Our days in SE Asia are numbered, and as they draw to an end we have found ourselves drifting among the islands of the Indo-Pacific. Well, not drifting in the literal sense, more like hopping from island to island without knowing how long we will stay nor where we will go next.
The last two weeks have been spent on two islands that sit in stark contrast to one another, yet have both found a special place in our hearts. Our post today is a tale of two islands: the bustling island-nation of Singapore and the once famous, but now somewhat forgotten, Tioman Island.
The Isle of Singapore
Like so many of our favorite stops on this RTW expedition, we hadn’t initially intended on visiting Singapore. Its reputation amongst young backpackers is that it is far too expensive and really not worth the time. We heard similar complaints about Hong Kong and enjoyed it, so when we found a cheap flight on Tiger Airlines, we opted to make Singapore our launch pad into Indonesia.
After spending months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao & Thailand, Singapore hit us like a sack of bricks. “Wait, that’s the price for one beer? I thought that was for a whole pitcher.” The rumors about steep prices couldn’t have been more true, but over the next few days we came to realize that Singapore is definitely worth every cent.
The first thing to catch our eye was the skyline of the city. The architecture is a perfectly woven combination of restored historical buildings, ultra-modern design, multilane highways and small public squares and parks. The city is also immaculately clean; you literally have to seek out rubbish and graffiti. This, however, may be due to the fact that nearly everything is against the law; where else will you find yourself getting fined for not flushing the toilet?
As if in symphony with the city’s complex structural design, the people of Singapore offer a diverse mix of ethnicities, cuisines, religions, cultures and languages. As is the case with most major cities, the first immigrants to Singapore formed smaller communities leaving the modern day city with a Little India, China Town and Arab Street, but the city center is far from segregated. On just one street you can walk by a mosque, temple, shrine, church and synagogue, all while hearing people speak English, Malay, Tamil, Arabic and Cantonese.
After a few days exploring Singapore’s urban sector, we were beginning to feel trapped by the concrete jungle, so we hopped on a bus across the island and headed for, you guessed it, another island. Pulau Ubin is small, sparsely developed and sits between Singapore and Malaysia. It is reachable by a 15 minute ferry and is a popular escape for Singaporeans looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fishing, and trekking make Pulau Ubin the best bet for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Singapore.
Exhausted and with sore butts, we returned to the city after a day of biking and headed to Brewerkz, our favorite watering hole in Singapore. Any beer loving person who has spent some time in Asia will tell you that stumbling across a micro-brewery is like finding an oasis in the dessert. We figured if we were going to drop some coin on beer in Singapore, better to spend it on these delicious craft brews instead of the same old watery Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao that is found throughout the region.
As we said earlier, Singapore was supposed to be our gateway to Indonesia, but the ferry situation turned out to be more costly, time consuming and complicated than we originally anticipated. We had been hoping to do some more SCUBA diving anyway, so we decided to look into some other options…
Tioman Island – A Lesser Known Paradise
One night in Singapore, we sat at our hostel pouring over information about the best dive sites in Malaysia. The good news? There didn’t seem to be a shortage. The gold medal goes to the world-renowned Sipadan, however, due to its distant location on Borneo and the fact that diving there requires months of advanced booking, we decided on another option.
Tioman Island was made famous by the movie South Pacific and in the 1970s was included in Time Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, but in recent decades has lost much of its luster. It was a place we’d never heard of before, but we were intrigued by the beautiful pictures of its coral reefs and seemingly easy commute from Singapore. Without giving ourselves time to think twice, we booked our tickets and were setting off to Tioman just 24 hours later.
To make a long story short, we fell in love with Tioman, spent many more days there than we intended, and could not stop SCUBA diving. Two dives turned into four, four into six, and six into nine. There are many reasons to love Tioman. First, the entire island is surrounded by a marine park with crystal clear water that gently fades into a spectrum of turquoise blue that can only be found in a true tropical paradise; perfect for diving and snorkeling. Our adventures at sea offered us glimpses of Hawksbill Turtles, Reef Sharks, Barracuda, and a seemingly endless abundance of marine life.
What’s more, the entire island is duty-free! What does that mean exactly? Tioman is one of the few places in Malaysia where you can find cheap booze and cheap tobacco, in a country that otherwise imposes a very hefty tax on these items. Shhhhhhh….don’t tell the wild party kids that have managed to ruin so many of SE Asia’s most beautiful places. Despite the duty-free aspect of Tioman, it still does not attract hoards of party-ready backpackers, but rather offers a bar scene that is a very chilled out, one where tourists and locals mingle and chat under a star-filled sky.
Furthermore, the entire island is layered with jungle that covers the land from shore to mountaintop making it virtually inaccessible by vehicle. So what’s so great about thick jungle? It’s ideal for island trekking (assuming you’ve applied a thick layer of DEET) with plenty of chance to see wildlife, ranging from monitor lizards to monkeys to the world’s largest flower.
Last but not least, the entire island offers fantastic food. OK, not the entire island, but there is an amazing BBQ seafood restaurant in Tekek village that serves up fresh snapper, prawns, marlin, barracuda, lobster and so much more, all for a ridiculously cheap price. You may be thinking “fresh fish from a marine reserve?” Don’t worry, everything they serve was caught well outside the boundaries of the Tioman Marine Park; we’re certain of this because we saw the island’s lead marine biologist and conservation team eating there every night.
While relatively close together, Singapore and Tioman are worlds apart. Singapore offers all of the luxuries of an international hub, but comes along with traffic, high prices and over development. Tioman can leave you feeling a bit isolated, with nothing more than small villages speckled along its coasts, but provides a genuine island experience. Is one better than the other? We don’t think so; they’re just two different islands on this planet we all call home.