Perhentian paradise: beach life on a Malaysian island

by Radford Lamb

Are you seeking sun, beaches, clear blue coral-filled water, £3 BBQ feasts and £7-a-night bungalows in paradise? Then I know just the place off the northeast coast of Malaysia...

Perhentian Kecil is the smaller of two islands located 20 km off the coast of northeastern Malaysia in the tropical waters of the South China Sea. Unlike nearby Redang, these two tropical paradises are not (yet!) overrun by package holiday-makers from Europe and China or the rowdy party crowd from Thailand further north.

Getting there

If coming from the Taman Negara rainforest (as most people seem to do), avoid the tempting offers for minibus packages and save yourself £15 by taking the Jungle Express Railway from Jarantut. Its schedule is haphazard at best but Jarantut has a few great Chinese restaurants close to the station serving dim sum for next to nothing, and you can stock up on vodka and Thai whisky from the small pharmacies on the main street for half the price of up north.

The journey itself cuts right through the rainforest and affords a spectacular sunset view of fluoro-pink hues against the lush green. There was also a surprisingly good feed of freshly fried rice in the dining car and a screening of Crank 2, which I couldn’t have sat through without the Malay dubbing and screeching laughter from the entire train staff at the mention or sight of boobs.

The train arrives in Kota Bharu; the boats to Perhentian leave from Kuala Besut a £6 taxi ride away. Kuala Besut is a small sleepy fishing village with a jetty full of sunburnt tourists piling on speedboats out to the islands. If you are not in a rush, spend a few hours walking around; the locals are curious and friendly and the restaurants by the groyne serve simple yet delicious spicy local fare for pennies.

The fast boats cost around £12 for a return ticket plus about a quid for a permit (which no one will tell you about until you are almost on the boat!).

The Perhentian Islands

Kecil caters to a younger, more budget-orientated crowd than its larger neighbor Besar. The island itself is long and thin, with no roads or mains electricity. There are two main beaches, Long Beach and Coral Bay. The bulk of the accommodation is scattered along these sandy strips, although there are several bays with smaller resorts. Long Beach is the busiest and most crowded stretch, but is still very laidback, with very little concrete in sight and accommodation ranging from around £3 a night for a simple dorm to £40 for an air-conditioned chalet.

Avoid the sheeple heading straight to Long Beach, and ask the boat driver to drop you off at Coral Bay. You will be greeted by crystal-clear water and a white stretch of sand backed by tropical green. Walking off the jetty, the first shop you will see is Gems Internet. Gem is a gem; use him for all your onward travel bookings, fishing advice, cold Tiger beers (£1) and internet (50p per hour).

Where to stay

Walking up the beach, you pass several chalets offering simple rooms with a shower and western toilet for about £10 a night (£5 for a dorm). Avoid the temptation to take the first one you see and head all the way to the end of the beach, past Senja (a more expensive hotel with air-con rooms overlooking the beach for £20-30 per night; they also have free internet if you eat there, and a good breakfast!) and head up the rocks towards what looks like an abandoned shed. This is the amazing Butterfly Chalet, eight or so wood cabins perched on the hill overlooking Coral Bay. They all come complete with self check-in (the guy that owns it comes round in his little boat at 5-7pm every day to collect money, etc), balconies, good showers, toilets and mosquito nets for £10 per night, or £7 for eight or more nights. You can purchase a hammock from Amelia shop for a fiver and set it up on the balcony to watch the days drift by.

Where to eat

The food on the island consists of simple Malay dishes and a whole gamut of western-style fare for all the boring homesick backpackers. The best options are roti for breakfast with Malay coffee (super-sweet and thick; £1), fried rice for lunch (50p) and the BBQ feasts for dinner. Amelia Restaurant does the best BBQ, with choices of crab, lobster, marlin, snapper, garfish, squid, barracuda and, my favourite, sweetlips, all cooked super-fresh on the coals by the beach, with a drink and rice for about £3. The fishing village on the tip of Kecil (a £4 boat taxi from Coral Bay, or a grueling hour trek through the jungle) has the best food on the island, serving local dishes like spicy chucks of fish with onion and chili and masak merah beef (red cooked beef) for a pound or two.

What to do

When the hammock gets boring, hire a snorkel for a pound a day (£4 to buy one!) and check out the amazing coral and marine life. Or for £10, you can hop on a boat for the day and check out several spots to see reef sharks and huge sea turtles close up and personal. The best operator is a guy called Leemie on Long Beach (his stall has a giant orange kayak in front of it). He will also take you out fishing for a few pounds - you can then eat your catch fresh on the beach!

The diving is also amazing, and PADI open-water courses cost around £130 from Turtle Bay Divers on Long Beach. One dive will set you back about £13. The visibility and marine life is breathtaking.

Go now!

There are rumors going around that the Malaysian government wants to concrete Coral Bay for an airstrip, kick out the locals (who run the whole island) and put in one massive three- or four-star resort. This would be a tragedy. Get in while the going's good!

Radford Lamb

Desmond left his dusty Australian backroad roots to travel South East Asia as a Photographer for several street press zines before finding himself the producer of 2 #1 Pop hits in Bangkok. Riding on this success he has travelled throughout Asia, Africa and Europe as an emissary for several wealthy Thai organisations. He currently is on assignment in London.