Tioman is touted as a paradise by many and rightfully so. There is a reason why many long-term visitors will swear by it and there’s also a reason why it took me almost 5 years to attest to that too. Frankly, it is a bit pain to get to. But that works to its advantage because otherwise it wouldn’t be a paradise. Imagine a former colleague of mine has been there almost 20 times! Another friend, who I met there during my visit, went to Tioman on holiday 6 years ago and hasn’t quite returned yet. These are just a couple examples to demonstrate that this island has some aura about it that makes people either stay forever or keep coming back. I seem to be the next candidate ready for an affair.
Like I said, it’s not the easiest destination, though that goes for most islands on the East Coast. You will need some time. I for one, since I often tend to make things more difficult for myself, chose even a more complicated route to the traditional one. The usual visitor will need to take a bus from Kuala Lumpur to Mersing and somehow coordinate it with the boat departure. Often, however, some (rather long) wait or even overnight stay in Mersing would be involved.
I didn’t want to choose this route simply because I travelled right after the partial lift of lockdown brought about by this disastrous pandemic, more precisely during the so called ‘recovery phase’, and was worried the buses wouldn’t run as per their usual schedules. I got this impression after calling a couple companies and my paranoia as well as safety took precedence.
I did it my way
Instead of bus to Mersing, I took a bus to Johor Bahru (run by Aeroline – luxury experience with the front seat and the whole bus almost to myself) and planned to stay overnight. After all I’d never been to this part of peninsula and so wanted to kill two birds with one stone and also have a more local experience by travelling from JB Larkin Bus Terminal early morning to Mersing jetty.
JB – to go or not to go
Johor Bahru, by locals mainly referred to as JB, is from a tourist point of view a complete dump (partly also because there is a greater Islamic influence), but a pretty lovely place if you are into photography. If you have never been there and want to have this experience, then go. However, keep in mind that most of the attractions are shopping or family entertainment related and further from the city centre, so this is indeed a no-no for me. There is a temple or two but mostly the city is sweltering with heat and thumping with noise from way too many construction sites. It’s a rather darker experience indeed.
However, as I mentioned above, for a photographer JB offers multiple opportunities as it lives in the past and doesn’t seem to be planning on moving forward. It was wonderful to see some of the gems of previous decades to be preserved here with something I’d call accidental nonchalance.
Half the shops were still closed due to the so called SOP (standard operating procedures) measures, that is post lockdown regulations and restrictions, and those that were open adhered to stricter rules. Therefore, in addition to its already somewhat gloomy atmosphere, the old town had this ghost-like and apocalyptic feel to it as only a handful of people moved around and it was pretty dead overall.
The most hilarious thing was though, that for the first time in my life I was forced to do something I thought I’d never do and that is drink beer from a paper coffee cup… Yes, you got that right – beer in a coffee cup. First, I talked myself into a massage with gloves. But my body was calling so desperately that I didn’t care and when I wanted to quench my thirst afterwards, they ambushed me with this. No need to mention the name of the bar though. There are not many anyways.
I gave in because I was a) desperately thirsty b) served that stuff before I could protest, so here I went. Girl from a country with arguably the best beer worldwide forced to drink low level quality beer in even a lower quality setting. And why? Because in JB you still couldn’t drink beer openly during the SOP, so at least it had this nice clandestine aspect to it. But I’m glad to be back to drinking from glass.
From JB to Mersing
This was also a very unique experience. JB Larkin Terminal doesn’t have the best reputation but I was there early in the morning so it was okay. Not so crowded at that time. If you ever need to take a bus from there, ask the staff at the ticket counter EXACTLY where to go and which platform to stand on. Insist on their telling you exact instructions and platform number as it can get really confusing there with so many platforms, buses and improper signage! Also beware of random locals who might be eager to help. I listened to one and it was a mistake which made me run back and forth to the ticket office like an idiot, almost missing the bus! Won’t go into more details. I am sure you understand. Just stick to your own reason and follow it.
I travelled with Causeway link, which run regular buses twice a day on that route and it worked perfectly. The ride was actually wonderful as it was at sunrise so I took plenty of to me unique photos. It was totally worth the hassle with a bonus added, which was drop off at Mersing jetty, which meant it saved me walking from the bus station. All worked really well but I have to admit that I wouldn’t necessarily repeat that journey again. Though if you fancy combining it with visiting JB, it’s an option to consider.
To get to Tioman you will obviously need to take a boat. I strongly recommend using Cataferry. It’s a very reliable company and unlike Bluewater ferries will get you to your destination on time and safely. They communicate perfectly too and are a safe bet. Book early though, as their great service is not a secret among locals and foreigners alike and most reasonable passengers will use them. I know others have used Bluewater too, but they are not reliable and I’ve heard some horrendous stories.
There are several piers (Tekek, Genting, Air Batang, Salang and Paya) and your resort must instruct you precisely on where to get off. Apparently each part of the island caters to a slightly different crowd but if you want to be in paradise, you must choose Tekek. It is the main village in that part of the island and actually the whole island. This is where they have a police station, prison, clinic… You know, these give a place a higher status. Another great thing is that it’s a duty free island so in Tekek you can buy plenty of super cheap beer.
Juara Beach and Bushman
The choice of beach will dramatically influence your stay. You see, another thing that makes Tioman special is its difficult terrain. The whole island is not connected with a road, which somewhat throws a spanner in comfortable all island exploring should you get bored or dissatisfied in your resort. For example ABC beach, where most backpackers and budget travellers go, is just covered in rocks and for a beach lover, or more precisely swim-in-the-sea lover, this is a no-no. However, it does offer excellent opportunities for traveling around the island as it’s just near Tekek. That means boat taxis are easily accessible and cheap, so you can visit plenty of nearby beaches.
Paya is not exactly great either when it comes to beach, so that leaves us with even fewer options. While I have only been to one beach in Tioman, 5 years of attempting to come for a holiday and to it attached research as well discussions with my former colleague, had me pretty well equipped with loads of useful information.Thus Juara beach and Bushman Tioman were and always will be the only answer for the ultimate island chilling experience. If you want to have a great time surrounded by jungle, white sand beach and pristine waters, this is where you should be.
Firstly, because it is located on the best beach on the whole island (Salang is good too, but maybe the second best. Nipah is stunning but far and only accessible by boat). And secondly, because you will have the whole beach to yourself and will therefore enjoy the holiday even more. Especially now, when there are no tourists, it is an extremely unique experience. It’s just you and a couple of locals. And for me, that’s a great selling point. What’s more, Bushman are real professionals. They offer unparalleled service, serve delicious food and have fair prices. If you try them out, you won’t regret. Book early though, as they are hugely popular! No wonders. It’s indeed the best accommodation around.
It’s a sleepy village, surrounded by pristine jungle that is so green you will hardly believe it. People lead a very laid back lifestyle and everything is just incredibly different. No loud bars, no loud music, no crowded streets….You see what I mean, right? And yet, if you want that kind of experience, there is this somewhat ugly and totally not fitting in resort called Barat which caters to the more demanding clientele and alcohol along with wild parties are apparently available too. I got even invited ‘from street’ as one of the guys noticed me passing by and thought he would try his luck by catching up with me on his motorbike. The invitation sounded like this: “Hey babe, wanna party?” Had I been for example in Bangkok, I wouldn’t be alarmed by this. But on Tioman? I was indeed struck. I guess once places like this open up to mass tourism, adequate change in behaviour of certain individuals is inevitable.
Overall though such experiences are rare and locals are very friendly, smiling and happy to interact with you. Wandering around aimlessly with my camera was always the highlight of the trip. If I appeared somewhere around locals, I’d be always surrounded by kids and lots of genuine smiles. No intrusive questions, no uncomfortable stairs, just cool ambiance you naturally tend to blend in.
The story of the guy who never returned home is particularly interesting. The funniest thing of all is that he is from Poland and I met him, as it always happens, by a complete coincidence. Why is it so funny? Well, if you read my blog you would know that my mum is Polish and meeting the only Polish man who lives on Tioman permanently and getting to speak Polish on a tropical island on the East Coast of Malaysia is kinda pretty cool, isn’t it?
And the coincidence? Well, Sebastian spends most of his extremely busy days devouring books, chilling by the beach, sipping coffee, smoking (which he picked up only on Tioman to blend in with locals), tucked away in his ‘shop’, which is however not visible from the street. He sits there from morning to evening and unless you are aware of his ‘hideaway’ you would have no idea whatsoever that it exists. I remember that when I met Seb I was looking for a bicycle to rent and almost reached the end of the road, slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that even if bicycles were almost to be seen everywhere, it’s impossible to rent them.
And so when I was sort of reluctantly about to turn back and resign, a totally blonde (Swedish I thought at first), tall and lean – obviously extremely unusual traits in this part of the world – guy stepped barefoot into the road. The teacher and explorer in me immediately reacted: “Oh hi! Wouldn’t you by any chance know where I could rent a bicycle?” I quickly asked hoping only for the best possible results. He smiled from ear to ear. He was probably also surprised to see a blond, tall and lean individual of the opposite sex so he quickly introduced himself. We did a quick but comprehensive small talk covering the basics of our lives, which quickly had us conversing in Polish. Pretty awesome, don’t you reckon?
During our fruitful conversation still standing on the same spot, an elderly local man passed by on an old, rusty bicycle which had us return to the original topic. Of course I could walk, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it also could be. You know, this island puts a spell of laziness on you the minute you set your foot on it. It makes you so sluggish that you would soon consider walking even 300 metres a chore.
“So Bicycle you say?” he responded with amusement. Funnily enough, we both turned our gaze at the elderly local man simultaneously.
“Yes, bicycle, like this one” I returned a huge smile pointing at the man disappearing in the woods. This created an even broader smile on Seb’s face and he responded with great amusement: “This was probably the only functional bicycle and the only person who rides it here,” Seb joked.
Well, obviously it wasn’t the only functional bicycle and the man wasn’t the only rider, however, this statement was indeed very close to the truth. Maybe there were around 5 old grandpas who would give a bicycle preference over otherwise heavily used motorbikes. So while I saw bicycles almost anywhere and even a few rentals, the sad truth was that most of them were broken or had succumbed to rust and could therefore not been used. My hopes were futile but at least Seb invited me for a real cup of coffee the next morning. And like this I would sometimes join him and we would spend the afternoons together, chatting and doing nothing. It felt dangerously great. And luckily for me, the Bushman crew were so great that they dug out an old bicycle from the shed and – yay! I was finally set!
You might think that Seb’s story looks too good to be true but don’t judge yet. Before Tioman stole Seb’s soul, he used to work in the banking industry, making and saving money. When he arrived in Tioman he was already a man with a great financial reserve and a property in Poland. He used part of his earned capital to start a windsurfing school on Tioman (there is only one so just google it if interested) and is now enjoying freedom from financial or any worries for that matter. He even owns a boat so it kinda feels like a Robinson Crusoe, only that with all the perks of modern life. Seb can afford the lazy lifestyle he has now because he worked hard and doesn’t have to worry much about tomorrow. What a life!
If you have read until here, I hope you have created a good impression from this island and especially Juara beach. I’ve only scratched the surface with this post so I hope to bring more stuff next time. You see, like I said, I seem to be giving in and am going to Tioman again very soon.
To be continued….