The Perhentian Islands: Malaysia’s Perfect Beach Destination

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.

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.

Coral Bay’s beautiful beach; The forest trail over to Long Beach on Kecil.

In contrast to the Gili Islands in Indonesia or Thailand’s aquamarine Andaman coast, there is very little alcohol to be found on the Perhentians. There are 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 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.

View from Senja Bay’s restaurant; front of Senja Bay from the beach.

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.

Gecko on my ceiling; By far the best sign on the island, seconded only by the “diving is better than sex” sign.

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 islands.

Clownfish in their natural habitat; This guy looked particularly angry to be photographed.

Blue-spotted ray; Swimming with a sea turtle.

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.

Travel Information:

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.

Getting there: 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 Perhentians. 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 on Perhentian Kecil:

– 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.

Where to Stay on Perhentian Besar:

Three accommodation choices came highly rated:

Mama’s Place, where my friend Danilo stayed for a few weeks and said it was very affordable, with good food and nice people.

– Bubble’s Resort, a standalone resort in an isolated part of Southern 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 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:

Snorkel and scuba are both fantastic around both of the 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.

Coconuts on Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

Important Note:

– There are no ATMs on the islands, 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 has 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 are 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).

The rest of my Perhentian Island pictures are here, with underwater pics here.


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