The Perhentian Islands – Secret Islands of Malaysia
I went on a solo trip to Malaysia and visited just two places- the skyscraper town of Kuala Lumpur and the pristine islands of Perhentian. The way I discovered the Islands is interesting. I abhor crowded and touristy places. Langkawi has the reputation as the go-to island for tourists in Malaysia. But on the other side of the peninsula is the ultimate tropical getaway which very few people know about. While searching on Google maps figuring an option close to Langkawi. I thought to myself, if Langkawi is a beautiful Island on West Malaysia, I wonder what is on East Malaysia? It turned out to be Perhentian Islands. The islands have very limited information on the internet and all the reviews spoke about it being a hidden gem, beautiful, pristine. I knew I had to go to this unexplored heaven.
Perhentian islands – how to get there?
The closest international airport to the islands and best way to enter Malaysia is flying to Kuala Lumpur. From there, the best way is to fly to Kota Bharu or Kuala Terengganu (1 hour from Kuala Lumpur). Next take a bus or taxi to Kuala Besut jetty (1 hour from Kota Bahru or 1.5 hours from Kuala Terengganu). Then catch a boat from here to the Perhentian Islands (30- 45 minutes). There are a number of boat operators in Kuala Besut offering boat services to Perhentian Island. The return boat ticket cost RM 60.00 per person for speed boat and RM 40.00 per person for slow boat. And yes, don’t lose your ticket; the fare includes the return trip to Kuala Besut. If you lose your physical ticket, you’ll most likely have to buy a new one.
Perhentian Islands – which one to visit?
Perhentians are a pair of beautiful islands tucked away in the far off South China Sea where I spent 5 days. Perhentian means “place to stop” in Bahasa Malay, the language of Malaysia. Yes, they are actually pair of islands- Pulau Besar (The big island) and Pulau Kecil (The Party Island). They are exactly as we imagine the word Island – white sands, blue water with colourful fishermen boats and a laid back lifestyle!
I stayed at the Party Island or Pulau Kecil as it has more options for budget travelers, backpackers and solo and younger travelers like me! The big island of Pulau Besar has more resorts suited for families.
Perhentian Island Kecil Accommodation
Staying options, particularly the cheapest places, fill up quickly on Perhentian Kecil during the high season between June and August. Most budget hotels do not take reservations in advance; arrive on the island as early as possible to grab rooms as people check out. In contrast, Perhentian Besar has plenty of resort options.
Perhentian Kecil is best visited during the dry season between March and November. The island is nearly-closed during the rainy winter months and strong currents make swimming dangerous. The entire island can actually fill up during the busy season between June and August, particularly in July. It is not uncommon to see travelers sleeping on Long Beach awaiting a room in the morning.
The Perhentians are nearly closed during the winter months when seas are too rough to bring over people and supplies. Although you can still charter a boat from Kuala Besut, expect far fewer options for eating, sleeping, and activities on the islands. You may be nearly alone on the Perhentians between November and February.
What to do at Perhentian Kecil?
Perhentian Kecil is divided into two distinct beaches, both with their own vibes and personality. Long Beach, on the east side of the island, steals most of the attention with its nicer beaches and better nightlife. On the opposite side of the island, Coral Bay – often referred to as Coral Beach – has spectacular sunsets and is more chilled out. A narrow jungle trail, easily walkable in about 15 minutes, connects the two beaches.
For me, the islands were a lovely break from mundane work-life and I was fortunate to observe a different lifestyle of a secluded community from close quarters. A few experiences I loved about the Island and few tips for visitors –
Experiencing the primitive way of life
The islands has only walkways. There are no roads and thereby no vehicles. Taxi boats are the only way to move from one part of the island and in-between the neighbouring islands. There is limited electricity – it mostly works on generators and on windmills. Equipments like washing machine which require a higher voltage can be used only for 4 hours a day and there are just 2 policemen on the entire island!
Isn’t this like a dream come true! Living secluded on a beautiful Island with no contact with outside world! I actually had to enter into the sea to get good mobile network, exactly how they show in movies. And I completely enjoyed the experience of being by myself and not distracted by Facebook browsing or Whatsapp chatting. The satellite-based internet access and Wi-Fi in the Perhentian Islands is slow and expensive—a great excuse to unplug and enjoy paradise for a while.
The islands do not have any medical facilities or roads. The closest hospital on the mainland which is 2 hours away, of which 1 hour is a bumpy boat ride. Hence, I would caution visitors who are parents with toddlers or anyone who needs to be in vicinity of medical attention.
Friendly and helpful locals
The locals are friendly and helpful and I made quite a few friends during my brief stay. We partied and had a lot of fun with locals and fellow tourists. However the food served did not satisfy my palate. I was astonished to find that none of the shacks on Long beach (which has a party every night) serve delicious food and neither do they feel sorry about it. Unfortunately only the bigger resorts with attached restaurants serve lip-smacking food, so I failed miserably at abiding my travel ethic of giving business to the local community.
The Perhentians are popular for the most inexpensive scuba lessons in the world. The scuba schools are great with instructors to drool on 😉 There are plenty of dive shops scattered along Long Beach and a couple in Coral Bay. Visibility around the Perhentian Islands during the summer months is often excellent, particularly at the dive sites farther out. Reef sharks and other interesting marine life are common. One should just be careful while booking return air tickets if they plan to dive. After diving one is advised to not to board a flight within 48 hours. There is a medical condition called decompression sickness also known as ‘the bends’ which one may be diagnosed with for going below sea level and within no time of taking off. I knew it thanks to TV series ‘The Monk’ and I have never been more proud of myself for watching it.
Snorkeling and other watersports activities
There are snorkeling excursions to nearby spots by boat on beach. The rates are quite low, and you’re almost guaranteed to spot turtles and harmless-yet-sizable reef sharks. When booking, ask about how many people are booked for your time slot. If you’ll be joining only a handful of others, you may end up in a small speedboat without a shade cover—bad news for people susceptible to seasickness. The larger boats are more stable and offer protection from the scorching sun.
Bumpy boat rides
The best way to connect to the island from the mainland is 10-15 seater speed-boat. The ride is crazy with boatmen trying to race with each other. Waterproof your valuables and try to sit toward the middle or rear of the boat. The frequently choppy seas keep the front of the speedboat (and passengers) in the air more than in the water as the pilot jumps waves then crashes down with a spray of water. I was also stuck in a storm right in the middle of the sea and am glad to be safe thanks to the courage of our boatmen. You can read more about the experience here.
Tips on staying safe and keeping valuables safe
There are no ATMs on the Perhentian Islands, so bring plenty of cash from the mainland. In a pinch, some dive companies and upscale hotels offer cash advances with credit cards for a steep commission— as much as 10 percent or more. Don’t expect to rely on an ATM or your credit card while in the Perhentian Islands. You may also be able to exchange major currencies at the same dive shops.
Carrying cash means theft can be a problem especially in cheaper accomodations where there may not be CCTVs for security. Hence, keep your valuables with you or at safe place. Either carry your own locks for bags or leave valuables at reception locker with some kind of proof of what you are storing.
Mosquitoes are another nuisance on the islands so remember to carry repellants with you. Also, beware of monkeys who might raid your belongings if they sense food.
The tap water is not safe to drink in the Perhentian Islands. You can purchase bottled water and take advantage of water refill stations in some cafes and hotels to cut down on plastic waste.
In all, it is a great place and must be visited by everyone bitten by adventure bug. For all the adventures I had, they have a special place in my heart! Whenever I revisit the islands, I aspire to do some volunteering with a non-profit organisation probably to give a helping hand to conserve turtles.