The Perhentians are made up of two individual islands – Perhentian Besar (big island) and Perhentian Kecil (small, pronounced like ker-chill). Easy right?
On the face of things it’s one of those ‘go-to’ places for backpackers… beach, bars, swimming… but actually, if you dig a little deeper, you can have a tropical picture-perfect island paradise, beaches to yourself! Plus, experiences such as turtle and shark spotting whilst snorkelling just twenty metres off the beach!
Did you know? ‘Perhentian’ means ‘place to stop’ in Bahasa Malay. And stop you will!
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When is the best time to visit the Perhentian Islands?
Perhentians are unusual in that their monsoon season is opposite to most of the rest of Southeast Asia.
The rains hit the island hard from November until around February, which is high season in most of Thailand’s tropical islands. During this time boats to the islands cease to run due to high waves and storms and many of the resorts close completely.
The best time to visit the islands is during the dry season from March to November. July is peak season and it’s advisable to book accommodation in advance during this month.
Where to stay in the Perhentian Islands?
The islands are defined by their demographics, Besar, generally is the family island and Kecil, the cheaper, more backpacker orientated island. In this guide, we will mostly focus on Perhentian Kecil which is the most popular island for travellers.
The main areas of Perhentian Kecil are narrowed down to two beaches, on either side of the skinniest part of the land – Long Beach and Coral Beach.
Note: Perhentians seemed to be one of the worse places in Malaysia (potentially, Southeast 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.
Long Beach is the more developed side of the island, where you can draw comparisons to ‘Costa Del Something’, purely because it’s one long row of development including snorkelling 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.
Best Options for Places to Stay on Long Beach:
Seahorse Diver Guesthouse – The cheapest digs on the island! The best thing about this place is how cheap it is and it’s location right on the beach. A bunk bed will cost you $10 USD and $23 USD for a private double room. Of course, as the name would suggest, this guesthouse is a great place to stay if you want to try diving and snorkelling whilst on the island.
Panorama Diver – on Long Beach is another dive shop that offers decent budget accommodation.
Coral Beach is a little more subdued, the beach is much shallower, with a few shops and restaurants eating up almost all of the beach at high tide. However, the scene feels more relaxed and the accommodation options seem more low key without any bars.
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.
Best Options for Places to Stay on Coral Beach:
Ewan’s Place and Café had the best online reviews but we couldn’t get in…
Fatima Chalet and Maya Guesthouse – were both in desperate need of some TLC, the constant stream of tourism keeps prices high and accommodation standards quite low, unfortunately.
Ombak Resort – 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.
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, we were quoted 20RM for dorms and 40RM for a double.
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.
Things to do in the Perhentian Islands
We spent the majority of our time lounging, reading, exploring and snorkelling – interjected with sporadic naps. Island life is hard.
Snorkelling in the Perhentian Islands:
Some of the snorkelling is terrific, we lost count of the number of juvenile blacktip sharks we saw, as well as swimming 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 Southeast Asia, but the abundance of fish stocks and accessibility to the action is 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 bump-heads 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 in the Perhentian Islands:
Diving is hugely popular in the Perhentian Islands, and there’s a lot of companies to choose from 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 (visibility) to next to nothing. In short, there’s plenty of better places to dive in Malaysia and Southeast Asia but the prices are great if you fancy taking the plunge.
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 scorpion-fish, 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 beaches are beautiful – bring water as you won’t be able to buy any.
From Long Beach, you can take a back path (30-45 minutes) 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, Ewan’s is probably the best food on the island, well priced and with free, reliable Wi-Fi.
Amelia’s 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.
And what about the nightlife in the Perhentian Islands? 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.
5 Must Read Tips for visiting the Perhentian Islands:
1. Be a sustainable traveller – 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 and get yourself a filtered water bottle.
2. Snorkellers and divers warning – In the water, be aware of triggerfish which can be territorial and attack swimmers.
3. Don’t forget your bug spray! On the beach mosquitos and sandflies can be an annoyance, bring spray with you from the mainland.
4. Be careful at night – There have been several reports of 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 or take a head-torch with you (street lights are in very short supply).
5. Don’t make yourself a target – 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 local’s you’re unlikely to be believed.
Getting to Pulau Perhentian
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. The 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?
Malaysia is beautifully varied and very easy to travel around! There are loads of isolated island paradises along the eastern coast of Malaysia, including Pulau Tioman, Redang and Kapas.
Photos by Simon Bond.