I didn’t love the Perhentian Islands.
Ohmygosh I can’t believe I just divulged that to the internet!
Don’t hate me?
Seriously, what am I on about?
I mean, how could I not love this?
I certainly didn't hate the Perhentian Islands, I liked them enough. I guess what I’m getting at is I went there expecting paradise and left a little underwhelmed. But before you close your browser in horror, allow me to explain!
The Perhentian Islands are a popular destination among divers, keen snorkelers and beach-dwellers. Located off the north-eastern coast of Malaysia, the Perhentian Islands are in fact two islands, Pulau Perhentian Kecil (small island) and Pulau Perhentian Besar (big island). The big island has more resort-style accommodation and is known to be more expensive and family-orientated, whereas the small island has a reputation of being cheaper and is more popular among budget travellers and backpackers. Naturally, we decided to save a few dollars and stay on Kecil.
Pulau Perhentian Kecil has two main beaches, Long Beach and Coral Bay, connected by a jungly 10 minute walk over the hill between them. We hadn’t booked any accommodation before we arrived there, as it is impossible to book nearly any of the budget bungalows over the internet (many even by phone!). We had read you just need to turn up as early as you can and cross your fingers there will be availability.
Our boat dropped us off at Coral Bay where we had initially planned to scour for a cheap room, however upon chatting to a fellow backpacker on the beach we were informed that the accommodation was cheaper over on the other side of the island on Long Beach, so we trudged with our packs up and over the rugged path in the scorching midday sun. Oh, the joys of backpacking…
The Perhentian Islands are known for being one of the cheapest places in the world for diving, with very affordable rates on PADI Open Water courses, etc. However, when it comes to accommodation, its safe to say the Perhentian Islands are not cheap.
Despite the monsoon season looming thus the island being quieter than usual, we still walked between quite a few accommodation options before finding one with availability that suited our budget, though perhaps a little more rustic than we would have liked.
For our basic double room with fan, mosquito net, cold shower, dim lighting and a rather rusty toilet we paid a rather astronomical 55 ringgit a night ($21 NZD). With electricity only available in the evenings and nights, it was stifling hot so we quickly dumped our bags and walked the couple of minutes back down the, er, litter-ridden and stagnant-water odoured path to the beach.
We spent a couple of hours lazing on the beach, indispersed with dips into the warm water.
(Thanks Cleo for the journal and awesome pen!)
Later we headed back to our room and while chilling out on our little porch, creeping out from underneath the next-door balcony appears an enormous monitor lizard! Enormous as in almost the size of a crocodile, I'm not kidding! We were sure to take a headlamp with us when we headed out for dinner that night, as tripping over a giant monitor lizard in the dark would have been less than ideal.
By day two, after a night of very little sleep due to a certain next-door neighbour's all-night drinking session, I was struggling to connect with the allure of this island that I had expected so much.
We had already spent hours at the beach, and we could only drink so many mango smoothies (which were really expensive on the Perhentian Islands!) to pass the time. I'm the first to admit I suck at doing nothing, lying on a beach included, so to put it bluntly, after a few hours of beach time I was bored. I can't just sit and dwell in my own thoughts, I need things to see and do! Not to mention with the monsoon season looming we were often greeted with unwelcome rain, forcing us indoors.
On our second day we bumped into a friendly German couple we had met a few days ago in Kota Bahru (where we flew from Singapore). We joined them for lunch and mentioned we were feeling a bit blah about Perhentian Kecil. They raved about where they were staying on Perhentian Besar, and said it was much nicer than Kecil. We were all keen to do some snorkelling so decided the following day Alan and I would check out of our current accommodation, get a taxi boat over to Besar, join them on a snorkelling trip and then hunt for some new accommodation on that island instead.
We woke up the next morning to one of the most perfect days we had seen yet, and happily boarded a taxi boat for the 15 minute ride over to Perhentian Besar.
Our snorkelling trip was absolutely incredible, and I'm kicking myself for not having an underwater camera!
Those of you who know me well, will know that I'm perhaps not the biggest fan of fish being all up in my grill. I'm happy to observe from afar but if they are swishing all around my face its not my favourite place to be. Also, uh, minor shark-phobia.
But this snorkelling experience was different! Somehow I didn't mind the fish all flapping around me, because we SWAM WITH TURTLES.
We dove down deep and swam beside the turtles, as they slowly glided to the surface for some air, before descending back down into the depths below. It was one of the most incredible experiences, I still get a rush of excitement whenever I think about it (like right now). Despite not loving the Perhentian Islands, this remains one of my favourite life experiences to date.
We also saw lots of different kinds of tropical fish, including clownfish (Nemo!) that bounced continually into Alan's mask defending their space, and a couple of enormous humphead parrotfish that are almost the size of a person! Seriously - look!
A few hours later our snorkelling trip was over and as we sped back to Perhentian Besar the beautiful day disintegrated and the rain started bucketing down. After a very wet wander up and down the beach, it became obvious to Alan and I that we could not justify the cost of any of the accommodation there, so in our completely drenched state we said goodbye to our new friends and jumped into a taxi boat, boosting it back to Perhentian Kecil.
In our brief search for accommodation the day earlier, we had come across Senja Bay Resort in Coral Bay, where a more spacious and relatively clean room was available for only 50 ringgit (5 ringgit less than the place we'd stayed earlier). Despite a lingering odour of stagnant water seeping up from beneath the floorboards, it served us well enough for another three nights.
We spent our remaining days demolishing books on the kindle, wandering up and down the island's beaches, and eating more than we needed because - let's be honest - we all know eating is an excellent way to pass time.
There is no mistake that the Perhentian Islands are beautiful, but they are not the postcard-perfect paradise I had imagined. It felt quite dirty and unkempt, with plenty of trash on the paths (which we found quite unusual for Malaysia) and abandoned building sites, Combined with poor value accommodation, Alan and I agree that our overall perception of the Perhentian Islands was average - we neither loved them or hated them.
The Perhentian Islands may be the perfect destination for you if your primary goals are disconnecting, relaxation and book-reading. Or if you're into diving and snorkelling, however unless you're doing a course you're probably not going to want to fork out $$ for a trip every single day. I would certainly not negate the fact that these islands boast some fantastic diving if thats your thing, and I can vouch for the snorkelling being rather impressive (did I mention we swam with TURTLES!?).
In my opinion - as a non-diver, occasional snorkeller, and one of those annoying people who loves lying on the beach for all of half an hour before moving onto the next activity - five nights on the Perhentian Islands was more than enough, though I probably could have easily got away with just three.
The Perhentian Islands may be paradise for some, but not for me. And I’m okay with that.
Have you ever built your expectations up and been underwhelmed by a destination?