In a nutshell
The beautifully rustic Perhentian Islands off the northeast coast of Malaysia, lures travellers looking for intimate marine life encounters below the salty waves and those longing to relax on sandy shores.
Why go to Perhentian Islands
Made up of two inhabited islands, Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil, the primary reasons to visit both these islands are the abundant ocean and beach activities. Diving, snorkelling and sea-kayaking are the island’s main activities and with the abundance of beautiful corals, turtles, sharks and tropical reef-fish under the turquoise surf, it’s evident to understand why.
For travellers who prefer to keep their heads above the water, both Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil also boast prime sunbathing and beach lounging opportunities along the palm-fringed coastlines. Along with the teeming ocean life, the islands are also home to countless monitor lizards, geckos, monkeys, spiders and birds; which you can experience up close and personal by engaging in one of the many beautiful jungle treks should you wish.
Another significant reason to visit, and definitely the main motivation for us lugging our backpack and snorkelling gear to these somewhat-remote islands, is the incredibly intimate opportunities for turtle encounters. From watching the massive green-shelled beauties lay their eggs on the sandy, moonlit shore late at night, observing them in their natural habitat whilst snorkelling, all the way to volunteering for one of the many turtle conservation organisations on the islands, these special animals are an excellent and unforgettable reason to visit the coast of north-eastern Malaysia.
When to go to Perhentian Islands
The ideal time to visit is between early March and mid-November as the end of November brings in the powerful eastern monsoons turning the seas choppy, the sky overcast and stormy and making swimming dangerous. During the off-season many accommodations, restaurants, dive shops and convenience stores are closed leaving options largely limited and supplies somewhat scare.
Where to stay on Perhentian Islands
Accommodation options on both Besar and Kecil are unfortunately mostly over-priced in relation to the quality and standards offered at the resorts and bungalows, however, mid-range and even somewhat budget options can be found for those booking in advance.
Perhentian Besar more commonly caters for families or for travellers wanting to get away from the noisy nightlife of Perhentian Kecil. Accommodation on Besar is slightly more expensive with fan-rooms naturally being more affordable than rooms offering air-con and beach chalets being the most common lodging option.
While Perhentian Kecil is the cheaper of the two islands, the standards and amenities offered at the various accommodations are of a lower standard than those offered on Basar. Wi-Fi is offered at mostly all of the resorts although it’s notoriously dodgy and very slow. Fortunately with the beautiful beaches and sparkling waters beckoning from the window this hardly presents a problem.
Where to eat on Perhentian Islands
At most of the resorts on the islands there is a choice between a la carte meal options as well as offering meals as part of all-inclusive buffet packages. Apart from seafood, food on the islands is all imported and meals and fresh produce are all a few times pricier than on Malaysia’s mainland. This is true for eateries as well as convenience stores.
There are a variety of restaurant options to choose from with tasty, local dishes and native ingredients obviously being more affordable than imported items, such as cheese, dairy and wine. While there are unfortunately no hawker stalls or street food options, the restaurants and cafes serve up scrumptious, nightly seafood barbeques on the beach and mouth-watering yoghurt lassis are a common menu item. It is recommended for travellers on a budget to bring along snacks, fresh fruit, water and alcohol as these items are generally overpriced due to the transportation fees required in getting them onto the island.
How to get around Perhentians
Getting around on the Perhentian Islands is done exclusively on foot as there are no roads aside from the plentiful walking tracks that connect the beaches as well as the lush, jungle treks. Fortunately the majority of the beaches and attractions are fairly close together and the walks are extremely beautiful and scenic.
For longer distances, water taxis are the only other means of getting around the islands and are charged at around MYR 15 for most trips but for further distances this can go up to a pricy MYR 30. Aside from the demarcated walking tracks on both Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil, everything else on the islands is made up of thick, luscious jungle.
How to get to and from Perhentians
Okay, first things first. Regardless of where you’re coming from, the place that you need to get to is Kuala Besut. The Kuala Besut jetty to be more precise. Those wishing to get to the Perhentian Islands will need to grab one of the fast-boats from the Kuala Besut jetty which will take them directly to the Perhentians, but more about that below!
Should you wish to arrive in Kuala Besut via air travel then you’re in luck! Kota Bharu's Sultan Ismail Petra Airport** in Pengkalan Chepa conveniently offers daily direct flights from Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru as well as Singapore. This airport is a short 15 minute car drive from Kota Bharu and although it is the nearest airport to Kuala Besut it is still an hour’s drive away.
Next up we have overnight buses to Kuala Besut from Kuala Lumpur which is an easy, convenient and affordable option for those looking to save some bucks. Perdana Express and Mahligai Express are the only bus operators who travel this journey from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Besut with both companies charging MYR 44 for a one way trip. Weary backpackers will rejoice in the fact that these buses are spacious, air-conditioned, have reclining seats and due to the journey being around 7 hours, stop a couple of times for bathroom breaks and the relished leg stretches. Perdana Express offers four daily trips to Kuala Besut but offers ten daily trips to Kota Bharu starting from 9:45am with the last bus leaving at 10:45pm.
From Kota Bahru travellers can grab a one hour taxi to Kuala Besut. Upon arriving you’ll be thrilled to learn that the Kuala Besut bus station is a convenient 15 minute walk to the jetty heading to the Perhentian Islands.
Now that you’ve arrived at the Kuala Besut jetty you’ll need to hop aboard a fixed-price fast boat charged at MYR 70 per person. The journey takes around 40 minutes and the boat will drop you off at Besar or Kecil or at any pre-booked accommodation. Do ensure that your luggage is wrapped up and your electronics are protected, the floors of the boats get soaked and bags tend to get rather wet.
Are the Perhentians a safe place to visit?
Be alerted to the fact that many of the boat operators do not abide by the safety rules and Malaysian laws regarding boat overloading. It’s best to avoid boarding a boat that is at maximum capacity.
Another word of warning when visiting the Perhentian Islands, although it is generally safe to visit, be mindful of leaving valuables unattended on the beaches as petty theft is unfortunately a common occurrence.