History and Geography

The Perhentian Islands -- Pulau Perhentian in Malay -- lie off the coast of northeartern Malaysia in the state of Terengganu, not far from the Thai border. The two main islands are Perhentian Besar ("Big Perhentian") and Perhentian Kecil ("Small Perhentian"). The small, uninhabited islands of Susu Dara, Seringgi and Rawa lie off Kecil. The Perhentians belong to Pulau Redang National Marine Park, which means that fishing, collecting coral and littering are strictly prohibited.

The name "perhentian" means "point to stop" in Malay, referring to their longstanding role as a waypoint for traders going between Bangkok and Malaysia. (The Perhentian Teksi signs you'll see all around Malaysia aren't for a single company, it just means "taxi stand"!) The islands have been sparsely inhabited by fishermen for hundreds of years, and only recently has tourism started to encroach on the scene.

The islands are often dubbed with superlatives like "the most beautiful place on Earth" or even simply "paradise", and at least for the nature lover this may well be true. Both islands feature miles and miles of white sand beach, and the reefs and crystalline water around the island are host to a wide variety of coral and other aquatic flora and fauna. The islands themselves are small and low, the interior being authentic tropical jungle with a few trails hacked in.

The islands shut down more or less completely during the monsoon season between November and February. High season is in the summer, and during Malaysian holidays and weekends the place can be packed to capacity.

Things to Do

The top attractions on Perhentian are thus sunning yourself on the beach, snorkeling and scuba diving -- there are a number of dive operations on both islands and prices are very low, with single dives available for as little as RM 60 with discounts for own gear, multiple dives, etc. (I recommend Turtle Bay Divers, which has a shop on both islands. Say hi to Taina!) Although there is now one (seriously overpriced) resort for jet set package tourists, the Perhentian Island Resort on Besar, most accommodation is in simple little beachside chalets that go for as low as 10 RM a night on Kecil's popular Long Beach (Pasir Panjang). Besar's accommodation tends to be a bit more classy, you'll probably have to fork out closer to RM 50 per chalet but that'll get you a few luxuries like included bathroom and a ceiling fan.

However, unlike some places on the other side of the border, do bear in mind that this paradise is a rather ascetic one: the state of Terengganu is strictly Islamic, which means that alcohol availability is limited, although most restaurants do sell beer for nearly RM 10 a can. In theory even bikinis are banned, although in practice this law is completely ignored and there is even a semi-official topless beach on Besar. On the other hand, Malaysia's zero-tolerance drug policy with mandatory death sentences for smuggling or dealing is no legal fiction, and it means that drugs are essentially non-existent. At the chalets, electricity is usually available only in the evening, if at all. Internet cafes, on the other hand, are rapidly sprouting up!

Getting There

Due to a near-total lack of infrastructure getting to the islands remains a somewhat cumbersome process, as there are no airstrips or real ports on the islands. Most people fly or take a bus to the mainland centers of Kota Bharu and Kuala Terengganu and then proceed by taxi (one hour from Kota Bharu, two from Kuala Terengganu) to the little fishing village of Kuala Besut. From Kuala Besut, fishing boats (RM20 one way, 60-90 min) and speedboats (RM40 one way, 30 min) ply to the Perhentians and back a number of times each day. Be warned: the boats are small and they cross on the open sea. While seasickness is unlikely due to the high speed, you may get a bit of a sore butt (hang on tight!) and you will get soaked with seawater. Protect your belongings and try to cross during the day, when the waves are usually at their lowest.

Getting Around

Travel between and in the islands is also by boat, the crossing between Kecil and Besar takes only around 15 minutes. A hop from one island to the other is around RM 10 a pop, while inter-island trips are around 5. The intrepid may also choose to try the trails that crisscross the islands, but be warned that it's a jungle out there and it feels like hiking in a steam bath full of exotic bugs.


Personal experience