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The Best Islands in Malaysia (and the worst)

Malaysia is often underrated when it comes to islands. It has some of the best islands in Southeast Asia, but also one of the worst. Warning: a rant is coming…..

Perhentian Kecil: The worst island in Malaysia (and maybe even Southeast Asia)

From a distance Perhentian Kecil looks pretty good, but once you walk down Long Beach you start to see its “no makeup” face, and it isn’t pretty.  There is trash everywhere, the beach is full of cigarette butts, there are far too many tables, chairs, and shacks on the beach and the water is full of boats. The water looks good from a distance, but once again, when you actually get in it isn’t particular clear (or clean, probably).  The accommodation is basic to say the least and really overpriced and so is the food. Coral Bay wasn’t quite as bad but it’s still not somewhere I’d choose to stay, and to get there from Long Beach you have to walk for about 10 minutes past even more trash. I wouldn’t complain so much about all the rubbish if I (and every other visitor to the island) didn’t get charged a RM 5 conservation fee. I have no idea where that money is going, but it’s definitely not going towards keeping the islands clean.

Perhentian Besar, the bigger island, looked a bit better but everything I read online told me that Long Beach/Coral Bay are the places to go. Maybe they were, but just like Madonna, Perhentian Kecil has had its day and should quietly retire.

lots of boats at coral bay, perhentian Kecil, the worst island in Malaysia

Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil, the worst island in Malaysia

 

And now it’s time for the best islands in Malaysia. I can’t separate them because they all offer completely different experiences, so you can make your mind up about which one you’d choose.

Langkawi

Langkawi is probably the most popular island in Malaysia. It gets plenty of local (and Singaporean) tourists and most of the island is catered towards them, and not backpackers. There are a lot of expensive resorts but you can find cheap accommodation, food and activities at Pantai Cenang.

Langkawi is the best choice if you need to be kept busy. There are boat trips, waterfalls, hiking, pretty much any water activity you can think of and a highly rated cable car. Alcoholics will also love Langkawi, as drinking there is cheaper than almost everywhere else in Malaysia.

limestone mountains on the island hopping tour in Langkawi, Malayisa

A sunset on Langkawi, one of the best islands in Malaysia

Penang

Penang is the island you’d want to wash up on after being lost at sea for a few months. You’d be hungry, but Penang would have you covered. It’s known as the food capital of Malaysia (and maybe Southeast Asia) and if you are in any way a fan of Malaysian food you’ll love Penang. The main city, Georgetown, is one of the more interesting Malaysian towns; it features plenty of colonial architecture, and old Chinese shophouses and temples. If you want to get out of the city, head to the Penang National Park and take a walk along the coast. There are some surprisingly good beaches and it’s always nice to do a bit of jungle walking. (The photo at the top of this post was also taken in Penang, at the national park)

A beach on Penang, one of the best islands in Malaysia

a temple in Georgetown, Penang, one of the most interesting islands in Malaysia

Pangkor

Pangkor would have to be the most unglamorous of Malaysia’s islands, but that ends up being part of its charm. The island is famous for its dried fish (which is horrible, in my opinion) and it’s best to avoid the areas where it’s produced because the smell is pretty awful.

Rent a motorbike and get out into the countryside and you’ll see an unspoilt island that’s ready to be explored. Pangkor attracts backpackers looking for a cheap getaway, but from what I saw tourism really hasn’t hit the island hard at all. Go to Pangkor if you want to get back to basics and away from the tourist masses.

A stunning view on Pulau Pangkor, one of the quietest islands in Malaysia

A sunset on Pangkor, one of the quietest islands in Malaysia

Tioman: One of the best islands in Malaysia!

Tioman is probably my favourite island in Malaysia. Salang, the village I stayed at, had a really nice beach and some of the clearest water I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. Find the right spot, walk out to around chest height and you’ll be surrounded by fish; there isn’t any need to go snorkeling. It’s a small village with laid back atmosphere and is a great place to relax. You can walk for about an hour through the jungle and you’ll end up at Monkey Beach, another stunning beach with water full of fish. If you are looking to relax on a great beach, choose Tioman.

Monkey beach on Tioman, one of the best islands in Malaysia

Salang beach on tioman, one of the best islands in Malaysia

Further reading: Looking for more information about travelling in Malaysia? Check out this guide over at Travelfish.org

So, which of these islands would you like to visit? Please don’t say Perhentian Kecil! I haven’t been to any of the islands off Borneo, so this list is only compiled from islands off peninsular Malaysia, if you have been to any other islands in Malaysia, let me know how they were!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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11 Comments

  1. Gabb
    May 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm — Reply

    Alright… as a person who used to traveled and lived in Malaysia, I wanna give out my personal point of view of these islands mentioned in this article.

    PENANG pro – best food, best street art installments, best Peranakan, Chinese and Indian culture combine, well… Penang bridges. con – dirty beaches, bad drivers. LANGKAWI pro – cheap alcohol and tobacco products for those who complaints that Malaysia is so expensive on those 2 products (Jezuz!!!), cable car to hanging bridge between 2 mountains, worst beach (Cenang) which actually a party beach at night, underestimate beach (Tengah), nice beach (Tanjung Rhu) but hell to the private resorts, OK waterfalls, superb night markets. con – drunkards everywhere, while alcohol and cigarette are cheap the food vendors are not really cheap but still affordable :P, no buses just fucking expensive taxi ride (that’s why rent a bike!). PANGKOR pro & con – was OK, i would say underestimate but maybe also because of the water of Malacca Straits so it is not as blue or beautiful like most people expect from the island/beach but on the other side feel kinda safe (and also an eye candy) since the Malaysia #1 Navy Based is located at Lumut which is next to Pangkor. TIOMAN – pro & con – used to be the best island/beach but tourism kinda kill it all. Anyway it kinda make a comback since 2010 which is pretty cool. The beach is still beautiful, it also a duty free island so the alcohol and tobacco products are cheap just like Langkawi but some part of the island the beaches need some help 🙁 PERHENTIAN KECIL – the best, imho. Totally contrast from the article above. it is still way better than Koh Tao in Thailand for me. yeap, lots of boat but they just parked it by the shore, where the hell this writer expect the owner of the boat to park them? at least not like 50 boats hogging one dive spot in one time like in Thailand! Coral Bay are good for snorkeling and sun bathing too (watch out for coconut!!!) and cheaper than Long Beach in term of food, accommodation and also diving course/trip, also snorkeling. Long Beach can be dirty in the morning because people partying at night so normally the will clean it up somehow. Long Beach is good for swimming as it sandy bottom. Party is cool here. PERHENTIAN BESAR – suitable for honeymooners, families and people with big budget because it is more expensive and quieter.

    I can come out with more islands list in Malaysia if you want to know more (briefly). REDANG island @ Terengganu, SIBU island @ Johor, SIPADAN island @ Sabah, MABUL island @ Sabah, TENGGOL island @ Terengganu, KAPAS island @ Terengganu, PAYAR island @ Langkawi, GAYA island @ Sabah, BESAR island @ Malacca, BIDONG island @ Terengganu.

    • May 17, 2014 at 12:35 pm — Reply

      Thanks for the comment Gabb, very informative!I haven’t been to any islands in Thailand (except for Phuket) so I can’t really compare, but Long Beach and Coral Bay were pretty awful. When did you last go there? I’m sure it was nice at some point, but with so many amazing islands in Southeast Asia there is no need to put up with so much rubbish on the beach/ the boats / just a generally unpleasant place. Tioman was far cleaner and just a nicer place to be, I’m sure these things change from year to year though.

      • January 27, 2016 at 2:01 pm — Reply

        I have visited Perhentian Kecil island quite a few times up until 2012. The warm, swimming pool clear water made me go back again and again, but it has become too noisy for me especially at night – maybe I’ve become too old for it, I dunno, but after my last trip, I have no desire to go back again. As for Langkawi, I am not sure it is somewhere I’d recommend to anyone flying over continents just for it, but we’ve enjoyed it a lot before all the developments that has changed Pantai Cenang area massively. On the plus side, Pantai Cenang beach itself was really clean on our last visit! On Phuket, we had a lovely holiday in Phuket over Christmas and stayed in Kamala. It’s a pretty small compared to Kata or Patong, but much quieter and the water is lovely and clear! On the minus side, not sure what are the price point elsewhere in Phuket, but things sure aren’t cheap where we stayed in Kamala!

  2. May 17, 2014 at 10:59 pm — Reply

    Last year. It wasn’t that bad last year but they do have some garbage pick-up problem as the mainland city council sometimes “sleeping”. I worked in Perhentian for good 2 months on Coral Bay area. You should see islands in Thailand.. they are far worst than Perhentian Islands in my opinion. Leave alone Bali. Bali is a dumpster, at least for me. At least oil didnt spill all over the water of Perhentian! Anyway, you should go to Borneo, its AMAZING!!!

    • May 17, 2014 at 11:47 pm — Reply

      Yeah, the islands in Borneo look great, I’ll get there sometime! I’m probably comparing them more to some of the islands I’ve been to in Cambodia and the Philippines. Check out Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem in Cambodia and Sugar beach in the Philippines. I also went to the Maldives recently which might have nudged my standards up a bit!

  3. April 8, 2015 at 1:58 am — Reply

    Great post! I’ve been to Pangkor Laut, the luxury island just off Pangkor and can attest to how amazing it is and all only 3 hours drive from KL. I’ve always been put off going to other islands due to needing to jump on another plane from KL or a long bus journey so Pangkor Laut was a perfect weekend island getaway.

  4. April 19, 2015 at 5:54 am — Reply

    Yeah I’ve heard that island is nice – definitely not within my budget though I’d say!

  5. Sidney Brinson
    May 25, 2015 at 4:07 pm — Reply

    Hi Jon,
    Love you site and have been using it for reference as to what to do around Singapore. I just moved here from the US and will be here for 2.5 months. I was thinking of taking trips to Malaysia over the weekends and wanted to know if there were areas I’d be save/not safe travelling alone? I’d love to visit some of the islands you mentioned but wanted to know if I’d be ok travelling to them as a solo (albeit perfectly capable) female. 🙂

  6. KW
    February 19, 2016 at 5:30 pm — Reply

    Thanks for all the reviews(pros & cons). As a Malaysian, I appreciate it. I do agree that Borneo has much to offer….world class islands… have to be Sapi Island (not far from the state capital of KK) but can be crowded during weekends and Sipadan. Due to safety, only day trips are allowed to Sipadan.

    Langkawi, Perhentian, Tioman, Redang, Pangkor Laut(private) are too commercialise…..Pangkor is suitable for those who wants to avoid tourist crowd.

    • February 21, 2016 at 11:37 pm — Reply

      Thanks for the comment KW, I’m planning to explore some of the islands off Borneo at some point!

  7. mr s
    December 17, 2016 at 3:45 am — Reply

    You should go to Sabah Borneo in Malaysia.There are many beautiful islands like Manukan island,Sipadan Island and Mabul island.You will love its.

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