‘The Perhentians’, well known as an island paradise is made up of two individual islands – Perhentian Besar (big island) and Perhentian Kecil (small, pronounced like ker-chill) and has been a backpacker destination for quite a few years.
On the face of things it’s one of those ‘go-to’ places for backpackers, beach, bars and swimming but actually if you dig a little deeper you can have a tropical picture perfect island paradise, beaches to yourself and experiences such as turtle and shark spotting, snorkeling just twenty metres off the beach.
The islands are defined by their demographics, Besar, generally is the family island and Kecil, the cheaper, more backpacker orientated island. The main areas of Kecil are narrowed down to two beaches, on either side of the skinniest part of the land – Long Beach and Coral Beach.
Long beach is the more developed where you can draw comparisons to ‘Costa Del Something’, purely because it’ one long row of development including snorkeling operators, who double up as water taxis, shops, hostels, bars, dive shops, burger stands and makeshift bars. The beach is mostly filled with rentable umbrellas by day and beach bars with fire-dancing at night.
Coral beach is a little more subdued, the beach is much shallower still with a few shops and restaurants which eat up almost all the beach at high tide, but it feels more relaxed and the accommodation options seem more low key without any bars.
There’s also a few hidden away bays which help to make it feel more desert island than Long Beach would let you believe.
Despite the development, there’s not a cash machine or constant electricity supply in sight.
What to do?
We spent the majority of our time lounging, reading, exploring and snorkelling interjected with sporadic naps. Island life is hard.
Some of the snorkelling is terrific, we lost count of the amount of juvenile black tip sharks we saw, swam with a turtle and a decent variety of common tropical fish. There’s nothing here that you’re not going to see anywhere else in South East Asia, but the abundance of fish stocks and accessibility is a pleasing for snorkelers. The coral however is often in poor condition and suffering from bleaching and boat traffic.
The best spots for snorkelling we found were the beach on the other side of Shari-la resort (Coral beach) walk across until you run out of sand. A good spot with lots of small, harmless sharks, and coral bommies – best at high tide.
Another good spot – although, you have to be a confident swimmer – is the rock wall between D’lagoon beach and the old broken pier. The stretch is a couple of kilometres (return) with some quite deep (but clear) areas, lots of big fish and shallower at the D’lagoon end, where we saw around ten huge bumpheads cruising along! Make sure it’s high tide or you won’t be able to get in or out at the D’lagoon beach.
Diving is hugely popular in the Perhentian Islands, and there’s a lot of companies to choose from on this Island which makes competition fierce and keeps pricing quite low. There’s no current and the waters are suitable for learning. Personally, I found the reef topography a little monotonous and the conditions extremely variable especially around full moon when thermoclines would reduce the viz to next to nothing, in short there’s plenty of better places to dive in Malaysia and SE Asia but the prices are great if you fancy getting wet.
We dived with Angel Divers in Coral bay and on the whole, found them a good, small team. Expect to pay around 70-90 Ringgit a tank depending on how much you dive.
Two of the best sites were Tokong Laut, AKA Pinnacle which was like a giant aquarium full of sea life and the Vietnamese shipwreck, a submerged boat lying on its side home to scorpionfish, bamboo sharks and stingrays which have made their home in the wreck.
Get off the beaten track!
It’s possible, even on an island as touristy as this…
At the quieter end of coral beach there’s a little path which leads for after an hour or so to a fishing village. Along this route you’ll find three or four really secluded beautiful beaches, about a million times nicer than Long beach. Mira & Pantai beach are beautiful – bring water as you won’t be able to buy any.
From Long beach you can take a back path (30-45minutes) uphill towards the wind turbines, where you can descend down onto a pristine white beach with the well pictured, but surprisingly quiet ‘broken pier’. A good area for a swimming.
Another option, if you don’t fancy walking is hiring a kayak and paddling your way around the island and if you’re confident across the channel to the big island.
Where to eat & drink?
Most places sell variations of the same mixture of Malay and western food, on the whole it’s a slightly poor show by Malaysian standards, however there’s plenty of roti and curries to choose from. Expect to pay around 10-15RM a meal.
In our experience, Ewans is probably the best food on the island, well priced and with free, reliable Wi-Fi.
Amelias on Coral beach was a close second and always a go-to place for breakfast.
Oh La La, on Long beach sold incredibly popular pizzas.
Perhentian Kecil is a pretty big party island, and 99% of that partying is on long beach with poi dancers, cocktails and throw up beach bars selling beers and cocktails all through the night but if it’s not your thing, it’s not hard to avoid.
Places to Stay in The Perhentian Islands
We based ourselves on Coral beach, where there are four or five chalet options and a couple of upmarket options. All of the cheaper options are on a first come first serve basis. The best prices are to be had in person.
- Ewans had the best online reviews but we couldn’t get in…
- Fatima and Maya Chalet were both in desperate need of some TLC, the constant stream of tourism keeps prices high and accommodation standards quite low, unfortunately. Perhentians seemed to be one of the worse places in Malaysia (potentially, South East Asia) for getting good value for money in accommodation, prices were expensive, facilities non-existent, accommodation generally run down and the power was switched off for most of the day! Despite this, we still enjoyed the island for over two weeks.
- Aur Bay, right in the middle of coral beach was the best offering for us with very basic accommodation for half the asking price of anything else. The foraging six foot monitor lizards who hung out under our bungalows were pretty cool, too.
- Aside from bungalows, Ombak has a hotel complex with attached 5star PADI dive shop and the path at the far end of the beach leads to a couple of campsites a twenty minute walk away.
Some other options include….
- Tropicana – in the jungle between the two beaches, advertising offered dorms with twenty-four hour electric.
- Tivoli – also in the jungle between the two beaches, quoted 20RM for dorms and 40RM for a double.
Panorama – on long beach has an attached dive shop.
- Bottled water is expensive on the island and environmentally it’s crippling such a small place with no way to dispose of waste properly. Amelia’s restaurant on Coral Beach has a water refill station for less than half the price of a new bottle. Protect your pocket and the environment.
- In the water, be aware of triggerfish which can be territorial and attack swimmers.
- On the beach mosquitos and sandflies can be an annoyance, bring spray with you from the mainland.
- Be careful at night as there’s been reported trouble with bungalows being broken into and drunken revellers being mugged on the dark pathway between the two main beaches. Protect yourself by travelling in groups and always carry a flashlight (street lights are in very short supply). Don’t use your phone as a light as you’re only advertising your electrical goodies. There’s no real police presence on the island and as is generally the case in South East Asia if it’s your word against a locals you’re unlikely to be believed.
Kuala Besut is a tiny kampung, or village where the pier won’t be hard to find, and the locals will probably find you and ‘assist’ you, anyway. Make sure you arrive early in the day to avoid being stuck for the night in an expensive hotel.
During the monsoon the island effectively shuts down, transport stops running and hotels and restaurants shut. The dates vary each year depending on the conditions but generally the monsoon runs from October to March although the island may reopen in late January or February.
From Kuala Terengganu:
Take the local S.P Bumi bus from the main bus station, it takes around two hours and the driver will shout you (if you ask) when you arrive at the port town of Kuala Besut. Bus is around 11 Ringgit.
The ferry from Kuala Besut is a rough and ready experience taking about twenty minutes of exhilaration (wear your life-jacket!) from the small boat cutting through the waves. 70 Ringgit return, which will include the national park entrance fee, keep hold of the receipt, you may be asked to show it at any time.
From Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands, Taman Negara & Penang you should be able to get a direct tourist bus to Kuala Besut, failing that go to Kuala Terengganu first.
Where to go next?
There’s loads of isolated island paradises along the eastern coast of Malaysia, including Tioman, Redang and Kapas. The eastern states of Malaysia are bastions of Islam and you’ll find many cities which are greatly different to Kuala Lumpur or Penang, such as Kuala Terrenganu & Khota Baru.
A few hours bus will take you the Thai border, into the national parks of Taman Negara & the Cameron Highlands.
Malaysia is beautifully varied and very easy to travel around!
About the author: Ben is a keen traveller who is currently eating and photographing his way around South East Asia and writing about his experiences both on his own website and for us as an ambassador. You can follow more of his writing on his personal blog.