Pangkor, Tioman, Perhentian, Sipadan and Redang. These places probably come up tops when you Google “popular islands in Malaysia”.
While the aforementioned postcard-perfect venues almost always make it to the bucket list of many island lovers (and for very good reasons), Malaysia does have a handful of other lesser-known islands that should not be dismissed.
Granted, an island with a low guest turn out might not boast five-star resorts or state-of-the-art facilities, but you might find that these unsung destinations hold more pristine beaches and azure blue waters.
Tourism Malaysia has recommended a few hidden gems to satiate your island life fantasy. These islands are located off the waters of Sabah, Terengganu and Johor.
Mataking Island, Sabah
The waters off Mataking Island is where you can find an underwater post office, touted to be the first of its kind in Malaysia. The attraction is actually a 12m-long wooden cargo ship that was sunk over a decade ago to create an artificial reef. Divers can post a letter by sealing their parcel in a waterproof vacuum bag.
Out of the water, sparkling white sands and beach activities beckon. Some activities to indulge in include kayaking, canoeing and trekking. There are also spas where you can seek luxurious pampering experiences.
Be sure to spare some time for a leisurely walk to Mataking Kecil. It’s a nearby island that’s smaller and it takes about 20 minutes on foot to get there from the main island.
A 45-minute journey by boat from Semporna town will get one to Mataking.
Lankayan Island, Sabah
Divers near and far have been coming to Lankayan for its marine life, corals and sunken wrecks. Another draw at this beautiful island is the sightings of whale sharks.
Diving aside, Lankayan has also received a fair share of visits from couples on vacation. Clear waters, sandy beaches and the occasional calls of wildlife in the lush jungle make this a very romantic getaway.
Casuarina trees and wild pandan bushes make up the majority of indigenous plants in the island. As for the fauna, some animals to look out for are ghost pipefish, flying gurnards, parrotfishes and blacktip sharks.
Turtle watchers can delight in the fact that the Green and Hawksbill turtles make this island a nesting spot in the Sulu Sea.
The journey to Lankayan is about two hours via speedboat that departs from the Sandakan Yacht Club.
Mantanani Island, Sabah
A small group of three islands to the northwest of Sabah forms the Mantanani. The largest of the islands is Mantanani Besar, while the other two are Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan.
The knife-shaped Mantanani Besar is home to a relatively untouched beach. It’s also where one can find many species of rays swimming amid many other diverse marine life. Dugongs are sometimes seen swimming in the waters here.
Mantanani is also a paradise for birdwatching enthusiasts. Many birds nest at the island due to the lack of terrestrial predators. Explore some of the trails around Mantanani Besar to see these birds. Some species to look out for are the Mantanani scops owl, pink-necked pigeons and emerald doves.
To reach the islands, take a one-hour speedboat journey from Kuala Abai jetty in Kota Belud.
Tenggol Island, Terengganu
Located off the coast of Terengganu, Tenggol is the farthest island from the mainland and was uninhabited in the past. Today, it is hailed as one of Malaysia’s best-kept diving secrets among enthusiasts. There are many diving spots here such as Tanjung Gemok, Teluk Rajawali, Teluk Air Tawar and Tokong Timor.
Venture into the deep-water dives and you might just spot black-tipped reef sharks, barracudas and nudibranch. Come between March and April, or September and October, and you might catch sight of whale sharks. Visitors have also sighted turtles by the shore.
The relatively quiet beaches here means there’s ample opportunity for some relaxation. Once you’re done relaxing, take a walk at the beautiful beach or swim in the clear blue sea.
To get to the island, one would need to take a speedboat from the jetty at Dungun.
Gem Island, Terengganu
It’s easy to overlook Gem Island – known among locals as Pulau Gemia – for its more famous neighbour Kapas. The privately owned island lies amid crystal clear waters and a wonderful seascape of corals. Gem Island Resort & Spa is the sole accommodation on this island.
However, the rocky terrain here can make some beaches a little too remote. But you can always dive into the waters to meet some fascinating marine life.
In an effort to preserve wildlife, one of the beaches here is used as a turtle hatchery. The Green turtle is the most commonly sighted species on the island. Occasionally, the Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles are seen too. The eggs collected are transferred to an enclosure to keep them safe from monitor lizards, crabs and seabirds.
It takes about 15 minutes to get to the island by boat from Marang Jetty.
Aur Island, Johor
Prior to its reputation as an island resort, Aur has been a popular stopover among local fishermen. The island also holds an intriguing slice of history. The island’s vicinity was where the 1804 naval battle of Pulo Aura between the British and French took place.
These days though, Aur is more famous for its diving than history. As it is located far from the peninsula, you will find clear waters. The spectacular visibility here means there’s a better chance at spotting marine life such as napolean wrasse, angelfish and titan triggerfish.
There is also a smaller island nearby – Dayang Island – that is equally bewitching. Take a hike to the peak to enjoy spectacular views of the sea and its surroundings.
The speedboat to Aur departs from Mersing jetty.