Living the Slow Life on Kapas Island
Kapas Island, aka. Pulau Kapas or Cotton Island, just off the coast of Marang in the Terengganu state, on the eastern side of Malaysia’s peninsula, is perhaps one of the country’s best kept secrets. Or rather, that’s what it felt like when we arrived on the island during the Hari Raya period, a major holiday in the country and a very popular time for local tourism in Malaysia. We had expected the little Kapas island to be packed with locals since we were aware that Malaysian people enjoyed travelling to the beaches during this time of year, just after Ramadan, when the kids are off school.
Living the Slow Life on Kapas Island
What we found instead were empty, soft, white-sand beaches, pristine blue water and a delightful tiny compact island ready to be explored! Sure, there were a few local families around, as well as a handful of backpackers camping on the island, but they all seemed to settle into their own secluded spot or hammock where they would spend much of the day.
Chilling out and relaxing seems to be the order of the day around here. Indeed, there isn’t much to do except lounge in the shade of the coconut trees, occasionally taking a dip in the shallow blue water when the heat is too much to bear.
The few tourists seemed to be mostly spread out on the bay, in the stretch of sand between the jetty and the Captain Longhouse campsite, and in the bay near Kapas Coral Beach Resort. Some of the other beaches slightly further away (like 500m away) were completely deserted and even more beautiful. The beaches are connected via a white walkway providing access over the rocks and making the west side completely accessible.
Getting to Pulau Kapas from Penang
We took an overnight bus to Kuala Terengganu from Koptar Bus Station in Penang at 10pm for 35 RM (about €7) each. Buses in Malaysia are extremely comfortable with reclining seats and air-con. It gets really cold at night. so be sure to have a jacket or warm clothes handy on your journey! Buses on this route are scheduled throughout the day and can be either booked directly at the offices near Komtar Tower or more conveniently online here.
The journey was about 8 hours long so we arrived there at around 6am and proceeded to take a taxi at Marang Jetty for 30 RM (€6). We might have been overcharged for the 40-minute ride, but we were too tired to wait for a bus at this point, especially knowing that we needed to catch an early boat from the jetty to Kapas Island.
The ticket for the ferry to Kapas, which we bought at the jetty, cost 40RM (about €8) each, both ways. Various tour packages including ferry and accommodation can be arranged with different tour operators but of course that is not our preferred way of traveling.
The ferry stopped us in front of Kapas Coral Beach Resort, so we walked across the beaches to Kapas Island Resort, which took about 10 minutes. The resorts are all really close to each other so getting from one to the other is really not a problem. We did manage to take the boat back from the jetty near Kapas Island Resort (where we were staying) though, after having informed Kapas Coral Beach Resort of our intention to leave – a day’s notice was sufficient. MGH transport and Kapas Coral Beach Resort seem to be affiliated.
Where to stay
There are few accommodation options on Kapas island mostly located on the west side of the island where the beaches are. Every beach seems to house its “own” resort although the beaches in no way belong to these resorts and are completely accessible to all. Tourists rarely seemed to venture much further afield than the beach on which their resort is located – the beaches are all beautiful, and staying close to the resort where you can keep your stuff is convenient.
Most of the budget resorts seemed to be unavailable when we tried contacting them; they either could not be booked online or were fully occupied, despite the fact that the island was not crowded at all. It is for this reason that despite its bad reviews, we chose to stay at Kapas Island Resort. We could also camp or sleep in a dorm at Captain Longhouse but we always prefer having our own room and bathroom wherever possible.
The bad reviews were warranted. The room was filthy and kind of sticky and the sheets so damp and humid that we had to cover the bed in our own towels. We do not recommend staying here at all. The only reason we didn’t sleep outside on the beach was because we knew that we would fall prey to the many mosquitos eagerly waiting to feed on every inch of our Mediterranean skin. Mosquito repellent is essential!
If you afford some luxury, the secluded Gem Island Resort and Spa found on Gemla, an even smaller island just off Kapas, is the preferred accommodation option.
What to do
Practise being a beach bum! Lie on the beach, get a tan, swing from a hammock in the shade of the coconut trees and enjoy the ultra-slow life on the island.
If you want to get moving, snorkelling in the crystal-clear water around the rocks near Captain Longhouse is fun! There is also a lovely coral garden around the rocks on the northern side of Qimi Beach Resort. There have been many turtle sightings in the area and, if you’re lucky, you can get to see some reef sharks like we did. Diving is also possible at the only diving facility called Aquasport Divers, who organise diving trips to a nearby Japanese war wreck.
We rented snorkelling gear from Kapas Island Beach resort for 10RM (about €2) for a full day
Trekking across the Kapas Jungle
What was supposed to be a short easy jungle trek turned out to be much more than we had bargained for! Somehow, given the easy and slow-paced life on the tiny island, we had assumed that the trek would be a short comfortable walk. What we didn’t know though was that the internal part of the island is hilly and covered in jungle with lots of protruding roots and thick foliage.
As we sweated our way along the path, we chided ourselves for not having brought repellent along with us. I was covered in itchy bites by the end of the trek and Nikki (who claims that his blood is too sweet for the mozzy palate) had also fallen way down the food chain! The path starts off behind Captain Longhouse through a steep flight of steps which fork off into the jungle. You need to take the left path.
The route is pretty straightforward, as a rope and some rudimentary markers conveniently line the path throughout most of the trek. The last part of the trek includes a very steep descent until you come across a dirty rocky beach which, quite frankly, is not worth the effort it takes to reach it. A second path takes you back to the west part of the island. Although our intention was to trek back through this route, we could not find the elusive second path, (and neither did the only other rambler we met on this side of the island), so we had to backtrack along the same route.
Be sure to take mosquito repellent and to carry plenty of water on the trek. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the island is so small. The trek can be challenging and there’s no phone reception in case of an accident. Unless you’re really craving exercise, there’s no real reason to go on this trek and you would be much better off keeping cool by the water.
Where to eat
Most of the resorts prepare some food, but be prepared for basic meals without much variety.
Despite our negative view of the accommodation, our favourite place to eat was actually the same resort we were staying at, Kapas Island Resort because we found that it offered the best dining option in terms of quality and price. Be prepared for very slow service during busy periods though! The coconut chicken curry, which cost about 10 RM (about €2) is exceptionally tasty.
Kapas Island Café (located a few metres away from the jetty) is also a great dining option although it closes really early, so forget late night dining under the stars here.
The buffet-barbeque at Kapas Coral Beach Resort was quite a let-down. The food was pre-cooked and very bland, but for RM20 (€4) each, we shouldn’t have expected better really!
There are only two convenience shops around the island offering little variety, and which can be rather pricey too. Stock up on some of your favourite snacks from the mainland.
Initially we had wondered whether 4 nights on Kapas Island would be an overkill given its size, but had we not had transport and accommodation already booked on Tioman Island (our next stop), we would have been happy to spend more time in one of our favourite destinations in Malaysia.