When one thinks of a beach holiday in Southeast Asia, the usual suspects come to mind: Phuket, Bali, Koh Samui, or for those who stick to the regular backpacking circuit, Koh Phangan. Beaches in Malaysia usually come as an afterthought.
And when one finally does think about Malaysia, just about every other tourist ends up in Perhentian Islands, Langkawi or Sipadan in East Malaysia. As a local, I knew better but despite that fact, and having escaped to many islands on the east of Malaysia (not just the ones mentioned), Pulau Kapas was strangely never on my radar.
I was tasked with the planning of our holiday with my parents-in-laws. Wanting to ensure that they get an authentic Malaysian island experience, I had a list of criteria to check off: it has to be affordable, convenient, pristine, beautiful and yet not too touristy. Booming party music till dawn is a huge no-no. Also preferably, it should be a destination that Chris and I have never been to so that it’ll be much of a new territory to us as it is to them.
My in-laws’ experience with beaches are mainly on European hotspots, like Crete, Rhodes Islands, Canary Islands, Baltic and Mediterranean coastlines and so on. These places mostly accommodate tourists with fat wallets. You tend to see pale-looking men and women lounging on plastic chairs on the beach, with towering unflattering-looking beach resorts in the background. Even the more beautiful bays don’t come with the powdery white sand and clear, warm waters that most beaches in Southeast Asia has to offer.
Surprisingly, there isn’t much information on Pulau Kapas available. There were a few blog posts written up by travellers, with photos of azure waters and swaying palms, enough to convince us that this quiet island could be an ideal addition to our trip, but information about accommodation, bus or boat timings, were scarce. There was nothing much we could book in advance.
But in a typical backpacker fashion, we decided to just turn up.
ARRIVAL AT MARANG JETTY, KUALA TERENGGANU
We took an overnight bus from Penang to Kuala Terengganu. As it was the beginning of March and barely the start of the season, bus tickets were hard to procure in Georgetown. We had to go to Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal, the main bus terminal in Penang, to get our tickets the day before.
We left at 8.30 pm and arrived at 5 am at Kuala Terengganu bus terminal. Stepping off the bus, I almost kissed the ground, giving thanks to the divine that we arrived in one piece. It was one of those rides where you never know if you’ll survive.
A cab driver drove us to Marang Jetty, where we were to take the speed boat across to Pulau Kapas, but he warned us that since it was barely 6am, nothing’s going to be opened. Most of the villagers were still doing their morning prayers in the mosque nearby.
He was right. When we pulled up to Marang Jetty, nothing stirred except for a fellow backpacker there–a young Argentinian guy, whose figure lay curled up in a ball with his backpack serving as a pillow. He took the bus from Kuala Lumpur and got dropped off at near the jetty area. He was glad that he now had some company.
We sat in the darkness for a while, allowing mosquitos to hover over us incessantly. Stray cats prowled around (looking for mice?). There was nothing we could do but wait.
Eventually, someone came to pull up the steel awnings of the shop that we were sitting in front of. A young affable man sold us return speed boat tickets for RM40 each. The bigger but slower boat would have been cheaper but it wasn’t available during off-season. Also, I don’t think it mattered where you buy your tickets. The prices are probably all the same. The earliest departure was at 8.30am, we were told.
“But while you wait, maybe you’ll like to try the best Roti Canai in this area?”
CHOOSING OUR IDEAL ACCOMMODATION ON PULAU KAPAS
The small MGH speedboat sped across the clear turquoise waters as we hung on tight on the sides of the boat. The boat heaved and dipped each time we crossed a swell, causing the just-eaten roti canai to swirl in our tummies. I looked over at my in-laws but they looked like they were having the time of their lives. Salty water grazed my hair and skin. The morning sun was slowly warming the atmosphere up. I have craved for this feeling for a long time.
Pulau Kapas took our breath away even from the distance. Barely bigger than 3 km, this little drop of tropical paradise in the South China Sea is as idyllic as it gets. A few beach chalets scatter against the backdrop of a jungle.
We enquired at three different places, namely KBC, Ombak Kapas and Kapas Coral Beach Resort but in the end settled for the last one. The wooden A-frame huts of KBC came highly recommended by backpackers on the Internet but it was extremely basic and not very cheap (from RM80). It room was dark and it smelt a bit dank. I got the rustic charm of it but I didn’t think my in-laws would enjoy their stay here.
Then we moved on to Ombak Kapas. It looked promising in the beginning. It was spartan as well but at least when you open the shutters, you get a lot of light and fresh air (mosquitoes too unfortunately) into the room. But there was no mosquito net and the toilet looked depressing. It was at least clean. RM120-RM130 for a fan room.
In the end we settled on Kapas Coral Beach Resort because the garden chalets faced the sea. You could easily hang on in the balcony and chill. We paid RM180 for an air-conditioned room though to be honest, it felt like daylight robbery. It was too expensive for a rather basic room. Basic rooms should come with basic prices. The bathroom’s tiles were covered in some chalky residue, probably built-up left by hard water. Still, the toilet looked a little better than the ones in the previous accommodations that we checked out.
As we unpacked, we heard a knock on the door. My in-laws stood outside and asking a little guiltily if Chris could come to their chalet for a while. They explained a few things quickly before Chris decided to go with them. Whatever it was, I hope it wasn’t like they found a cockroach under the bed or something.
Chris turned up later and explained what happened. The sheets in their chalet were stained and yellow. It made them uncomfortable and they weren’t sure if they should get the sheets changed or move out completely. There weren’t so many other chalets available in the same resort either. In the end, they moved to Ombak Kapas. They decided that a depressing looking toilet may still be better than dirty sheets.
Their concern prompted me to check on our room’s sheets. They weren’t bleach white but it was clean enough. But still, as I removed the covers, I noticed tiny flecks of brown rings. The pillow cases were not stained but it did look sort of grubby.
Still, being a backpacker who have slept in worst conditions, I decided it wasn’t good enough to prompt us to change rooms. We stayed on for the beach view.
Over the two days, I wondered about the hygiene standards of the accommodations. I didn’t see any of the staff cleaning sheets or removing them to put them to wash or something. It was strange. But we didn’t have much choice. It wasn’t easy to check out other accommodations on the other sides of the island with our luggage in tow. We weren’t ready to confine ourselves to the south of the island, where Kapas Turtle Valley Resort was, nor did we want to camp.
Later in the day, as we slowly explored the island, we also checked out Qimi Chalets.
The chalets nestled on the hillside, like tree houses, but as we had the chance to peek into one, we immediately shook our heads. While the view from the rooms were fabulous, it looked like you’ll probably be visited by jungle critters at all times of the day. It also didn’t look very clean and the air inside was stale. But at least dinner at Qimi Chalets was affordable and delicious. The fruit juices were fresh and flavourful. The service was excellent and the food choices were spectacular. It has a romantic atmosphere at night, especially when you get to dine by candlelight. The only downside was, you’ll have to order your meal before 4pm.
KBC’s restaurant was probably the most popular, especially among western tourists. It was always full during meal times: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dining there was comfortable affair. Western and Asian meals were offered at prices that were pocket friendly, mostly between RM 8-RM15. It was probably the only ala-carte restaurant that opens consistently from 8am till 10pm. Waiters were friendly and attentive. The German girl, probably the manager of the establishment, turned out to be an ex-resident of Leipzig, a city which is 45 minutes away from our place! She told us that she discovered Pulau Kapas seven years ago and has never left the place since!
It was when we were having dinner there that we discovered the other KBC (which I shall call KBC 2). How could we have missed it? Tucked right behind the restaurant was a newly built 2-storey building with both air-conditioning and fan rooms. The fan rooms on the first level were from RM160 while the air-conditioned ones were RM185.
It was amazing! It was simple but somehow chic at the same time. The rooms were nice and airy, with proper glass windows. Everything was clean, neat and the bathroom doesn’t resemble a portrait of gloom.
Bed mattress was thick and good quality and most of all, when the room was showed to us, there were no sheets on them. Which means, they probably replace sheets every time someone checks out. That’s reassuring because I’m not sure if the other places were doing the same.
After seeing the place, my in-laws wanted to immediately switch room again. Unfortunately, they’d already paid up for the two nights at their current place. Even if they could get the deposit back, KBC 2 required a minimum of 2-nights stay. It would be a lot of money being spent just on having a perfect place to stay. So my in-laws had to let the idea go. KBC 2 was clearly new and located in a separate compound to KBC A-frames, but still, when we enquired about KBC at the beginning, why weren’t we shown these new KBC chalets as well? Unless they are run separately?
Anyway, I’d a hard time accepting that we have missed out on this nicer place just because we didn’t know about and couldn’t have known about it, until we dined here.
LIVING THE GOOD LIFE ON PULAU KAPAS
While the accommodation issue was a bit of a let down, we didn’t stay annoyed for long. The sun was bright and shining, the sultry breeze was blowing, the palms were swaying and the gentle clear water was lapping against the shore. Soon we felt blessed just by being on Pulau Kapas.
Our days were spent exploring the different beaches around the island. There was an available walkway that offers one a paved path to the different beaches. It looked somewhat like a bridge. The only thing is, the bridge ends at the most beautiful part of the island. It must have been destroyed by a storm or something. Here, if you want to reach the more secluded part of the island (but with the most amazing stretch of beaches) you’ll have to wait for low tide and wade across the jagged rocks to get to the other side. Reef shoes are definitely recommended here so that you won’t hurt your feet. Or you can swim during high tide
Another way is to rent a kayak to go around. With a kayak, you’ll be able to access the secret bays and nooks around the island. We rented ours in front of Kapas Coral Beach Resort for RM20 for an hour. We bargained it down to RM30 for two hours.
Pulau Kapas was sublime. Due to its size, not so advanced infrastructure and being largely uninhabited, it has remained wild and strangely devoid of unruly tourists. You won’t find constant boat activity, jet skis or banana boats. It’s the perfect sort of island to do nothing. Here, the natural beauty is so captivating that I didn’t even bother about looking for WiFi. It reminded me of Poya Lisa island in the Togian Archipelago in Sulawesi. The staff also looks after the island very well though tide brings in plastic and rubbish from elsewhere and scatter it across some parts of the island. It’s a real shame as a lot of effort is given to the preservation of Pulau Kapas’ beauty.
A SHARK, WHERE?
We loved snorkelling here. The reefs are very close to the shore so you don’t have to go far. I don’t remember such healthy corals since Gili Air. Even Perhentian Kecil’s corals couldn’t compare. You don’t get too much of a variety here but they’re at least healthy and alive.
Snorkelling in front of Qimi’s Chalets was okay but the best place was off the beach after the end of the walkway. You’ll see plenty of colourful coral fish and the occasional reef shark or a ray. The amazing part is? You won’t find snorkelling boats crowding the area, the kinds that offload tourists in swim vests into the water by the dozens and later throwing bread crumbs to the water so that fish would come up to the surface and feed. Here the snorkelling experience is as authentic as it gets. You get to see Nemos in their natural habitats at your own pace, chase that parrot fish that you saw, or just be still and pay attention to life unraveling in the underwater world.
My mother in-law was always cautious about the underwater. She would swim though not too far and not too deep. “What if there’s a shark or jellyfish?” she would often say.
The day after next, I spotted a reef shark while we were snorkelling off the secret beach shores. Chris made me promise that I shouldn’t mention this little fact to them.
“If you do, they’re going to stop swimming. Especially my mother,” warned Chris.
Dutifully I agreed. Come dinner time, his parents casually asked us how our snorkelling went.
“Did you see a shark?” said my father-in-law in passing, with a smirk that indicated that he was joking. We looked at each other and stayed silent. My mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
“What? You guys saw a shark?!? Where?!” she shrieked. We reluctantly told her that it was some Black Tip reef shark which was small, timid and probably harmless. It was so timid that I had to swim after it so that I could admire the underwater predator up close but even then, it got away quickly. His parents shook his head, looking unconvinced. We quickly moved the conversation to the other colourful species we saw.
The next morning however, they asked if they could borrow our snorkelling gear. We were shocked. Instead of staying away from the water, they actually wanted to snorkel!? My father-in-law has probably tried snorkelling once but mother-in-law was a complete newbie. We taught them how to use the mask and the snorkel but my mother-in-law spluttered through it. Of course, since she’s never snorkelled in her life. But her determination to master this little pursuit was stronger than her immediate failures.
We lay down on our beach towels, chuckling at the older generation attempting to snorkel. Not unkindly. We were proud of them. Soon my mother-in-law paddled further into the horizon to join her husband. They stayed in the water for some time before resurfacing, breathless and all giddy with excitement.
“Wow, wow, wow!!! They’re so colorful. And you can hear them chomping away at the corals. And it’s so amazing to be able to see them so clearly!” gushed my mother-in-law. “I think snorkeling just changed my life!”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE GOING TO PULAU KAPAS
- Go off-season. The official season starts from March to October but it doesn’t really get busy till May. Avoid weekends (Thursday evenings to Sunday mornings) and local school holidays because you’ll get the local crowds. We went in the beginning of March and it was perfect, including the weather.
- There are no ATMs on the island so it’s best if you have some cash with you. Especially if you’re planning to stay long.
- Bring mosquito repellent as you’ll need it between 5pm to 8pm. After that, locals say, the mosquitoes disappear. Interestingly, they’re right. That’s why dinner at Qimi’s always starts after 8pm.
- If you’re crave for chips or cookies at random hours of the day, you might need to stock up from mainland. There a little sundry shop that sells water and sunscreen.
- There’s probably expensive beer to be found on the island but we didn’t see it.
- Pulau Kapas is not an island where you’d party and have bonfires.
- There are at least four boat departures and arrivals a day but the timings change according to season. To be safe, first departure to Pulau Kapas from Marang Jetty starts from 8.30-9.00 am while the first boat from Pulau Kapas to mainland is 9.30 am. The boat ride between mainland and Pulau Kapas is 15 minutes.
- There are overnight busses from Kuala Lumpur and Penang to Kuala Terengganu or maybe even to Marang Jetty. They all take about eight hours and while comfortable, there’s a chance your driver is an aspiring F1 driver. Take busses at your own risk. Busses that take you to the Kuala Terengganu bus station will arrive at 5 am in the morning.
- If you’re planning to take a taxi from the bus station to the jetty, do note that early mornings are the worst time to negotiate with taxi drivers. A taxi for two may cost RM30 while a taxi for four, RM45-60.
- Flying could be a better option as you’ll be able get one-way tickets from AirAsia for as low as RM 42 (from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu). If you take a taxi between airport and Marang Jetty, you should factor in at least 45 minutes of travel time.
WHERE TO STAY
- There aren’t any Airbnbs or 5-star beach resorts on Pulau Kapas. You’ll mostly find very basic rooms, like a small room with a bed. We’d initially wanted to stay at KBC A-Frames (there are also dorms available) because we’ve read good things about it but after seeing it, it wasn’t what we’d expected. So we chose Kapas Coral Beach Resort instead (we couldn’t check out the other places at the other end). It still wasn’t the best (RM180 for a double air-conditioned room) but it was okay. They also have fan rooms. Most people who stay here are local tourists on a package.
- The newer KBC rooms would be our recommendation. You’ll find them tucked away behind the KBC Restaurant (RM160-RM185).
- Kapas Turtle Valley offers better rooms but at a steeper price (RM200 and above) but if you stay there, it’ll be a bit cut-off from the rest of Pulau Kapas.
- There are two camping sites, Harmony campsite and Captain Longhouse.
Contact details for accommodation:
Kapas Coral Beach Resort: http://kapasisland.com/contact-us/
New KBC (Kapas Beach Chalets): +6019-3435606 (Hans Keune) or [email protected]
Qimi Chalets: +6017-9175744 (Rose Abd Hamid)
Kapas Turtle Valley: http://kapasturtlevalley.com
Snorkeling in Pulau Kapas:
Have you been to Pulau Kapas? Share with me your experiences!
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