Malaysia has an expansive belt of coastline with white sands, coral reefs, crystal waters and lots of wildlife, encompassing both the peninsula and Borneo. There are plenty of popular public beaches to choose from, but equally there are many which are a little bit more obscure. Do the legwork though, and you’ll be rewarded with an experience like no other. Here are 15 of the best secret islands and beaches in Malaysia.
A luxurious beach getaway on Tenggol Island (Terengganu)
Tenggol is the southernmost island in Terengganu State’s archipelago chain, stretching over the South China Sea. Unlike its neighbours, the Perhentian Islands, this place hardly sees any visitors besides a handful of locals. Expect ideal snorkelling conditions, daily whale shark tours and jungle trails. Culture Trip recommends Tenggol Island Beach Resort for a luxurious beach getaway. To get here, take a five-hour bus from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Dungan followed by a 50-minute ferry to Tenggol Island. It’s worth the long trip.
Spend the night on a hit movie set on Redang Island (Terengganu)
Twenty years ago, Rendang was among the most well-kept secrets in Malaysia – but when it featured in hit Hong Kong movie Summer Holiday (2000), the tourists quickly followed. Redang Island shares the chain with both the Perhentians and Tenggol, but what sets this small archipelago apart is its world-class resorts. Rather than catering to a younger crowd of travellers, this place attracts more well-healed tourists looking to lounge on their pristine sandy beaches. Head to Pasir Panjang beach on the eastern coast and take advantage of the perfect snorkelling conditions.
Terengganu’s Kapas Island is practically uninhabited compared to its neighbours. Only a handful of guesthouses and hostels line the empty coastlines, catering to budget-conscious crowds. Forget luxury resorts, mass development and WiFi: Kapas is all about reflection and solitude. Expect vast coastlines, colourful coral reefs and crystal-clear waters. Culture Trip recommends at least two nights here to get the most out of one of Malaysia’s most mysterious islands.
The vibrant coral reefs of Gem Island (Pulau Gemia) are bursting with marine life, while palm trees line the soft, sandy beaches just a stone’s throw from deep, lush jungle. While this might sound like many other islands in Malaysia, it lacks one crucial element: tourists. Apart from the handful of guests at the island’s resort and spa, you won’t see another soul. Ask locals in Kuala Lumpur and most won’t know Gem, making it one of the lesser-known islands in Malaysia.
Dazzling white-sand beaches, celebrity-favoured resorts and beachfront villas sum up Rawa Island. This tiny coral island off Johor State has just two resorts – making it particularly attractive to those looking for extreme privacy – so it’s no surprise that this piece of paradise comes with a high price tag and limited rooms that often sell out months in advance. Rawa is perfect for honeymooners or couples on a romantic getaway.
Stay in an overwater bungalow on Pom Pom Island (Sabah)
Pom Pom Island is the lesser-known sister of the world-famous diving hotspot Sipadan, along Sabah’s eastern coast. Set inside the Semporna Archipelago, Pom Pom draws domestic tourists for a quiet beach getaway. A handful of resorts with overwater bungalows (similar to those in the Maldives) stretch along the beaches. What makes this slice of paradise most appealing is the chance to snorkel with hundreds of fish and turtles. Book a night or two at the resorts, wake up and dive straight in.
The mesmerising Blue Tears on Tusan Beach (Sarawak)
Sarawak’s Tusan Beach near Miri doesn’t get many visitors apart from local families. Not many outsiders get to see the warm orange sand hugging the cliffs or photograph the unusual rock formation (resembling a horse bending down to drink the sea water) – but the lack of commercialisation and strange geological structures aren’t the only things that make this (somewhat) secret beach in Malaysia so special. When conditions are just right, tiny micro-organisms in the sea release a chemical into the water. This bioluminescence transforms the gentle inky waters into a neon-blue oasis, creating the spectacular and very rare Blue Tears phenomenon.
When you hear the name Penang, images of colonial George Town and street art might spring to mind. But hardly anyone (Malaysians included) can name the hidden Kerachut Beach. This remote beach sits some two hours along a jungle trail from Penang National Park’s main entrance, rewarding those who find it with an empty soft-sanded coastline and yellow sandstone rocks bordering the jungle. We recommend combining a day at Kerachut Beach with a trip to the nearby Pantai Kerachut Turtle Conservation Centre to learn about Penang’s turtles.
An easy-to-reach secret beach on Pangkor Island (Perak)
Despite a recent tourist campaign, Perak’s Pangkor remains one of the least-visited islands in Malaysia – and the lack of tourism keeps their beaches both empty and pollution-free. Coral Beach on Pangkor’s northwest coast offers stunning views of the neighbouring islands, and the island’s few guesthouses fill the tiny streets across the road from the beach, with local-style cafés and restaurants overlooking the sea. Pangkor Island and Coral Beach are among the more accessible secret islands in Malaysia if you’e travelling from Kuala Lumpur.
Fly colourful kites on a beach most Malaysians haven’t heard of (Kelantan)
Pantai Cahaya Bulan (Moonlight Beach) in Kelantan is among the most secret beaches in Malaysia, and hardly any Malaysians outside of Kelantan State have even heard of this hidden spot. Local families hit the white-sand shores for weekend barbecues, while tourists enjoy sunbathing, spectacular views, water sports and horseback riding. But the highlight is the chance to see the dozens of colourful kites that showcase Kelantanese culture.
Lying just 30km off the east coast of Mersing, Tinggi is a tiny little island which used to be referred to as The General’s Hat by Chinese naval officers due to its altitude. Indeed, the extinct volcano at the centre rises 600m above sea level, and is perfect for a trek when you aren’t swimming in the richly populated waters. There’s also a lagoon with a waterfall in the island interior which is well worth investigating. Ferries go from Tanjung Leman regularly.
Experience the Maldives of Malaysia at Lang Tengah (Terengganu)
With just a handful of resorts and little in the way of other tourist creature comforts, Lang Tengah is largely an island given to nature. It is covered almost entirely in forest, but venture to the beaches and you’re in for some amazing natural scenery. The abundance of coral reefs around the rim make it ideal for snorkelling and beginner scuba diving, and hawksbill turtles are regularly seen there. Getting there is as simple as flying from KL to Kuala Terengganu, then taking a bus or taxi to Merang, where ferries depart regularly and take just 30 minutes.
Live out your ‘Survivor’ fantasy on Pulau Tiga (Sabah)
Yes, Pulau Tiga is where the TV show ‘Survivor’ was originally shot, which makes it a must for fans, and also for anyone who wants to experience an amazing island brimming with wildlife and natural beauty. It sits on the west coast of Sabah, accessible via Kuala Penyu, and has several resorts, as well as offering scuba diving, snorkelling, a volcanic mud spa and plenty of jungle trekking routes if you’re feeling especially adventurous.
Visit some sea caves at Bukit Keluang (Terengganu)
If you’re heading to Kuala Besut, you’ll be catching the ferry to Pulau Perhentian – so we suggest making a stop along the route. More secluded and well worth taking the time to explore, Bukit Keluang offers a unique beach with a lot of character, including a winding wooden boardwalk, interesting rock formations and a honeycomb of sea caves lining the shore.
Take a history lesson at Sandy Skull Beach (Langkawi)
Langkawi Island has plenty of interesting beaches, but for those in the market for something a bit more tucked away, Pasir Tengkorak – otherwise known as Sandy Skull – is the beach for you. The water is oh-so clear, there’s plenty of space to relax and, according to legend, the name comes from a legend about skulls from the victims of nearby shipwrecks (or, according to some, the victims of sea monsters) washing up on the shore. You won’t see any skulls now, but you’re sure to have a relaxing time.
Additional reporting by Callum Davies
These recommendations were updated on September 30, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.