Malaysia: Discover Asia's secret shores

Far from the cosmopolitan bustle of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's east coast offers secluded islands, tranquil beaches and dramatic rainforest – all at bargain prices

After a dinner of crispy buttered prawns, I fell to reading Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. Very soon, I concluded that I had stumbled upon the novel's fictional Malay state of Patusan, so little sign of change was there from the time when Conrad visited these parts over a century ago.

This awakening happened on the small island of Gemia, part of a land- and seascape that is so overlooked by British tourists that it might as well be imaginary.

Most of the south-east Asian peninsula that jabs down towards the equator seems familiar territory to many British travellers. Malaysia's dazzling capital, Kuala Lumpur, has long boasted numerous luxury hotels; and, more recently, its northerly neighbour, Langkawi, has been developed as a destination for indulgent tourists. Yet the capital has not left the past entirely behind in its headlong rush to the future, and the spice island of Penang is as rich in history and nature as it is in beachside hotels.

The port of Melaka is firmly on our mental maps, too – perhaps because of that indispensable part of the Edwardian gentleman's wardrobe, the Malacca cane. Yet even though the British are inveterate island-hoppers, few have discovered the string of pearls on Malaysia's east coast.

This could be the summer to make good that omission. In July and August, prices for Mediterranean resorts soar in line with temperatures in Europe. Conversely, fares to long-haul destinations can actually sink: on Monday you could fly non-stop from London to Kuala Lumpur for £638 return on Air Asia. And east-coast Malaysia is one of those tropical destinations that is not at its best in the depths of the British winter; indeed, you should avoid the region from November to February, when the eastern monsoon prevails and many of the resorts are closed.

The state of Terengganu has an enviable share of the eastern coastline, augmented by half a dozen islands lined with coral reefs and white sandy beaches. Here, you can explore crystal waters and endless coral gardens in which you might find yourself snorkelling alongside turtles and baby sharks.

The difference from Malaysia's cosmopolitan west coast is apparent the moment you land at Sultan Mahmud airport in the state capital, Kuala Terengganu. This is the Malay heartland. It came under British control only in 1909, much later than the rest of the peninsula, and was a focus for sometimes-violent resistance.

Europeans are welcome these days, but as I looked around the airport arrivals area it was clear I was the only outsider. And the Chinese and Indians who make up around 30 per cent of the country's population were also notable by their absence. Ethnic Malays constitute 95 per cent of this sleepy, conservative and religious state. Almost without exception women wear the tudung (headscarf). But not Arab-style: often it is pink or beige, studded with sparkling gems, complemented by T-shirt and jeans.

Local traditions remain strong here. Kite-flying, batik-weaving and even traditional boat-building can all be found where the Terengganu river meets the sea. A road stretches the length of the coast, lined with stalls selling keropok lekor (the chewy, deep-fried fish sausage which is an eastern speciality) and punctuated by jetties offering ferries to the islands. The pace is perfect for relaxation.

I asked a taxi driver if he had been to Kuala Lumpur. He had, but shook his head at the recollection: "It is too busy," he said, sounding weary.

Kuala Terengganu has grown from a fishing town into a modern city, but it shares little in common with the national capital apart from the first part of its name (Kuala means "river mouth"). Though it has none of the bustle or excitement of Kuala Lumpur, there are a couple of worthwhile sights. One is the "floating mosque", Masjid Tengku Tengah Zaharah, a simple but spectacular combination of modern and Moorish design on a platform surrounded by a lake; it lies 4km south of the state capital, and close to the sea; the other is Kampong Ladang, where smithies still forge the Malay keris, or dagger. But after one night in "KT", I headed for Marang, 20 minutes' drive south.

This small port is the departure point for Gemia – the first island on my itinerary, just 15 minutes' away in a speedboat. Situated a few hundred metres off the larger island of Kapas, Gemia is so small that you can circumnavigate the island's rocky outcrops in a quarter of an hour. It is almost the sole preserve of the Gem Wellness Spa and Island Resort. Forty-five wooden chalets line the south-western shores, flanked by two beaches. The other notable residents are turtles; there is a hatchery on Gemia, and a mother deposited eggs on Kapas one night when I was there.

On my arrival I was welcomed by Hizam, the cheery, laid-back resident manager. A long awning stretched from the white-painted promontory next to the jetty all the way to the airy, lattice-windowed restaurant, office and games area. As I sipped a juice beneath it, I learned that business was not exactly booming: I was one of only 15 or so guests.

Thick vegetation covers much of the island. The resort's wooden rooms are built above the rocks that fringe the jungle, and my room was simply furnished but comfortable. At the end of a gangway sits the spa, where an oversized bath overlooking the sea is available for post-massage relaxation. One ofV Cthe pair of beaches is kept pristine, without even a lounger in sight (one morning, I almost burned my back lying on the sand). At the other, kayaks and snorkelling gear can be hired from attendants whose smiling, easy-going demeanour suggests that the concept of the rat race or high-pressure living has probably not occurred to them. There is none of the formality of chain hotels – nor are there any regimented, liveried staff. If you want something – be it a boat-trip or a snack – you ask anyone. They'll find the person who can arrange it for you soon enough.

Rising at dawn the next day, I could see why Lord Jim didn't want to leave Conrad's creation of Patusan. I breakfasted on dahl, chicken curry and roti canai – the Malaysian pancake bread. Nothing disturbed the view of the mirrored sea from my veranda... apart from the fins of a few reef sharks. Hizam explained that these visitors were nothing to worry about. "We call them yu bodoh, 'stupid sharks'," – on the grounds that they are harmless to humans.

Gemia and Kapas do, however, have other inhabitants of whom some locals are wary. Hizam explained the story as we sat next to a pool where 10-month-old turtles were swimming. Gemia used to be called Pulau Rajah – "island of the king". The story goes that the spirit of a princess exiled here is still present. "One guest saw her floating past his window in a white dress," recalled Hizam. He said that some suppliers will bring their wares to the shore but not step foot on the island. And over on Kapas, which can easily be reached by kayak, jungle trekkers are supposed to have been led astray by the orang bunian. These are tiny, invisible people who don't intend to harm humans but who can object to being disturbed.

The Gem Resort, with its small spa and excellent chef, is a cut above much of the accommodation on Terengganu's islands, but hotels of similar design are plentiful (and cheap) on the other five islands. They are usually centred on a reception/dining/games area, with a scattering of chalets that offer hot water, ceiling fans and half-hearted air-conditioning. Some resorts have pools, but they seem an irrelevance when you're right on the beach. On other stretches of shore, rainforest spills precipitously over the cliffs, plunging into the South China Sea.

The reason to stay on these islands is to take in nature's pleasures: to enjoy the beautiful waters in the baking sun; to sit by the shore as the sky cracks pink and vermillion at sunset; after a day spent swimming, to sate your hunger with freshly cooked local food (try nasi dagang, the east-coast fish curry); to observe the terns, monitor lizards and other wildlife; and above all to venture into the coral gardens that run right from the shore.

Each of the islands has been designated a marine park. Clown and angel fish, grouper, sharks, stingrays and turtles can all be seen by snorkellers. Some divers consider these waters second only to those around Sipadan, off the coast of Borneo.

A speedboat whisked me back from Gemia to Marang, on the mainland. From here, you can drive south to another port, Dungun, and take another 45-minute voyage to the island of Tenggol. Rising steeply to 800 metres at its centre, Tenggul has just one beach – which is also home to a rustic, tiny resort. But within the long arms that encircle the bay are to be found stunning coral gardens teeming with fish, and a dramatic drop-off where the cliffs meet the sea.

Back on the mainland, I checked out the east coast's only real high-end beach resort: the YTL chain's Tanjong Jara. Make sure you end a trip to Terengganu here, because anything else will seem down-at-heel by comparison. Tanjong Jara was designed to emulate a Malay sultan's palace. It has 99 spacious rooms plus a spa. Set alone on the South China Sea, with no neighbours for miles, its restaurants – one over a river, the other by the beach – and peaceful atmosphere draw wealthy locals, visitors from the Middle East and China, and the odd celebrity, such as the actor Sam Neill (a fellow guest when I stayed). Its appeal is hardly surprising, when the only sounds that echo through the colonnades and landscaped, low-rise grounds are the gentle tinkling of gamelan players of an evening and the slow gongs of the Mandi Bunga, a royal bathing ceremony, as the water urn-bearers process to the spa each morning.

Arriving back in Kuala Lumpur, the capital did indeed seem "too busy" by comparison with the tranquil east coast. To paraphrase the title of the old Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse musical: if you'd like to stop the world, then this is the perfect place to get off.

Travel essentials: Malaysia's east coast

Getting there

* Kuala Lumpur is served from Heathrow by Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; ) and from Stansted by Air Asia (0845 605 3333; ); the latter has a fare of £638 for travel out on 28 June, back on 9 July. Both airlines offer connections to Kuala Terengganu.

* Trailfinders (0845 050 5871; ) offers seven nights' room only at Tanjong Jara, with Malaysia Airlines flights from London and transfers, for £1,099.

Getting around

* A taxi from Kuala Terengganu airport to Kuala Besut costs around RM80-100 (£16-£20).

* Buses serving the east-coast highway are safe, cheap and fast.

Island hopping

* Terengganu has six islands where visitors can stay. Packages are available for the three northern islands: the backpacker haven of Perhentian, the more developed Redang and the tiny, unspoilt isle of Lang Tengah.

* For Perhentian, head for the jetty at Kuala Besut; for Lang Tengah and Redang, boats go from Merang, and from Shahbandar jetty in the state capital.

* The southerly islands are Gemia, Kapas and Tenggol. Boats to the first two leave from Marang (not Merang). To reach Tenggul, take a ferry from Dungun.

Staying there

* Felda Residence Kuala Terengganu, Jalan Hiliran, Kuala Terengganu (00 60 9 632 1111; ). Doubles start at RM210 (£43), room only.

* Gem Wellness Resort, Pulau Gemia (00 60 9 612 5110; ). Doubles start at RM296 (£60), including breakfast.

* Tanjong Jara Resort, Dungun, Terengganu (00 800 9899 9999; ). Doubles start at US$140 (£93), room only.

More information

* Tourism Malaysia: 020-7930 7932;

* Tourism Terengganu:

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
Robyn Lawley
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star