After a few days of urban exploration in KL, it was time to head to our first Southeast Asia beach. Tioman Island sits off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. We divided our twelve days there between two of its beaches: Salang on the northwest corner and Juara on the largely undeveloped east coast.
Traveling from KL to Tioman, we opted for the adventurous route: A cab to KL’s very nice bus station; a 6 hour bus ride to Mersing; a short but very hot walk from the bus station to the jetty; a 2 hour wait at the jetty; a 2 hour ferry ride to Salang; and a short walk from the Salang jetty to our jungle bungalow at Puteri Salang Inn.
Here are the highlights of our time there:
We’d decided to try scuba diving to complement what we assume will be a lot of beach hopping in Southeast Asia. With a reputation for having relatively cheap yet safe certification classes, along with good dive spots without much current, Tioman was a logical place to try it out.
After a bit of research we chose the B&J Dive shop on Salang beach to do our PADI Open Water certification course. As a PADI certified Open Water Diver, you can dive up to 18 meters. Basically it means you’ve been introduced to the things that can kill you while diving, and you’ve demonstrated an ability to avoid those things.
At B&J, the pace was relatively relaxed. We had three mornings of classroom learning, and three afternoons and a full day of water activities. Our teacher was an extremely patient, friendly Italian guy who seemed to be making his way around Southeast Asia using his PADI Instructor status to pay the way– not a bad life. Our classmates consisted of a Brit fresh off the end of his work visa in Australia, a rocket scientist from Holland, and a father-son duo from Hong Kong. We also befriended a Swiss couple who were working at the center to obtain their Divemaster certification, and we’ll be seeing them soon in Indonesia.
The only glitch in our Salang adventures came when Rachel fell on the very slippery, slimy stone jetty, cutting up her feet. She of course shook it off and continued for a few more days of sun and diving, but we postponed later Malaysian dives when one of the cuts refused to heal and we had to seek out medical attention.
Salang used to be the hip place on Tioman… about 10 years ago. Now it’s a quiet village with good diving, decent food and accommodations and a nice beach. Breakfast was a little tricky until we discovered the roti canai man (who opens and closes based mostly on his mood… fair) who made plain roti (kind of a flaky indian bread/pancake) with curry sauce, roti with banana and, my personal favorite, roti with egg. It’s so good.
Food on Tioman was good and very cheap. In Salang the standouts are grilled fish and squid at the White House, the eggplant sambal at Salang Pusaka, and the roast half-chicken and various curries at Salang Dream Restaurant. Also of importance for the unemployed traveler, Salang is a duty free island which means beer is cheaper here than it is in KL. Frugality!
After our scuba activities, we moved to the eastern coast of Tioman, Juara Beach. To get there we had to convince the ferry to let us off a few stops early, in Tekek (harder than you’d think– Rachel had to call up some dormant lawyer skills), then we took a cab through the jungle and hilly middle of the island.
Juara is even smaller and more relaxed than Salang, which is saying something. It doesn’t really have diving, but apparently offers good surfing opportunities during the rainy season. We explored the snorkeling options a few hundred yards off the beach, but otherwise took it very easy.
We split our time on Juara between two places: Riverview (on the far north side of the beach) and Bushman (on the far south side). The former offered kayaking down a nearby river into the jungle, and the latter features incredible (and amazingly cheap) oceanfront bungalows.
The food situation in Juara was made interesting by the end of Ramadan celebrations (Hari Raya). There are only a handful of restaurants on that side of the island, and nearly everything shuts down for a few days every year so the families can prepare a feast at home to host other members of the community. Consequently, tourists are left with few eating options while feasts are held all around them.
When we were able to eat normal meals, Juara’s culinary highlights included Kat Long, a random little place close to the jetty that served great roti for breakfast, and delicious peanut chicken, chicken sambal (chicken in chili sauce) and veggie curry for lunch and dinner. We also really liked Bushman’s tiny cafe, which reopened just before we left the island.
Tioman used to host about 20 nesting grounds for 4 species of turtles. Now, Juara is 1 of 3 remaining active nesting grounds on the island. The decline is due to predators, development and poachers (turtle eggs are very valuable, it turns out). Of the 7 species of turtles in the world, 4 used to nest on Tioman. Two of those 4–the Leatherback and Olive Ridley–are considered critically endangered; and, of the other 2–Green and Hawksbill–Green is most common.
In response to the various factors contributing to the decline in habitat and populations, the Juara Turtle Project was formed. Made up primarily of volunteers, the organization monitors remaining nesting sites, and, when a nest is found, they transport the eggs to their facility where they’re protected from poachers and preditors. When the eggs hatch, they release the dozens of little turtles into the ocean.
We were fortunate enough to be there for the hatching of 2 nests. I’m not usually impressed by such things but this was really cool. Watching nearly 200 baby turtles sprint to the water (and a few stragglers slowly and, dare I say more thoughtfully, make their way there) was a moving experience. It was evening, verging on night, and no flash is allowed (the turtles depend on moonlight on the water to find the right path) so the pictures below aren’t the best, but I’d highly recommend the experience.
After our Tioman adventures, we decided to fly back to KL. On certain days of the week a Berjaya Airlines flight leaves from Tekek, which has the smallest airport I’ve ever seen (this coming from someone who grew up flying in and out of Worland, WY). As fun as the bus / ferry adventure was, this saved us a day and didn’t cost that much more. Everything went smoothly– soon we were back in the city doing laundry, running errands and generally preparing for our next adventure in Penang.
Also in KL, we met and hung out with a few expats (one from Houston, others from England), who gave us the hard sell on bringing our legal skills to KL for a few years. Cheap standard of living, great food, interesting atmosphere, and all on a US-equivalent salary. Pretty tempting.