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 Perhentian Islands holiday.
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