Islands have always exercised a fascination with armchair travelers and rugged explorers alike, whether as an escapist’s paradise or a place of sad exile.
East Asia, and in particular, Thailand and Malaysia, has more than its fair share of exotic islands. Many of the best-known are off the Malay Peninsula, where they run down the Straits of Malacca. Four of them can claim to be the best-known tourist islands in the world, Phuket, Langkawi, Penang, and Pangkor, their reputation as definitive paradise islands being world wide.
Phuket Island, Thailand
Phuket is probably best known as the high-end tourism hotspot of Thailand, a jewel that attracts the rich and famous in droves as well as tourists looking for a hedonistic way of life. Situated in the Andaman Sea of south-western Thailand, it boasts some of the world’s finest beach resorts, the Dusit Laguna complex on Bang Tao Bay, the Amanpuri on Pansea Beach, the Phuket Yacht Club on Nai Harn Bay and newly opened, The Shore at Katathani at Kata.
Phuket is an island whose popularity sometimes overshadows its culture and traditions. Dwelling along the coast are still some of the original sea gypsies who make a living from fishing, but the tin mining that ignited a boom in the area and laid waste to large swathes of the island is no longer carried out. However, the heritage of tin is still to be found in the landscaped gardens of the coastal areas and the interior, especially in the lagoons and canals of the Laguna complex at Bang Tao Bay, sculpted from the deep craters left by the mines.
The scenery is a cliché of turquoise waters lapping white sand beaches, water buffaloes in emerald green padi fields, craggy limestone outcrops surging out the waters of Phang Nga Bay, old Chinese mansions set amid green lawns, and the main town that offers a surprising degree of sophisticated eating and shopping.
It is also an island famous for sporting events, from the King’s Cup Regatta to some prestigious golf tournaments, as well as being a venue for scuba-diving, submarine caves, and rock climbing.
Langkawi Islands, Malaysia
Langkawi in Malaysia is actually a collection of some 100 or so islands, just three of which are properly inhabited, and it has some of the best beaches in Malaysia. Pantai Cenang, the most popular, offers a range of watersports on a long white stretch of sand backed by coconut palms while Pantai Kok attracts a happy mix of backpackers and budget travelers to its more modest establishments.
The sumptuous Datai Resort welcomes guests to its dense rainforest on the island’s north-western tip, and the black sand at Pantai Pasir Hitam is a popular venue for those tired of blindingly white sands. Offshore islands are accessible from all points of the main islands.
Penang Island, Malaysia
Penang, notoriously described as “a sort of Palermo” by the English writer Aldous Huxley, is far removed from the quiet, laid-back atmosphere of Langkawi, being one of the earliest spots in the peninsula to be colonized by tourists. Its crowded markets reek of Indian spices, and Christian churches, and Buddhist and Hindu temples vie with Islamic mosques for attention. It is like a dozen different countries rolled into one.
A modern bridge connects Penang to mainland Malaysia, and a ferry carries passengers from Butterworth. Batu Ferringhi is the main beach where 5* hotels and resorts vie for the high-end spender and where most tourists stay.
Georgetown is the capital of the islands, and it retains a bygone air, its streets reminiscent of another century with the Georgian architecture still intact. It is ripe for conservation under a heritage banner as it is so well preserved.
The interior is sleepy, rural, and lost in time with jungle, rice fields, waterfalls, towering coconut palms, and the betal nut that gives the island its name, Penang being the Malaysian word for the nut.
Pangkor Island, Malaysia
Lying some 220km north-west of the capital and accessible by both air and sea, Pangkor is little more than a stone’s throw away from the town of Lamut on the mainland. It was in the 1970s that Pangkor stirred into life when, like Phuket, it began to attract tourists. Its tasty seafood, palm-shaded beaches, and the crystal clear waters that surrounded the island attracted visitors to its thatched-roof eating places and its pristine waters.
Now it is one of Malaysia’s most popular holiday resorts, surrounded by several other islands. It includes an uninhabited jungle, and its rainforest holds an incredible range of flora and fauna. The sunsets are legendary, and for bird-watchers, it is a paradise.
East Asia’s islands hold the key to the best beaches in that part of the world, and each one has its own magical tales, legends, and myths to entertain the visitor.