulau Tioman is Pahang’s most famous island, located 32km off the east coast of the peninsula. Similar to Pulau Langkawi, Tioman is one of the most commercialised islands in the country, with plenty of hotels, resorts, F&B shops and retail outlets available.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially to families and groups who prefer to holiday at islands that are highly accessible, convenient, and of course, affordable.
What you get on this island, apart from its gleaming white-sand beaches and beautiful azure waters, are fantastic diving, snorkelling and delicious food. Daytime activities include water sports, batik painting and wash, while at night, there are usually some live music shows and other performances available.
Tioman is a highly forested island too so you can spend some time trekking inland on days you don’t feel like swimming in the sea or baking under the sun on the beach.
In fact, you can make your way to the Ash Waterfall or any of the other smaller waterfalls found on the island and have a picnic there!