Last week’s Perhentian Sunsets and Storms post demonstrated just how moving it was to be on Perhentian Kecil at dusk. The storms swept in nightly and as the video shows, the thick clouds were surreal in their density. However, my days on the islands warranted no complaints either, thanks to a great sea-facing bungalow, newfound friends and fantastic snorkeling.
The Perhentians have long been a popular beach destination in Malaysia, but were originally a break in the long journey between Bangkok and Malaysia (“perhentian” in Bahasa Malaysia means “stopping point”). Though the islands were supported by fishing income early in their history, they are now part of Pulau Redang National Marine Park and fishing is strictly prohibited. Consequently, tourism is the primary source of income, and the staggering beauty of the fine sand beaches, crystal-clear water and thriving marine life has resulted in a booming tourist trade.
Traveling the Perhentian Islands
Split into two separate islands, Besar (“Big”) and Kecil (“Small”), each Perhentian offers a specific brand of relaxation. Besar is the more isolated of the two and as its name would suggest, is bigger in size. Beaches dot the circumference of the island but the centre is a tangled maze of forest and jagged rock. The resorts on Besar are more expensive and cater mostly to couples or newlyweds. In contrast, Kecil’s two main beaches are perfect for the backpacker set, with the quieter Coral Bay a sunset-watching haven and Long Beach renowned for its partying and, unfortunately, for petty theft.
Opposite to the Gili Islands in Indonesia or Thailand’s aquamarine Andaman coast, there was considerably less alcohol on the Perhentian Islands — at least in 2009! There were some bars on Long Beach, but the cost and limited selection means that most tourists bring their own poison or forgo it altogether. While there was one evening of an under-the-table purchase of cheap Malay vodka (big mistake), most of my time on Perhentian Kecil was dry, and it was nice to get up early and fully enjoy my days in the sun with no hangover to speak of.
Those travellers less enthusiastic about local wildlife should be warned: there were plenty of monitor lizards, poisonous spiders and geckos to be found. While I could do without the monitor lizards and the spiders, I loved watching the geckos hop around the ceiling in search of mozzies, and would leave my outside light on when I left for dinner to get them some tasty treats.
And then there is the wildlife under the sea. Huge sea turtles, clownfish, big blue-spotted rays and black-tipped reef sharks are plentiful. Most of the resorts on Kecil have their own snorkel rental and day-long snorkeling trips, which are well worth it. A highlight: climbing and jumping off of a tall lighthouse and into the deep sea below.
For the scuba-divers, there are several diving outfits on each of Coral Bay and Long Beach who will take you out to “the Pinnacle”, a stretch of land jutting upward from the seabed and the surrounding Malaysian islands.
All in all, my weeks on the Perhentians were perfect: my toenails managed to grow back after my Agung climb, I enjoyed my time on the beach and in the sea and I left completely relaxed and ready to conquer my next destination.
When to Visit
High season ends in mid-September and November brings in the powerful monsoons. The best time to visit is between March and November – though the popularity of the islands means that reserving ahead is a wise option.
The easiest way to get to the Perhentians is to take an overnight bus from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Besut. Both Mutiara and Mahligai bus companies ply the route, each with modern, air-conditioned buses that stop at 4am for a food break and arrive at dawn. Both leave from PWTC Station in Kuala Lumpur. Alternatively, Air Asia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu at extraordinarily cheap rates.
From the jetty, fixed-price fast boats will ferry travellers from the Kuala Besut jetty to the Perhentian Islands. You can purchase boat tickets upon arrival at the jetty for RM 70 return and boats leave regularly throughout the day. Note: these boats will soak your luggage through – pack up any electronics in plastic bags. The boat will drop you to either of Besar or Kecil, to the resort of your choice.
Where to Stay and What to Eat on the Islands
2015 note: I’m thrilled that this page is still useful for travelers, but as I was there in 2009, I wanted to also link to a lodging writeup from Travelfish, which covers all of the Perhentians and has been updated more frequently.
– On Coral Bay, only Senja Bay Resort has free Wifi and breakfast included, as well as constant electricity. Rooms range from RM 200 for a seaview bungalow to RM 100 for rooms higher up on the cliffs. Their website has specials as well.
– Butterfly Resort, run by the elusive Barry, is at the far end of Coral Bay beach and if you want your own private bungalow, this is where you need to be. Each of the 9 basic wooden chalets have a stunning view of the ocean, and though there might be some 8-legged wildlife visiting, stay under your mosquito net and you’ll be fine.
– Maya Guesthouse is also a great accommodation option on Coral Bay and run by the lovely Maya and her sprawling family (she was about to give birth to her 4th child when I was there). Rooms were RM 60 during peak season
– On Long Beach, the most popular and positively-reviewed place was Panorama Resort, though it was completely booked when I was on the islands. Fan rooms were RM 90 during peak season.
Three accommodation choices came highly rated:
– Mama’s Chalet, where my friend Danilo stayed for a few weeks and said it was very affordable, with good food and nice people.
– The Reef Chalet, south of the Coral View resorts on West Beach on Besar; and
–New Coco-hut Chalet, located in the middle of Besar. Newly renovated, with cozy A-frame bungalows at the beach’s edge.
Where to Eat on Perhentian Kecil:
Most of the restaurants on the beach make fantastic lassi and feature mouthwatering nighttime barbecues with fresh seafood. However, having tried all of them on Kecil, I was loyal to Senja’s barbecue awesomeness, as well as their banana-coconut lassi. However, I would also recommend Fatimah’s and at Maya’s as both were delicious.
What to Do in the Perhentian Islands:
Snorkel and scuba are both fantastic around both Kecil and Besar islands, with great marine life to behold. Canoes and kayaks are also available for rent, though the current can be challenging if it is a windy day. There is good hiking through the jungles and around the circumference of Kecil, and a small Terengganu fishing village at the southernmost tip of Kecil makes for an interesting afternoon visit.
– There were no ATMs on the islands when I was there, so bring cash. Senja Bay will allow you to use a credit card without a fee and if you are staying there, will also let you run a tab so you can tally up your damage at the end of your stay.
– Most of the island had no electricity, except from 6pm-11pm. As headlamp is thus your best friend, both for those storms at dusk and so that you do not kill yourself on your way home after dinner.
– There were many mosquitoes and they like Canadians. Bring repellant! You can also purchase mosquito patches impregnated with citronella and eucalyptus from pharmacies in Kuala Lumpur (1 package RM 13).