An elaborate puzzle of tropical islands skirts the edges of Malaysia's long coastline, encircling the Malaysian Peninsula and the Malaysian part of Borneo with isolated fragments of paradise and pockets of unusual offshore culture.
Though they get less press than other south-east Asian islands such as Phuket, Ko Samui or Bali, Malaysia's islands can be just as enticingly beautiful and culturally engrossing, and are largely accessible from the mainland via air or sea.
From foodie and heritage hotspot Penang to diver's paradise Sipadan, all have brochure-blue seas and velvety sand in some measure, but each has a different kind of appeal. Whether you are seeking sea gypsies, tropical reefs, jungle trails, backpacker hangouts or barefoot luxury, here's a look at the islands best suited to your individual travel priorities and preferences.
Best Malaysian island for...
Underwater exploration and sea gypsies?
Ranked among the top scuba-diving spots in the world, Sipadan sits within the wild waters of eastern Borneo, harbouring a dizzying variety of marine life found virtually nowhere else. Malaysia's only truly oceanic island to be created by an underwater volcano, its sub-aquatic slopes are covered in a rich tapestry of corals described by Jacques Cousteau as an untouched piece of art.
As such it's become part of a protected marine park and a real haven for threatened hawksbill and green turtles who choose the island to mate, feed and nest. You're not allowed to stay overnight on Sipadan, but the little island of Mabul close by has a few accommodation options and dive operators. The island is particularly curious for its community of Bajau sea gypsies with stilted homes built above the water and exceptional free-diving and fishing skills.
Backpacking and bohemian bliss?
An alternative to the increasingly-overrun islands of the Thai Gulf, Malaysia's Perhentian Islands have a laid-back backpacker vibe and bohemian spots to hang out in a hammock by the smooth pale sands of Long Beach. When it comes to places to stay, Perhentian Besar has budget accommodation including hostels and huts with en suites. When not snorkelling the fringing reefs, hiking through the jungle or chilling on the beach, you can also lend a hand at the local turtle sanctuary.
Accessible adventures and breathtaking beaches?
Said to be the backdrop for scenes in the iconic movie South Pacific, Tioman is a popular stop on Malaysia's tourist trail but fortunately its protected status means it has held on to its rugged jungle-clad interior, wildlife and reefs.
Alongside accessible diving and snorkelling in the island's translucent emerald waters, you can take a trek on the snaking rainforest trails, spot giant monitor lizards and cool off in the plunge pool of hidden cascades. East of Peninsula Malaysia in the South China Sea, the relaxed island has both backpacker haunts and more luxurious accommodation, and can be reached via ferries from Mersing and Singapore.
Local scene and reliable weather?
Favoured by Malay holidaymakers and with a small island capital and traditional fishing kampongs (Malay villages) ringing its verdant sloping shores, Pangkor has local charm and tasty food, as well as tropic beauty. Crowned by 1,200-metre-high Pangkor Hill, the main island is surrounded by a trio of islets including Pangkor Laut, which is home to a private high-end resort. West of Peninsula Malaysia, the island is shielded from monsoons by the Sumatran land mass and has the most reliably dry and sunny weather of all Malaysia's islands no matter the time of year.
Rich culture and creative cuisine?
An ex-British colonial enclave, Penang was once an important trading hub on the Straits of Malacca known as "the Pearl of the Orient". The heritage-listed streets of historic Georgetown still retain a faded grandeur, but today Penang is best known for its cultural melting pot and foodie hotspots.
A mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese influences has sparked culinary magic on the island where you can fill your belly with spicy and aromatic street food including local laksa, try original dishes in Georgetown's colourful cafes and restaurants, and trawl the local market for exotic ingredients.
Luxurious escapes and epic landscapes?
Langkawi has been designed to be holiday-ready, with an airport, good tourism infrastructure and broad range of hotels that include some of South-east Asia's finest - the ultra-luxurious boutique Datai Langkawi and Four Seasons Resort Langkawi.
Never-the-less, the island is still dotted with traditional Malay villages and development has remained fairly low-key. Part of an archipelago of dozens of desert islands to the west of the Malay Peninsula, Langkawi is undeniably beautiful, especially from the vantage point of ancient Machincang mountain accessed via the Panorama Langkawi cable car and sky bridge.
Idyllic palm-tufted beaches indent an interior of remarkable landscapes that include karstic pinnacles, jungle-entangled mountains, bat-haunted caves, concealed lagoons and mangroves in its four UNESCO-listed Geoparks, plus stunning underwater seascapes in Pulau Payar Marine Park.
A ridge-backed island cloaked in virgin forest, Gaya Island sits close to the north coast of Malaysian Borneo, just off the mainland from Kota Kinabalu. Part of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, it's known for its gorgeous vistas and pristine reefs, and offers 20km of jungle and coastal hiking trails and some fantastic dive sites. There are just two five-star resorts on the island including upmarket Bunga Raya Island Resort that fronts onto the paradisiacal bay of Police Beach.
South of better-known Tioman island, Pemanggil is much smaller and more secluded, making it the perfect place for a few days' off-grid escape. Diving and snorkelling in the transparent waters around the island is an absolute must, where colourful coral communities thrive in the shallows. There's also a sloping trail through the forests to the crest of the island with magnificent views from the top. You can reach Pemanggil on a boat crossing from the Malaysian Peninsula's east coast town of Mersing, which takes several hours.
Spoilt for choice
With 878 islands in total, Malaysia's islets are by no means limited to those listed above. There are many more off the beaten track or with a similar appeal to the ones mentioned. Redang, for instance, is another enchanting island with upmarket resorts that's accessible via daily flights from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
If you just can't choose, why not visit a few? Penang and Langkawi are linked by a ferry service and domestic flights, while island-hopping is easy in many of Malaysia's mini archipelagos.