I'll let you in on a secret...
Thailand is not the only country in southeast Asia with stunning beaches. Malaysia has dozens of tiny islands on both the east and west coasts that rival the beauty of southern Thailand. Plus, the beaches in Malaysia have the added advantage of being relatively unknown (read: cheaper, less crowded, more unspoilt).
Photo credit: Nicolas Lannuzel on Flickr.
One important fact to keep in mind when planning a trip to any Malaysian beach is the monsoon season -- do not visit the east coast of Malaysia between November and March, unless you like rain. Lots of rain. That one caveat aside, here are my top picks for a beach-hopping Malaysian adventure.
Best Beaches: East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia
Malaysia's east coast is the top spot to catch some rays for those living in Kuala Lumpur (KL) -- it's cheap and easy to reach by plane on one of the country's budget airlines, even for just a long weekend. The water is crystal clear, the beaches are powdery soft and blindingly white. My favorites on the east coast are:
Photo credit: Nicolas Lannuzel on Flickr.
Redang. The most expensive of the east coast islands, Redang is truly paradise. Very few Malaysians actually live on the island, so you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. Snorkeling is available off any beach; if you're lucky, you might even see some sea turtles. Redang is well known as a turtle sanctuary, they usually lay their eggs on Turtle Beach on the north of the island. Berjaya Air makes it very easy to get to Redang from KL's Subang airport (a 45-minute flight, and you're on the beach within five minutes of arriving).
Photo credit: Nguyen Thành Lam via Flickr.
Perhentian Islands. A selection of smaller islands just north of Redang, the Perhentians are very popular with budget travelers. The beaches are totally unspoilt, with a wide variety of beach huts right on the shore, for just the right price. A favorite for diving and snorkeling, the Perhentians are a great place to earn your scuba diving certificate.
Photo credit: Peter Gronemann via Flickr.
Tioman Island. Part of Malaysia's protected marine park islands, Tioman is a snorkeling and divers paradise. The abundant coral reefs off the northern coast of the island are home to a huge variety of colorful tropical fish within easy reach of the shore. Tioman is quite close to Singapore, towards the south of Malaysia's east coast and sees quite a few tourists from both Singapore and Malaysia each year. You will find larger, more budget-friendly hotels all around this popular island. Berjaya Air offers quick and easy flights directly to Tioman or you can take the bus to the coast, and then a ferry to the island.
Best Beaches: West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia
Langkawi. Malaysia's duty-free island, Langkawi is the most touristy and lively island on the west coast. Although the beaches aren't quite as beautiful as those on the east coast, there is a much wider variety of hotels, restaurants, and shops on this tourist hot spot. Langkawi beaches have the added advantage of being available all year round - no monsoon closures for this northern island.
Photo credit: AndyLawson via Flickr.
The island is big enough for more than just beach sports, which make it especially attractive for more active travelers. There is a beautiful hike up to the Seven Wells (waterfalls) on the north of the island or the absolutely beautiful cable car ride up to the top of the highest mountain on Langkawi - providing breathtaking views of the ocean and nearby islands. Langkawi is also home to the most luxurious hotels Malaysia has to offer - the Datai and the Four Seasons. If you're looking for a weekend of pampering, look no further than the beautiful island of Langkawi.
Photo credit: Phalinn Ooi via Flickr.
Pangkor Island. Although not the most beautiful of Malaysian beaches, Pangkor is within an easy drive from KL - a great option for a weekend escape. There are several large hotels around Pangkor Island, but most expats opt for the Pangkor Beach Resort. If you're looking to splurge, Pangkor Laut is a privately owned island resort with stunning over-water bungalows, 5-star service, and door-to-door transportation included. An easy weekend get-away from the hustle and bustle of KL.
Photo credit: Paul White via Flickr.
Borneo. The island of Borneo, shared between Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia is quickly becoming a hot spot for well-traveled divers. On the west coast of Borneo, Turtle Beach and Golden Beach are part of the Similajau National Park. Both beaches are turtle nesting grounds, within a larger nature reserve full of tropical wildlife, jungle streams, waterfalls and plenty of animal residents. The natural parks of Sarawak are the perfect place to enjoy an invigorating jungle trek, bird watching, or just relaxing on the many perfect beaches.
Photo credit: Jenny via Flickr.
Sipadan, on the east coast of Borneo, is one of the top dive spots in the world, by far the best in Malaysia. The island is an environmental reserve area so there are limits to the number of visitors per day. Diving in Sipadan is an amazing experience - you may see schools of greenback and hawksbill turtles, barracuda, manta rays, even hammerhead and whale sharks! The island is best for diving, rather than snorkeling or sunbathing, so make sure you plan in advance for a full-on diving experience.
Travel Tips & Precautions
Not to sound like your mother, but...
Photo credit: Khalzuri Yazid via Flickr.
- Pack plenty of sunblock. While sunblock should be available at most resorts, some hotels on the smaller islands can be understocked. Since Malaysia isn't far from the equator, just a few minutes in the midday sun can leave you scorched.
- Bring mosquito repellent and walking shoes. Even if you plan to vegetate on the beach every day, you might find yourself trekking through Malaysia's abundant and colorful rain forest at some point.
- Don't lose your cool. As in most Asian societies, Malaysian culture values polite interactions which allow both parties to "save face". Courteous persistence with resort staff or locals will probably get you further than getting visibly upset. Note that Islamic tradition dictates that you should hand things to Malays using your right hand, not your left.
- Safeguard your valuables. Regardless of how secure your resort might seem, tourists' piles of expensive cameras and telephones can be tempting to locals, and things do occasionally go missing. Use the safe in your room, or leave valuables at the hotel desk, and keep an eye on your goods while bathing.
-Kim Cofino for Viator
Planning a trip? Browse Viator's list of things to do in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur tours & sightseeing tours, Penang, Langkawi and Sabah & Sarawak. Also check out Viator's Malaysia travel recommendations and our list of Top 25 Things to Do in Asia.