Malaysia has hundreds of islands scattered around thousands of kilometers of coastline.
Celebrity-standard resorts, world-class diving and metropolitan city centers allure tourists. Others are uninhabited with long stretches of empty coastline.
Travelers usually include both Langkawi Island and Penang Island on their Malaysian itineraries.
The adventurous go to the dozens along Peninsula Malaysia’s east coast. Fewer still explore Sabah’s tropical islands and islets in Borneo.
Crazy Tourist rounds up the 25 best islands in Malaysia including beach retreats, diving and spending the night on a desert island.
1. Langkawi: ‘The Jewel of Kedah’ (Kedah)
Glistening coastline borders sandy beaches encapsulating jungle-covered mountains on Malaysia’s most visited island.
The first stop in duty-free Langkawi is usually the stunning Pantai Cenang (Cenang Beach). Gentle waves lap against the white shore. Tropical islands poke out of the sea near the horizon.
Beachside shacks sell Malaysia’s cheapest beer and sunset cocktails.
Join a tour to Pregnant Maiden (Pulau Dayang Bunting). From a distance the island looks like a pregnant women lying on her back. Snap photographs of the postcard-perfect pier and swim in its central freshwater lake.
Get a motorbike or rent a car. Explore the perimeter of the island to Langkawi’s tallest peak (Gunung, or Mount, Raya), Black Sand Beach and through sleepy Malay villages.
2. Kedah’s secret diving oasis (Kedah)
Payar Island (Pulau Payar) is Kedah’s hidden oasis in the Straits of Melaka.
Payar Island Marine Park consists of a handful of uninhabited islands between Langkawi and mainland Kedah.
There are no resorts or beachfront villas here.
Instead, virgin snorkeling and diving sites surround the little- known island chain.
Supersized tropical fish beneath the waves have probably never seen a human before. Snorkelers and divers probably won’t see another soul with the water to themselves.
Tour groups take passengers to shark nesting areas to feed baby sharks.
Payar showcases the best of West Malaysia’s marine world within easy reach of both Langkawi and Penang.
You can only visit on a tour.
3. Malaysia’s most cosmopolitan island (Penang)
Penang Island is Malaysia’s British colonial jewel.
Located in the Straits of Melaka, the island’s capital George Town allures every type of traveler.
Some come for the colonial flair manifested in its stately architecture. Others embrace Malaysia’s food capital tasting the nation’s most delicious dishes.
Buddhist temples stand next to Mosques and Hindu temples in a celebration of religious diversity.
Traditional shophouses extend along the narrow streets bursting with colors and intricacies.
Penang’s status on Malaysia’s tourist trail is firmly established and the island rarely disappoints.
4. Hornbills and empty beaches on Pangkor Island (Perak)
Pangkor Island is on Peninsula Malaysia’s western coast in Perak.
The tiny island has tourist-free beaches, jungle covered hills and hundreds of hornbills.
Book a few nights in the budget-friendly guesthouses along Pangkor’s western coast. Spend your time on the beaches, in vibrant Chinatown and exploring what remains of a 350-year-old Dutch fort.
Meet the ‘Hornbill Man’ at Sunset View Chalet who feeds dozens of hornbills without fail every evening. Watch the hypnotic sunset on Coral Beach.
5. Rock-bottom diving courses and luxury retreats (Terengganu)
The Perhentian Islands in Terengganu are West Malaysia’s island paradise.
Backpackers, beach-lovers and snorkelers flock to Besar (Big) and Kecil (Small) Perhentians.
Kecil attracts a younger crowd and diving enthusiasts. Most stay near the budget-friendly Long Beach. Several diving schools line the azure coasts. These provide some of Southeast Asia’s most affordable PADI courses.
Visibility is more than 20 meters (65.6 feet) in the crystal clear waters.
Besar caters towards Malaysian holidaymakers who spend their days in classy resorts next to the isolated shores.
There are no roads in the Perhentian Islands. Visitors hike along jungle trails from one beach to the next. Water taxis ferry tourists across longer distances.
6. Ultra-luxurious beach holidays on Redang Island (Terengganu)
The Perhentian Islands draws backpackers, divers and holidaymakers. Nearby Redang appeals to those looking for an upscale vacation.
Redang Island’s resorts rank among Malaysia’s most luxurious.
Guests are practically guaranteed an exclusive escape.
Until featuring in Summer Holiday, a hit Hong Kong movie in 2000, hardly anyone knew about Redang.
Day-trippers come to walk in the footsteps of their favorite stars. Honeymooners spend thousands of dollars for a couple of nights in their celebrity-standard resorts.
7. West Malaysia’s most beautiful island (Terengganu)
Tenggol is among Malaysia’s most beautiful providing everything luxury holidaymakers could desire.
Beachside bungalows offer a slice of paradise opening straight onto the soft sandy beaches. Crystal clear waters create perfect snorkeling and diving conditions within meters of shores.
Getting to Tenggol is a challenge, but it’s worth it for the exclusivity and high-standards.
Tenggol Island is to the south of Terengganu’s island chain. Visitors need to get a domestic flight into Terengganu State before driving two hours to the port. Water taxis then ferry passengers to the island.
8. Get off the grid in Kapas Island (Terengganu)
Kapas is a hotspot for beach-lovers looking to escape the world for a few days.
The island sits in the South China Sea in Terengganu State.
Backpackers make up the crowds who typically stay in the guesthouses lining the beach.
Follow trails through the forested interior to see the island’s biodiversity. Or grab a towel and lounge around an empty beach all day.
Kapas’s biggest appeal is its simplicity.
Wi-Fi is almost non-existent giving travelers the chance to have a break.
Kapas Island provides the peaceful realities of a tropical island.
9. Embrace the remoteness on Lang Tengah Island (Terengganu)
Only a handful of determined travelers reach Terengganu’s privately-owned Lang Tengah Island.
The island’s few visitors appreciate its remoteness, seclusion and raw beauty.
Protected waters surrounding Lang Tengah host a thriving marine ecosystem. Swim out from the shore and submerge into an underwater aquarium.
This island only has a few hotels, which tend to fill up weeks, if not months, in advance.
Speedboats are the only way to travel the 40 kilometers (25 miles) between Kuala Terengganu and Lang Tengah.
10. Time Magazine’s most beautiful island (Pahang)
Back in the 1970s Tioman was voted by Time’s Magazine as one of the planet’s most beautiful islands. And it’s safe to say it still retains this title in the 21st-century.
Tioman has everything the imagination can conjure when dreaming of a tropical paradise.
Bendy palm trees, never-ending coastlines and bungalows that appear as if they’re floating above the shallow waters.
But this beauty comes at a price.
Since featuring in Time’s Magazine, Tioman Island in Pahang has become embedded on the Malaysian tourist trail. Unlike some of the other islands, travelers will need to share this photogenic environment.
11. A secret island in Johor (Johor)
Johor in southern Malaysia rarely gets any tourist attention. Even Malaysians wouldn’t connect the state with picturesque islands.
But the enigmatic Rawa, some 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of the mainland, is an exception.
The private island allures Malaysia’s and Singapore’s rich and famous. Apart from a handful of overwater bungalows in two resorts, there’s nothing much else.
Palm trees border glittering soft white sand which hugs the shoreline. Rocks penetrate the gentle azure waters on the west coast creating postcard-perfect photographs.
Away from the beach, holidaymakers can hike along jungle trails into the heart of Rawa Island. Here you’ll meet primates, tropical birds and supersized insects.
Other vacationers spend their afternoons sea kayaking.
Take the ferry from Mersing Port to Rawa Island.
Plan your trip several months in advance.
12. Exclusivity on Sibu Island (Johor)
Sibu consists of a small chain of four islands in the South China Sea.
With only two resorts, the island promotes the ultimate exclusivity among Malaysia’s hundreds of islands.
Tourists from both Malaysia and Singapore usually occupy the luxurious rooms.
Activities on Sibu focus around relaxation. Spend the day on the beach and afternoon in the spas.
Arrange a boat trip to hidden diving sites and snorkel on the surface near the resort. Or take a boat out at sea and fish for monsters.
13. Sea fishing, diving and isolation on Aur Island (Johor)
Johor’s Aur Island is far from mainland Malaysia.
Located 76 kilometers (47 miles) east of Mersing Port in the South China Sea, isolation is guaranteed.
The resorts mostly cater to experienced divers and passionate anglers.
Aur and its four nearby sisters belong to Johor Marine Park.
Flamboyant corals scattered around the seabed form habitats for hundreds of fish. Snorkelers and scuba divers can swim with manta rays, sharks and barracuda.
Fishing enthusiasts can reel in some of the biggest fish of their lives.
Other activities include exploring the rugged landscapes, photographing lagoons and island hopping.
14. Labuan Island: The ‘Pearl of Borneo’ (Labuan)
Labuan is a thriving port near Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei Darussalam in the South China Sea
Malaysia transformed little-known Labuan into a thriving financial center. Thousands of offshore companies have their headquarters here to take advantage of free trade.
But the duty-free island isn’t just about business and finance.
Labuan has dozens of diving spots including four shipwrecks and isolated beaches.
Travelers can visit the War Cemetery, the final resting place for almost 4,000 Allied soldiers who lost their lives in WW2.
15. Floating fishing villages on Bruit Island (Sarawak)
Rather than sandy beaches and luxurious bungalows, Bruit Island consists of traditional fishing villages.
Malay families earn their living out of the South China Sea in the same way as their ancestors.
Little has changed in centuries, which is reflected in the architecture and way of life.
Bruit is among the largest islands in the Rejang Delta near Sibu.
Take the ferry and explore a world of rickety floating villages and discover the rural lifestyle.
16. Search for bearded pigs on Gaya Island (Sabah)
Gaya Island is the largest in Sabah’s Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
Unlike its sisters, the appeal of Gaya lies in its jungle-filled interior and Filipino floating village.
Take a speedboat from Jesselton Point in Kota Kinabalu and spend the day hiking in the jungle. The island’s highest peak stands at 300 meters (984 feet) with a stunning panoramic over of the mini-archipelago.
With its 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of hiking trails, Gaya has some of Sabah’s most accessible jungle treks. Watch out for the bearded pigs nestling in the undergrowth.
A zipline operated by Coral Flyer stretches 235 meters (771 feet) from Gaya to Sapi Island. This is the world’s longest island-to-island zipline.
17. Zipline into Sapi Island (Sabah)
Sapi Island, the Marine Park’s second smallest, is opposite Gaya.
Unlike its neighbor Manukan, this island is free from commercialization and mass tourism.
Speedboats regularly pass between Kota Kinabalu and Sapi.
The island’s crowd usually consists of adrenaline junkies. The world’s longest island-to-island zipline passes from Gaya to Sapi.
Monitor lizards the size of cars scurry across the beaches into the jungle undergrowth.
Snorkel through the relatively empty coral garden and picnic on the rocks overlooking the coast.
Combine a trip to Sapi with Gaya Island.
18. A day at the beach on Manukan Island (Sabah)
Manukan Island has Kota Kinabalu’s most stunning coastline.
The island belongs to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and gets thousands of visitors each day.
Ferries from Jesselton Point take just 15 minutes to reach Manukan. Sabahans and hundreds of tourists regularly head over for a day on the beach.
Rent snorkeling equipment and witness the sprawling coral reef. Some resemble a brain through a magnifying glass. Others have branches reaching out like ancient trees in winter.
Watch out for macaques lurking on the beach – they’ll snatch your camera.
19. Pulau Tiga: Borneo’s ‘Survivor Island’ (Sabah)
Pulau Tiga in Sabah is the original Survivor Island.
After hosting the first season of the successful reality TV series, the island-chain near Kota Kinabalu has experienced an explosion of tourism.
Tour companies take visitors day trips to Pulau Tiga (literally ‘Three Islands’) from Kota Kinabalu.
Relax on empty coastlines and hike to mysterious mud volcanoes.
Or spend the night and have your own desert island experience. But rather than roughing it on the beach, you’ll get spas and swimming pools.
20. Easy to reach diving spots in Mantanani Island (Sabah)
Scuba divers with limited time in Sabah head to Mantanani Islands.
The chain of islands in the South China Sea is near Kota Belud, approximately one and a half hours from Kota Kinabalu.
Tour companies visit more than 20 diving sites as part of their day trip. Lucky tourists might snorkel with seahorses and stingrays. Certified divers can explore three shipwrecks.
Other companies take divers to virgin spots where only a handful of people have explored before.
As an alternative, spend the night on either Mantanani Besar, Mantanani Lungisan or Mantanani Kecil. Watch the Bornean sunset from a boat.
Spend the next day kayaking or island hopping.
21. Layang Layang: A biodiverse powerhouse in the South China Sea (Sabah)
The former military base located 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Kota Kinabalu lacks beaches, resorts and palm trees.
But the isolated region in the South China Sea also lacks human interference. No commercialization, no tourists and it’s too far for even the hardiest of local fishers.
This creates a flourishing marine environment found nowhere else in Malaysia.
Layang Layang has 12 diving sites bursting with lifeforms that have never interacted with humans before. Expect enormous colorful fish, giant manta rays and tiny pygmy seahorses.
Hammerhead sharks, whale sharks and bottlenose dolphins migrate through at certain times of the year.
The only way to Layang Layang is to fly from Kota Kinabalu.
22. Sabah’s diving paradise on Sipadan Island (Sabah)
Sabah’s Sipadan Island consistently ranks among the planet’s best diving sites.
Diving enthusiasts around the globe descend on this tiny island near Semporna.
Unlike its neighbors, there aren’t any resorts or restaurants. Only 120 people with a special permit can visit the protected zone each day.
Those who do witness an incredible array of marine life. Swim with schools of barracuda or embrace the rich biodiversity.
Lucky tourists might spot giant turtles swimming near the horizon.
23. Sea Kayaking and Sea Nomads on Mabul Island (Sabah)
Mabul is 15 minutes from Sipadan and a favorite with divers.
The oval-shaped island has accommodation catering toward both budget-travelers and more upscale holidaymakers.
Explore the surrounding waters and swim with cuttlefish and octopus. Because Sipadan lacks accommodation, divers usually stay on Mabul.
Apart from day trips and diving, travelers can go sea kayaking, explore ‘Sea Nomad’ floating villages and gaze at the millions of stars after nightfall.
Regatta Lepa, a water festival celebrating Bajau culture and traditions, takes place in April.
24. See rare turtles nesting in Pom Pom Island (Sabah)
Pom Pom Island combines a luxury getaway with ecotourism in East Sabah’s Semporna Archipelago.
With a handful of resorts, the tiny island promises a private retreat in Borneo.
Sit on the beach and marvel at the turquoise water that seems almost frozen in time. Grab a pair of goggles and swim out into the shallow water to witness the life in the coral reefs.
Watch the orange and purples light up the sky as dawn breaks from inside your overwater bungalow.
Watch out for the rare green and hawksbill turtles either in the sea, nesting on the sand or at the hatchery.
25. Overwater bungalows in Lankayan Island (Sabah)
Lankayan Island in east Sabah is Borneo’s version of the Maldives.
The calm Sulu Sea surrounds the tropical island which bursts with corals and marine life.
Wooden overwater bungalows provide a stunning spot to spend a few nights.
Soak up the views from the beachfront balcony in the morning. Join a tour and snorkel in the unexplored world under the waves later in the day.
Lankayan is as a favorite local holiday destination, but is a challenge to reach. Travelers first need to get to Sandakan before boarding a 90-minute ferry.