Pulau Kapas: Malaysia’s New Backpacker Escape
As backpackers, I think it’s fair to say that we’re always looking for that new untouched paradise, that spot that you casually mention to other travellers along the way and say, “you’re welcome.” We all want to be Leo Decaprio, frolicking around an empty Maya Bay while making flirty eyes at Tilda Swinton. Finding an undiscovered dream spot is the ultimate win, which brought us to Pulau Kapas.
A quick three hour journey from the uber-popular Perhentians Islands, Kapas was rumoured to be as close to untouched as you could find south of Kuala Lumpur. I’d heard travellers talk about this island all the way from Sri Lanka and that was enough to put us on the rickety bus to Kuala Terrenganu with high hopes. Before I build up this island as my own discovery formerly unknown to tourists, let me adjust your standards- Kapas is definitely not off the tourist radar. The small island is still dotted with low-key resorts, restaurants and hostels. The beauty in this island is not that it’s untouched by tourism, it’s that the low-key tourism that this island attracts hasn’t taken away from it’s charm. Hammocks and wooden swings litter the island’s beaches without being crowded by tourists lining up to take selfies on them (until I arrived) and the only bar on the beach is literally a tiny wooden shelf on stilts fittingly named, “Beach Bar.” The island’s lush green jungle is completely undeveloped and all businesses along the beaches are quaint and not flashy like the resorts on neighbouring islands. Although handfuls of tourists have been visiting Kapas for years, it definitely still seems like the best new spot on Malaysia’s backpacker trail.
The habitable side of the island consists of gorgeous beaches, with some being completely empty- no people or businesses in sight. The island can be walked from end to end within half an hour by climbing the faded white staircases that make it possible to get around the rocks at low tide. Do this walk once a day, and you’re likely to find a spot all to yourself.
As for places to stay, there’s still enough variety to suit every traveler. Coral Beach resort offers comfy bungalows and air conditioning for a price, but also usually seems to feature screaming children wielding half-eaten popsicles as swords. If you’re on a nugget-sized budget, Captain Lighthouse has the most affordable dorms and as I was told, “the most rad vibes dude!” However, some will argue that there is really only one place to stay on the island, which is Kapas Beach Chalet. Best described as a vacation resort for the financially challenged, this is the kind of place that people book three nights at and end up staying for two weeks. Characterized by the huge wooden gazebo filled with couches and bean bag chairs known as the “Big Chill,” KBC really has everything you need for the perfect week of doing nothing in particular. Free snorkel gear is lent out and kayaks are rented for a reasonable rate, and beach volleyball games break out daily. For those who prefer laze-cations, book exchanges, hammocks and loungers are everywhere. Stay in a dorm or private A-Frame, but definitely stay at KBC.
On Kapas there is plenty to do without it feeling forced on you. Turtles and sharks swim freely and can often be seen snorkelling (ask a local where to look), and fishing or squid rigging trips are available. If I could make one recommendation, it would be to kayak the length of the island. I spent most of the paddle having a grown-woman tantrum because I thought I had been dragged on a six hour ride and was quite miffed about missing lunch. In reality, the paddle around the entire length of the island took about an hour and a half and the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. You’re getting this recommendation from someone who is completely deficient in upper-body strength, so you know it’s gotta be good.
So yeah, Kapas is not untouched. It’s got all of the amenities you could need and even in the off-season, there will still be other tourists around. It’s not the isolation that makes Kapas memorable; it’s all of the characters you’ll meet, the gorgeous untouched scenery, and those moments when your only company are those freaky monitor lizards. This island doesn’t feel like a tourist destination, but rather a special place that only you and a handful of others are privy to in that moment. I hate to use this stereotype, but it really does feel like what I imagine Thailand to be 20 years ago. Don’t come to Kapas for the bragging rights of finding the next new hotspot, but come for everything else this magical place has to offer.