The south of the Malay Peninsula, below Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan, holds some of the country’s most historically and culturally significant towns. Foremost among these is the west-coast city of Melaka, founded in the fifteenth century and ushering in a Malay “golden age” under the Melaka Sultanate. For all its enduring influence, though, the sultanate was short-lived and its fall to the Portuguese early in the sixteenth century marked the start of centuries of colonial involvement in Malaysia. Today Melaka fascinates visitors with its historical buildings and cultural blend, including the Peranakan community (also called Baba-Nonya), which grew from the intermarriage of early Chinese immigrant traders and Malay women.
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Melaka is not, however, the only place in the region with historical resonance. Between KL and Melaka, what’s now the state of Negeri Sembilan is where the intrepid Minangkabau tribes from Sumatra settled, making their mark with architecture which can still be seen in Seremban and Sri Menanti. Both lie just over an hour south of the capital by road. Continuing down the west coast on the train line or the North–South Expressway (NSE), travellers soon reach the tip of the Peninsula and the thriving border city of Johor Bahru (JB) which dates back only to 1855. Beyond it lies Singapore.
Visitors tend to avoid the mountainous interior, where the road network is poor, but Route 3 on the east coast is a good deal more varied than the NSE, and winds for 300km through oil-palm country and past pleasant beaches. The biggest attractions along the east coast are Pulau Tioman and the other islands of the Seribuat Archipelago; they are havens for divers, snorkellers and anyone else in search of white sandy beaches, clear water and a tranquil atmosphere. Back on the Peninsula, and accessible from either east or west coast, the Endau Rompin National Park is a more rugged and less visited alternative to Taman Negara.
As beaches in this part of Malaysia go, DESARU isn’t bad, though there are better places up the coast. This sheltered, casuarina-fringed bay is the nearest major resort to Singapore and thus gets busy during weekends and holidays. During the monsoon months, when the current on Desaru Beach is dangerously strong, don’t go in the water if the red flag is flying, and use caution at any time; fatalities have occurred even in the shallows. On nearby Balau Beach, which holds a couple of cheaper resorts, there’s no swimming at any time; you have to walk 1km to a public beach.
Accommodation in Desaru
There are a handful of places to stay on the main beach, plus a couple more on nearby Balau beach (RM20–30 by taxi from Desaru Beach). Be warned that room rates rise on the main beach by about half at weekends and holidays.
Eating in Desaru
All the Desaru Beach hotels have pricey restaurants where a very average meal costs a bare minimum of RM22. Prices are a bit more reasonable on Balau Beach, but there’s still little choice.
Endau Rompin National Park
One of the few remaining areas of lowland tropical rainforest left in Peninsular Malaysia, the ENDAU ROMPIN NATIONAL PARK covers 870 square kilometres. Despite its rich flora and fauna, prized by conservationists, the area has only been adequately protected from logging since 1989. There’s plenty on offer for nature lovers, from gentle trekking to more strenuous mountain climbing and rafting; for the moment, its trails remain refreshingly untrampled.
Surrounding the headwaters of the lengthy Sungai Endau, and sitting astride the Johor–Pahang state border, the region was shaped by volcanic eruptions more than 150 million years ago. The force of the explosions sent up huge clouds of ash, creating the quartz crystal ignimbrite that’s still very much in evidence along the park’s trails and rivers, its glassy shards glinting in the light. Endau Rompin’s steeply sloped mountains level out into sandstone plateaus, and the park is watered by three river systems based around the main tributaries of Sungai Marong, Sungai Jasin and Sungai Endau, reaching out to the south and east.
Visiting the park
The best time to visit Endau Rompin is between March and October, while the paths are dry and the rivers calm. Take loose-fitting, lightweight cotton clothing that dries quickly – even in the dry season you’re bound to get wet from crossing rivers – and helps to protect you from scratches and bites. Waterproofs will come in handy, and you’ll need tons of insect repellent.
The park has three entry points: one from the west at Selai via Bekok (Johor), and two from the east, at Kuala Kinchin via Kuala Rompin (Pahang) and Kampung Peta via Kahang (Johor). The best is Kampung Peta, where more activities are available; the least interesting, Kuala Kinchin, is often used for one-night tours, not recommended as they don’t give enough time to get into the jungle.
As it can be hard to arrange transport, most people come on a tour. Mersing is the best place to approach from the east; ask agents in KL for the western entry. Prices vary according to what you want to do, and the following prices (for the Kampung Peta entrance) are for guidance only: park entrance fee RM10, licensed guide RM180 per day, 4WD transport into the park RM350 per vehicle, chalet RM80 or dorm bed RM20.
The small fishing community of KUKUP, 19km south of Pontian Kecil along Route 5, has opened its doors to the Singapore package-tour trade. Busloads of tourists arrive to see the old stilt houses built over the murky river and to sample Kukup’s real attraction, the seafood: the town’s single tumbledown street is packed with restaurants.
The industrious little fishing port of MERSING, 130km north of Johor Bahru, lies on the languid Sungai Mersing. It serves as the main gateway to Pulau Tioman and the smaller islands of the Seribuat Archipelago.
Accommodation in Mersing
Although Mersing has many hotels, the cheaper end is not well represented and the only hostel is impossible to recommend. For longer stays, going a little out of town is more pleasant.
Eating in Mersing
Mersing is a good place to eat out, with seafood topping the menu. The market serves the popular local breakfast dish nasi dagang: glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, served with sambal and fish curry.
Getting to Tioman and the Seribuat Archipelago
Mersing is the main departure point for Tioman and the other islands of the Seribuat Archipelago, although there are also departures from Tanjung Gemuk. At the jetty there’s a secure car park (RM7–10/day), while there and in the R&R Plaza nearby, assorted booths and offices represent various islands, boats and resorts. For impartial information, though, you’re better off going to the tourist office. Change money in Mersing before you head out to the islands, where the exchange rates are lousy; the only ATM on Tioman is in Tekek, opposite the airport.
Also known as Bandar Maharani, the old port town of MUAR is a calm and elegant place that attracts few tourists but should reward a day’s exploration. Legend has it that Paramesvara, the fifteenth-century founder of Melaka, fled here from Singapore to establish his kingdom on the southern bank of Sungai Muar, before being persuaded to choose Melaka. The town later became an important port in the Johor empire, as well as a centre for the sentimental Malay folk-pop called ghazal music, and its dialect is considered the purest Bahasa Malaysia in the Peninsula.
Today, Muar’s commercial centre looks like any other, with Chinese shophouses and kedai kopis lining its streets. Turn right out of the bus station, however, following the river as the road turns into Jalan Peteri, and you’ll find Muar’s Neoclassical colonial buildings. The Custom House and Government Offices (Bangunan Sultan Abu Bakar) are on your right, and the District Police Office and Courthouse on your left; they still have an air of confidence and prosperity from the town’s days as a British administrative centre. Completed in 1930, the graceful Masjid Jamek Sultan Ibrahim successfully combines Western and Moorish styles of architecture. Further along Jalan Petri you’ll pass a jetty on your right, from where irregular river cruises depart.
Eating in Muar
Muar has a good reputation for its coffee and its food, particularly otak-otak (fishcakes) and the breakfast dish mee bandung. Another local distinction is the popularity of satay (particularly satay perut, made from intestines) for breakfast.
During the fifteenth century, the Minangkabau tribes from Sumatra established themselves in what is now the Malay state of Negeri Sembilan. While the modern-day capital is Seremban, 67km south of Kuala Lumpur, the cultural heart of the state lies 30km east in the royal town of Sri Menanti. Both towns showcase traditional Minangkabau architecture, with its distinctive, saddle-shaped roofs.
The modern state of Negeri Sembilan is based on an old confederacy of nine districts (hence its name – sembilan is Malay for “nine”). By the middle of the nineteenth century, the thriving tin trade and British control over the area were well established, with colonial authority administered from Sungai Ujong (today’s Seremban). Rival Malay and Minangkabau groups fought several wars for control over the mining and transport of tin, with Chinese secret societies (triads) manipulating the situation to gain local influence, before a treaty was eventually signed in 1895.
The Minangkabau people, whose cultural heartland is in the mountainous region of western Sumatra (Indonesia), established a community in Malaysia in the early fifteenth century. As they had no written language until the arrival of Islam, knowledge of their origins is somewhat sketchy; their own oral accounts trace their ancestry to Alexander the Great, while the Sejarah Melayu talks of a mysterious leader, Nila Pahlawan, who was pronounced king of the Palembang natives by a man who was magically transformed from the spittle of an ox.
In early times the Minangkabau were ruled in Sumatra by their own overlords or rajahs, though political centralization never really rivalled the role of the strongly autonomous nagari (Sumatran for village). Each nagari consisted of numerous matrilineal clans (suku), each of which took the name of the mother and lived in the ancestral home. The household was also in control of ancestral property, which was passed down the maternal line. The sumando (husband) stayed in his wife’s house at night but was a constituent member of his mother’s house, where most of his day was spent. Although the house and clan name belonged to the woman, and women dominated the domestic sphere, political and ceremonial power was in the hands of men; it was the mamak (mother’s brother) who took responsibility for the continued prosperity of the lineage.
When and why the Minangkabau initially emigrated to what is now Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia is uncertain. Their subsequent history is closely bound up with that of Melaka and Johor, with the Minangkabau frequently called upon to supplement the armies of ambitious Malay princes and sultans. Evidence of intermarriage with the region’s predominant tribal group, the Sakai, suggests some acceptance by the Malays of the matrilineal system. What is certain is that the Minangkabau were a political force to be reckoned with, aided by their reputation for supernatural powers. Today, the Minangkabau are very much integrated with the Malays, and their dialect is almost indistinguishable from standard Bahasa Melayu.
The former royal capital of Negeri Sembilan, SRI MENANTI, is set in a lush, mountainous landscape 30km east of Seremban. The only reason to visit is to see a jewel of Minangkabau architecture, the Istana Lama. As you look for it, don’t be misled by the sign for the Istana Besar, the current royal palace, which is topped by a startling blue roof.
Shaped like a giant apostrophe, located in the South China Sea 54km northeast of Mersing, PULAU TIOMAN is the largest of the 64 volcanic islands that form the Seribuat Archipelago. Ever since the 1970s – when Time magazine ranked Tioman as one of the world’s ten most beautiful islands – sun worshippers and divers have been flocking to its palm-fringed shores, in search of the mythical Bali H’ai (the island in the Hollywood musical South Pacific, which was filmed on Tioman).
It could be argued that this popularity, and the duty-free status designated by Malaysian Customs, have dented the romantic isolation that once made the island so desirable. Pulau Tioman does, however, display a remarkable resilience, and you’ll miss out if you fail to visit – the greater part of the island retains something of its intimate, village atmosphere, probably due to the lack of a decent road network. Anyone in search of unspoiled beaches is likely to be disappointed, though superb exceptions do exist; divers and snorkellers will find plenty to enjoy, and there are also opportunities to take jungle hikes in the largely untouched interior.
Accommodation possibilities range from international-standard resorts to simple beachfront A-frames; it takes time and/or money to get from one beach to another, so choose your destination carefully. During the monsoon, from November to February/March, the whole island winds down dramatically; many places close until at least mid-January. July and August are the busiest months, when prices increase and accommodation is best booked in advance; visibility for divers is also at its lowest during these months.
Air Batang (ABC)
Despite its ever-increasing popularity, AIR BATANG, 2km north of Tekek from jetty to jetty, retains a sleepy charm and rivals Juara (which admittedly has a better beach) in its appeal for budget travellers. Larger than Salang or Juara, less developed than Tekek and well connected by boat services, Air Batang (or ABC as it’s often called), is a happy medium as far as many visitors are concerned. What development there is tends to be relatively low-key and there’s still a definite sense of community.
A jetty divides the bay roughly in half; the beach is better at the southern end of the bay, where there are fewer rocks, though the shallow northern end is safer for children. The cement path that runs the length of the beach is interrupted by little wooden bridges over streams and overhung with greenery; stretches are unlit at night. Between the guesthouses, a few small shops sell essentials such as shorts, T-shirts, sun cream and toiletries. Like the guesthouses they also arrange snorkelling trips and boat taxis.
A fifteen-minute trail leads over the headland to the north. After an initial scramble, it flattens out into an easy walk and ends up at Panuba Bay, a secluded cove that holds just one resort and a quiet little beach, and offers some of the best snorkelling on the island. From Panuba Bay, it’s an hour’s walk to Monkey Beach and then a further 45 minutes to Salang. Heading south instead from ABC, steps lead over the headland to Tekek.
With Tioman’s western shore now extensively developed, those eager for a budget hideaway often head for JUARA. The only east-coast settlement, it’s a quiet and peaceful kampung with two excellent beaches – Juara Beach aka Barok Beach, where you arrive from Tekek, and Mentawak Beach just south. The sand is cleaner and less crowded than on the other side of the island, and Juara is altogether more laidback even than Air Batang.
The beaches here do, however, have a reputation for harbouring sandflies, so take what precautions you can. The bay, facing out to the open sea, is also susceptible to bad weather. The constant sea breeze keeps the water choppy; it attracts surfers from November to March, with 3m-plus waves in February. The beach break is good for beginners, while more experienced surfers favour the point at the southern end of Mentawak.
A popular, clearly marked 45-minute walk leads from the south beach to a small waterfall with a big freshwater pond that’s good for swimming. Someone from the Beach Shack will take you for RM15 per person.
Salang and Monkey Beach
Just over 4km north of Air Batang, SALANG is a smaller bay with a better beach at its southern end by the jetty. There has, however, been a lot of development, and every suitable inch of land has been built on. That does at least make for a vibrant atmosphere, and Salang is the only place on the island with significant nightlife.
The southern end of the beach is the more scenic, while swimming can be an ordeal at the northern end due to the sharp rocks and coral. Just off the southern headland a small island, Pulau Soyak, has a pretty reef for snorkelling. There are also several dive shops.
A rough trail takes you over the headland to the south for the 45-minute scramble to Monkey Beach. There are few monkeys around these days, but the well-hidden cove is more than adequate compensation. Walkers can carry on to Panuba Bay and Air Batang.
Snorkelling and diving around Pulau Tioman
With such abundant marine life in the waters around Tioman, you’re unlikely to choose to be island-bound the whole time. Many nearby islets provide excellent opportunities for snorkelling, and most of the chalet operations offer day-trips; prices start at RM75, including equipment. The relatively healthy coral and huge biodiversity in these temperate waters also make for great diving. Dive centres on Tioman offer a full range of PADI certificates, from a four-day Open Water course (around RM1000), through to the Dive Master (RM3200) and instructor qualifications. For the already qualified, a boat dive costs around RM105 per person.
Of the many dive shops, B&J’s in Air Batang is well established (wdivetioman.com), and has a second shop in Salang (t09 419 5555). Blue Heaven (wblueheavendivers.com), also in Air Batang, does a good-value Open Water package. In Tekek try Ray’s Dive (wraysdive.com). To explore less-visited dive sites, contact Sunrise Dive Centre (wwww.sunrise-divers.com) in Juara. The dive sites listed here are the most popular on the west coast, where most people dive.
- Golden Reef (typical depth 10–20m). 15min off the northwestern coast; boulders provide a breeding ground for marine life, and produce many soft and hard corals. Known for nudibranchs and other macro life.
- Pulau Chebeh (15–30m). In the northwestern waters, this is a massive volcanic labyrinth of caves and channels. Napoleon fish, triggerfish and turtles are present in abundance.
- Pulau Labas (5–20m). South of Pulau Tulai, this island has numerous tunnels and caves that provide a home for pufferfish, stingrays and moray eels.
- Tiger Reef (10–25m). Deservedly the most popular site, southwest of Pulau Tulai between Labas and Sepoi islands. Yellow-tail snappers, trevally and tuna, spectacular soft coral and gorgonian fans.
- Tokong Magicienne (Magician Rock) (10–25m). Due north of Pulau Tioman, this colourful, sponge-layered coral pinnacle is a feeding station for larger fish – silver snappers, golden-striped trevally, jacks and groupers.
- Sawadee wrecks (25–30m). Two wooden Thai fishing boats just offshore from Tekek airport attract scorpionfish and juvenile barracuda, as well as more common marine life.
The other Seribuat islands
Pulau Tioman may be the best known and most visited of the 64 volcanic islands in the SERIBUAT ARCHIPELAGO, but a handful of other accessible islands hold beaches and opportunities for seclusion that outstrip those of their larger rival. For archetypal azure waters and table-salt sand, three in particular stand out: Pulau Besar, Pulau Sibu and Pulau Rawa. There are, however, a few resorts on other islands; Pulau Aur, for example, is popular among Singapore-based scuba divers. The tourist office in Mersing can advise on the various options.
While long, narrow PULAU BESAR, which measures 4km by 1km, holds several resorts and sets of chalets, you’re likely to have the place pretty much to yourself outside weekends and public holidays. The island is, however, a regular location for international productions of the Expedition Robinson TV programme – the inspiration for Survivor – and can therefore be booked out during filming times (usually June and July).
The tiny island of PULAU RAWA, just 16km (a thirty-minute boat ride) from Mersing, holds a glorious stretch of fine, sugary-sanded beach. The only sure way to get there is by resort-owned speedboat, booked in advance, but if you’re lucky then the Tioman-bound ferry might make a stop (on request).
Closest to the mainland, PULAU SIBU is actually a cluster of four islands which are collectively the most popular after Tioman. Most resorts are on Pulau Sibu Besar which, although not as scenically interesting as some of its neighbours, does have butterflies and huge monitor lizards. The sand here is yellower and the current more turbulent than at some others; most of the coves have good offshore coral.
Sandflies can be a real problem on all of the Seribuat islands, including Pulau Tioman. These little pests, looking like tiny fruit flies with black bodies and white wings, suck blood and cause an extremely itchy lump, which may become a nasty blister if scratched. The effectiveness of various treatments and deterrents is much debated; the general feeling is that short of dousing yourself all over with insect repellent, covering up completely or hiding out in the sea all day long, there’s not much you can do. You may find that Tiger Balm, available at any pharmacy, can reduce the maddening itch and help you sleep. If you are able to take them, antihistamines also provide some relief.