The truth about Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands

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.

Perhentian Islands Coral Bay

Coral reef on Little Perhentian Islands west coast

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.

Perhentian Islands garbage

Garbage is lining most of the beaches on the Perhentian Islands

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.

Perhentian Islands ruins

Ruins of former vacation bungalows on Little Perhentian Island

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.

Perhentian Islands fishing boats

Squid fishing boats resting during the day before driving out at night to illegally fish in the marine park

 

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).

Perhentian Islands jungle trek

Hiking on Big Perhentian Island

Here are some details regarding the island’s trails:

Little Perhentian

  • 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)

Big Perhentian

  • 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)
Perhentian Islands map

Map of the Perhentian Islands

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).

Perhentian Islands beach

Beach on Little Perhentian Island’s west coast

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?

Have you been to the Perhentian Islands? How was your trip? Do you have any intel on a real Malaysian island paradise that’s truly pristine and off the beaten path? Let us know in the comments below!

Michaela

In 2013 Michaela decided to quit the rat race as a Financial Manager in a multinational company to persue her passion of travel and photography full-time. She hasn't looked back since, and loves to discover places which are off-the-beaten path and not spoiled by mass-tourism. All she needs is jungle, waterfalls, beaches and elephants and she's in paradise!

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Posted in Diving, Malaysia | Tagged , , , , | 19 Replies

About Michaela

In 2013 Michaela decided to quit the rat race as a Financial Manager in a multinational company to persue her passion of travel and photography full-time. She hasn’t looked back since, and loves to discover places which are off-the-beaten path and not spoiled by mass-tourism. All she needs is jungle, waterfalls, beaches and elephants and she’s in paradise!

19 comments on “The truth about Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands

  1. Mika

    I am literally here now, on the beach and all of this is shockingly untrue!!!

    Underwater still a paradise?! Across the world reefs are dying, it’s not great. But that’s not due to Perhentian Islands but global warming.

    Garbage?! It’s so clean!!! Water is blue. People so friendly.

    Haven’t hiked yet, so can’t count for that.

    Did not pay a fee as I arrived on a charter boat later at night. I would have and I find the locals very helpful. You just need to ask the right people.

    Reply
    • Michaela Post author

      Hi Mika,
      Great to hear that you are walking along clean beaches and blue water. Maybe they have cleaned it up – or you are lucky to be there in the tourist season when they care about appearance.
      Have fun hiking,
      Michaela

      Reply
  2. Naruto

    I’ve just come back from Redang Island (near Perhentian) and it was very clean and well maintained. There were also plenty of great snorkelling opportunities directly off Redang itself but on nearby islands too. I usually go to Thailand every year but have been blown away by the quality of crystal clear beaches and islands around here.

    Reply
  3. Caroline

    Those of you that have travelled in Asia probably realise that the garbage problem is massive, and widespread.
    I visited “The Beach” off of Phi Phi before the movie, and it was awful (they probably clean it up now). I lived on an island in Indo, where every week a dozen or so people would clean the beach for an hour and pick up hundreds of kg of trash. Wakatobi: I stayed on a almost deserted island, yet walked the beach and found hundreds of straws.
    I hope even just 1 person reads this and thinks about their plastic consumption: buy a refillable water bottle and coffee cup, BYO shopping bag, don’t bag up things at the supermarket unless you need to (e.g. loose leaf salad)(and even then you can use the paper mushroom bags!).

    Reply
    • Michaela Post author

      Yeah, unfortunately this seems to be a very Asian issue (and by that I don’t mean it’s their fault – both tourists and locals add to the problem!).
      Maya Beach on Ko Phi Phi Leh is very clean as I saw half a year ago, but it’s so full of people, that you can’t enjoy the clean beach anymore. On the opposite, many of the empty beaches that you can still find when you are on your own boat are full of garbage, as the tides bring it in.
      It’s really sad, but as you said: as responsible travelers we have to start making a difference by how we act and hopefully motivate others to follow our example.

      Reply
  4. rukkha

    Can you recommend any fairly ‘pristine’ area around Asia or the Pacific that is good for snorkeling ?…Many thanx. Was considering Perhentians but after reading your blog seems like I may give it a miss…plastic in oceans and on beaches is just too depressing!

    Reply
    • Michaela Post author

      Hi,
      finding some really pristine snorkeling spots is unfortunately not too easy anymore. I have to admit, the more we see, the higher our expectations get and a lot of times we are disappointed nowadays. For us good snorkeling doesn’t just mean to have clear water visibility, but also to see many fish and coral. Places that we found in Asia and the Pacific that offer this are the Mergui archipelago in southern Myanmar, the reefs around Wakatobi (I heard Sulawesi in general), and several spots in French Polynesia. If you are really into snorkelling and exploring the underwater world, maybe you should learn to dive? A lot of times good reefs are a little further under the surface, and it’ll give you a whole new perspective. Fish and turtles are way more relaxed when you are not snorkelling but scuba diving, and once you have seen dancing eagle rays you’ll wonder why you didn’t try diving earlier ;-).
      I hope I was able to help you a little bit, and you’ll find a great place to snorkel or dive in the near future!
      Have fun,
      Michaela

      Reply
  5. Emily

    We head here tomorrow and I am hoping our experience will be a little better…from all I have read I am also second guessing our choice to visit! Thanks for the honest opinion though, this is what helps! Low expectations!

    Reply
    • Michaela Post author

      Hi Emily,
      don’t worry, it’s still a neat island ;-). Not exactly what we expected, but since your expectations are already low, maybe you’ll love it. Also, we’ve been there at the end of the tourist season at the beginning of November – maybe it’s different at different times of the year. It would be great if you could update us and tell us here about your experiences on the islands. Looking forward to it!
      Have fun and take care,
      Michaela

      Reply
  6. Tash Dab

    I was hugely saddened to read your blog on the Perhention islands. I have often wondered what they would be like now. I visited them in the late 90’s and they were utterly uncrowded, unspoilt and different to the picture you paint. We stayed on Little Perhention in the only huts there then. There was no electricity and no one on the pristine beach either except the occasional huge monitor lizard, and of course the amazing sea life beneath. I remember paddling with huge parrot fish up to half a metre swimming round my ankles.. and snorkelling seeing the most incredible array of tropical fish – it’s was magical!
    Big Perhention was more ‘developed’ at that time with one resort with electricity.
    So sad how these beautiful islands haven’t been looked after. Here’s hoping that someone does clean them up and set a true eco friendly style of tourism here soon before it’s too late.

    Reply
    • Michaela Post author

      Wow, what would I give to see the Perhentians you visited back then! Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it’s gonna return to this natural wonder it once was. As I said, it’s not all lost: the underwater world is still pretty cool!

      Reply
  7. Shahrul

    What a revelation. I will remind myself to arm with garbage bags and will voluntarily collect those small pieces of litter as much as it can fill my tiny garbage bags whenever I go to basic islands.

    Reply
      • Eelco

        Good example! Plastic waste is a huge problem in Asia (and basically worldwide..). Pick up some pieces of trash while walking over the beach, or while snorkeling. Happy to read that more and more people do this!

        Reply
  8. Nigel Rushby

    I could write so many fabulous things about the time I had there back in 96.
    When you travel abroad, take these places for what they are. Talk to the locals about what is happening on their island, immerse yourself in the local culture, even if it is only for a short time.
    You can’t go to these places expecting the lifestyle you have become accustomed to elsewhere; take it for what it is and enjoy meeting new people and learning loads of stuff.
    At night you put your hand in the water, it lights up, how cool …. I’ll say no more, DYOR.
    The monitor lizards are pretty cool as well, some about 12 foot from nose to tail.
    Fantastic memories …. light the corners of my mind.

    Reply
    • Michaela Post author

      Hi Nigel,
      your experiences in 1996 must have been memorable! Let’s hope the islanders and travelers realize that they have to take better care of this place to make it shine once again.
      Take care,
      Michaela

      Reply
  9. Ruth Crothers

    I am extremely saddened to see your picture of the derelict huts as these are where my, now husband, and I stayed 20 years ago. The Perentian Island back then was the most stunningly beautiful place, void of tourism and litter, but providing a wealth of natural beauty and the best coral reef I have ever experienced. What a shame such a once naturally beautiful place is no longer.

    Reply
    • Michaela Post author

      Hi Ruth,
      Thanks a lot for sharing your memories of the Perhentians with us. Judging from your description, the islands have definitely changed; though I can imagine what a jewel they once were. It’s definitely not all lost, but somebody has to step up, work with the local communities, tourism operators and tourists to get the islands’ unspoiled glory back. Underwater it’s still beautiful as far as we could tell from our one dive, but the land needs work.

      Reply

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