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.
By Stuart McDonald.
Last updated on 4th July, 2016.