Perhentian Islands – the Good and Bad

Perhentian Islands

SPEEDY GETAWAY: The bays of the Perhentians can be explored by boat. Pictures: Sara Greig

DARK clouds cast shadows over the sea and I watch the rain fall in the distance as it makes its way inland. The usually clear view out to Perhentian Besar has become a grey haze. It has been five days of intense sun on the Perhentian islands so for me rain is welcome. Although I do wonder if my wooden bungalow perched on the hillside overlooking the sea, with its gaps in between floorboards and DIY workmanship, will withstand the beating.

The rain rolls over the bungalow and pounds the tin roof showing its power. A friendly lizard quickly darts inside and takes shelter in between the wooden ceiling beams. Water streams inside dripping down one side of the wall and over the light switch, but other than a few leaks the worst passes quickly and it’s actually very exciting.

The Perhentian islands lay off the east coast of Malaysia and in good weather they are only a 40 minute boat ride away from the mainland. The Perhentians consist of two islands Besar, which means big and Kecil, meaning small. Besar has more resort style accommodation while Kecil, my home for the week, attracts backpackers with its bungalows and bars.

Kecil island is flanked by two main bays on its east and west shorelines; Long beach to the east and Coral bay (pictured below) on the west. Both have accommodation, restaurants and bars.  Long beach stays true to its name and is the bigger of the two with restaurants, bars and accommodation lining the beach and larger waves for surfing.  Coral Bay  is smaller and quieter but still has everything you need. The two beaches are separated by a 10 minute walk across the island so no matter where you stay you can easily enjoy both.

My partner and I are staying at Bintang View Bungalows, technically on Long Beach but because it is on a hillside we have the benefit of being away from the loud music coming from the beach bars at night and Coral bay is just over the hill.

Perhentian Islands

It is 2pm by the time the weather clears up and I leave the damp bungalow. My partner Mark thinks now is the best time to surf as the rain has brought in larger waves on Long Beach. I’m reluctant but agree to watch. We walk down towards the surf passing coconut trees lined with rubbish. Around the bungalows that line the beach the white sands are dirtied with what looks like a landfill. For a conservation area it is a shame to see.

On Long Beach you can hire surfboards per hour – enough time to get a thrill and become exhausted. As it starts to drizzle I take shelter under the awning of a restaurant and watch Mark as he paddles hard but gets washed back to shore, the waves stronger than they look. He doesn’t get far and resorts in standing up and pulling the surfboard further out. I nervously laugh as Mark tries to catch a wave but they pull him under and he goes out of sight.

“Who are you watching?” A Malaysian man sitting next to me asks,  “Which one is your boyfriend?”

Mark stands out with his pale English skin against the dark waves.

“The white one,” I jokingly reply.

“Oh, he is still learning, he’ll get there.”

I just hope he makes it out in one piece and I’m less concerned whether he’ll catch a wave.

A local starts to help him and he manages to stand up. Just three seconds of success, but a thrill all the same.


“I keep swimming closer… with more curiosity than sense”


The next day we head down to Coral bay to start a snorkelling day tour. We are a group of ten and we pack into a small motor boat to explore the varying bays of the Perhentians.

“Nemo, nemo, you can see him here!” one of our guides remarks.

Our first stop is a small inlet where lots of fish are supposed to be. One by one we jump in, disturbing the calm waters. Whatever fish used to be here aren’t anymore. I float face down with mask in water and wait. A few colourful fish swim by not taking any notice of us. Large pieces of coral stick out like an underwater forest – it’s a fish playground.

Ahead I see someone pointing in the water and I quickly swim over. Two small clown fish dart around some coral and disappear – Nemo is not a fan of us. Back on the boat we are taken to Shark Point – an ominous name, but I’m told there is nothing to fear. I hesitate as people start jumping in but tell myself they are only big fish and are too small to eat humans, but what if you are a small human?

I quickly jump in and nervously peer into the sea. All is clear – just coral here.

“Maybe there are only a few about and they are nowhere near me,” I hope.

I head closer to the shore and spot two dark figures ahead. The biggest is more than a metre long. I keep swimming closer as if on autopilot with more curiosity than sense.

“Stay calm Sara, black tip sharks don’t eat people,” I think as I also imagine a fast forward action shot of me struggling to swim back to the boat as the sharks hunt me down.

I stop and hover watching them from more than five metres away. If they spot me I have a head start.  They gracefully swim past looking for food and I’m thankful they aren’t interested in me. A few more swim closely underneath me and after observing their swift tactical movements for a few moments longer it’s enough shark time for me.

The next stop is Turtle Point where we are all hoping to see a giant turtle. Other boats have already arrived and more than 40 people float around waiting. A man yells out that he’s spotted one and instantly everyone scrambles towards the prize. Flippers hit face more times than water. I stay back and look down to try and spot it. A guide swims below towards what looks to be just seaweed yet underneath a giant shell starts to appear. The turtle is more than a metre long and looks too heavy to move. It slowly begins to surface bringing with it a cloud of sand. A few people swim circling around it. The turtle calmly glides upwards oblivious to the surrounding crowds. Up on the surface people kick each other out of the way and some tourists who can’t swim bob about in their orange life jackets not knowing what to do. I look under again and the chaos is muted – it’s just me and the giant. It hits the surface and effortlessly paddles its heavy body away from the crowd – thankfully nobody kicks it.

Our last stop is Romantic Bay. A secluded golden beach that is ordained with pieces of coral. A tree is weighed down by plastic bottles, drift wood and coral pieces like an island Christmas tree. It has become tradition to tie washed up objects to it, possibly an action shared between lovers – romance lives on.

Perhentian Islands

Back on Long Beach, as the sun starts to go down generators, the only source of power on the island, come on with a vengeance and their annoying hum is hard avoided near most accommodation. A row of  “same same” beach restaurants have plastic chairs and tables on the sand and it is difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins.  Further along the beach a makeshift tent bar blasts out techno music trying to attract tourists – the punters will come later. A dreamy pink sky hangs over the sea, possibly a sign of another hot day ahead. The storm a couple of days before leaves no remnants as a clear silhouette of Perhentian Besar is cut out against the sky.

For more photos from Malaysia click here.

What are your thoughts?