Thinking of hitting the beach as part of your journey around South East Asia? Of course you are!
You're probably thinking about heading to Thailand's wonderful beaches – Koh Phi Phi, made famous by the movie “The Beach” and Koh Phangan, infamous for it's full moon parties.
While Thailand's beaches are indeed wonderful, you'd be mistaken for thinking this was the best spot for sun, snorkelling and sea in the region.
Hands down, the nicest beaches I've been to in South East Asia are on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. If you haven't been, you're missing out on something very special. Make the effort to travel a wee bit further off the backpacker circuit and you will be greatly rewarded.
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Where are the Perhentian Islands? How do I get there?
The Perhentians are a chain of two large islands (Besar and Kecil) about an hour off the East Coast of Malaysia. They're reasonably far north, close to the border with Thailand. The nearest major town on the mainland is Kota Bharu.
Boats to the islands leave from the pier in the small village of Kuala Besut, about 45 minutes south of Kota Bharu. Forget about ferries, these are just small speed boats.
Each big resort has their own boat to travel to and from the islands. The biggest and safest boat belongs to Tuna Bay Resort. Lifejackets are compulsory – they even have lifejackets for children. The boat trip will cost you 70 RM return.
A taxi from Kota Bharu to the pier at Kuala Besut will cost around 40 RM or book a transfer through your hotel for around 30 RM per person.
From Kuala Lumpur, pick up a cheap Air Asia flight into Kota Bharu – you can get this fare for under US$15 on promotion or catch the jungle line train to Wakaf Bharu and taxi to Kota Bharu or straight to the pier at Kuala Besut.
From Penang, it's a short propeller flight on Firefly into Kota Bharu or six hours by bus. Buses leave Penang at 9pm and 9am which means either waiting around in Kota Bharu in the wee hours of the morning or missing the last ferry onto the island and overnighting in Kota Bharu.
From Thailand, you can catch the train (or bus) from Hat Yai to the border at Sungai Kolok, a journey of around four hours. Once you cross the border into Malaysia it's about 30 minutes to Kota Bharu. A taxi should cost less than 20 RM and the bus will cost 5 RM.
When is the best time to go?
The best months for visiting the Perhentians are June, July and August.
You can only visit the Perhentians between March and October. Outside of this, Monsoon season takes hold – seas are choppy and resorts and restaurants shut up shop.
Where to stay? Where to eat?
Wherever you stay, plan your accommodation in advance.
It's not easy to walk from beach to beach searching for the best bungalow. The season for the Perhentians is short so, by April, many places are booked solidly for stays in June, July and August. If you've got your heart set on a particular place you'll need to lock it in early.
That said, if you're on an extended trip and want to arrive a few days earlier than you've scheduled, most places will be able to accommodate.
The accommodation across the Perhentians is expensive and the standards are pretty low. Frankly, you don't get a lot for your money. You'll pay roughly twice what you would for an equivalent bungalow on one of Thailand's islands.
The expensive is worth it because it does keep the islands relatively quiet. Make sure you factor this spike into your long-term budget. There's not a lot to do on the islands so your other costs will be pretty low.
Backpackers will want to head for Perhentian Kecil.
Accommodation here is cheaper and attracts a younger crowd. The local village is on Kecil which means access to shops and a row of cheap food stalls.
There are a few bars on Long Beach though alcohol is expensive. All the budget accommodation is on Long Beach. You'll find most of them are simple, wooden chalets without AC. Some have 24-hour electricity and others don't.
Matahari Chalets and Panorama Chalets get good reviews from backpackers looking for a more lively environment. For quieter but still cheap accommodation, head back off the beach to Bintang Chalets
Flashpackers, mid-range travellers or families should look for accommodation on Perhentian Besar.
Abdul's Chalet, simple A-frame beachfront chalets with AC, and Coco-Huts, AC chalets up on the rocks, both come widely recommended. The best choice by far is Tuna Bay Resort which has rows of adjoined bungalows on the beach and in the garden.
When it comes to eating for best option is Coco-Huts or Coral View Resort. The food at Abdul's is cheap but notoriously bad and Tuna Bay is pretty pricey although there western options are good.
What to do?
Snorkel and dive.
One of the best things about the Perhentians is the ability to snorkel right off the beach. Reefs wrap around the island, close to the shore and teem with fish. You may even get lucky and see turtles.
Resorts will rent you a snorkel and mask for 5 RM a day. Fins aren't allowed because of the coral. You can also do a half day snorkelling trip to Rawa Island or a full day to Redang. All the larger resorts offer dive courses, including night dives.
Explore the island.
Visit different beaches and resorts by using the taxi boats parked up on every beach. Fares are per person, not per boat so, even if you're on your own, it's a good option. Concrete stairs and tracks connect some beaches.
The jungle is thick so stick to the paths and wear mosquito repellent.
Rest, relax and recharge your batteries.
There is little else to tempt you on these islands so take the opportunity to chill out with a book or iPod and work on your tan.
Know Before You Go
- You'll pay a 5 RM National Park fee before reaching the islands, when you book your boat ticket in Kuala Besut.
- Wifi can be slow and patchy on the islands. This can actually be a blessing. Plan for a few technology-free days and make the most of your surroundings.
- Bring supplies with you from the mainland. Drinks, snacks and toiletries are for sale in small shops on the beach and in the local village on Kecil but prices are high and selection is limited.
- Most of the locals on the islands are Muslim. You'll only find alcohol for sale at selected resorts. Bring your own from the mainland or, even better, bring it across the border from Thailand.
- Beware of sea lice bites! These miscroscopic jellyfish larvae can be present in the water if you're on the islands in shoulder season. They feel like little stings or electric shocks while you're in the water and can leave a nasty rash. Take some antihistamines (oral and topical) and be sure to wash and dry your swimsuit if you do get bitten.
- Listen out for the Islamic call to prayer. It's broadcast from the mosque in the village on Kecil but can be heard on both islands. It adds a certain exotic-ness to your Perhentian Islands experience!
About the Author: Bethaney travels the world with her husband Lee and toddler Reuben in tow. She chronicles their adventures and shares tips for travel and living a location independent lifestyle on her blog Flashpacker Family. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.