Perhaps you’re planning a trip to Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands, or maybe you’re never even heard of them. These two quiet and idyllic tropical isles have been on the ‘Banana Pancake Trail’ for more than 30 years, yet they remain blissfully off the radar of most travelers outside of Malaysia. To give you a bit of insight into these ‘hidden gems’ of Southeast Asia, take a read through our need-to-know facts about the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.
1. What are they?
The Perhentians are two main islands on the east coast of Malaysia (and five tiny uninhabited islands). The big one is called Perhentian Besar (literally ‘Big Perhentian’) and the small one is Perhentian Kecil (literally ‘Small Perhentian’). The larger one is where you’ll find luxury resorts in the Perhentian Islands, whereas the smaller one is where the budget accommodation in the Perhentian Islands can be found. Kecil is therefore also known for its backpacker-style beach party scene.
2. Why go to the Perhentian Islands?
The main attractions here are the beaches – unbelievably clear crystal-turquoise waters, coral reefs, deserted white-sand bays. Then there are lush jungle interiors to explore. Malaysian tourists have been visiting the Perhentian Islands for decades to enjoy peaceful reconnection to nature, and thanks to the islands’ relatively undeveloped state, that’s still a major reason to go. Most people will enjoy some diving and snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands.
3. Where are they?
The Perhentian Islands are part of Pulau Redang National Marine Park, 19km off the east coast of Malaysia’s Besut District, which is in the north of Terengganu state. They’re roughly where the Gulf of Thailand meets the South China Sea. The word ‘perhentian’ means ‘stopping point’ in Bahasa Malay, as the islands were once used as a stopover for trade ships between Malaysia and Bangkok. Nearby are the Tioman Islands and Redang Island, which are similarly beautiful.
4. How do you get to the Perhentian Islands?
Get to Kuala Lumpur. Then either fly or take the overnight bus to Kuala Terengganu or Kota Bharu. Taxi to Kuala Besut Jetty and take a speedboat ‘ferry’ transfer for 70MYR return. Around 30 to 45 minutes later you’ll arrive at Perhentian Kecil. It is recommended to pre-book your ferry tickets to the Perhentians before you get to this point, or else be at the mercy of local tour operators who might try to charge you more. Also book your accommodation on the Perhentian Islands before arriving, as finding WiFi in Kuala Besut to make last-minute bookings might also be a challenge.
Different ferry operators run on different schedules, some leaving whenever the boat is full (around 12-15 people per boat), running from around 8am to 5pm. Boats are open to the elements, so waterproof yourself and your luggage and wear a life jacket for the oft-choppy and crowded trip across the waves. The boat will either drop you at a jetty or transfer you to a local taxi boat for the final leg to your resort, in which case be prepared to wade to shore.
5. What type of travelers go to Perhentian Islands?
Due to their undeveloped and idyllic state, these islands attract beach and nature lovers. There aren’t many facilities on the Perhentian Islands, so they’re perfect for travelers who are happy to dive, snorkel, walk, relax and generally just get away from it all. On Besar, that means couples, families and honeymooners, while Kecil attracts a younger, more budget crowd who want to mingle. Both islands are popular with Malaysian travelers on Malaysia’s long weekends and holidays.
6. How do you get around the islands? Can you rent a scooter on the Perhentian Islands?
There are no public roads on either island, so getting around happens exclusively on foot or by water taxi. There are numerous trails that crisscross through the jungles of both islands, giving you a scenic and eco-friendly and scenic way to get around.
7. What is the most popular beach on the Perhentian Islands?
The Pancake Trail leads to Long Beach, a short walk across the island from the main pier on Coral Bay. Here’s where you’ll find a cluster of beachfront bars and restaurants, affordable accommodation and lively all-night soirees complete with fire shows, fireworks and music (yet nowhere near the same scale as Thai beach parties).
Boats moor off the beach here and during July and August (peak season) it can get crowded to the point of all the rooms booking out, so if you’re seeking solitude, head to a different beach. If it sounds like your scene, book your Long Beach accommodation early, especially during Malaysian holidays.
8. Where is a quiet beach on the Perhentian Islands?
Coral Bay on Kecil is a lot more subdued than Long Beach, even though it’s where the main jetty is. You’ll still find restaurants and bars, but the parties happen on the other side of the island, a short walk away in case you want the best of both worlds. Heading from Coral Bay to the Fishing Village will reveal tranquil beaches for a quiet swim, including Petani Beach, Mira Beach and Adam and Eve Beach. A wander around Perhentian Besar will likewise reveal beautiful hidden bays and quiet coves, including Tuna Bay and Bubbles Beach (in many cases beaches are named after resorts).
9. What’s dining like on the Perhentian Islands?
Expect seafood, Malaysian/Halal dishes and Western food at inflated prices. Alcohol is expensive (unless you’re drinking the local spirit), but you are permitted to bring your own bottles from the mainland. Local food is obviously the most wallet-friendly, with luxuries like wine and cheese reserved for the more upmarket resorts on Perhentian Besar. Eat like a local and enjoy curries, mee goreng, roti canai and other street food, and mix it up with beach barbecue seafood, Thai dishes and the odd burger indulgence.
10. What is there to do on Perhentian Islands?
These undeveloped isles are best for indulging in sustainable travel activities. Go snorkeling, hop in a canoe or kayak to explore around the bays, enjoy some Malay massage, hike across both islands or take a dive trip through the national marine park.
11. Can you learn to dive on the Perhentian Islands?
Yes, there are a selection of dive schools on both Perhentian Islands. If you’re there for more than a few days, you can get your PADI certification quite affordably. The Pinnacle offers some spectacular underwater exploration and there are tours that will take you to the surrounding wrecks and teeming dive sites in protected waters.
12. Where are the best places for snorkeling on the Perhentian Islands?
On Besar, Adam and Eve Beach and Turtle Bay are both great for snorkelling. On Kecil, try D’Lagoon, Coral Bay and even Long Beach. Better yet, join a snorkeling tour and see all the best spots for snorkeling around the Perhentians as well as off-island sites. Remember not to stand on or even touch corals or any sea creature, for their sake as well as yours.
13. When is the best time to visit the Perhentian Islands?
The islands shut down for the monsoon, which is between mid-November and February, when it’s rainy with choppy, dangerous seas and virtually no people. The high season in the Perhentian Islands is from July to September, with high visibility for diving and snorkeling and lots of travelers from around the world. Shoulder seasons – March/April and late-September/October – are less crowded, though at either end of the monsoon you will experience some rain and the waters are not ideal for diving. Whether you choose high season or the less expensive shoulder season is up to your travel style.
14. Can you buy alcohol on the Perhentian Islands?
You can buy alcohol, but it is not widely available and is relatively expensive. Malaysia is a Muslim country and therefore does not have a big drinking culture. You can bring your own booze – or take the opportunity to teetotal while you’re there. Obviously the bars on Long Beach serve a wide range of drinks and upmarket resorts will serve wine.
15. Do all guesthouses and resorts on Perhentian Island have 24/7 electricity?
Electricity is produced by generator, so most hotels on the Perhentian Islands do not have round-the-clock electricity. If you reliable power and air conditioning, stay in a more upscale resort. If you’re staying in a smaller bungalow resort, bring your own flashlight and power banks.
16. Are there ATMs on the islands?
There are no ATMs on the Perhentian Islands, so make sure you bring enough cash as most local businesses won’t accept credit cards. Keep your cash on you at all times or lock it up securely in your room.
17. Is there WiFi on the Perhentian Islands?
There is patchy WiFi available, but there are scarce places where you’ll find it for free. If you need a reliable internet connection, consider getting a Malaysian SIM pack.
18. Are the Perhentian Islands safe?
The Perhentian Islands are as safe as any undeveloped tropical island in Southeast Asia. To maximize health and safety: don’t drink the tap water; avoid swimming in bad weather; don’t dive, snorkel or swim alone; don’t touch the wildlife in or out of the water; and don’t walk across the islands late at night by yourself. When hiking, stick to the blazed trails to avoid getting lost in the jungle and always wear sunscreen.
19. What sort of wildlife can you see on the Perhentian Islands?
The Perhentian Islands boast some interesting animals above and below the waterline. On a hike across the islands you will probably encounter big water monitors, dusky leaf monkeys and other primates, squirrels, tokay lizards, frogs and all sorts of tropical insects and spiders. In the seas, there are turtles, snakes, sharks, scorpion fish, nudibranchs and countless more species of fish.
20. Where is the best place for a honeymoon on the Perhentian Islands?
Besar, the larger island of the two, is the most popular for honeymoons. With the nicest luxury resorts on the Perhentian Islands, beachfront chalets, massage, international dining and calm bays for swimming and snorkeling, they’re perfect for beach-loving lovebirds. Take a taxi boat out to the small island to Romantic Beach, a deserted cove on the small island with still waters and white coral sands where you can enjoy seclusion in paradise.
21. How far apart are the two islands and can you travel easily between them?
You can make the trip between the islands in around 10 minutes in a water taxi, which you can catch from any main beach. Travel with others to share the fare. Boats will run all night in case you are partying on Long Beach but staying somewhere else.
22. Where can I hike on the Perhentian Islands?
Both islands have established trails that crisscross through the jungle to the various beaches. Wear proper trainers or hiking boots (no flip-flops), slather on sunscreen and mosquito repellent, wear a hat and bring lots of water as the sun is hot. Consider long pants to protect your legs from scratches and insect bites.
23. Where is the turtle sanctuary on the Perhentian Islands?
This conservation project is on Turtle Beach on the northwest coast of Besar. You can volunteer for two to four weeks (or one week, if you’re Malaysian), staying onsite for the full experience. If you just want to see turtles in the wild, you can walk or taxi boat to the beach and snorkel around – there’s a high likelihood you will spot one.
24. Where can I enjoy a more ‘local’ experience on the Perhentian Islands?
If you like to see #Asialikealocal and prefer to stay away from the tourist areas, consider finding accommodation in Perhentian Kecil’s Fishing Village. This area has some laidback guesthouses and small restaurants, with walking trails that connect to the other main beaches of Kecil.
25. Can you camp on the Perhentian Islands?
For those who like to maintain as small a carbon footprint as possible, there are campsites on Kecil on the beach and in the jungle, with tents available for rent, shared bathrooms, limited WiFi and restaurant facilities.
TOP 10 QUICK TRAVEL TIPS FOR THE PERHENTIAN ISLANDS IN MALAYSIA:
- Don’t bring rolling luggage – there aren’t any pavements and you will be dragging that trolley through sand.
- BYO wine or bottle of alcohol if you are budget conscious.
- Book Perhentian Islands accommodation well ahead of time if you’re staying in the high season.
- Avoid Malaysian National holidays if you want a more ‘deserted island’ experience.
- Go during Malaysian National holidays if you want to party.
- Bring your own SCUBA gear if you’re a serious diver and/or want to save money.
- Bring cash, there are no ATMs. Don’t leave your pile of cash unattended in your room.
- Try a digital detox (electricity and WiFi can be unreliable).
- Waterproof your luggage for the transfers to and from the island.
- Be respectful of local culture.