Back in the early 2000’s, Tioman Island was a prime destination for keen divers and budget travellers holidaying in Malaysia. But not much else: it was definitely right off the map for quality resort relaxation. Then, just over a decade ago, the Japamala eco-resort opened and showed Tioman was not just for backpackers. By Jeremy Torr
Since the late 80’s, the ferry from Mersing on Malaysia’s southeast coast has seen a constant stream of backpackers and budget travellers taking the two hour trip to Tioman Island (Pulau Tioman) some 50km off the coast in the South China Sea. The rugged and rainforest covered island, home to only some 500 inhabitants, was famous for basic “bunk and dunk” grunge accommodation and cheap dive schools.
The island offered warm, limpid blue water in the dry season, some substantial shipwrecks as well as coral reefs, a multitude of tropical fish, sea turtles and vast beds of sea sponges to snorkel or dive in. Up a network of hilly tracks, the island’s interior featured a multitude of rainforest animals including huge multicoloured butterflies, monkeys and massive monitor lizards. It was the perfect getaway from the hubbub of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore - but only for the hardy and cash-strapped.
Then in 2004, the Japamala Resort opened with a definite hike in accommodation quality, as well as a previously unseen commitment to eco-living on the island.
During construction, the owners were careful to disturb the local ecology – plants, animals and geology – as little as possible. No rocks were moved and no trees were cut down. Most of the cabins and main buildings were built from local wood as much as possible, and other key construction parts were salvaged from old kampong (Malay for village) houses. As part of a commitment to sustainability within the community, bamboo and other naturally sourced materials were purchased from local indigenous people, the Malaysian Orang Asli. Additionally, all wooden fixtures are locally handmade by the resort's own craftsmen.
During the whole ten-year process of creating the resort as it is today, the owners say they have concentrated on “building around nature” in an attempt to respect and preserve the inherent beauty of the destination for both visitors and local inhabitants.
They say they have tried to maintain a 'rustic yet luxurious' design philosophy through all the rooms and chalets as part of a commitment to respecting local ecology.
All buildings have been constructed with the aim of not just borrowing from nature and blending with but also using modern materials like polished cement and tall glass windows that blend and enhance local features. As a result no two villas are the same and each takes on the character of the land upon which it is built. To emphasise this natural foundation, all the rooms are call “sarang” which means nest in the local Malay language.
Although built with a high level of eco-consciousness, the resort has not cut corners for guests wanting a little luxury. The poshest accommodation is in the Penghulu's House, which fronts onto the beach and offers two-storey, two-bedroom villa accommodation. The main upstairs bedroom offers a spectacular view of the sea and the ground floor beds have direct access to a private swimming pool and wooden sun decks, all for around RM 1,450 (US$340) a night. All with full air-conditioning, WiFi, DVD player, cable TV, mini bars and espresso machines.
Set in 11 acres of tropical waterfront wilderness, Japamala's wooden chalets, hillside sarangs and beachside villas make the most of the natural local environment yet still offer a definitely up-market feel to the accommodation. Given the resort’s proximity to Singapore, something of a bargain and well described as what the operators call a “rustic-luxe” offering.
A few years ago, Tioman was on the map solely thanks to its low prices, unassuming offerings and rather careless approach to the environment typified by burning plastic bonfires and beaches scattered with empty bottles. Japamala has definitely moved things on.
“Our properties are designed and built within a philosophy that invites our guests into a state of mind that is called Samadhi,” say the owners in their marketing blurb. Apparently, in Sanskrit, Samadhi is the highest state of meditation - the moment when the mind achieves stillness, a state of meditative consciousness such as that attained in the perfect surroundings.
That might be a bit optimistic given the average guest only stays a few days rather than a full month-long retreat. But nonetheless, the resort has single-handedly changed the reputation of Tioman from a place only visited by bargain hunters to something more like a unique destination for the “in-the-know” set. And done it without a single concrete tower or class-fronted dining area.