Whatever the tourism authorities would have you believe, Malaysia does not do beach half as well as Thailand, particularly for the independent traveller. But the country does have some very attractive beach destinations, such as tiny Pulau Rawa, part of the same chain of east coast islands as Pulau Tioman.
Pulau Rawa is one of the few islands in Malaysia with crunchy white sand and crystal clear water. But the experience comes with a price — in fact some of the most predatory pricing in Southeast Asia. Rawa only has two resorts, both of which charge astonishing amounts for their compulsory full board packages.
At Alang’s, the “cheaper” option, A-frames go for a whopping 1,430 ringgit for a two-night weekend break (including meals and boat transfers). That’s the equivalent of more than 7,o00 baht a night, for a basic fan hut with a cold shower. Off-peak rates for a two-night break (again including meals and transfers) at the island’s only other place to stay, Rawa Island Resort, start at 1,880 ringgit.
Although Rawa is one of the most extreme examples of poor value in Malaysia, affordable beach accommodation aimed at independent travellers is thin on the ground, whatever destination you pick. Pulau Perhentian Kecil and Cherating are the most geared up for backpackers on the east coast, but accommodation, transport, food and drink, are all appreciably worse value than islands just across the border in Thailand.
An added consideration is the northeast monsoon, which shuts down much of the east coast from November to March. Although Rawa Island Resort stays open all year (in theory), during the monsoon you have to phone one day in advance to make sure the boat service from Mersing (5-6 hours by bus from KL) is running.
If you are not picky about having crunchy white sand, or crystal clear water, then Pulau Pangkor and Pulau Langkawi are the best bets for a beach break on the west coast.
Pangkor is not a bad destination at all mid-week, particularly Teluk Nipah, which has the bulk of the backpacker accommodation. Plenty of places offer simple but pleasant rooms, for less than 100 ringgit a night — outside weekends and school holidays that is, when the island is absolutely mobbed. It’s a short walk from Nipah to neighbouring Crystal Bay, one of Pangkor’s best beaches. The island is easy to get to from Kuala Lumpur (a 3.5 hour bus journey to Lumut from Puduraya, a short ferry ride over, and a minibus to Teluk Nipah).
Langkawi is undeniably beautiful, but unless you can afford to stay at the plushest resorts, the best stretches of sand are out of bounds. The two most popular beaches, Pantai Cenang and Pantai Tengah, are certainly not unpleasant. But anyone looking for that perfect, tropical beach experience, will be sorely disappointed.
Flying is by far the most convenient way to get to Langkawi from KL, with Air Asia having the best prices, and most regular service.
By Pat Fama.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.