After a mad, constantly travelling, dash across Vietnam and Cambodia, we wanted to finish the trip with a relaxing, sun and sand filled few days. After quite a bit of research, we decided on the little known Perhentian Islands. Meaning “stopping point” in Malay, these small islands are situated off the east coast of Malaysia where the closest airport is Kota Bharu. We flew there from Kuala Lumpur using Air Asia which yet again offers dirt cheap short haul flights to smaller airports.
After finding our bags in the airport, we found the driver that our first island accommodation had sorted. After a bit of confusion (language barrier) about why we weren’t going to the car, we realised that he was also waiting for more people that should have been here before us. After about 10 mins, they arrived and we got into the small mini bus. After 45 mins of driving at breakneck speed (mainly on the wrong side of the road), we arrived at Kuala Besut, a small town on the coast which has a dock where most of the boats depart from to get to the island. Our driver rushed us to the quay where we found our boat already waiting full of other people. After putting all our bags in the middle of the boat to balance it and chucking on a life vest, the boat pulled slowly away and navigated down the channel to the open sea. Once passed the sea wall, the pilot opened the throttle on the two large powerful engines and the boat quickly picked up speed.
Forest fires on the mainland and in other nearby countries meant that the air was full of smog so our first view of the islands didn’t come until we were quite close. Initially we could only see Pulau Perhentian Kecil (“Small Perhentian Island”) but after getting closer, we could see Pulau Perhentian Besar (“Big Perhentian Island”) as well. Heading straight towards Kecil, the driver shouted something in Malay which another person onboard translated into english and we realised that he was asking if anyone was going to Keranji Beach (also called Mira Beach) – we were! Stopping in the shallows, we jumped out into the warm water and held our bags just above the water to walk onto the private beach that was in front of us. All the other passengers looked on in envy as the boat pulled away to take them to their accommodation.
We were greeted by a long hair surfer type guy who it later transpired was cycling around Asia and finding places to stay for free in exchange for work. Finding our key, he walked us up the sandy path passed a few huts before stopping at the far end one. Sitting on a large rock slightly away from the other huts with a hammock outside looking straight out to sea, it was very basic with a large mosquito net covering the bed, an open air shower and toilet (full of bugs – though an amazing sea and beach view from the throne!) and electricity only at certain points of the day. We understood now why emails to the owner had been intermittent and why he could only check his PayPal account (to see if we had paid) once or twice a week!
We dumped our bags and grabbed our towels and snorkels (that we had carried for 2 weeks for this moment) and jumped back in the warm sea. The sea was pretty calm, a little cloudy and utterly full of sea life – millions of brightly coloured and different fish, dark spike-y sea urchin, jelly fish and the odd reef shark hovering around in the distance – they soon swarm off every time I tried to get close to them to get photos!
As the sun started setting we chucked on some more clothes and headed down to the main house which also doubled as a restaurant for breakfast and dinner. Options were limited but quickly and freshly cooked and the ambiance of sitting on a wooden decking, with the sea lapping quietly behind, on comfy bean bags and the chatter of birds nesting in the trees was incredible. Mira Beach is a true family run place with only 6 huts and an adorable little boy who spent most of the time chasing a tiny kitten around on the sand. Most of the islanders are Muslim so alcohol isn’t sold in most restaurants. That said on the big island there is a large(r) resort with its own bar that is opened to all and plenty of beach shacks selling beer from ice coolers on the “party” beach. In the summer, that beach is more lively but nothing like Thailand. The beach we were staying on was quiet and very laid back (nearly too much but you learnt quickly to go with the flow). October (when we went) was very quiet – if you want the party time go in the peak season; if you want quiet, go when we went.
After finishing our food we walked slowly back to the hut to find that the giant gecko toy on the wall wasn’t actually a toy and was a living breathing (and now moving) giant gecko! We decided to leave it there as it would happily eat the mosquitos. We clambered inside our net and fell quickly asleep with the sea whispering outside.
The next day, after sleeping in for a while, we grabbed breakfast (and more importantly coffee) on the beach before putting on walking shoes and heading off to hike around the island. In one direction, an easy to follow path wandered through the jungle to a fishing village with little to see or do but sadly quite a bit of rubbish. The fishing village is the only village on the islands – there are also no cars on the islands and no roads – water taxies or walking is the only way to get around. We back tracked past our hut and followed the path in the other direction which led to Coral Bay (lots of diving huts and a slightly bigger “resort”) and by crossing directly across the island from here, you get to Long Beach (the party beach with lots of beach bars). After walking through all 3 areas, we realised how lucky we had been with our choice of location and would highly recommend staying there.
From Long Beach we found a water taxi (driven by basically a child) that for a few RM took us back to our private, quiet and secluded beach. We kicked off our sweaty hiking shoes, grabbed a nearly cold drink and settled down to watch the sun disappear. The smog had eased slightly and as darkness fell, the stars started to come out. We lay on a large boulder (really uncomfortable) below our hut and watched as the sky twinkled and danced above us.
The next day we had pre arranged (the night before) through the owner of Mira Beach to join a snorkelling trip and around mid morning waded out to the speedboat that arrived. Already onboard was a young Chinese couple and an older pair of ex-teacher friends. The boat shot away and went to the far end of the other island where some other boats were already bobbing about. After spitting in my face mask (gross but keeps it from misting up), I gingerly jumped off the boat and went under water. Below, stretching down and seemingly never ending, were thousands and thousands of brightly coloured fish. Huge schools of fish swam around with bigger sleek long fish cruising around in the background. Far below you could just about make out the colourful coral covering the sea floor. Despite the other boats, it wasn’t crowded at all. After 20 mins or so excitedly taking photos with my new waterproof camera, we un-elegantly pulled ourselves back into the boat and headed towards Turtle Point. This large area faced a long white beach with a large resort behind. As we arrived, we could see other boats slowly moving about the area with people peering into the water. Almost immediately our driver pointed and shouted turtle! Without thinking, I jumped off the boat to be greeted by the sight of a large turtle swimming peacefully below us. I’ve seen turtles before but never ever this close and never in such clear water. Swimming along close to the bottom, the turtle occasionally came up to the surface for air giving us an even better opportunity to see the colours and shapes on its shell and face.
Whilst surfacing for air ourselves, we realised that another boat had stopped nearby and that there was a younger turtle swimming around below them. It seemed a bit more cautious of us compared to the older one and stayed deeper for much longer. After dropping the Chinese couple off who were only doing a half day trip, we headed to the fishing village that we had walked to the previous day. Lots of other boats had already moored there next to a beachside shack with a buffet of sorts. After poking the food to try to figure out what some of it was, we sat nearby to eat in the sun.
After letting our food go down, we got back into the boat and sped off to Shark Point – which, yes you’ve guessed it, is where it’s possible to see sharks. We stopped a bit further out to sea this time next to a rope floating out in the sea presumably to stop eager tourist boats going close to the shore and causing damage. Not really knowing what to expect, we slipped slowly into the water with the coral below us again. After swimming around a bit we saw a medium sized reef shark in the distance. More afraid of us than we were of it, it swam away whilst I attempted to chase it to get a better photo! Now that we had got our eye in, we spotted a few other sharks circling in the distance and then a turtle far below us.
After half an hour, we pulled away going past our own beach and followed the curve of the island to Romantic beach. This really pretty white beach sits in front of nearly pristine jungle with clear shallower water to swim in. Clown fish were easy to spot here as they hid below rocks and on the coral before trying to swim aggressively up to scare us away. Finally we stopped at a lighthouse far out to see along with a few other boats and jumped into the deeper water which again was teaming with fish far far below us. Larger fast looking fish circled the legs of the lighthouse in larger groups here too keeping us at a good distance each time you tried to swim closer.
After getting a drink and paying our host, we got a taxi boat across to the other island where we had chosen to stay at Abdul’s Chalets Perhentian Island for the final few nights. Although getting mixed reviews, this slightly less basic accommodation had a long line of huts (with fans and AC!) sitting on the beach looking out to sea. The girl on reception was a touch blunt but not unfriendly and the hut was clean and cool. We dropped our bags off before going to sit on the beach watching the sun starting to set before heading along the beach to another hotel which had a large restaurant attached with a wide menu. It also had the only bar on the island upstairs which, after leaving our sandy flip flops downstairs, we took advantage of to have a few cocktails. Whilst nothing fancy, they were well made and the view out across the sea towards the other island was hard to beat.
The next day we explored the various beaches close to us and returned to Turtle Point (only a short stroll away although we got a taxi boat after admitting defeat when we got to rocks which would have forced us to swim) where we found the larger old turtle pretty quickly and followed it around for a while. The beach was pretty empty and the water was warm and mostly calm. Finally we got another taxi boat to Turtle beach (not to be confused with Turtle Point) and asked the driver to come back in an hour. This beach was at the far end of the island and would have taken hours to walk + swim there so we were trusting the chap to come back! We nearly had the beach to ourselves and the water was sparkling in the sun. This beach is used by turtles to lay eggs each year and there was a little conservation hut with some roped off areas that helpers re-bury eggs in to stop them being eaten. This wasn’t being used when we were there due to the time of the year. After roughly an hour, our boat appeared on the horizon and we waded out to meet it before heading back to our hut. After a long day in the sun, the hut was welcomingly cool and the large shower (luke warm) made it easy to wash all the sand off.
For our final night we ate at Abdul’s – sitting on tables on the beach lit by candles and far enough apart to give privacy. The food was tasty, quickly made and very cheap. We went back to the bar from the previous night for a few final cocktails and watched the little speedboats nipping back and forth between the two islands. The following morning after a tasty breakfast on the beach, we had one final swim and a final quick chase of a shark for a photo (got no where near). We both sulkily carried our rucksacks down the quay and waited for the boat to carry us back to the mainland where our original driver picked us up with a few other people to take us back to the airport to catch our flight home via a quick connection in KUL.
Tips and tricks
- Lots of blogs have warnings about items being stolen from huts/tents/bags on beaches. We didn’t experience that at all but we did go in the low season (Oct just before they close for the rainy season) and kept our belongings locked away in the hut and our valuables in a dry sack that we kept on us at all times. Don’t be paranoid but equally stay sensible and safe.
- Be respectful when you fly into the area and are travelling from the airport to the dock. It’s a Muslim country so respect their beliefs. When on the islands, bikinis etc are totally fine.
- Leave your flip flops outside of the hut!
- Take cash! No one (that we found) took card payments. Our Revolut cards worked in the airport and there is an ATM near the dock but pre-plan to save time.
- Expect a laid back attitude. It’ll get done but might take longer than normal.
- Electricity is normally only on for a few hours or so a day. Take portable battery packs – we have several Anker packs which are perfect and hold enough juice to charge an iPhone more than a handful of times.
- The totally free offline maps.me app works a treat including saving offline all of these places so you can find them without any signal but there isn’t much point – it’s not hard to find places!
- We nearly didn’t go on the snorkelling trip thinking we could do everything from the beach ourselves but it was a brilliant day out even to only find out where they best spots are.
- The people running the boats from the mainland to the islands don’t speak much english (or other languages) but just trust the system – it works and you’ll get to where you want to go.
- Most accommodation and diving places have snorkels to buy/rent so there is no need to carry your own around (like we did)
- If getting a taxi boat to a remote beach or smaller island, book the return as there won’t be other boats there.
- Put sun cream on your back when snorkelling! You’ll regret it otherwise!