After living in Thailand for a year, it had started to feel like one long overcrowded minivan ride. Unable to escape the hordes of migrating sun seekers and realizing it was time for a change. I needed to lose the shirt and tie, and spend some time in the sun. Maybe see what all the fuss was about. Thailand wasn’t an option, I wanted change and a holiday – a double dose of shaking things up. A chance discussion led me to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia, and the discovery of the “˜beach’ that adherents of Alex Garland strive to find.
Translating into “˜stop’ islands, the Perhentians’ two islands, Besar and Kecil, big and small respectively, were and still are a waypoint for local fishermen’s commuting back and forth between the mainland and their fishing grounds. Situated in a marine park just off the east coast of Malaysia an hour from the Thailand border, it is a complete break from anything related to hustle and bustle.
Your arrival at the island includes an accidental tour as the one speedboat from Kuala Besut on the coast stops at various secluded beaches around the islands dropping off tourists. Boats are the only way around the islands as the interiors are thick jungle populated with spiders the size of my head spinning webs that could double as curtains as well as large skittish monitor lizards, these six foot local Godzilla babies are very common especially nosing through the trash.
Where to stay
The major pastimes on both islands are scuba diving or lounging around on the beach. For more of lively time head to the backpacker friendly Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil. A zebra’s stripe of white sand backed by jungle and fronted by the most clichéd clear, blue water you could imagine, which just happens to hover around thirty degrees Celsius making diving a very comfortable experience. Perhentian Besar is mainly geared toward families and the more private getaway, although prices are similar. Private chalets with net and fan start from around RM50, but you can find one or two dorms for about RM20. There are no ATMS so take cash with you. You can get a cash advance on your credit card but you will have to pay a high commission, and swiping isn’t reliable so don’t plan on paying for everything by card.
These two islands have over twenty dive sites located around them, on average each only taking thirty minutes to get to. They have magical names such Tanjung Basi, Terumbu Tiga, Sugarwreck, Tokong Laut and Pasir Tani. Tokong Laut (Temple of the Sea) in particular is one the island’s most spectacular dives bottoming out at around 24m. The dive sites range from a shallow 6m (D’Lagoon) to 30m (Vietnamese Wreck). The marine life at most of the sites is phenomonal with black tip sharks, whale sharks, morays, barraccuda, various rays, the usual assortment of tropical fish, lionfish, scorpionfish, bumpheads, groupers, batfish as well as enough turtles that you are almost guaranteed to see one. Especially at Tokong Laut, where the resident turtle is named Tripod due to a run in with a speedboat.
Large healthy coral reefs are scattered around like water droplets. Unfortunately at some of the sites you can see the remains of reefs damaged by destructive fishing techniques such as using dynamite. These look like a city after a nuclear attack with the few fish slowly swimming around and around like shell-shocked survivors. The various reefs allow for all sorts of diving; drift diving in the channel between the islands, muck diving in search of that one seahorse to be found, night diving and two wrecks – the 3500 ton Sugarwreck sits at 18m and is in perfect condition – and lastly, my personal favourite, Terumbu Tiga which is a pinnacle of large boulders stacked on top of one another and full of short swim-throughs to be explored.
When to go
The islands become ghost towns between October and February as monsoon season makes it very difficult to get their.
The best time to go is between May and August
Fly into Kuala Lumpur, overnight bus to Kuala Besut. Cost around RM40
From Penanag, express bus Mutiara Ekspress to Kuala Besut. Cost around RM46
Speedboats leave for the island four – five times a day. RM70 return, the first boat leaves at 7:30 am
Private chalet with shower, fan and net: RM50-RM100
Western food is available but is more expensive. Eating local will set you back around Rm40 a day
Most shops have three dives a day with night dives organised on request. RM60-RM80 a dive (including all equipment and guide).
Most restaurants show movies every night from about 8 pm.
Various beach bars sell beer for about RM8 a can or you can buy 250 ml bottles of vodka or a local rum called ‘monkey juice’ for around RM25.