Are the Perhentian Islands Still a Backpacker’s Paradise?
The answer to that question is complicated.
Halfway through my Asia trip, I decided that a beach stint was exactly what the doctor ordered. After some careful digging through my ten pound guidebook, the Perhentian Islands of Malaysia stuck in my mind. Crystal clear water, world-class snorkelling, and banana pancakes on the beach? This was something straight out of my dream journal. Sadly, my internet research told a different story.
My Google searches brought up recent reports of littered beaches, stoned tourists, and coral that had been destroyed by years of snorkellers standing on the reefs. A lot of these sites suggested that we skip the Perhentians all together and head for a more secluded spot, like Pulau Kapas.
Having heard reports of either total paradise or a washed-up tourist land, we decided to roll the dice and take our chances. Let me get this clear from the very beginning- I’m glad we did.
After a seriously exhausting night bus from Kuala Lumpur, I was ready to dig my toes in the sand and a pile of Kway Teow into my mouth. When our ferry boat pulled into the Coral Beach jetty on Perhentian Kecil, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. This brings me to my first point- location is everything.
The Perhentians are divided into two major islands: Kecil and Besar. Besar is known as the larger and more populated island, home to more resorts and creature comforts, and typically a larger price tag to match. I never made it to Besar, so I can’t personally vouch for what it has to offer. Kecil is Besar’s rebellious younger sibling- smaller with a bit of an edge. Here you’ll find budget bungalows, low-key restaurants on the beach, and even a few beach bars serving alcohol, which is fairly rare in Malaysia outside of KL. Cheap and boozy happens to be my favourite combination, so of course we put up shop on Kecil.
The Path of Least Resistance
There are a few resorts that have their own stretch of private beach, but for the most part your options for accommodation will be on Long Beach and Coral Bay. While still mellow, Long Beach is known for being the party-forward side of the island, covered in restaurants, beach hut bars and shisha shops with cushions on the beach. You won’t find any Thailand-style ragers here, but there is more or less a party vibe. The beach is also known for having softer sand and being overall nicer, so the majority of backpackers wind up there. When we asked the ferry driver to take us to Coral Bay instead of Long Beach, I could visibly see the confusion on people’s faces. It was like I had said that Beyonce is okay, but I like Michelle Williams better. Long Beach is the place to be, but my gut (and four hours of carefully curated research) told me that we should steer clear.
Turns out my gut is good for something other than consuming mass amounts of cheetos. While Coral Bay may have a few rocks here and there and less action than it’s neighbour, the glowing turquoise bay was as calm as a bathtub on a daily basis and the beach is lined with palm trees instead of the trash found on Long Beach. It was fun crossing the island for a night of drinks and fireshows, but if we had stayed on Long Beach I know we wouldn’t have enjoyed our stay nearly as much. The path to the beach was lined with garbage that spilled into the sand and it had a techno-tourist vibe that takes away the relaxation of the place. If you’re doing the Perhentions, do it Coral Bay style.
Side Note: The water in Coral Bay, otherwise heavenly, is filled with giant sea slugs. They are not the least bit harmful, but when you step on them that squishiness is destined to haunt your dreams for months to come. I’m begging you, watch where you step people.
Budget or Standards: Pick One
Big shocker- my standards were kicked to the curb pretty quick. Obviously the Perhentians are not going to cost you an arm and a leg, but you definitely cannot expect typical Malaysian prices if you want to sleep in a room without a gecko family living in the wall.
No, that is not a weird Canadian expression. There was a literal family of oversized reptiles living in the walls of my bungalow, and they were very cheeky about sneaking in to watch you shower. So on that note, I would recommend that you budget a little more for accommodation. However, if you’re one with the lizards, you can wake up to this view for $12.
This obviously applies to pretty much everything on the island, so either hit the ATM before you land or prepare yourself for a serious fried-rice induced bloat.
Learn to Share
Let me explain this one in an anecdote. I had heard that despite the tourist-induced damage to the reefs, the snorkelling in the Perhentians was still beautiful. Honestly, the snorkel trip was worth it for the beautiful boat trip through the islands alone, but we also did see some pretty cool sea life. It was my first time seeing sharks and Nemo’s (I will never use their real name), and some of the more isolated reef was still extremely pretty. This experience would have been about ten times better if all of the tours on the islands coordinated so that there weren’t 70 tourists at each spot when you arrive. So as for the anecdote I promised, our guide says he is taking us to a spot where he guarantees we will see a sea turtle. As advertised, we did see a single sea turtle… being hoarded by about 100 tourists. For some reason, the majority of these tourists did not know how to swim but decided to strap on a lifejacket and give it the ol’ college try anyways. So, I optimistically pop my head into the water, sneak a 3 second glance of the turtle, and proceed to get kicked in the face multiple times by potential drown risks. MULTIPLE. FACE. KICKS. The alleged face-kickers then proceed to grab on to my lifejacket to try to prevent themselves from sinking, making for a lovely saltwater cocktail delivered straight to my lungs. I made it back to the boat just in time to watch the tourists confront the breaching turtle with selfie sticks, including our very own guide. I poured myself another glass of wine just reliving that moment, so I digress.
Moral: Be prepared to share the island with plenty of tourists, many of which will become mortal enemies.
Takeaway: A snorkel does not guarantee sufficient oxygen.
A lot of what I’ve said about the Perhentians comes off as negative, but they are just realities that you have to be okay with if you’re going to have a good time here. Despite all of these little setbacks and oddities, I still thoroughly enjoyed my time here and the beauty of Perhentian Kecil is honestly indisputable. Waking up perched on a cliff overlooking the clearest water I have ever seen was worth the gecko roommates, the face injuries, and maybe even the feeling of a sea slug between my toes.