In July, I made a return visit to Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands some two years since my first time there. These islands, just a short flight from Kuala Lumpur followed by a taxi and speedboat connection, have been well and truly on the tourist radar for decades, but there’s no denying they still have a certain laid-back, windswept charm that keeps them appealing. The Perhentians are also a popular destination for divers to take PADI courses and try out some of the accessible yet rewarding dive sites to be found off the islands.
When I first visited in 2014, the Perhentians stunned me. I was taken aback by their simple beauty, and the squeaky, shiny white sand and clear waters – particularly on stretches like Long Beach, which might be busy and popular but is also undeniably beautiful – made these islands’ beaches possibly the most beautiful I had seen.
Unfortunately for the Perhentian Islands, since then I have visited Cambodia’s Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem islands, and found something that outranks even the Perhentians in the beauty stakes. So it was perhaps inevitable that when returning to the Perhentians this year I would struggle to be as mightily impressed as I was originally.
That’s not their fault. They are almost indisputably less jaw-droppingly beautiful, and less untouched, than Koh Rong Samloem, but equally indisputable is the fact that they retain a certain rugged windswept gorgeousness, and the distinct laid-back vibe to the place is also a big part of its appeal.
One mistake that we made on our first visit to the Perhentians, travelling on something of a tight budget, was to stick to just Perhentian Kecil’s Coral Bay, where we were staying and have stayed again this time, and nearby Long Beach. Perhaps it’s obvious, but really seeing these islands and getting the best feel for them means heading out to other beaches and islands – easily and relatively inexpensively done by taxi boat.
A highlight of this trip has been our quick jaunt to Adam & Eve Beach, a five-minute (RM10 per person each way) hop a little way around the headland to the north of Coral Bay. We had this gorgeous white-sand bay all to ourselves; there’s just enough shade to make it pleasant, and some impressive snorkelling to be had even in the shallows right off the beach.
Of course, it’s just one of a number of impressive and relatively easily accessible bays on both Perhentian Kecil and Besar, but getting off the tourist-thronged beaches (even though they themselves are relatively quiet by wider Southeast Asian standards) and achieving a touch of seclusion really brings a visit to the Perhentians into its own.
What also struck me on this visit was the astounding crappiness of the food. This was something I had remarked on when we visited before, and I am not the only one to have pointed it out. I have said to others on numerous occasions that it is a sign of just how stunning the Perhentians are that someone as food-obsessed as me is willing to overlook the utter lack of any decent food in order to spend a few days taking in the islands’ raw beauty. But after the first few days of this most recent visit, I found myself beginning to feel less forgiving of this, and beginning to regret that I might not be all that keen on making a third pilgrimage here.
Part of this extended beyond just the food scene itself for, while the food at almost every eatery is both overpriced and well and truly awful, the service on the whole is dreadful, too. The unfortunate side effect of that laid-back vibe seems to be that no-one in the majority of the islands’ restaurants seems to give two hoots about their customers. It’s the age-old problem of restaurateurs and waiting staff seemingly being there for their own amusement rather than to deliver any semblance of service to those paying their wages.
And so it is that we’ve endured painful dining experiences, including at Ombak Dive Resort – our base for this trip, and seemingly the most on-the-ball place on Coral Bay, yet somewhere where we’ve waited easily half an hour for a menu and then another half an hour before someone has actually come back to collect our order; where we’ve had persistently smile-less service, save the odd ‘hey bro’ (mostly while trying to get us inside to eat) in an overly testosterone-fuelled restaurant staffed exclusively by male waiters; and where we’ve been given the bill fairly promptly, but then left hanging for another half hour waiting for someone to come and get the money, before giving up, leaving the exact change, and walking out.
Perhaps worse, it’s somewhere that the waiters seem to think flirting creepily with female customers is a core part of their job. We’ve seen pairs of Caucasian girls get far smilier, friendlier – though, it has to be said, not often much more competent – service, and watched staff far outstay their welcome at the side of tables, making the same old and flat jokes as customers cringeworthily just about manage to put up with them.
Wifi is seemingly another area where customers are secondary to everything else. It’s nobody here’s fault that internet access on these islands is patchy – though some businesses seem to do a better job than others of making their connections work – and if I didn’t have work to keep on top of while here then I might find it a blessing. And I get that it makes business sense to ensure as many people as possible are actually buying something from your restaurant before you let them use the wifi.
But changing the password EVERY SINGLE DAY seems overly paranoid, and ends up serving as nothing but an annoyance to the kind of genuine customers you’re trying to get through the door. That’s especially true at a hotel or guest house (Ombak, I’m looking at you again, though restaurants like Ewan’s Place are also guilty), where we’ve essentially already paid for the internet access as part of our room rate, where the daily password isn’t posted anywhere that it’s easy to see, and where your device doesn’t actually kick you off the network because the password is no longer valid, but instead returns a ‘no internet connection’ message that makes you think the internet is bawked (because it frequently is) rather than the password having been changed.
Given all of this, it seemed like something of a god-sent answer to my persistent whining that we stumbled across Crocodile Rock, a new entrant on Coral Bay since our previous visit, which we were told has now been open for around a year. This ‘beach bistro’, as it styles itself, is an utter breath of fresh air amid the dearth of decent food and total disregard for service elsewhere.
Crocodile Rock is a simple but stylish raised wooden hut on the beachfront, with a handful of tables under cover inside and a smattering of low tables and green beanbags spreading out from the centre under the shade of palm trees right on the sand. This relaxed yet sophisticated-feeling spot serves up a thoughtful menu of brilliantly executed, predominantly Mediterranean dishes – pasta, pizzas, gnocchi, salads, burgers – plus a short selection of juices and soft drinks, coffees, and desserts. It’s a pity there’s no local Malay food available and, much as I respect the Muslim owner’s decision not to sell alcohol, that’s also a pity (simply because it would be an utterly perfect spot for a few beachside sundowner cocktails) and something I hope doesn’t affect the restaurant’s long-term viability – at the moment it seems busier with daytime beach bums sipping on juices than it does of an evening.
With a mellow soundtrack and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere that’s a hundred times classier than any of the other places we’ve seen so far – epitomised by the small international group of travellers chatting away on the first night we came, one of whom later cranked up the music a notch and had an impromptu dance in the middle of the restaurant – it’s staffed by a mix of friendly local guys, a lovely French lady, and the forever topless elderly local owner.
Some might decry it as a sign of Coral Bay’s move away from backpacker flop houses to something resembling gentrification, but frankly this is the kind of place these islands are screaming out for, and they need plenty more of them yet. In fact, it amazes me that it’s taken this long for someone to figure out that a restaurant conceptualised with a little passion, and serving food that’s worth getting excited about, has the potential to do well here. Yes, some dishes and drinks are a little more expensive at Crocodile Rock than elsewhere, but plenty more are similarly priced or even less expensive, and yet what comes out of the kitchen is far superior. I for one am head over heels in love with place, and if they were to open up a few guest rooms out the back, I would stay here in a heartbeat.
Getting to the Perhentian Islands from Kota Bharu airport or town
A final logistical note – getting to the Perhentians can be relatively expensive for solo travellers, since it usually involves a RM78 taxi from Kota Bharu airport to the pier in Kuala Besut (RM75 in the opposite direction), and that’s before the RM70 return boat fare. So it’s worth pointing out that travel agents close to the pier in Kuala Besut now run minivan services for RM25 per person to either Kota Bharu town or its airport. That said, if you can group together just a couple more people. then sharing a taxi is both cheaper and more convenient.