Perhentian Islands: Paradise or a Pain?

Perhentian Island Kecil | Vagabond Baker

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

White sand beaches, crystal clear azure water and very low-key development, it sure sounds like paradise, right?

The Perhentians are two small islands off the north-eastern coast of Peninsula Malaysia; they had been on our radar since our last trip to Malaysia: highly recommended by travellers then.

We added them to our loose itinerary, taking a bus from the Cameron Highlands to Kuala Besut and catching the last ‘ferry’ over to the islands.

We felt ready for some relaxing beach time: to nothing but read and dip into the ocean.

Unfortunately, this didn’t quite turn out as we hoped.

Perhentian Island Kecil | Vagabond Baker

Now before I continue with this post, I will state that I’m not entirely a beachy person: on the whole I’m far too restless for days of lounging.

The Perhentian Islands promise great snorkelling and dive opportunities so I was really looking forward to exploring the underwater world again, something I hadn’t done for a few years.

Perhentian Islands-2350The last ferry of the day waited for our minibus, leaving later than scheduled. We were bundled onto the speedboat which then bounced recklessly across the waves showering us with salty spray.

The sun was sinking towards the ocean when we disembarked onto Pulau Perhentian Kecil, the smaller of the two islands. (Kecil : small, Besar : big).

Now all we had to do was get some accommodation. On Pulau Perhentian Kecil this is much easier said than done.

We’d failed to book anything advance, Valerie in Father’s Guest House in the Cameron Highlands had explained that none of the places took advance bookings.

Surely it wouldn’t be a problem once we arrived, would it?

Perhentian Islands-2358

Yes. Yes it would.

Pulau Perhentian Kecil is beautiful, it is as I described: white beaches, azure sea, low-key development. 

For the budget traveller it is also a massive pain in the backside to get accommodation: this means the relaxing few days you may have planned become stressful and, possibly, somewhat uncertain unless you strike it lucky when you arrive.

Arriving at sunset is the worst possible time to arrive: all the available beds are taken and you are left with the dregs, or the expensive rooms.

We, along with a straggle of other travellers, marched weary up and down the beach asking in each place for a room or a bunk with very little luck.

Perhentian Island Kecil | Vagabond Baker

We ended up in a US$60 air con room at Ombak Inn resort, fairly basic for the price but it had a good shower, however, it was way over our budget. Sixty dollars!!!

The next morning, we woke early and set off asking around again for something cheaper. As were many others, at least we didn’t have our bags this time.

Eventually we found a cheap chalet at Fatimah Chalets for a much more wallet-friendly 40 ringgit (about US$12: this was in April ’14).

The chalet was very basic, a little tatty with a mozzie net and a fan – although the electricity wasn’t always on during the day to power it. Unfortunately, they would only let us have it for two nights, they seemed disconcertingly vague.

Perhentian Island Kecil | Vagabond BakerStill, at least we had a bed. We checked in and I was in my bikini faster than the speedboat the night before!

Chris wasn’t feeling that well so I set off with my towel and my book to the beach and found myself a shady spot under some coconut trees.

This was the life! I read, I swam, I read, I swam, I read, I swam. Bliss.

The afternoon passed peacefully; the water was deliciously warm and the beach wasn’t busy at all.

Perhentian Island Kecil | Vagabond Baker

“Your legs look very red. Are they sunburnt?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

A couple of hours later…

Good lord, I’ve never been this burnt before!

I could barely stand, the pain in my legs was excruciating!

I told you I’m not a beachy person, this kind of goes to proves it.

My top half must have been shaded by the palm tree, my lower half, clearly, less so, if at all.

Chris managed to buy aloe vera gel at the shop along the beach, which provided some relief but I must confess, I was bed ridden for around 36 hours. I could barely even walk to the bathroom.

This completely stressed me, I really didn’t want to have to move out the second morning.

Chris checked that night to see if we could stay at least another night but, again, the vagueness. We’d have to ask again in the morning.

What the hell difference does the morning make, there were empty chalets!

The next morning, we were able to book another night. Relief!

I had been so excited to go snorkelling. We’d planned, on arrival, to go on one of the day snorkel trips, a friend (who had managed to get a bunk in a dorm) wholly recommended it and it sounded wonderful.

Alas, I couldn’t face it: the horror of climbing in and out of the boat with my red raw, tender legs was just too much. I was gutted.

On the last day, we wandered down the beach and hired snorkels from one of the abundant places facing the water and swam out from Long Beach. 

The water was so clear and there were fish right in the shallows. As the water got deeper, the fish got more interesting: vivid parrot fish and colourful striped fish. 

Further out were clusters of pale coral, bursting with underwater life, clown fish swishing between feathery fronds. Oh, if only I had an underwater camera!

I’ve seen better elsewhere but this was still interesting and colourful.

The swim wasn’t an entirely pleasant experience, there seemed to be patches of water that stung you. Tiny electric nips as you swim along. Apparently these are minuscule sea lice – jellyfish larvae – and they can leave a rash.

I didn’t know what they were at the time and they freaked me out somewhat!

Pulau Perhentian Kecil is pretty small, as its name suggests; there is a concrete path linking one side of the island with the other and the other coves and beaches can be reached by boat taxi.

There are plenty of food options, for the vegetarian less so and, for Malaysia, the standard is pretty low.

Ombak Inn resort has a beachside restaurant complete with a cinema screen and a film is shown every night – this makes the overpriced food a little more appealing.

Perhentian Island Kecil | Vagabond Baker

It’s hard for me to recommend, or not, the Perhentian Islands. Due to my stupidity of not regularly applying sun cream and the ridiculous accommodation issues, I feel I definitely didn’t experience the little island to its full potential. I can’t comment on Pulau Perhentian Besar as I didn’t even go there.

We discovered the reason for the accommodation issue with our chalets when we got back to the mainland: the cheap chalet places prefer to cater to domestic tourists apparently (a friendly and very helpful travel agent in Kuala Besut told us this). They can sell them a package deal for accommodation and food. We cheap skate backpacker-types spend our ringgit eating and drinking elsewhere. So they wait to see if they get any Malaysian bookings first.

I, for one, was glad to be back on the mainland. Back to good food and comfortable lodging!

Roti Canai, food of the gods!

Roti Canai, food of the gods!

We spent a night in Kuala Besut, feasting on Roti Canai again – oh how I missed you on that island! The following morning we took a taxi to Tanah Merah and caught a Jungle Line train south, down the east of the country.

The Jungle Line

Sounds exciting doesn’t it? I bet it was, not that long ago, a line cutting through lush, ancient rainforest, a verdant journey through a wild land.

Not anymore. This should be renamed the Palm Oil line. Utterly depressing, a devastated landscape of commercialism.

The slow train through the plantations.


The Jungle Line ends at Gemas, a small town where you can get a connecting train to Kuala Lumpur.

The train pulled into Gemas in the early evening and we spent the night in a nondescript hotel; be warned, we went out for food around 8pm and most places were completely closed, it was an instant noodle dinner from the 7Eleven – how throughly disappointing!

The train to KL was a super early departure, but first class on this Malaysian train gets you complementary banana bread, now that’s worth getting up for!

All in all, the Perhentian Islands had been disappointing and then they’re been followed by the even more disappointing Jungle Line train.

But Malaysia wasn’t going to let me down for long, we’d arrived in KL. I love this city!

Keep travelling:

My Top Six Things To Do In Kuala Lumpur I love KL and these are some of my favourite parts.

Marvellous Melaka Another Malaysian gem!

Munch Your Way Around Melaka’s Markets As A Vegetarian delicious!

George Town, The Multicultural Jewel of Penang It’s just so darn pretty!

Penang Street Art and Peranakan Tiles The wonderful arty side to Penang.

Penang Hill: Train Up, Walk Down. Heading up into the clouds and exploring old colonial bungalows.

6 Reasons Why I Love The Cameron Highlands And they aren’t all tea!

Have you been to the Perhentian Islands? How was your experience?

By Rachel A Davis

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2 Responses

  1. Simone Anne says:

    Bummer! So sad you had a bad experience here! I feel like I heard SUCH amazing things from my boyfriend’s little sister who spent a few days here earlier this year. She LOVED it! Granted, she was there as part of a school trip (crazy awesome, I know), so they definitely had everything planned out ahead of time. It’s certainly beautiful! Maybe you’ll have a better experience next time!! 🙁

    • Rachel Davis says:

      Don’t worry! I loved the island, it was just the accommodation issues that cause problems, and my stupidness with the sunburn. If we go back to Malaysia then I’d love to visit Tioman and Langkawi too 🙂