Perhentian Islands: Malaysia’s hidden treasure

Evergreen, Malaysia / Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Coral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

When I think of Malaysia my thoughts do not turn to tropical islands. By virtue of having spent almost all of my Malaysian time in Kuala Lumpur, I think of big capital cities, often choking traffic and – admittedly – excellent food. I suspect this is the same for many visitors to south-east Asia, and it is certainly true that of all the countries in the region Malaysia is frequently and unfairly overlooked in favour of the more obvious desert-island highlights of Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

But an hour’s flight from KL and then a little further by taxi and boat lays some of the most beautiful coastal scenery I have yet seen in south-east Asia. Genuinely clear water, pristine white sand and a real island feel. True, the Perhentian islands are no longer the back of beyond, and they’ve been on the traveller circuit for at least a couple of decades – but they are still somewhere that has a throw-off-your shackles, laid-back ambience that’s ever harder to come by elsewhere.

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Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

The Perhentians are two main islands, Kecil (‘small’ in Malaysian) and Besar (‘large’), as well as a scattering of yet smaller uninhabited islets. My recent foray took me only to Kecil, billed often as the younger and more backpacker-friendly, cheaper (though still comparatively expensive) and more boisterous, party-friendly island. Besar, by contrast, is squarely aimed at families, with a lower-key scene and more comfortable and luxurious, more expensive lodgings.

Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

But in truth, Kecil itself is also quiet and chilled. Ignore references to Kecil as Malaysia’s answer to Koh Pha Ngan, the full moon party haven in the south of Thailand – it just isn’t. Even on Long Beach, supposedly the island’s party central, there is a slow-paced, sit-back-in-the -sand-and-swig-your-beer kind of atmosphere. What you won’t find is people dancing on tables, drinking out of buckets and limbo-ing beneath burning ropes.

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Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

Long Beach – though not jaw-dropping in length – is Kecil’s showcase white-sand beach, and there is no denying its beauty. As a result it is also the most popular, and it has its share of guest houses, bars and food shacks running from one end to the other. But again, put side-by-side with just about any popular island in Thailand’s south, it seems docile. In particular the piles of discarded rubbish that I had read about, and which had led me to cancel my booking at one Long Beach resort in particular, weren’t in evidence. The southern end especially, towards the pier and away from the parasols in the opposite direction, is an open expanse of powdery sand. Even the pier, with the potential to wreck the view, is thoughtfully kept to the side and in fact attractively frames the location.

Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

These islands are known for their diving and snorkelling opportunities, and apart from these the chief activities are swimming and beach-bumming. Trips to do both can be picked up from just about anywhere and rewarding snorkelling is easily possible right off the beach, particularly at the aptly-named Coral Bay – just over the headland from Long Beach by a ten-minute well-trodden and signposted path (in the opposite direction head through Ombak resort and out past Ewan’s). Though the same coral and plenty of rocks make Coral Bay relatively unpleasant for swimming, a snorkel out from the southern end of the beach near Senja resort as far as the small jetty affords some pleasing underwater sightseeing.

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Coral Beach, Perhentian Kecil

Long Beach is much better for swimming and lounging in the water, given its shallow sandy drop-off, though both beaches have frustratingly ubiquitous and sharp mental boat anchors sticking out of the sand, both above and below water level – keep an eye out, especially by darkness. Some, but not nearly all, have empty plastic water bottles slipped over the top to make them more easily visible and presumably to momentarily delay the stabbing if you do happen to step on one. Of the two beaches, while Long Beach is far from raucous it is noticeably busier than Coral Bay, which has ever so slightly more of a secluded feel to it. In any case, they are so close to each other that it’s easy to switch between them.

Roti Canai at Senja Resort, Coral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

There is sadly no getting around the fact that the food on the Perhentians is wholly unimpressive. While edible, it is overpriced compared to elsewhere in Malaysia and suicidally dull – expect menus that read pretty much identically at just about every spot you try. The majority of eateries are the restaurant arm of beachfront guest houses, and their tourist-oriented dishes are a poor attempt at mock Malaysian cuisine: lots of stir-fried beef, chicken and seafood with various chilli pastes and sauces, but next to no real flavour or inspiration. Fried rice costs in the region of 10 ringgit and western breakfasts are predictably expensive – the cheaper Malaysian breakfast favourite of roti canai, roti bread with curry sauce, is more affordable (and widely available) at a standard 4 ringgit but still at least a couple of times more expensive than elsewhere in the country.

Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

Most of the joints on the beach front run nightly barbecues, costing 20 ringgit for a cut of fish, squid, chicken or beef with a choice of sauce plus a small jacket potato, coleslaw-like salad, a single slice of watermelon and – bizarrely – a slice of banana cake. Some places offer this with a drink – typically rose cordial – making it slightly better value, but on the whole, while the fish is good the overall dish is very mediocre. Beer, vodka and whisky are available at a couple of spots along the beach, including from a cool box between Mama’s and Amelia’s. Prices at Ewan’s – which doesn’t offer barbecues, and is behind Ombak on the path to Long Beach from Coral Bay – are mildly lower than elsewhere.

Over on Long Beach, a pleasant beach bar gets going in the evenings at the very front of Matahari Huts – there are tables further in and closer to the resort, but the real draw is the log tables and straw mats right on the sand. A bamboo thatch bar completes the tropical setting – hell, you could be in the Caribbean here – and serves up a simple range of well-mixed cocktails around the 15 ringgit mark plus cans of beer at 9 ringgit. Again, don’t expect party central – this may be the livelier of the two islands, and this may be the liveliest of its beaches, but the scene here is low-key and much more about laying back and soaking up the nighttime sea breeze to a few Bob Marley tunes than downing buckets and dancing till dawn. There is a nightly fire show, but it has to be said that it is wildly unimpressive and pales in comparison to the likes of Thailand’s Koh Samet and Koh Pha Ngan – basically it’s one fat and mildly drunk looking old man hobbling around and swigging alcohol, then breathing fire. He did this about ten times before seemingly giving up and calling it a night.

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Seafood barbecue at Mama's, Coral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

Among the cheapest rooms on Coral Bay are at Aur Bay, set behind Mama’s restaurant at the north end of the beach. The setting could be beautiful – a peaceful and relatively lush garden with hibiscus flowers – but the rear half is a bit more of a bomb site, with piles of discarded sand bags and other building materials; it looks as though they are continuing to upgrade some of the rooms. On the plus side the mango trees have occasional low-hanging fruit just asking to be picked! Expect to see two-foot long lizards emerge from under the rooms and slug their way across from one side of the garden to the other.

Lizard at Aur Bay, Coral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

Double rooms come in at 30 ringgit, with an extra 20 ringgit charge to squeeze in another person (though don’t expect an extra bed to be provided). Rooms are basic and fan-cooled, with somewhat worn mosquito nets over very soft mattresses; so soft in fact that the hard wooden base below can be felt through it. Bathrooms have cold water showers and non-flush toilets with buckets; note that there are no toilet hoses, so bring your own toilet paper (and either use the bin or hope that you don’t block up the entire island’s waste pipes!) or it’s a hand and bucket job.

RECOMMENDED: Check Agoda’s rates on the Perhentian Islands

Aur Bay, Coral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

The rooms at Aur Bay contain no plug sockets but devices can be charged at reception – electricity is available from late afternoon until morning, with the occasional unexpected gap of an hour or so. Nor are blankets or towels provided, the latter seeming common in Malaysia, but thin ones clearly stolen from airlines (our two still bore Emirates tags!) are available for rent for the duration of your stay for a 30 ringgit charge. The reception area also has a small selection of shower gels, talcum powder and so on. Overall the place has a very relaxed set-up; just pay for your first night and then seemingly check out when you please. Limited English is spoken by the owners though the small child who lurks around speaks much more.

Other options include Butterfly – a DIY guest house with stunning views and rooms that practically hang off the cliffs, where you check yourself in on a walk-in basis for 70 ringgit (though when I visited a helpful man was on hand to advise that all the rooms were full, but that we could book ahead for the following day if we paid ahead) and Ombak, a dive resort with fancier rooms, the beach’s most expensive and most varied food options and nightly film screenings in their attractive restaurant and bar. Their cocktails in particular are pricey, around the 20-25 ringgit mark.

6 Replies to “Perhentian Islands: Malaysia’s hidden treasure”

  1. Agreed, the food sucked. I stayed at Ombak. I did one night in a private room because the dorms weren’t available. Then for the rest of time, I stayed in the dorm which wasn’t that bad. The worst part was when they shut the water off.

    1. Thanks for the comment Melissa – how come they shut the water off? Was it every day? Just the dorms or the private rooms too? I expect electricity to go off in cheaper places, but perhaps not water! 🙂

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