15 July 2019.
Without a doubt, the Perhentian Islands were my favourite stop in Malaysia.
They’re the kind of place where you come for a few days and stay for a week, where barefoot living is easily embraced and all concept of time is quickly lost, where you can fill your days with adventure, be it exploring the jungle, diving a sunken wreck or kayaking between secluded coves, or let the hours slip away in a state of blissful relaxation doing nothing more than drifting between powdery white sand and the calm crystal waters that wrap around the islands.
For me, the Perhentian Islands were nothing short of idyllic and felt a world away from the overdevelopment that plagues much of South East Asia’s island hotspots. Internet is still limited to a few restaurants and resorts, electricity is only switched on as the sunlight melts away, untamed jungle blankets the hillsides and the many beaches that dot the coastline remain wonderfully uncrowded.
I spent a week on this island paradise, only managing to tear myself away when my pile of cash had been whittled down to the last 100 ringgit. As I zoomed away, bouncing across the waves and watching the jungle-covered mounds growing smaller on the horizon, I had already begun to plot my return.
Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Perhentian Islands, including the best ways to spend your time, what to budget and where to dive, eat and stay.
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Really, getting to the Perhentian Islands is simple, but there are a couple of different options depending on how much time you’ve got and your budget.
From most cities in Malaysia, it’s easy to get a bus to Kuala Besut where the ferries for the Perhentian Islands depart. Alternatively, it’s also possible to fly to Kota Bharu and take a bus or taxi to Kuala Besut located just an hour away.
See this guide for all the details on how to reach the Perhentian Islands.
Beach Bumming On Perhentian Kecil
Grab a book, your towel and an umbrella and park yourself on the pearly white arch that is Long Beach.
Having spent far too little time on beaches in South East Asia, emerging through the trees to see this postcard-perfect spot unfold beneath my feet brought a stupidly big grin to my face. It was love at first sight and I proceeded to spend virtually every afternoon here sprawled out on the sand, churning through my podcast list, thumbing through new books and taking long delicious swims on this impossibly beautiful strip of beach. Being low season, the boats and crowds were few and it was just the kind of lazy afternoon living I had been craving.
You can rent umbrellas at Long Beach for just 10RM (€2.20) for the day to offer some reprieve from the scorching sun.
For those looking for a more secluded patch of sand, Perhentian Kecil is home to some seriously pretty little beaches.
To the north, you’ll find Adam and Eve Beach, Turtle Beach and D’Lagoon which can all be accessed via the rocky trail leading uphill behind Long Beach. Romantic Beach is another lovely spot just north of Coral Bay which requires a rocky scramble along the coast. To the south, follow the paved jungle trail to find Rainforest, Mira and Petani Beaches.
If you’re not up for the walk, it’s also possible to reach any of these beaches by boat – just ask at any of the shops or tour operators on Coral Bay or Long Beach.
On Perhentian Besar, many of the beaches are claimed by the resorts but Turtle Beach on the north of the island is meant to be spectacular and, unsurprisingly, a great spot to see turtles.
Dive or Snorkel
Thailand’s Koh Tao may have long held the crown as the cheap place to dive in Asia, but I’m pretty sure the Perhentian Islands would give it a damn good run for its money. For fun, easy and fuss-free diving, it’s a great place to see some beautiful marine life and a few cool wrecks without having to worry about emptying your pockets.
Dive courses here are among the cheapest in the world, while single tank dives go for around €20 with discounts available for multiple dives and off-season visits. See more on my favourite dive sites below.
If you’re not diving, snorkelling is another fantastic way to spend the day with many pockets of reef found right off the beach. Near the rocks around the Long Beach Jetty and the shelf off of D’Lagoon are both good places to begin with beautiful sun-drenched coral and plenty of marine life.
To make a day of it, join a half or full-day snorkelling trip which will take you to several spots around the islands for around 50RM (€11).
Always be cautious of boats when you’re in the water, especially in high season when traffic increases considerably. Try to use a brightly coloured flotation device if possible to warn them of your presence.
Explore The Island By Kayak
I had big plans for kayaking around the island, admiring the jungle from afar, stopping in at hidden coves and jumping in for a snorkel at every opportunity.
But then, well, I found the beach, got far too comfortable and it became near impossible to tear myself away. If you’re in need of something more energetic, kayaking is a fun way to explore and visit the many remote and beautiful beaches that pepper Perhentian Kecil’s coastline.
Kayaks can be rented by the hour (25RM, €5.50) or the day (60RM, €13) from either Long Beach or Coral Bay.
Walk The Forest Trails For The Best Views
When it’s so humid that just walking a few steps is enough to have you dripping from head to toe, traipsing through the jungle is hardly the first activity that springs to mind, but it’s actually a great way to escape the island’s tourist bubble and experience it from a very different perspective.
Between Coral Bay and Long Beach, a path that melds from perfectly paved to broken and wildly overgrown hugs the southern coastline, weaving through dense jungle, across empty beaches and amongst the Fisherman’s Village at the furthest point.
It takes about 2 hours to walk the 6km loop, though you’ll certainly want to allow more time to stop at the beaches along the way. The path seriously deteriorates along the final stretch to Long Beach so take care and watch your step.
Alternatively, take the 20-minute walk behind Long Beach to the wind turbines perched on top of the hill and a short way down the other side for stunning views over the iridescent blue bay that calls you in for yet another dip. This trail will also lead you to all of the island’s northern beaches.
The path is steep and dusty so consider wearing something more sturdy than flipflops. The stairs on the far side of the hill are also pretty banged up and you can’t go far before they become downright dangerous, but the views are gorgeous.
Visit the Fisherman’s Village
While many visitors won’t venture any further than Coral Bay, Long Beach and the rough path that joins them, the south of the island offers up an entirely different experience.
Far from the tourist buzz, the Fisherman’s Village is where local life plods on, where children ride their bikes along sandy paths, boats whizz to and from the jetty and your presence is met with curious stares. At the water’s edge, a silver mosque stands proud, tiny cafes are strung along the main drag and prices are a fraction of what you’ll find elsewhere on the island.
There’s not a great deal to see or do here, but a visit offers up a new perspective of life on the island, and a glimpse at what it may have felt like before the tourist trade took off.
The Perhentian Islands play host to a number of beautiful dive sites, but there are three that are generally renowned as the best in the area.
Tokong Laut/Tukun Laut
Also known as ‘The Pinnacle’ or ‘Temple of the Sea’, this steep rocky outcrop sits off the north-west side of Perhentian Kecil and is simply bursting with marine life. Expect to see plenty of blue-spotted rays, giant trevally, groupers, bamboo sharks, giant pufferfish, and several species of moray eel. The corals surrounding the pinnacle are also beautiful, especially when rippled in bright sunlight. A firm favourite for diving in the Perhentian Islands and a must-visit in the area.
T3 or Terumbu Tiga
Located off the south-east coast of Perhentian Besar, T3, or ‘The Three Brothers’, is another much-loved dive site and was my favourite of the three. The enormous boulders scattered across the area are rich in life and you can expect to see turtles and rays along with plenty of small critters like nudibranchs, pipefish and yellow boxfish. If you’re lucky, you may spot some bumphead parrotfish, as well as other larger pelagics. Small caves and swim-throughs also make this a fun place to explore.
This freighter ship sank back in 2000 and while the reef is still developing slowly, the wreck houses plenty of bigger creatures. Along with bamboo sharks, giant pufferfish, squid, scorpionfish, moonfish and grouper, we were lucky enough to see a trio of cuttlefish fighting over a lone female. The wreck sits about halfway to the mainland where it bears the brunt of bad weather and big swell meaning visibility isn’t always great and dives may be cancelled if a storm moves in.
Who To Dive With
There is no shortage of highly-rated dive shops in the Perhentians but I went with Anti Gravity Divers in Coral Bay and would happily recommend them.
The whole team was welcoming and friendly from the minute you arrive, equipment was in excellent condition, groups are kept small, you’re always paired with divers of a similar ability and they offer boat pickup for divers staying at any of the beaches that are further afield. There’s also free tea, coffee and drinking water any time which is a nice touch.
Dive rates are very competitive with discounts available the more dives you do. Payments via Paypal (with a 5% charge) are also accepted if you happen to run out of cash.
No ATMs | These days, some dive shops and large resorts do accept credit cards at no extra charge or PayPal transfers with a hefty 5% fee, but for the most part, you’ll need to pay for everything in cash. I’d suggest working out a generous daily budget (more on that later) and then adding a substantial amount of ‘just-in-case’ cash because chances are, you’ll be staying longer than you planned.
Be mindful of your plastic consumption | Like many places in South East Asia, waste management is a huge issue in the Perhentians. It’s not uncommon to see smoke climbing from the forests as piles of trash are burnt between the trees or rubbish strewn along the pathways. Here more than ever it’s important to do your part to reduce your plastic consumption as much as possible – ask for no straw when ordering drinks, bring a reusable water bottle and refill wherever possible (there are plenty of spots on the island), avoid buying plastic bottled drinks and refuse plastic bags at the minimart.
Limited electricity | At most accommodations, electricity is confined to the evening and early morning between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m. While this is excellent for keeping the fan going all night while you’re asleep, it also means you can’t charge anything during the day.
Don’t forget Ramadan | Islamic culture may not seem as strong here as elsewhere in Malaysia, but Ramadan is still very much celebrated in the Perhentian Islands, often during May or June. Things are quieter than usual during this time, many restaurants adjust their opening hours and there’s a noticeable shift in local behaviour. While it’s absolutely fine to loll about in your swimwear when at the beach, consider covering up when ducking into a restaurant and especially if you plan to visit the Fisherman’s Village.
Bring snacks | If you’re on a tight budget, I’d suggest bringing a few snacks or supplies with you to save on eating out for every single meal. Kuala Besut is fairly useless in this department so consider buying what you’ll need in a major city before arriving.
Wifi is limited | No Wifi, No Worries… well, except when you’re halfway through the final season of Game Of Thrones and that just won’t do. Wifi is certainly available in the Perhentians, but often you need to go somewhere specifically to use it. Ewan’s Cafe, a short way from Coral Bay, is a reliable spot with a stable connection and decent speeds, but they change the password every day. Other resorts, like Senja and Ombak, use vouchers valid for a set period of time and are only given out when you reach a minimum spend.
Download Maps.Me | This handy, free offline maps app contains far more detail on the islands than Google Maps making it much more useful for finding secluded accommodation, remote beaches and jungle trails.
You’ll quickly find that everything on the Perhentian Islands is a fair bit more expensive than on the mainland and, considering there are no ATMs, this can make it rather hard to budget for. Here’s a basic guide of what you can expect to pay for all day-to-day essentials.
Accommodation | The cheapest possible option, out of season, will cost just 30RM per person, more realistically though you should expect to pay at least 70 to 100RM for a basic room. For anything slightly more luxurious, plan to pay upwards of 300 to 400RM. Unfortunately for solo travellers, rates are often charged per room rather than per person. Dorms are also rarely good value on their own but are usually provided free with any dive course. If you’re staying at any of the more expensive resorts, you may be able to pay by card in advance.
Meals | At local restaurants like Ewan’s and Amelia’s, you can get a filling and tasty meal for around 10RM to 15RM or an enormous smoothie for 8RM. At the more westernised restaurants, expect to pay at least 20RM to 40RM for food only.
Activities | Single dives cost around 90 to 100RM with discounts available for multiple dives. A snorkelling trip will set you back around 50RM while kayak rental will be around 60RM for the day. A beach umbrella at Long Beach will cost 10RM.
Transport | A return ferry ticket from Kuala Besut to the Perhentians is 70RM. Buses between Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Besut cost around 50 RM each way but I’d recommend buying this online so it doesn’t have to come out of your cash. I booked all my bus tickets using EasyBook. If you plan to visit any of the beaches by boat, plan to pay at least 10RM per trip.
Underwater camera | With so much time being spent in the water, don’t forget to bring a hardy, waterproof camera to capture every moment. The Olympus TG-6 is an excellent option for all water-based activities, like snorkelling and kayaking, and captures excellent wide-angle and macro shots both above and below the water. For diving, just add the the easy-to-use PT-059 Underwater Housing which extends its depth capabilities to 45m and supports external strobes and lens accessories.
Reef safe suncream | If you’re here to see the reef, you wouldn’t want the chemicals in your sunscreen to destroy it. Honestly, I’m still trying to find a brand of sunscreen that I love, but these are a few that are recommended: Stream2Sea, Sun Bum Mineral, Tropical Sands and Blue Lizard.
Enough cash | Work out a budget for your stay and take a big chunk of extra cash on top of that, just in case.
Mosquito repellent | Mosquitoes here were the worst I had in Asia. Come nightfall, they swarm across the beach and wreak havoc. Come prepared!
A power bank | There’s no power for most of the day so having a power bank on hand to charge your electronics is a great idea. I have this one which holds 7 iPhone charges, but this smaller version also comes highly recommended.
Sun Protection | The Perhentians are the kind of place where you spend most of the time in your swimmers, only throwing a shirt and shorts on when it’s time to eat. But the sun is incredibly strong here so I’d highly recommend bringing a few essentials like a hat, sunglasses, and a light, long sleeved shirt.
There are plenty of places to eat in the Perhentians, but most serve up western food and are on the expensive side. Long gone are the cheap street eats and hawker centres of Penang and Malacca.
Ewan’s Cafe | Pronounced ey-(as in ‘hey’)-one rather than the English Ewan, this simple open-air cafe a short walk behind Coral Bay is a reliable budget option with an extensive menu, decent portions, tasty food and some of the best (and biggest) smoothies on the island. Don’t miss the mango shake – you can thank me later! They’re also one of the few places that have decent wifi access, though the password is changed daily.
Amelia Cafe | Devouring an early post-dive lunch at this lovely beachside restaurant quickly became part of my island ritual. The chickpea curry is huge and delicious.
Crocodile Rock Bistro | Located near Rainforest Beach, about a 20-minute walk south of Coral Bay, this charming place came highly recommended to me and receives excellent reviews. It’s pretty pricey but worthwhile if you’re after something a bit special.
Oh La La | If you’re craving pizza, look no further!
Barbecues are also a huge deal here and every night the fires are lit, trays of seafood are brought out and visitors pull up a chair and settle in for the evening. Long Beach has a cluster of restaurants that do this, Coral Bay just has a couple, but all offer more or less the same thing – your choice of fish or meat with rice, potato, vegetables and a drink for 25RM (€5.50). The setting and atmosphere were both great, but honestly, I was fairly disappointed with the food here. Whether I just caught them on a bad night, I’m not sure.
For self-caterers, there are a number of basic shops around but most have little more than chips, drinks, cigarettes and toiletries. I’d definitely recommend buying any supplies in a major city before you arrive.
Having heard several stories of people having to either sleep on the beach or fork out obscene amounts of money for mediocre hotels, I was a little apprehensive about where I would actually stay on Perhentian Kecil, especially as there aren’t all that many options for budget accommodation. In reality though, as I arrived out of season, it was incredibly easy finding somewhere to stay without booking in advance.
That said, if you’re arriving late at night, it might be wise to have at least the first night booked just in case. Also, don’t expect to find great value for your money.
Long Beach has a reputation for being slightly more lively with open-air bars and restaurants spilling across the sand in the evenings and weekend parties that rage until the wee hours. Coral Bay, on the other hand, is very laidback where the sound of waves crashing will lull you to sleep rather than the sound of doof doof music. Choose which one suits you!
Butterfly Chalets | I stayed here and thoroughly enjoyed it. Perched on the jungle-covered slopes at the far end of Coral Bay, these simple wooden cabins have a perfect outlook between the trees onto the turquoise bay. They’re super basic and rather old, furnished with a double bed with a mosquito net and fan, a basic bathroom and chest of draws, but the location can’t be beaten. There are also a few newer rooms now which look to be much nicer. Prices are 100RM (€22) for a single night or between 50 and 70RM (€11 to €15) for multiple nights during low or high season. Check-in is self-service, essentially just check the whiteboard for which rooms are available, choose your favourite and write it on the board. Pay in advance to Barry who is often about.
Maya Guesthouse | Set right on the beachfront at Coral Bay, Maya is a popular backpacker spot where you can rent tents or private bungalows with either beach or garden views. The place sadly looked very run down when I arrived but was undergoing renovations in preparation for high season. Rooms go for 50 or 70RM (€11 to €15) for a garden or beach facing room, while tents cost 20RM (€4.50) per person. Honestly though, the heat without a fan was unbearable so I would use the tent option only as a last resort.
Fatima Chalets | So, the reviews of this place aren’t great and from the outside it sure looks rather tired, but if you get desperate, it’s a cheapie spot right on Coral Bay with an internal garden area. Rooms start from just 30RM (€6.50) per person for a private double with fan and ensuite.
Orang Hutan Camping | Set beside Rainforest Beach, this collection of tents in the jungle provides a unique place to stay on the island. Guests love the helpful staff, excellent food and chilled out atmosphere. Check rates and availability here.
Mid-Range and Luxury
Ombak Resort | This large property sits right on the beachfront and boasts spacious, air-conditioned rooms and an onsite restaurant where you can catch daily movie nights, fire dancing and live music. A great spot for those wanting somewhere a bit nicer without breaking the bank. Rates start from €85 for a twin room and go up from there with all-inclusive dive and snorkelling packages. Check rates and availability here.
BuBu Villa | With a great location right on Long Beach, Bubu’s offers modern villas with air conditioning, an onsite restaurant and plenty of options for water activities. Check rates and availability.
Crocodile Rock Villas | Set amongst the forest near Rainforest Beach, these lovely bungalows combine rustic charm with elegance and the option of a jungle or seaview. If you’re seeking some tranquillity, this is a great option. The onsite restaurant also receives excellent reviews.
Chomel Chalet | Set on beautiful Mira Beach, Chomel boasts a terrace restaurant and chalets that look out over the ocean, perfect for sunset. Dorms with are also available with air conditioning. Check rates and availability here.
The bigger island, Perhentian Besar, has a very different feel to Kecil and instead of small villages where all the main services are concentrated, it tends to be just single resorts peppered along the coastline. Many have spectacular private beaches or are within easy reach of the offshore reef.
If you’re here for a romantic getaway or are after an all-inclusive experience, this is probably the best option for you.
If you’re arriving in Kuala Besut late at night, there are only a couple of hotels located near the port, just a 10-minute walk from the bus station. I stayed at Hotel Ain which is fairly basic and not great value but will do the job for one night and is located right opposite where the ferries depart. Check here for rates and availability.