Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
The Perhentian Islands are a small group of beautiful, coral-fringed islands off the coast of northeastern Malaysia in the state of Terengganu, not far from the Thai border.
The two main islands are Perhentian Besar (“Big Perhentian”) and Perhentian Kecil (“Small Perhentian”). Kecil, the more popular of the two, has cheap accommodation and is a bit of a backpacker party scene, while Besar is slightly more expensive and caters more to families. The relative difficulty of access and the higher prices compared to Thailand mean that both are still relatively unexplored.
The small, uninhabited islands of Susu Dara, Seringgi and Rawa lie off Kecil.
They are your typical island paradise, with long sunny days, beach parties at night, and great snorkeling and scuba diving activities. The waters are so clean that you can snorkel right off the beach and still see a diverse array of aquatic life.
The Perhentians belong to Pulau Redang National Marine Park, which means that fishing, collecting coral and littering are strictly prohibited.
The name “perhentian” means “point to stop” in Malay, referring to their longstanding role as a waypoint for traders between Bangkok and Malaysia. The islands were sparsely inhabited by fishermen for centuries, although tourism now accounts for most economic activity.
Activities on the Perhentians are basically limited to scuba diving, snorkeling and sunbathing. Those with excess energy may attempt the jungle trails crisscrossing both islands.
Scuba diving – The Perhentians offer excellent diving and draw divers from far and wide. In addition to coral and fish, the Perhentians are home to sea turtles and many species of shark — none of them dangerous unless provoked though. Visibility is often in the 20 meter range (although it will temporarily go down after storms) and no wet suit is required, although you may wish to use a dive skin for protection from coral and the occasional jellyfish. Popular dive sites include the Pinnacle (aka Tokong Laut, “Temple of the Sea”), a pinnacle jutting out from the sea bed, and the Sugar Wreck, an easily accessible 3500-ton sugar hauler. The (more expensive) single-day trip to Redang Island offers diving a notch above the local options, well worth every dime – but be prepared for a rough ride in a small speedboat.
Competition for divers is fierce and consequently diving is quite cheap, averaging out to RM60-80 per dive depending on how many dives you do and whether you bring your own gear. All dive shops also arrange introductory dives (no training required) and PADI training.
There are 5 dive centers on Kecil’s Long Beach: Spice Divers, Coral Sky Divers, Seadragon Divers, Turtle Bay Divers and Sunlight Divers.
Snorkeling – All resorts rent out snorkeling gear (typically RM30 a day for mask, snorkel and fins) and arrange snorkeling tours around the islands. You can get some cheaper equipment from some local restaurant. Popular snorkeling spots on Besar include Teluk Pauh (to the left of the beach in front of the PI Resort), Shark Point and Tanjung Basi. The best place to see sharks (black tip) is in front of an extremely small “beach”, only accessible by boat, between Shark Point and the Teluk Dalam large beach. They are usually seen cruising the bottom of the reef. For turtles, best place is the middle of the beach in front of Perhentian Island Resort, where the sandy bottom is covered with algae.
Jungle trekking – The islands are crisscrossed by small paths connecting one beach to another, but be prepared to sweat and swat off bugs if you tackle any of these.
There are no luxury accommodations on the islands, with the top of the line being air-conditioned chalets (RM100-200) and the bottom being a bunk in a longhouse (RM10 and up). Discounts are usually negotiable in the off season, for weekdays, for longer stays, if you show up late and they have room… but the better places can get snapped up fast, especially on weekends and holidays, so book in advance (easily arranged in Kuala Besut) or arrive early.
Due to its popularity Kecil can get a little noisy at times, so to get away from it all, head for Besar.
Many of the smaller resorts only offer meals as part of an all-inclusive package. These are usually buffet-style with a variety of Western and Malaysian dishes. Larger beaches, such as Pasir Panjang, offer a larger variety of eating options. Since everything (except seafood) has to be imported, expect to pay at least 2 to 3 times more than on the mainland.
Pasir Panjang on Kecil is the only place in the islands with any semblance of a nightlife, although Besar’s first bar has recently opened up. Alcohol is expensive at RM8 and up for a can of beer, and Muslim-owned restaurants can’t sell you any. There is some under-the-counter booze floating around though, and bringing your own is also permitted in most otherwise dry restaurants.
Internet cafes can be found on both Kecil and Besar, but connections are slow. GSM mobile phone coverage for Celcom and Maxis is spotty but generally adequate, especially on Besar. DiGi coverage is excellent on Besar.
Most people travel to the islands via the provincial capitals Kota Bharu or Kuala Terengganu. The nearest railway station is Tanah Merah, although most travellers opt for Kota Bharu’s better-serviced Wakaf Bahru station instead. All travellers to the islands have to pay a marine park conservation charge of RM5 per person, valid for the length of your stay.
Since the islands have no roads and no airport, getting to the islands themselves will require a ferry, really just a speedboat rigged with two large outboard motors. Expect to get yourself soaked in seawater, although the exact degree depends considerably on wind conditions and how crazy your captain is. Note that all ferries will take you directly to your destination, wherever it may be on the islands; you may have to pay an extra RM2 or so for the last leg on a taxi boat if the beach has no jetty though.
On the islands aside from walking, the only means of transport are water taxis. Prices are negotiable but figure on RM5 per head for most hops from one beach to another, and a little more when crossing from one island to another.
Due to the eastern monsoon, the season in the Perhentians is effectively limited to the period between April and October. Outside this the seas can be very rough and most accommodation options are closed. Best time to the year to visit the island is during the months of August and September; during these months the conditions under water are usually perfect (great visibility). During those months it is usually also very crowded on the island; you clearly notice that it is peak season. If you want to enjoy secluded beaches then you should visit the island from April to June.