Malaysia’s most underrated islands

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If you want to see them on a map, you’re going to need to zoom in.

The Perhentian Islands, nestled off Malaysia’s northeast coast, are not your average island holiday destination. For starters, they’re nowhere near the size of traditional hot spots such as Phuket, Bali, and Fiji in land area or population density.

But more and more people are discovering this hidden paradise. Lonely Planet raves: “The Perhentians boast waters simultaneously electric teal and crystal clear, jungles thick and fecund, and beaches with blindingly white sand.”

Lonely Planet writers aren’t the only people falling in love. The islands are rated 4.5 out of 5 on Trip Advisor and holiday-goers are posting rave reviews. “It was amazing: clean water, good food, friendly people, not too crowded, we did [a] diving Padi course there, snorkelled with sharks and turtles. Loved it,” one reviewer praised Perhentian Kecil.

“The best island in Malaysia,” another island-goer concluded, deeming it a “diver’s paradise”. And, as I discovered, they weren’t wrong.

Getting to Perhentian Islands

Perhaps the reason they have yet to be overrun by tourists is because these islands are not easy to access, with no direct flights. However, the journey is worth it, as CNN have placed them at number 13 out of 100 best beaches in the world, claiming “once you’ve experienced it, nothing else quite matches up”.

Leaving from Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, there are multiple ways to get to the islands, including flying and driving. The most direct way however, is by bus. Eight hours later, I arrived at Kuala Besut Jetty, on the north east coast of the country.

From here, I hopped on board an old speedboat-style vessel that seated around 20 passengers, and got as comfortable as I could – it’s a 30-45 minute boat journey and I would not recommend eating before this bumpy (but fun) roller coaster ride.

A pristine strip of beach greeted me, dotted with restaurants, beach huts and boats pulling into its shores. And I was on one of them! The minute I stepped off, I knew I had found my favourite place in Malaysia. I had planned to stay three days, but I could tell that wasn’t going to be enough.

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Pro-tip: Boats to the islands depart multiple times a day, and you can buy a one-way or return ticket from a small tourism office on Kuala Besut Jetty. Buses to the jetty can be arranged through tourist offices, but if you’re feeling brave you can find a local bus (depending on how close you are to Kuala Besut).

Where to stay

This will depend on what style of holiday you’re after. Perhentian Kecil, the smaller of the two, is more popular with a younger crowd, while the larger island, Perhentian Besar, features resort accommodation and offers peace and quiet.

Once you’ve decided on your island vibe, it’s best to book in advance as it is a popular weekend spot for locals, meaning the best beach huts do book out.

A basic hut with one double bed and bathroom will suit you if you are willing to give up air conditioning – you won’t miss it thanks to the ocean being within metres of your front door, bringing the sea breezes with it. The huts are a godsend for travellers on a budget, priced at about $5 a night.

If you’re looking for something more luxurious, there are swanky resorts that have their own private beaches, such as Bubu Beach Resort, but expect to pay upwards of $350 per night.

I stayed in an area of Kecil Island called Coral Bay. The main beach is usually crowded with snorkelling and fishing boats, but you can take trails to hidden beaches, such as the aptly named Romantic Beach.

At night time, you’ll find the most entertainment from restaurants to beach parties on Long Beach, which is a short walk across the island. You will also find accommodation here.

Quick tips for the Perhentian Islands:

  • Bring cash – there are no ATMs and it’s a half-hour boat trip back to mainland Malaysia.
  • Hire a water taxi to take you between the islands or to completely private beaches. Bring a picnic and they’re yours for the day!
  • Be prepared for no internet – most restaurants have Wi-Fi but it’s a weak connection.
  • The best time to visit is summer: April-August. Goodbye winter!
  • Book ahead! This applies particularly if you are arriving on a Friday as locals arrive on weekends away.
  • Bring your walking shoes, as there are no cars or motorbikes on the island.
  • Bring a waterproof camera to capture all the underwater magic.

What to do

The beauty of holidaying on an island is you can be as active (or inactive) as you like. However, you must find the time – and energy – to snorkel because it is truly spectacular.

I found myself swimming with turtles, sharks, and visiting beaches and local villages for lunch. Also there’re amazing snorkelling areas near the main beaches of the island. Just grab a snorkel and go!

One of the best choices I made was bringing a waterproof camera – as a turtle swam alongside me, its shell shimmering and reflecting the ocean light, all I could do was click away. The ocean is so fascinating and colourful, particularly in the clear water around the Perhentian Islands. Some days can be spent just floating on the surface, relishing where you are.

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If you’re a scuba diver, you’ll be pleased to hear the islands are one of the cheapest places in the world to learn at less than $350 for a PADI open water course. Diving and snorkelling trips depart most days but be sure to book in advance.

Island Bucket List:

  • Go scuba diving.
  • Swim with sharks and turtles.
  • Visit a local village for a traditional lunch with fresh seafood.
  • Find a beach bonfire after dark and party with the friendly locals!
  • Find a hidden beach on foot.
  • Drink milkshakes made with Snickers, Mars, or M&Ms (they sell them in most places and are worth putting your bikini body on the line for).
  • Hire a canoe and spend a day exploring the islands by sea.
  • For the best beaches, take a day boat tour, or simply take a taxi boat around the islands until you spot one that looks like your personal paradise.

One last thing – watch the sunset on the Coral Bay dock. I had watched sunsets before (who hasn’t?), but a pure feeling of happiness washed over me as the sky turned fairy-floss pink. This is the most perfect end to any day. And as I was sitting on the rocks on my last night, a week later than I had planned to stay, I knew that I would be back to visit this paradise again.

So if you are planning an island holiday, or a backpacking trip, make sure the Perhentian Islands are on your list. You won’t regret it. – Story and photos by Lauren Croft

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