By Gael Hilotin for Yahoo! Travel
If you are raised in a country blessed with 7,107 islands like the Philippines, your taste for quality beaches could be challenging to satisfy. That's why when I visit other neighboring countries in South East Asia, I don't usually add a beach to my itinerary since I can bask in a nearby island anytime of the year.
But last summer was an exception for the beach beckoned me during my Malaysia trip. I looked at the map and found out that mainland Malaysia also offers charming beaches that can rival the beaches of its neighboring countries- the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. I spotted the posh island of Langkawi, the backpackers' island of Pulau Perhentian up North and Tioman Island which was once named as one of the Time's "Bests Islands in the World" that is located down South. The unassuming Pulau Pangkor located in Lumut in Perak state in Malaysia was never on my plan but getting lost in the nearby town of Ipoh and a tight budget set me on a journey for my new discovery.
Although Malaysia Tourism heavily promotes the luxurious beach resorts in Pulau Pangkor, staying on a budget is possible. This pristine and laid back island is only one ferry away from the sluggish coastal town of Lumut. Unlike most Malaysians living in Perak who know the island by heart because this is a famous weekend get-away of the locals, it is unheard-of to most foreign tourists. Buses run approximately every hour from Ipoh (2 hours) and other parts of Malaysia and once a day from Singapore (12 hours) to Lumut town. The Lumut bus will stop a few steps away from the jetty port in Lumut where you can catch a ferry for a round trip fare of RM 10 (make sure you keep your ferry tickets for your return trip to avoid paying again) to Pulau Pangkor. Upon arriving in the island, you can either rent a motorcycle for one day or so or ride a pink taxi van that you can easily spot lined-up at the port to take you to the dirt cheap town of Teluk Nipah. At the port in Lumut town, touts will also be offering you accommodations in Pulau Pangkor. Haggle the price with the touts and they will most likely offer you a better price. I recommend you visit the island during weekdays to avoid the crowd by weekends or holidays.
If you decide to do-it-yourself to Teluk Nipah via a pink taxi van or a rented motorcycle, don't worry about your accommodation because the quiet streets across the beach front is dotted with budget chalets, to moderate inns and expensive beach resorts. I stayed at a dirt cheap simple A-frame in a lovely communal garden in Nazrih Nipah Camp. This place is popular with travelers because of its hippy atmosphere. You can read your favorite book while listening to the reggae songs which is a favorite in the playlist at the communal area, strike a conversation with the friendly owner who can be mistaken as a relative of Bob Marley or laze the afternoon away in the hammock while strumming the guitar on display. There's also a kitchen where you could cook in your food or just eat at charming restaurant nearby. This place is not ideal for a family on vacation though, but you could find a close to impeccable beach resort or inn in the neighborhood.
Afternoons are best spent watching the lovely sunset by the beach which is a mere four-minute walk from most accommodations in Teluk Nipah. The beach has a pretty laid-back atmosphere, the waters are clean and shallow, the sand powdery white and there's a jungle nearby which is safe for a leisurely walk. The best thing about Pulau Pangkor is despite its rapid development, the natural habitat of the animals in the area remains protected. I have seen a handful of monkeys living in the lush forest by the streets and even by the beach while I was swimming. Another relish is the sight of unharmed horn bills (birds with enormous, colorful and long down-curved bills) flying or just hopping around the quiet town.
There's a Chinese temple sitting on the hill at the end of the shore and the old man manning the temple can show you around. There are locals offering cheap snorkeling and island hopping in a "better smaller island" they say which can actually be viewed by the naked eye from the main beach. Other water sports activities in the islands that will keep tourists entertained are banana boat, kayak and jetski.
The casual atmosphere, immaculate beaches and tempting bargains keeps travelers interested in Pulau Pangkor. And I'm glad to find myself on an accidental vacation here, a much needed respite from the pandemonium of the metropolis.