Untouched beaches, world-class diving and enjoying your own deserted island are just three ways to describe the islands in Malaysia. Culture Trip explores where to go for duty-free drinks, the cheapest place to learn to dive and how to have an ultra-luxurious vacation on a Sultan’s private island.
Malaysia has more than 800 islands across both sides of the peninsula and around Borneo. Almost a million residents live on some, while others consist of a handful of wooden shacks. Discover the most beautiful islands in Malaysia and what makes them so appealing to visit.
Duty-free Langkawi is one of the most visited and beautiful islands in Malaysia. The island combines stretches of glistening coastlines with mountains and mangroves. Take a day trip to the UNESCO-listed Pregnant Maiden Island, feed the eagles and watch monkeys swimming for food. Or bring your towel and sunbathe away on Pantai Cenang before drinking in a beachside bar.
While Penang might not feature with the most beautiful islands in Malaysia for beaches and snorkeling, it does offer a metropolitan and colonial air. Head to the capital George Town and stroll through buildings which look unchanged in more than a century. Or photograph the colourful temples, traditional shophouses and feel the refreshing air at the top of Penang Hill.
If you’re looking for somewhere without tourists, check out Pangkor Island. The island lies near Perak’s coast and features empty beaches, clean water and thick jungle covering the centre. Visitors appreciate the chance to sunbathe under the palm trees without another soul in sight. Check out the Dutch colonial fort, snap photos of a traditional wooden jetty and feed hornbills at the Sunset View Chalet. Click here to find out how to travel to Pangkor Island from Kuala Lumpur or Penang.
The Perhentian Islands lies off Terengganu State’s coast in northeast Malaysia. Two islands, Perhentian Kecil (Perhentian Small) and Besar (Big), attract beach lovers, divers and snorkelers. Forget about roads: The only way to get from one beach to the next is by water taxi or trekking along jungle trails. Head to Kecil for some of Southeast Asia’s most affordable diving schools and meet other backpackers on Long Beach. Book a resort on Besar for a more exclusive getaway.
Five islands near Sabah’s Kota Kinabalu form the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. Speedboats connect the mainland and protected islands in less than 15 minutes. Head to Manukan for a beach and snorkeling experience. Gaya Island, the largest island, presents more opportunities for hiking and exploring a floating village.
The tiny island near Semporna in Sabah rates among the world’s top diving areas. After gaining protected status in 2002, fewer tourists can get a permit to visit the limestone pinnacle. This preserves its delicate ecology. You won’t find accommodation or many facilities, and you’ll need to join a tour. But it’s worth the flight from Kota Kinabalu to Semporna and a one-hour boat ride for the swarms of turtles and barracuda.
Sabah’s Mantanani Islands near Kota Belud offer some of Borneo’s finest diving within an hour of Kota Kinabalu. Snorkelers and divers flock on day trips from the capital to swim with seahorses and stingrays. The scuba-certified can dive in more than 20 locations, including three shipwrecks. After a few hours in the South China Sea, unwind on the pristine white sand beaches for the famous Bornean sunset.
Nine islands form the Rendang Island Marine Park near Terengganu State. Sitting near the Perhentian Islands, this archipelago lures more upscale tourists who wouldn’t think twice about spending thousands on their holiday. Anticipate Malaysia’s best resorts, immaculate shorelines and a thriving diving scene. After featuring in a Hong Kong hit movie (Summer Holiday) in 2000, the once somewhat little-known spot has transformed into one of the most beautiful islands in Malaysia for luxurious getaways.
The Sultan of Johor owns Rawa Island in the southern state, with only a handful of annual visitors. Two resorts sit on the dazzling white sand, attracting those seeking exclusivity. Picture soft sand curving across a palm tree border with dramatic rocky outcrops jutting up from the sea. We recommend Rawa as one of the most beautiful islands in Malaysia for a honeymoon. But you’ll need book up to three months in advance!
In 1970, Time magazine voted Tioman as one of the most beautiful islands on Earth. Move forward to the 21st century, and we can safely say it still retains this title. Expect everything a tropical paradise promises, with palm tree fringing white sand and clear water. But soaring tourism makes this once secluded spot less private.
Some of you might recognise Pulau Tiga as the original Survivor Island. The small archipelago that directly translates to Three Islands hosted the first season of the world-famous TV series. Flash forward to the present and tourists visit on a day trip from Kota Kinabalu. Relax on the empty deserted island’s beaches, hike to mud volcanoes or spend the night in a luxurious resort.
Picture a tiny island with nothing but a handful of resorts lining the glistening white beaches. Add in the almost still turquoise water, vibrant coral reef and thousands of tropical fish. Combine them with the occasional hawksbill and green turtle, and you have Pom Pom Island. This piece of paradise belongs to the Semporna Archipelago in east Sabah. While it’s challenging and time consuming to reach, having this environment to yourself will be worth it.
Sabah’s Lankayan Island lies in the Sulu Sea luring diving enthusiasts and holidaymakers looking for a classy getaway. Wooden chalets cover the seemingly endless stretch of sand as rich coral forms the habitat for a plethora of fish. We recommend this island for couples, families and divers. Visitors need to first fly to Sandakan Airport before boarding a 90-minute ferry.
Another somewhat little-known spot off the coast of Terengganu State provides views and tropical landscapes without the tourists. Head around Kapas’s coast and snap some of the most incredible Instagram shots to meet your definition of a tropical paradise. A handful of resorts (think more guesthouses) along the beach cater for the backpacker crowd. This is among the most beautiful islands in Malaysia for those who want to lounge around the beach all day.
And finally, Tenggol is one of our most beautiful islands in Malaysia for a private getaway. Located towards the southern end of Terengganu State, it offers a range of activities from snorkeling to diving and jungle trekking. If you visit, join one of the whale shark tours. Getting to the island is a challenge involving flights, taxi rides and boats. But we think the exclusiveness is worth it.