When it comes to paradise islands in Southeast Asia, Thailand seems to have it all. The incredible diving around Ko Tao, the luxury resorts of Koh Samui and the Full Moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan, for example, act as magnet for those seeking sun, sea and sand. And deservedly so – they are, quite frankly, stunning destinations and the warm, friendly Thais only add to the appeal. My partner and I have been visiting Thailand for a number of years now and never fail to fall back in love with this small corner of paradise.
This year, however, was different. We were visiting some of the Andaman Islands with a friend from home and somehow just didn’t ‘click’ with them. Perhaps we’re getting older; Perhaps the unstoppable march of mass tourism has started to take its toll on these paradise islands. Likely a little of both. But for us, the throngs of drunken 18-year-olds and thumping electro music that played into the early hours simply wasn’t working for us. We decided to get out and find somewhere a little more ‘us’.
Lying to the south of Thailand is Malaysia, a country we had visited a couple of times thanks to its useful air connections and the thriving capital of Kuala Lumpur. Culturally, it is a very different beast to Thailand with its strong Islamic influences largely putting a stop to any significantly wild parties. The people are wonderfully friendly and the food simply delicious, and there was no reason that the Malaysian islands would be any less stunning than their northern neighbours. And so it was that we came to spend a number of weeks exploring the idyllic and largely overlooked islands off the Malaysian mainland.
Stilling just a stone’s throw south of the Thai border lies Langkawi, ‘the Jewel of Kedah’. With fast and regular ferry connections to the mainland and its own international airport, Langkawi is the perfect starting point for your Malaysian odyssey. An incredibly diverse island, it is possible to hike in the dense forests in the middle of the island by day, and relax with a sunset cocktail on one of the many fine sandy beaches in the evening. The excellent road network makes it easy to get around by bus and taxi, or by motorbikes hired from one of the many local agencies.
For superb views over the whole island, take the cable car to the top of the one of the island’s highest peaks. From here, you can take a walk along the famous Langkawi Sky Bridge – a curved, glass bottom bridge that spans a vast valley in the islands highlands. The coast-to-coast views are spectacular in clear weather, although its proximity to the ocean means that the clouds can roll in surprisingly quickly!
The other unique feature of Langkawi is its status as a Duty Free zone. Alcohol in Malaysia is generally more expensive than in neighbouring Thailand, so make the most of your time on Langkawi to enjoy discount drinks, as well as good deals on a number of other goods. In the evening, bars will open up all along the beaches, with excellent sunset views and a relaxed vibe.
Heading south from Langkawi, you will find the culturally diverse island of Penang. Its main city, Georgetown, dates back to 18th century when it was established by British traders. As with many former trading towns, lots of different cultures have come together to create a unique identity with Chinese, Malay, British and Indian influences. Whilst Penang’s beaches are still pleasant, the main attraction here is the wonderful cultural heritage. Frequently listed amongst the great ‘foodie’ destinations of the world, the cuisine on offer throughout the island is wonderfully diverse and usually very cheap. Street food, whilst now very trendy in the west, has always been more of a way of life in Georgetown and it’s possible to spend hours walking the narrow streets and sampling food from the numerous vendors. The numerous food courts offer some of the best selection and, at just a few dollars per plate, exceptional value.
Another popular pastime in Penang is exploring the street art that has popped up all across the city. Practically every street corner has some kind of mural, whilst some of the more well-known pieces will have a queue of tourists waiting to pose for a photograph with it. The town centre itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is small enough to cover by foot, although there are also 4-wheeled pedal cars available to hire on and around Armenian Street which can be a fun way to explore slightly further afield!
Lying on the other side of the Malaysian peninsular are the Perhentian Islands, made up of Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil – Literally ‘Large’ and ‘Small’. That said, even the larger of the two islands is easily accessible by foot, whilst water taxis ferry visitors to the less accessible areas. Whilst there is some nightlife on the islands, it is still a far cry from the backpacker hangouts of Koh Phi Phi and the like.
The emphasis here is all on the Scuba Diving and Snorkelling, for which the area is famed. Vast coral reefs and an abundance of sea life makes this an excellent destination for both experienced and novice divers. For those who have not dived before, there are a number of highly-regarded operators offering PADI accredited dive courses, as-well as advanced courses for those with some experience. After a long day out on the water, you can retreat to your beach-front accommodation for an evening under the stars, the likes of which you will never have seen before!
A word of warning, though: the sheer remoteness of the Perhentian Islands, and the annual Eastern Monsoon means that access to the islands is generally only possible from March until late October. Whilst you may find operators willing to take you ‘out of season’, be prepared for a potentially rough sea crossing, and for most of the bars, restaurants and hotels to be closed when you arrive!