Mainland Malaysia originally wasn’t on our travel list, but we are extremely happy that we decided not to skip underrated Southeast Asian country. The Perhentian Islands were a highlight of our stay in Malaysia. Getting to the South China Sea islands off the east coast of Malaysia can be quite a journey, but you’ll be rewarded with the most breathtaking lush green jungle islands surrounded by crystal blue waters. These gorgeous islands offer the traveler that laid back atmosphere and untouched natural beauty that’s often hard to find in much of Southeast Asia.
Getting to the Perhentian Islands
After breathing in the contaimenated airs of Chiang Mai we were in a hurry to get to these quiet little islands. We opted to take a flight to Kuala Lumpur, stay the night and then hop another one hour flight to Kota Bharu in northeastern Malaysia. Upon arriving at the airport we were greeted by a Malaysian woman directing us to a desk (near car rentals) selling roundtrip “taxi+speedboat” tickets to the Perhentian Islands. Travelers were teamed up with other travelers to share taxi costs. The total journey cost $ per person based on four people in a taxi. We were grouped with two women from Spain who were visiting Malaysia for a short week vacation. The taxi ride from the airport to the boat pier in Kuala Besut was around one hour and then we waited another hour before heading with a group to the boat pier. There was quite an operation going on at the pier with multiple small speedboats pulling up and filling up with passengers. The 1/2 hour speedboat journey was a crazy ride with everyone holding on for their lives. The small boat, the speed the weight of too many passengers and choppy waters all heightened the extreme conditions.
Perhentian Kecil or Perhentian Besar Islands
The Perhentian Islands are made up of two small islands Perhentian Kecil (small island) and Perhentian Besar (big island). Kecil is more of a backpacker island with mediocre bungalow accommodation and a raucous nightlife, while Besar is a quieter family destination. We opted to go to Kecil for the cheaper accommodation and backpacker scene. There are no cars on the islands and they can only be reached by boat. Long Beach is the main beach area on Kecil and can only be reached by a small taxi boat meeting the speedboat about 100 yards from the shallow shores. We were amazed by the surrounding beauty as our boat pulled up to the island. The turquiose blue and crystal clear waters were a sight right out of World Traveler magazine. We later decided to move to Perhentian Besar. Read on to find out why we like Besar better than Kecil.
We were starved after the long journey so we grabbed a bite to eat with our new Spanish friends. Shortly thereafter, Brett headed off to find us some available accommodation along the beach. Kecil’s Pasir Panjang, known as Long Beach, only has a handful of shabby longhouse or chalet accommodation. The other option is to take the short 15 minute walk through the jungle path to the other side of the islands at Coral Bay. While the accommodation and restaurants here may be nicer, Coral Bay (literally a bay with a rocky shore) lacks the white sand beach and swimmable waters of Long Beach. We chose Garden Rock Chalets, a short walk up the mountain at the end of Long Beach. The chalets were mediocre at best with a bare bones room, two cot beds and shower/toilet combo. The views from the chalet are the best on Long Beach. We stayed on Perhentian Kecil for two days before heading to a nicer resort on Perhentian Besar.
Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil
Kecil’s Long Beach is the nicest swimmable beach you’ll find around the islands. We spend our days relaxing in the sands and swimming through the small waves just off the shore. There aren’t many good restaurant options on Kecil. Food is expensive and mediocre. We splurged one night and went to the “” for a seafood platter, which good but probably not worth the extremely high price tag. Kecil comes alive at night when it turns into a backpacker party scene lined with beach bars serving expensive beers, bottle, shots and hookahs. We went out our first night and shared a bottle of whisky and hookah with our new Spanish friends. We headed back to our chalet around 12pm, but were shocked when the music and nightlife continued on until the wee hours of the morning. For an island advertised as a laid-back getaway this sure felt like a full-moon party scene with backpackers on spring break. Maybe we are just getting old though too! After another long night of loud music and partying on Kecil, we were ready to move to Perhentian Besar for some real quite relaxation.
We took a short $15 taxi ride to Besar island’s southern beach. As we pulled up to the south beach lagoon on Besar, we knew we made the right decision to leave Kecil island. The crystal blue lagoon was the quiet little piece of paradise we were looking for. We checked into Arwana Resort, a nice family place with a swimming pool and two restaurants. Ready to relax, we settled in at the poolside with our kindles and drinks in hand. After taking the backpacker route, we were certainly happy to treat ourselves to some luxury. Although it was double the price of our place on Kecil ($50 vs. $25), it was a huge difference in comfort, quality and value.
Snorkeling around the Perhentian Islands
The following day we booked a snorkeling trip around the Perhentian Islands. We departed with five others around 9:30 am and jump out of the boat to snorkel around two spots at the west part of the island. Albeit cloudy water, we saw some beautiful colorful fish and fauna. While we were at the 2nd snorkeling spot, the clouds started to roll over us and the wind and torrential downpours began. Everyone quickly swam to the boat and we headed back to the shore at our resort. Since we were leaving the following the morning and couldn’t make up the snorkeling hours we recovered half of our tour costs. The downpours continued all through the night and into the next afternoon when we were leaving the island for the mainland.
There is not much else to do on this part of the island. Most travelers come here for scuba diving since there are a few scuba schools around the resort. The strange thing was that during the day there were not many people around and most of the guests we saw were muslim. There was no where to get alcohol during the day, but all of a sudden late at night the bar music next to our room and the scuba school was blaring until the wee hours of the morning.
The food at the resort, as with the rest of the food on Perhentian islands, was mediocre. We noticed the night buffet sign at Arwana warned guest that they would get charged X if they left anything on their buffet plate.
Kecil or Besar Perhentian? Which one?
Many travelers contemplate on whether they should stay on Kecil or Besar Perhentian island. Our answer is that it depends on what you are looking for on your vacation or travel. Both islands are absolutely breathtaking and the scenery is exquisite. If you are young and into the late night party scene then Kecil’s Long Beach is definitely the place to be. If you are looking to relax at the pool or beachside and have quiet dinners and walks on the beach, then Besar might be the better place. If you are staying on Kecil, be warned that the accommodation here is awful as it caters specifically to backpackers who waste themselves into a stupor and probably barely return to their rooms to pass out before sunrise. Besar is the logical choice if you are looking for more comfort and cleanliness. We are happy that we got to experience both islands and recommend that you go to these beautiful islands getaways yourself and experience the splendor of it all!
See our Photo Album: