In fact, the island is still surprisingly wild. Look past the warm, clear water, the clownfish, the white sands and washed up coral and what emerges is a floating jungle. The place also feels a little neglected. In one village, handfuls of houses are derelict — as if they’ve been evacuated in a hurry — and the only salutations are the hellos of Tiong birds in a cage constructed from a fan. But that’s a good greeting; the island is, after all, said to have been named for these tweeters: tio for the birds, plus man, which means “ours” in the local Pahang dialect. The island, then, belongs to these birds. Their importance is symbolised by a giant statute of one of their kind down near the marine park in the main town.
While this jungle soundtrack plays on, the occasional islander pops out of a brightly painted wooden house to hang washing or ride a BMX bike to the shops. It’s incongruous but attractively quirky. And seemingly frozen in time. The resorts are dated — the staff wear Hawaiian shirts and the local duty free shop sells the type of souvenirs found on British coastlines 20 years ago.
The central part of Tioman is all jungle... and waterfalls
Turtles, Rubber and Racing
But Tioman is making a comeback. This weekend, it’s a veritable hive of activity. Luxury resorts like the Berjaya are buzzing with families despite it being low season. Holidaymakers have come here to play golf and laze by the resort’s wet bar while their kids scream down the water chutes.
Meanwhile, runners from all over the world have arrived to test their mettle in the Tioman Royal Race, or the SAS International Eco Challenge — an annual 30km jungle dash which celebrates the birthday of the former head of state Sultan Abdul Samad Shah — and to promote sustainable tourism on an island that is set for a belated second tourism boom. After the race, Kenyan winner Moses Kandie dubs it the hardest he’s ever run and a number of his peers collapse, carrying the cuts and bruises inflicted by the forest. In the almost untouched beach town of Juara, a bumpy 4x4 ride over the mountains to the east side of the island, a group of conservationists at Juara Turtle Project are working tirelessly to save the island’s turtles from extinction. They collect turtle eggs and incubate them before releasing hatchlings to the sea — a process that minimises the threat of the eggs being stolen and sold as a ringgit-reaping delicacy: a problem endangering not only turtles but also the biodiversity of marine life here.
Elsewhere on the island, a pleasantly small tour group visits dive spots while others swim in the freshwater that spills out from the hidden Asah waterfall. There are no crowds. You almost have the place to yourself.
Now, it seems, is the time to be here. Plans for a larger runway at the airport and the size of the local school-to-be suggest there will be a lot more business here in future. And while the island’s waterfalls and coral reefs aren’t quite as jaw-dropping as those in Luang Prabang and Cairns, you certainly won’t find backpackers filling the place with buckets of alcohol, rope swings and drum n’bass. Not yet at least.
To take part in next year’s jungle dash to promote eco-tourism on Tioman, visit www.eco-challenge.com.my. Tioman is a five-hour bus and 90-minute boat ride from Kuala Lumpur, or a one-hour flight with Bajaya Airways. For information on turtle conservation on the island and how you can help see: www.juaraturtleproject.com.