Malaysia is known the world over for its cultural diversity, lush tropical forests, mouthwatering cuisine and its islands. I’ve had the privilege of visiting many islands in Malaysia to laze on the blinding white sands, swim in the crystal-clear water and say ‘hi’ to the amazing marine life. Malaysia comprises two parts: Peninsular Malaysia (or West Malaysia) which is the southernmost stretch of the Asian continent, and the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo (the world’s third largest island), often referred to collectively as East Malaysia. Though the mainland of both West and East Malaysia have beautiful sandy beaches, the best beaches and coral reefs can be found on the many islands off the coast. The largest islands, Penang and Langkawi, offer a lot more than just beaches. Here’s my list of twelve islands to visit in Malaysia, categorised by (level of) activity.
Islands to visit in Malaysia
More than just beaches
My favourite Malaysian island boasts stunning colonial buildings, atmospheric temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site (Georgetown) and some of the best food in the country. The beaches, mainly on the island’s north coast, aren’t great, but they’re more than compensated by the diverse array of historic sites, sightseeing options, a wonderful vibe, amazing food and a large variety of both city and beach hotels. Search for hotels in Penang. Read more about things to do in Penang.
Located north of Penang, near the border with Thailand, Langkawi has lovely beaches (including Cenang beach and my favourite, Tanjung Rhu beach), a mountainous interior and gorgeous hotels. There are many seasport options at the main beaches.
Further inland, head for the cable-car and Skybridge for stunning views of the island and the Andaman Sea. In addition, Langkawi’s duty-free status means great bargains for popular duty-free items. I recommend hiring a car to explore the island at your leisure or alternatively, joining a private tour to see more of the island. I can also recommend the scenic sunset cruise. Search for hotels in Langkawi.
Both Penang and Langkawi have international airports with connections to Kuala Lumpur and other regional hubs.
Read about my stay in Langkawi.
Exploring the undersea wonders
Redang island is one of the largest islands off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The beaches are white and sandy and the water is crystal-clear. The island is surrounded by beautiful coral reefs, making it a popular snorkelling/diving destination. There are also several trails that crisscross the island’s jungle interior. In addition, the island is easily accessible from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore due to its airstrip. There are also boat services from Merang on the mainland. Search for hotels in Redang.
Perhentian consists of two islands (Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil). Often voted as some of the most beautiful in the world, the islands boast stunning sandy, palm-fringed beaches, crystalline water and colourful coral reefs. There are a variety of hotels on the Perhentian islands that cater to different budgets. I can recommend the lovely Bubu Resort. Read about my stay on Perhentian Kecil.
5. Lang Tengah
Situated smack in between Perhentian and Redang islands, Lang Tengah is a true gem. Its small size means there isn’t much to do aside from lazing on one of the stunning beaches or diving into the emerald sea. I experienced my first shark encounters off Lang Tengah so it’s one island I won’t easily forget! Search for hotels in Lang Tengah.
Redang, Perhentian and Lang Tengah islands are located in the northeast corner of Peninsular Malaysia. Redang and Lang Tengah islands can be accessed by boat from Merang (nearest airport: Redang or Kuala Terengganu) whilst Perhentian islands are reachable by boat from the town of Kuala Besut (nearest airport: Kota Bahru). The islands are typically closed during the monsoon season (November – February).
Sipadan is one of the most celebrated dive sites in the world. The only oceanic island in Malaysia, Sipadan is located off the east coast of Sabah. The island is basically an ancient volcanic cone overgrown by corals. Turtles, hammerhead sharks, barracudas and parrothead fish are just a handful of the many marine species that can be viewed here.
Due to its popularity – divers from all around the world visit the island every year – the number of dive groups per day is limited so it’s advisable to book way in advance. Sipadan is accessible by boat from the town of Semporna. It’s not possible to spend a night on Sipadan Island but check out the resorts on nearby Mabul Island.
This little island in the Sulu Sea, north of the Sabah town of Sandakan, is a great place to spot turtles and whale sharks (March – May). Its pristine beaches and easy accessibility from Sandakan make it a local favourite. Check out the beautiful Lankayan Island Dive Resort.
8. Layang Layang
This atoll, located 300km off the coast of Sabah in the South China Sea, is part of the sprawling Spratley archipelago. The atoll consists of a lodge, a navy base and an airstrip, and some of the best diving spots in Asia. Due to its isolation, the marine life is abundant and the corals are in excellent condition. Most divers visit the island to see hammerhead and whale sharks. Layang Layang can be reached by air from Kota Kinabalu. The Layang Layang Island Resort is the sole resort on the atoll.
Sipadan, Lankayan and Layang Layang are situated in Sabah, on Malaysian Borneo. Read more about things to do and see in Sabah. The capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, has an international airport with flights to major cities in Southeast Asia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Near Kota Kinabalu are also a variety of islands worth visiting.
9. Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, Kota Kinabalu
Just off the coast of the city lies the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a marine reserve comprised of several islands: Gaya, Manukan, Mamutik, Sulug and Sapi. These can be visited as a day trip from Kota Kinabalu. Gaya Island has the most accommodations, making it ideal as an easy island getaway from Kota Kinabalu.
10. Mantanani Islands
About a 1.5 hour drive north of Kota Kinabalu, and a 45-minute boat ride, lies the island of Mantanani. Visitors can stay at the Sutera Mantanani Resort.
11. Tioman Island
Tioman is a large island off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Steeped in legend, Tioman is famous for its mountainous interior, thick forests, sandy beaches and marine life. There are numerous accommodations on the island but one that truly stands out in terms of luxury and service is Japamala Resort by Samadhi. Set against a lush forest, the resort features luxurious suites and villas, some resembling tree houses, with forest or sea views. Japamala is absolutely perfect for a romantic getaway!
12. Pangkor Laut
The famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti reportedly cried when he saw how beautiful the island was. Pangkor Laut is indeed stunning. A small, secluded island just off the coast of West Malaysia. The upscale Pangkor Laut Resort has everything to spoil even the most jaded traveller. The romantic overwater bungalows, the splendid spa and the scrumptious cuisine are the star attractions of the resort. However, the island has its own attraction: Emerald Bay, simply one of the most beautiful coves I’ve ever seen.
Getting to Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur is the main gateway to Malaysia with frequent flights to all corners of the world. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is the base of Air Asia, Asia’s largest low-cost airline. Other secondary gateways to Malaysia include Kota Kinabalu and Penang.
Depending on your nationality, you may need a visa to visit Malaysia. Check the Malaysia visa requirements and apply for an online visa here.
Read other Velvet Escape posts on Malaysia:
- Things to do in Kuala Lumpur
- Things to do in Penang
- Exploring Melaka
- The Kinabatangan River safari
- Sunset cocktails at Vertigo
- Nostalgic street art in George Town
- Exploring Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur
I totally agree with you. Kuala Lumpur is a fantastic destination in its own right. I’ve written quite a bit about KL on my blog.
You ll most likely fly into Kuala Lumpur when traveling to Malaysia, so this one s a no-brainer. But unlike some other big cities in Asia where travelers arrive and get out of town as soon as possible, Kuala Lumpur is a worthwhile destination of its own.
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I’ll make some inquiries and respond via email.
Hi, very useful post.
So, I do have a couple of questions. We (my husband and our 5 year old son) want to go to Malaysian islands, we love beach, simple life, good food, inexpensive but clean places to stay. Preferably on the beach. Also, since we never be n to Malaysian Islands, we are open to sail around instead of staying in one spot, if we. An find desentvinexoesive crewed yach – my first question, do you know of any yach for hire, that are not expensive, may be cabin chartered?
Second question, which island would u recommend with amazing beaches, budget /clean/ac/internet place to stay on the beach or by the nu each.
Are there a lot mosquitoes/send flies?
Food-wise, island that u would recommend with nice beaches, since we r traveling w 5 year old, who is a picky eater, I was wondering, are there food choices or limited in variety?
Thank you in advance,
U can email me directly (email adr below this post)
You’re welcome! Hope you decide to go and enjoy Malaysia… snake-free! 🙂
Hi Keith, thank you so much! Yes, I am a bid ridiculous when it comes to snakes so thank you! I feel better! Thanks,
I doubt you’ll ever see a snake on the beach or in the water, and in urban areas like Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The only times I’ve seen a snake in Malaysia were in the jungle (national parks). I’ve often been told that they’re more afraid of us than the other way around (though I begged to differ! Haha!) and would slither away very quickly if they sensed a human approaching. They would only attack if they felt threatened. In such cases, the best would be to back off very slowly. If you stick to the beach resorts and urban areas, you should be fine. Don’t venture into the jungle.
Thanks Keith, that helps a little.. I am very concerned so thanks that helps some. Poisonous snakes kinda wrecks the beauty and peacefulness .for me. Would the snakes be on the beach or just in the water? Close to shore or way out? On land is it only in the rural areas or in the city , too? Please, expound a little more Thanks, Sande’
There are snakes on land and in the sea in Malaysia but I’ve never encountered one in the sea in the many times I’ve been there. I would totally have freaked out if I came across a snake while in the water so I’m thankful that’s never happened! 🙂 I hope this helps.
Hi, had a wild question. On all these beautiful beaches are there any snakes to worry about? Or in the water? I was doing some reading and it said these places had the sea snakes just wondering if they are very prolific there or not?
Thanks Justine! Pangkor Laut is indeed gorgeous and your post clearly shows that. I stayed in an overwater bungalow myself (many eons ago with my family) and loved it! My absolute fave was the sparkling Emerald Bay! 🙂
Hey Keith great post! I’ve been luck enough to visit Pangkor (which you rank no 10 on here) myself and can testify it is amazing. I have written a post about it here which I thought might be useful if your readers wanted to get some more detail into the island: http://www.justinewharton.com/2015/04/01/pangkor-malaysia-your-own-luxury-private-island/
hi keith am planning to visit malaysia over dec n jan and wanted islands to visit def going to visit Penang and others that easy to get to
You’ll need at least a month if you decide to visit all these places. I suggest being selective, combining culture/food/history (Penang) and either one or two other islands in West Malaysia (Langkawi/Perhentian/Redang) with East Malaysia (islands in the state of Sabah). Whichever you choose, have a FAB time! 🙂
Oh these look great! I’m thinking of going to Malaysia for a bit, but not sure how I’m going to make time to visit all those places!
Langkawi was incredible. Missed out on the Perenthians though. Think I was a bit islanded out by that point after just heading down from all the Thai Islands.
Such an amazing post! I went to Malasya in 2009 and I loved it! But I just visited Perhentian Islands. I spend 6 days there and it was like paradise: white sand, cristal water, lots of clawn fishes and sttuning views.
Awesome. I’m headed to Malaysia next, so this is a great guide!
Gosh, what a flashback. I loved Penang and Langkawi. Pangkor Laut is that Pulau Pangkor? If so, I really enjoyed that island. There were more local Malays than other nationalities. It made for a pleasant stay. We may have to head back to Malaysia very soon 🙂
Love a bit of Malaysia! Nice round up Keith. Maybe we can hit the beach together sometime soon? I don’t look that great in Speedo’s but I’m sure that won’t matter when the warm surf is upon us!
Thanks for the extra tip! I’ve been to Pulau Kapas but not the nearby island. Will definitely check it out the next time I’m in Terengganu.
Am a malaysian who live in Darwin Australia. I was surfing on web side looking for next island to visit in my home country and stumbled with your website article, which look good and interesting to read.
Yes i had been to Lang Tengah Island which was isolated and not commercial which was a PERFECT GETAWAY for relaxing not like Perhentian which was not as good as before. Redang Island was way too commercial like Tioman and Langkawi Island are.
But there is one tinny island call Gemia next to Kapas Island which you havent mention and it is like Lang Tengah Island too, none commercial.
I’ve been to both Penang and Langkawi. Thought Penang was great, good street food and did the walk to Monkey Beach which was fun. Georgetown has some wonderful old buildings but I found it very busy (especially darting through the traffic on a rickshaw!)
Found Langkawi so much better, more relaxed and could have spent more than a week there. We explored the island by car as it’s easy to get around and the locals were really friendly.
Hi, Keith! I’m from Malaysia and I would like to thank you for this wonderful article about our gorgeous islands. Malaysia is indeed a heaven for beach lovers and we, Malaysians, are more than happy to welcome visitors to our beautiful country. Cheers from Kuala Lumpur! 🙂
these beaches are absolutely stunning! they all rock! hard to choose which one to go to…
Wow! These islands are absolutely breath taking. I would love to visit Malaysia.
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it’s all so beautiful….
Thanks for your comment. The islands that are popular with backpackers include Penang, Langkawi, Perhentian, Lang Tengah and Mantanani.
Fantastic list! I love Penang. And Lang Tengah looks beautiful, I must put on my to-do list.
Back in the ’90s Sapi Island off of Kota Kinabalu was an unbelievably gorgeous spot for snorkeling. Wonder what it’s like today…have you been?
Pulau Tioman off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia is also a beautiful secluded island with pristine beaches and an amazing underwater world. It is still very undeveloped with only 2 roads, with speed boats that access the rest of the Island. Also very easy to get to with a 35 minute direct flight from Singapore and a 60 minute direct flight from Kuala Lumpur or a ferry ride from Mersing or Tanjung Gemok.
Malaysia is a paradise……….like Indonesia.
Maybe next summer I will go there………Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur
Great list! The only problem with your list is that you might be giving away some very good secrets 🙂 I’ve been to three islands you list here (Penang, Langkawi (before it was developed), and Perhentian) and hope I get a chance to explore the others. What about Tioman? I’m glad to have found your site through Twitter, I’ll be following you now.
Hey, great guide, thanks! I’m headed to Malaysia next month and definitely want to check out some of these islands. Which ones would you say are more budget-friendly and popular with backpackers? I’m on a super tight budget.
I’ve been to the Perhentians (the backpacker one) and dived. But clearly so much more to do!