Sparsely populated islands, crystal clear waters, unspoiled beaches and hopefully some jungles to explore … these were our expectations when we set out to visit the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.
Before we decided on the Perhentians, we of course did some thorough research. But we learned that even the best research can’t prepare you for reality.
But let’s start at the beginning: When searching for our Malaysian island paradise, we dismissed the heavily populated west coast and focused on the east coast, because we thought it would be wild, natural and thus more interesting.
Unfortunately, even though there is a number of islands on this side of Malaysia, the only useful information we could find online and in guidebooks was for Tioman, Redang and the Perhentian islands.
Tioman Island sounded good, but friends warned me about an infestation of sand flies, and it also looked too close to Singapore to be really off the beaten track.
Redang Island was another option, but as it has its own airport and mostly all-inclusive resorts, it didn’t sound like our style.
The Perhentians were described as wild, low-key, laid back and uncrowded, so we decided to give these two islands along the northeast coast of Malaysia a try.
A promising introduction to the Perhentian Islands
Because the Perhentians are on the less popular east coast of Malaysia (and close to southern Thailand which has seen some social unrest over recent years) these islands see relatively little tourist traffic.
That being said, the Perhentians are safe. However, these factors appealed to us as we are always attracted to places that are a little off the beaten track.
Getting there involves either a flight to Kota Bharu, a train ride to Tumpat (which actually ends in Gua Musang, due to ongoing flood issues) or a long bus ride to Jerteh. All followed by a taxi ride for the last couple of kilometers. We wanted to go local and decided to take an overnight bus from Singapore which was supposed to take 12 hours (but of course took longer). Once at the port town of Besut, we got on a ferry for a 45-minute-long ride to the Perhentians.
Watching the mainland get smaller in the distance, the wind blowing through our hair, totally exhausted from a way-too-long journey, we were thrilled to get closer to our Malaysian island paradise and relax for a few days after hectic Singapore. So far off the beaten path, we were sure we were about to experience a pristine and enchanting island adventure.
Beachcombing and bonfires with a twist on the Perhentian Islands
As we approached Little Perhentian, we saw beautiful yellow sand beaches appearing under the shades of thick, lush rainforest. The closer we got, the more we saw colorful items dotting the tidal zone which we expected to be seashells. I already imagined myself walking down the beach in the mornings and stumbling across one gem-like treasure after the other.
However, as soon as we set foot on Little Perhentian, we were hit by reality: the “treasures” littering the beach were just that: litter. Or to be specific: shopping bags, empty rice bags and other plastic jetsam. Hoping it was only the island’s west coast that was spoiled, we set our sites on exploring its east coast, and also neighboring Big Perhentian Island.
Unfortunately, it was not easy to find a beach anywhere where you could enjoy the warm, crystal clear water and beautiful coral without swimming or snorkeling into rubbish. Even worse, some of the southern beaches on Big Perhentian had raw sewage seeping out of the big resorts, making the water cloudy and giving off a ripe smell.
The rubbish that doesn’t end up in the ocean seems to have its own purpose: Though the Perhentians are not known for their night life, Little Perhentian is famous for its bond fires on Long Beach. At first this seems very romantic. But at a second glance it turns out that this is only a well marketed excuse to burn garbage. Standing downwind might give you a memory for a lifetime — however it is likely cancer from plastic fumes.
We were there during low season, and perhaps all all is different during high season, but it’s still not what we like to see when visiting a beautiful tropical island.
The forgotten ruins of the Perhentian Islands
Most visitors are encourage to travel around the island via local “water taxis” which have no schedule and are over priced. However, there is a much better way. Both islands have hiking trails, and while they are a little scruffy, you’ll see more of the island and save a bundle of cash.
You’ll also learn a little about the history and philosophy of tourism here. While walking around Little Perhentian Island, we passed a slew of abandoned structures along the lower western coast, which looked like small bungalow resorts that either went bankrupt or never launched. Sadly, nobody has cleaned up the wreckage, and it doesn’t look like there are plans to do so. Unlike the ruins of Italy’s Pompeii or Guatemala’s Tikal these are not really the remnants of civilization we like to see.
The mysterious “marine park fee” on Perhentian Islands
The Perhentians have nice coral reefs and rich marine life. And like many similar places around this world, you’re charged a marine park fee (at the port of Besut) to support this fragile ecosystem.
I am a huge supporter of these fees when they are used to protect the underwater flora and fauna, and in many places we’ve visited, the money’s been put to good use. However, it was clear to us that the money we paid was not going to protect the marine life in the Perhentians, but likely lining the pockets of corrupt officials.
Not only did we see garbage all over the beaches and in the water, but each night we watched numerous illegal, commercial fishing boats using bright lights to catch squid right in the middle of the so-called marine park. It wasn’t even a clandestine operation — how can you hide a boat that is lit up like a football stadium? And during the day we saw these boats tied up in the island’s harbor in broad daylight, lights and all.
Sorry for all the negativity, but sadly, it’s the truth, and I think it’s important to let you know what to expect before you consider visiting the Perhentian Islands to avoid any disappointment.
After all this ranting, which I really needed to get off my chest, I have to admit it wasn’t all bad – fortunately. So let me tell you the things that we liked about these two little islands:
Carless Perhentian Islands
After talking about the CAREless side of the Perhentian Islands, I actually loved that they were also CARless.
As I said, we chose to hike instead of taking the water taxis, and we really enjoyed it. There is a convenient boardwalk around the southern half of Little Perhentian Island, and a nice wilderness trail around the western third of Big Perhentian (although don’t expect a really deep jungle with tons of wildlife).
I love being independent and moving and exploring at my own pace. If you keep your eyes open, you may even save yourself a trip to Komodo to see the famous dragons, as some of the monitor lizards here also get pretty enormous (and can scare the s**t out of you when they suddenly cross your path).
Here are some details regarding the island’s trails:
- Fishing Village to Long Beach: 45 minutes (boardwalk along the east coast, a little rough as not maintained)
- Fishing Village to Coral Bay: 1.5 hours (boardwalk along the west coast, pretty well maintained)
- Fishing Village to Coral Bay: 15 minutes (boardwalk inland, pretty well maintained)
- Perhentian Island Resort to Teluk Dalam: 30 minutes (pretty easy jungle trekking across the island)
- Teluk Dalam to Love Beach: 20 minutes (trail in very bad condition, steep and exhausting)
- Love Beach to Perhentian Island Resort: 45 minutes (trail follows the beach and boardwalks)
Beaches worth spending time on the Perhentian Islands
If you’re looking for somewhere to get a tan and simply relax, the nicest options we found were along the lower western stretch of Little Perhentian or the bay in front of Perhentian Island Resort on Big Perhentian.
Some people also suggested Romantic Beach (north of Coral Bay on Little Perhentian) and Turtle Beach (one beach up from the Perhentian Island Resort on Big Perhentian), but we didn’t have enough time to explore these spots and we only heard about them at the end of our stay (like we said, not a lot of info out there on these islands, and the locals are not a lot of help — they told us not to hike).
Underwater, the Perhentian Islands are still a little paradise
We visited the Perhentians at the end of the season in late October before the big rains come, and actually got in the last dive before the dive masters packed in their gear.
The dive site we went to was called Tong Laut, a pinnacle in the water between the uninhabited islands to the north-west of Little Perhentian. Here, the Perhentians finally showed us their true beauty. We saw swarms of colorful fish in all shapes and sizes, bamboo and cat sharks, as well as some really nice soft corals — all with good visibility and in nice, warm water.
Snorkeling-wise, I can recommend both sides of Coral Bay on Little Perhentian and around the point of the Coral View Resort on Big Perhentian. The coral and fish life is pretty good, and we even got to see a few harmless, small reef sharks doing laps. According to reports, there is also a nice spot to snorkel on Long Beach, but during our stay in late October the waves where too rough to even consider going in the water.
Though the Perhentian Islands didn’t convince us totally, there is great potential there. If you get some right-minded folks to go in and clean up the illegal fishing operations, beaches, sewage, and the ruins of the old shacks that line the beach, this place could shine.
But even as is, if you choose the right places to go, it still works as a little island getaway and is probably better than a lot of other places. Maybe we are just getting a little bit too spoiled by all the amazing places we have experienced …
As I said a couple of times, it’s hard to find out much info about the islands on the east coast. But maybe for our next time in Malaysia, we’ll try and explore some of the ones that aren’t mentioned anywhere at all! Jumping on some local’s fishing boat riding towards the unknown sounds fun, doesn’t it?