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. The word “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 in the Terengganu region, and fishing is strictly prohibited. Tourism is the primary source of income, and the staggering beauty of the fine sand beaches, coral reefs, and thriving marine life has resulted in a booming tourist trade.
As with many coral reefs around the world, the reefs in the Perhentian Islands are under threat from changing environmental conditions. Per scientists with the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, 14% of the world’s coral was lost between 2009 and 2018. For context, this amount is more than all the coral currently in Australia’s reefs. It’s a lot. The reefs in the Perhentians are just as vulnerable as elsewhere, and thankfully reef restoration is finally gaining mainstream acceptance thanks in large part to the advocacy on one man, Anuar Abdullah. When visiting the Perhentians, then, it’s important to stop and take stock of the vulnerability and fragility of what you are seeing and experiencing.
For frequently updated COVID-19 information about Malaysia, see the official Tourism Malaysia site page here. As of October 3, 2022, use of masks indoors are optional in Malaysia, but mandatory on public transport, in healthcare facilities, and if symptomatic.
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 g 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, venomous 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.
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. Besar also has a circle hike from sea to summit and back again.
Diving and Snorkeling on the Perhentian Islands
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.
Two recommended dive companies from Legal Nomads readers who have gone following my visit:
Trekking on the Perhentian Islands
There are jungle trails criss-crossing the islands, where you two can see your own monitor lizards and poisonous spiders. A Travel Mermaid shares her trek on Besar here, approx two and a half hours of jungle-to-viewpoint-and back to the sea. The trail is slightly more difficult than my jungle walks on Kecil.
Travelfish maps out the Kecil trek here, which goes right by Senja where I was staying.
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.
Other trustworthy guides from around the web:
- Friend of Legal Nomads Travelfish.org has a Perhentian Islands guide updated in 2019.
- HHWT’s long guide to the islands, updated April 2018.
- Savvy Dispatches’ guide to the Perhentians here.
- The Wandering Quinn’s 2019 guide to Perhentian Kecil here.
When to Visit the Perhentian Islands
High season ends in mid-September and November brings in the powerful monsoons. The best time to visit is between March and early November — though the popularity of the islands means that reserving ahead is a wise option. Peak season is in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months, July and August and early September.
In November, the monsoons sweep in and many spots close. According to Travelfish’s 2019 guide, some spots on Kecil, especially the larger ones, now do remain open year round. Note though that food, transport, and general activity options like diving will be quite sparse at that time. Per reader feedback, much of the island in 2022 remains closed during monsoon season, and those that still have people in them are renovating during the lull in tourism and (hopefully) before the rains.
Our rates were always higher on the weekends, and that’s because the Perhentians get more crowded then; crowds from Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere descend throughout the open season. So if you see an accommodation receipt with a higher rate on Saturday and Sunday, it’s the norm.
In our case, it was shoulder season and we were 6 new friends staying for a longer time, so we were able to negotiate and get a more favourable rate for the extended stay. I’m still friends with the people I met on the Perhentian islands, many years later – it was one of the more memorable, wonderful stays in my decade of travel.
Getting to the Perhentian Islands from Kuala Lumpur
The gateway to the Perhentian Islands is Kuala Besut. While many travel agents in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and elsewhere will book packages to shuttle travellers to and from the island, it’s actually quite easy to do so yourself.
Bus: 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. You can buy these tickets via travel agents in touristy areas, or at the bus station Terminal Bersepadu Selatan. Tickets also available online here.
Flight: Alternatively, Air Asia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu at extraordinarily cheap rates. You can also fly into Kuala Terrengganu. From there, it’s a taxi ride to the Kuala Besut jetty where the boats leave for the Perhentians. If you’re further afield, there are also flights from Penang, Singapore, and elsewhere to Kota Bharu due to the Perhentians’ popularity. This is partly why prices go up during the weekends.
Boat Cost to Perhentians: From the Kuala Besut 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 Perhentian Islands
2022 note: I’m thrilled that this page is still useful for travellers, 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. Many spots are also on AirBnb – you can browse them all here.
- On Coral Bay, only Senja Bay Resort had free Wifi and breakfast included in 2009 when I was there, but things changed since! Ombak is another option on the same beach with similar amenities, though I’m partial to Senja since I spent so much time (and loved it!) there.
- 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, recommended budget options include Harrera (formerly known as Bintang Star), Tropicana Inn, and Matahari Chalet (their website is dodgy, so I’ve linked to Agoda. Their reviews are not.) For higher end options on long beach, there’s Mimpi Resort.
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 and Besar
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.
I would also recommend Fatimah’s and at Maya’s as both were delicious.
On Besar, Abdul Chalet’s daily BBQ was similar to Senja’s, and for those staying on that island a consistently delicious dinner option.
Culture Trip also has 10 best restaurants to eat at on the Perhentians, here.
Important Notes when Visiting the Perhentian Islands:
- There were no ATMs on the islands when I was there in 2009, and per recent reviews: there are still no ATMS. 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.
- Electricity can be spotty during the day, and occasionally at night too. A headlamp is 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.
- There are no hospitals on the islands, only on the mainland. Bring a robust medical kit (see my suggestions here), and definitely you make sure you have travel medical insurance.