The Perhentian Islands are two main islands, along with a scattering of uninhabited islets, off the northeast coast of Peninsular Malaysia. They've long been renowned for their coral reefs and clear waters, snorkelling, diving, attractive beaches and remote, semi-untouched feel and appearance.
The two inhabited islands, Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian) sit across a narrow body of water from one another and each boasts a collection of attractive beaches and plenty of places to stay, eat and have fun. Each of the two islands has its own identity and vibe, though the beaches and snorkelling are decent on both.
Broadly speaking, Perhentian Besar is the more family orientated island, with just about nothing in the way of nightlife and a more midrange accommodation scene, while Perhentian Kecil is the "party island" popular with younger backpackers and single travellers looking as much for a place to socialise and have party as somewhere to lay on the beach and relax.
Each has its pros and cons, and if time allows a stay on each of the islands can be worthwhile, if for no other reason than to explore more of the beaches. Both have been solidly on the tourist radar for more than two decades, so an untouched paradise this is not. But for the traveller looking for some straightup and unchallenging beach time, the Perhentians can be a comfortable rest stop as they work their way down Malaysia's east coast.
While there is more midrange accommodation on Perhentian Besar, both do have more upmarket digs and there is budget accommodation on both as well. Perhentian Kecil has the backpacker repuation, but we actually found the budget end of the scene to have better standards for the price on Besar than Kecil. For the true budget travellers (or those who thrive in discomfort -- just joking) camping is available on both islands. Accommodation is poor value for the standards pretty much across the board -- the Perhentians are not famous for their accommodation for a reason -- most of it is pretty grim.
Perhentian Kecil has far more bars and restaurants than Besar and alcohol is slightly easier to come by on Kecil, though it is readily available on both. The larger range of bars and restaurants on Kecil does create more racket into the evening -- something that really isn't an issue on Besar. Food on offer ranges from simple Malay and Thai food through to pizzas and seafood barbecues. Compared to the mainland, prices are high, with even a plate of fried rice often setting you back 10 to 15 ringgit. Alcohol, while expensive, is still affordable with cans of beer going for 8 to 10 ringgit on the beach.
Garbage on both islands, but especially on Kecil, is a major problem which appears to be receiving scant attention from hoteliers. Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil in particular, is a disgrace. Petty crime, also especially on Kecil, is an ongoing issue -- watch your stuff – and yourself in the evening.
Both islands were at one stage famous for their snorkelling and diving, but through a combination of bleaching and development problems such as freshwater run off and ridiculous levels of boat traffic, the coral has suffered tremendously on most of the developed island beaches. Sites further afield are in a better state and, as the diving effectively only operates for half the year, at least the reefs have a chance for a quick gasp to recover to a certain extent.
It's not all bad though, as both islands have their share of beautiful undeveloped beaches, beachbums are well catered for. There are decent jungle walks, plenty of very affordable diving, snorkelling trips, boat rides and fishing trips -- all operating on a near daily basis from both islands.
It is easy to see the paradisical angle on the Perhentians. Some of the undeveloped beaches truly are stunning -- it's just discouraging that time after time, while exploring both islands, we'd walk around the corner and find a pile of trash or an ill-considered development.
When to go to the Perhentians
The annual monsoon that hits the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia peaks between November and February and most resorts close roughly across this period. Some though, especially the larger places on Perhentian Kecil such as Shari-la, Sanja and d'Rock, now remain open year round. Food options at this time will be rather limited and the boat service irregular, sometimes not running for days. Large seas make diving unworkable and snorkelling not all that pleasant, so the dive shops are closed across this period. If all you want to do is lay on the beach though, you will get the occasional day of great sunshine through wet season.
Most resorts open from late February through April until well into October -- perhaps even early November, depending on the weather. The peak tourist season is July and August, not only because of weather but also holiday schedules -- especially European summer holidays.
There is a significant local tourism scene on the Perhentians and the weekends, especially holiday weekends such as the May Day weekend, can be extremely busy. Weekends in general across season are busier and most resorts and guesthouses have at least a slightly higher rate for weekends. Nevertheless, discounts for longer stays, say over a week, are not uncommon.
Do you need to make a reservation for the Perhentians?
Not everywhere on the Perhentians can be booked in advance. Some, especially the cheaper places, work on a walk-in basis only. If you're aiming for a cheap bed in one of these, in peak season, you want to ideally be on the morning (08:00) boat to the islands to give you the best chance of getting a room.
If you're looking at a midrange place, especially on weekends, making a reservation in advance can be prudent as they do fill up, especially in July and August. Not many places can be booked through online travel agents like Agoda.com which means in many cases you will need to book direct with the resort. Not all use email -- yes, sometimes you will need to pick up a telephone to secure a room.
Is the accommodation on the Perhentians good value?
No. Unfortunately the vast majority of the accommodation on the Perhentians is substantially overpriced and so quite poor value. If you're coming from Thailand, prepare yourself! Standards, especially at the budget end, are particularly poor. Rooms tend to be rundown with terrible bathrooms and few amenities. Advertised features, especially WiFi, are often non-functional. Bedbugs at the cheapest places can be a problem. At the higher end, some of the prices being asked, quite frankly, are delusional and we're amazed anyone is paying the rates being asked.
Parts of both islands remain beautiful so you just need to bite the bullet and take the approach that while chances are your accommodation will be memorable for all the wrong reasons, the islands themselves are often memorable for many of the right ones.
Quite a few travellers we met said they did not plan to ever return to the Perhentians for two reasons: the rubbish on the beaches and the standard of the accommodation for the money paid.
Are the Perhentians safe?
The vast majority of travellers to the Perhentians will have no problems at all during their stay. Petty theft, especially from the cheaper bungalows and off the beach, is a problem. We were told by hoteliers that people, especially women travelling alone and having their drinks spiked at the Long Beach beach bars and then being attacked or raped, is an infrequent, though growing problem. We were told of a number of assaults this season and we were there only one month or so into season.
Again on Long Beach, there are seemingly no boat moorings, so the boats just throw extremely sharp anchors into the shallows. If you're running along the beach, don't see one of these and step on it, you'll know all about it. The paved trail from Long Beach to Coral Bay is completely unlit and largely undeveloped. Walking along it at 03:00 hammered is not advisable. After drinking all night, misunderstandings are common around the world; they're best avoided on the Perhentians as a misunderstanding with a local could suddenly develop into a misunderstanding with all the locals within yelling distance.
There are some simple ways to protect yourself during your stay on the Perhentians. Always lock the windows and doors of your bungalow when going out. Don't leave valuables laying around on the beach or your bungalow balcony. Watch your drinks at all times at the beach bars and stay in control. If you feel uncomfortable, leave -- preferably not alone. Watch out for anchors on Long Beach. Don't pick fights with locals and if you feel threatened, leave.
Do not be surprised when you're offered drugs at the beach bars. We were offered weed, ketamine and supposedly cocaine within a short period of sitting down. Heroin is apparently also common, though we were not offered any. Dabblers should familiarise themselves with Malaysia's drug laws -- punishments for drug possession are extreme.
There are NO ATMS on the Perhentians. Bring enough cash with you. Many, though not all resorts, do accept credit cards, but the cheapest guesthouses and certainly the barbecue corn vendor on Long Beach, do not. If you need more cash, the closest ATM is in Jertih about a 20-minute taxi ride from Kuala Besut.
Internet and WiFi is available at some guesthouses, hotels, dive shops and restaurants. Standards of the service vary considerably. We had a patchy EDGE connection via DiGi, others reported better coverage with Celcom.
There is no active regular policing on either island. The closest real police station is Kuala Besut, with regional stations in both Kota Bharu and Kuala Terengganu. We were advised that serious complaints, especially regarding assaults, should also be passed to your diplomatic mission in Kuala Lumpur.
The closest hospital is in Jertih on the mainland.