Lay down, relax, bask and relish this hearty slice of paradise. Off the East coast of the Malaysian Peninsular, a pair of islands, to rival those in Thailand’s gulf, await. Expect palm trees and white sand!
Perhentian Kecil, Kecil meaning ‘little’ in Bahasa Malaysia, is the smaller of the two islands that make up ‘The Perhentians’ and it is a belter! In recent years a foot path has been laid across the interior connecting the two most populous beaches. Fear not however, you wont struggle for space. Almost entirely for backpackers and yet incredibly low key, the island is a perfect antidote to the parties had in the Thai Gulf. The lack of any vehicles leaving the air free from beeps and buzzes. Entering the turquoise water, pond like in it’s stillness and visibility, will please even the most nervous of ocean goers. Back on land the beach is a perfect golden-white, undisturbed by the lack of tidal flow. Perhentian Besar, the bigger brother to the East, has only marginally more land mass, although a much larger interior space and is frequented by a clientèle seeking a slightly more upmarket destination. As with it’s smaller sibling, Perhentian Besar is extremely laid back and is the island to head to for real relaxation. Night life is restricted to hotel bars and restaurants, so expect early nights and sun drenched days. The pair are famous for diving and snorkelling with a number of sites in the surrounding waters and some great dive schools.
Places to Stay in the Perhentian Islands
Perhentian Kecil is the main backpacker island, while Perhentian Besar is more popular with families looking to escape the backpacker buzz. However there are shacks aplenty to house you on both islands, few of which it is even possible to find evidence of, let alone book, online. These range from the rather basic mattress in a beach hut to the undoubtedly opulent mattress in a beach hut, with air con, electricity and an en suite bathroom. For an added luxury, in Malaysia the island dwelling folk have fully mastered the concept of the flushing toilet, so you won’t find yourself staring at your own emissions as you desperately try to sink them with a bucket like you will in Thailand. Prices range from around 20RM to 80RM a night making these eminently affordable and worth every penny thanks to the surrounding beauty.
Kecil’s accommodation is largely split between two of the main beaches, now connected by a winding, block paved path. Watch out for the resident monitor lizard! To the East the deep sandy Long Beach is backed by a range of relatively low fi hotels and bungalows, all within 15 metres of the water. To the West Coral Bay has a rather slimmer and slightly darker beach. Although the water is less inviting the accommodation is generally slightly cheaper and the surroundings even quieter by night. The area inland from Coral Bay is beginning to see some resort like building and the pier is an eyesore. To the South a number of small groups of bungalows operate for those seeking a real castaway feel.
Besar’s rocky Eastern coast means that accommodation is focused to the West, looking out towards Kecil’s tiny local town Pasir Hantu. The guest houses, hotels and bungalows here are well spaced and all are virtually on the beach. Very much like it’s counterpart visitors can expect brilliant white sand, palm fringed beaches and the added benefit of being able to watch the sun set over Kecil. Groups of large rocks punctuate the Eastern beaches and are a great navigation tool by night. Further afield there is accommodation available in Flora Bay. With rather more space and a slightly deeper beach, this is the area for those seeking nothing more than a hammock and a good book.
Things to Do in the Perhentian Islands
The number one activity for visitors to the pair of islands must be the renting of a parasol and the soaking up of some sun. This is not to say the islands are dull, far from it, activities abound!
- Scuba Dive with sea turtles: You’ll find an abundance of dive schools on both the main islands, prepared to fight for your custom. Prices are lower, but be sure to check where you’ll be diving and avoid the jetty! Remember safety first, give their kit the once over before you part with your cash.
- Snorkel with sharks: Nothing to be afraid of here, these are only the black-tip varieties which won’t do you any harm! They’re most often found cruising the south coast of Perhentian Besar, between Shark Point and the beach at Teluk Dalam, you’ll need to arrange a boat to take you there. Best visited at high tide, otherwise you may find yourself rubbing fins…
- Island hop from Besar – Kecil: Which ever island you choose to base yourself on, make sure to take a taxi boat to the other, spreading your important tourist Ringgits more evenly and experiencing both sides of the coin. A boat should only cost around 40 Ringgits and provide ample photographic opportunities during the crossing. Hiring a boat could not be easier as the taxi men leave their vehicles on the sand ready to go as soon as you say the word.
- Trek: From tiny winding jungle scrambles to leisurely paths, the islands are criss-crossed with a variety of easy to follow routes. Tip toe the entire way to ensure a sighting of an impressive monitor lizard, fruit bat or wild monkey. Or for those with an athletic side, time your visit to enter the Perhentian Challenge; a yearly competition open to the public involving an 8km run through Kecil’s interior with a gruelling swim for the Elites!
- Turtle Conservation: Head to Three Coves Bay on the North of Besar for your best chance to see these enchanting creatures first hand. The cove is lined by high rocks and can only be reached by taxi boat. The area, beautiful in it’s own right, is the annual nesting area for the turtle population. Visit between May and September and cross your fingers as the numbers of Hawksbills are declining. With this in mind tread carefully and ensure your visit leaves the area unaltered! Or you could take eco-tourism to the next level and give back to the beautiful islands by volunteering with their population of nesting green turtles. ‘Help Our Penyu’ runs classes with local school children and accepts volunteers beginning every Monday.
- Drink monkey juice: If you’re looking for nightlife, head to Kecil’s Long Beach. When you arrive you’ll have a choice of three bars; Oh La La’s, Monkey Bar and Blacktips. Choose to sip on the local monkey juice (sometimes called Orangutan), a delicious vanilla rum. This is also the cheapest option, as alcohol has to be imported so is considerably more expensive than on the mainland. Once the sun has set, the party kicks off, head to Blacktips for some sandy dancing.
- Enjoy a beach BBQ: Food on both islands is largely limited to Eastern fare, with Kecil falling slightly short on culinary delicacies. Nightly barbecues are the best bet, choose your fish and accompaniments and enjoy the lengthy wait sat on the beach with sand between your toes.
Head to the port town of Kota Baru and you won’t miss the dock. There is little to keep any visitor here, although missing the last boat may mean a night in a well priced guest house. Make sure to buy a ticket right from the water front, avoiding agent fees and potentially being sold a ticket on a boat that does not leave for a number of hours. Boats, run by various companies, leave hourly or once full. Make sure to pay your National Park entrance fee, the receipt for this must be kept safe as failure to produce it upon request will result in you having to buy another (5 Ringgits). All companies will try to sell you a return ticket (around 70 Ringgits) Be careful with this decision at the beginning and end of the season as some companies reduce their daily trips. The Islands are effectively ‘closed’ during the monsoon season. A number of publications will advise tourists to visit between April and October. SEA Magazine suggests that the months of March and November should be added to this list; prices are lower and beaches are quieter, a great time to haggle! Note that there are currently NO ATMs on the islands so plan spending money and predict an over stay.
Where to go next?
- Langkawi: When it comes to beach holidays in the former British colony, it is the west coast tax haven of Langkawi that captures most of the attention. And if you have your heart set of finding the nation’s cheapest beers, this is where you’ll end up.
- Redang: Following the coast South it’s only a few hours to the beautiful island of Rendang. This island’s got a few more creature comforts, but also provides awesome scuba diving. It is also a little more up-market, perhaps more suitable for the flashpackers or a cheeky backpacker splurge. Day trips are available from the Perhentian Islands, or you can hire a local boat for around MYR 400. The journey should only take an hour, depending on the sea.
- Pantai Kemasik: A photographer’s heaven, this pale orange sandy beach is a favourite with locals. Two hours north of Kuantan, head to this beach and enjoy fresh cuttlefish after a swim in the cove.
- Kuala Lumpur: Buses to Kuala Lumpar take around nine hours once you’re back on the mainland.