Perhentian Islands – Malaysia. The ultimate guide: Everything you need to know and what to expect to when visiting Perhentian Kecil.
We had long wanted to visit the Perhentian Islands of Peninsular Malaysia. But despite our many many visits to the country, we had never made it over to these beautiful islands. So with a few days spare prior to our flights to Bhutan. we indulged in a sneaky little 5 night trip to these tropical islands.
About the Perhentian Islands
The Perhentians are a group of islands found off the coast of Terengganu in the northeast of Peninsular Malaysia. The archipelago actually consists of several islands. But when most people refer to the Perhentians, they are generally referring to the main 2 islands of Perhentian ‘Besar’ (literally translates to Greater/Big) and the smaller Perhentian ‘Kecil’ (literally translates to Lesser/Small). Besar has a reputation as more of luxury resort and family island, whereas Kecil is the favourite for us backpackers and therefore the island we opted for.
With its stunning sandy beaches and lovely crystal clear warm water, it’s no surprise that we spent most of our time on the beach or in the water. Here’s how we spent our few days on lovely Perhentian Kecil.
Diving around the Perhentian Islands
The Perhentians has some of the cheapest diving in Southeast Asia, if not the world. Depending on who you are diving with you can expect to pay around USD$17-25 per dive including equipment. Prices generally decrease the more dives you do, so it’s well worth doing a few. It’s also a great value place to get your PADI Open Water Diver and/or Advanced Open Water Diver certificates. We would recommend both as there’s many awesome dive sites in this part of the world.
We did a total of 6 dives over 3 days with the Quiver Dive Team, who we had a great experience with. Other than wanting to see the massive ‘Bumphead’ Parrotfish, we were for once, happy to just go with the flow and dive wherever. Here’s what we did:
Having not dived for about 2.5 years we started with a nice easy refresher dive. Highlights included Nudibranchs, Pufferfish, Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and Honeycomb Moray Eels.
Tanjong Deep to Tanjung Besi
This dive site is on the northern tip of Perhentian Besar. With a reef at around 20 meters and some big rock formations, we drifted south with the strong current. The undoubted highlight was seeing 20+ massive Green Humphead Parrotfish (‘Bumphead’ Parrotfish) and hearing them munch on coral. These massive fish can grow to about 1.5m in length and way as much as 75kg! Our other highlights were Clownfish, a Giant Moray Eel and a Sea Turtle.
Tokong Laut (Temple of the Sea)
One of the best dive sites in the Perhentians, Tokong Laut which translates to ‘Temple of the Sea’. It has underwater boulders, pinnacles, healthy coral and lots of marine life. Whalesharks pass by here at certain times of the year. Unfortunately, there were none for us, but we did see a Turtle and the usual Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and Blue Ring Angelfish.
One of the lesser dived sites apparently and we can understand why. It’s not bad, but not wowing. That said, there were some pretty mushroom corals, Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays and a Turtle.
Don’t be fooled by the name, this is a US twin-screw landing craft which sank in 1976. The visibility was probably the worst we’d ever had diving at a mere 3m-4m. Other than the wreck itself, the highlight was seeing Bamboo Sharks.
After the terrible visibility from the morning dive at Vietnamese Wreck, we opted for a shallow sheltered dive at D’Lagoon that afternoon. Surrounding a small sandy lagoon, the visibility was a bit better and we saw plenty of Blue Ring Angelfish and Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays. We finished the dive with another awesome ‘Bumphead’ Parrotfish.
Snorkelling around the Perhentian Islands
Along with the cheap diving, there’s some incredibly cheap snorkelling options here too. If you have your own gear the west coast beaches of Rainforest Beach, Coral Bay, Golden Bay and Romantic Beach offer lots of easily accessible marine life. You can also hire masks and fins for the day at approximately 5RM p/p.
Probably the most popular option is to take one of the snorkelling tours that hops around and between several sights off the coast of both islands. All the dive companies, beachside tour desks and hostels offer the same two snorkelling trips at the same price. There is the ‘long trip’ and the ‘short trip’, both of which generally depart mid-morning and mid-afternoon. We opted for the full day long trip where we saw a lot and had a great time.
Long Trip (50RM)
- Coral Garden
- Shark Point
- Turtle Point
- Fishermans Village lunch stop
- Romantic Beach
Short Trip (40RM)
- Shark Point
- Coral Garden
- Turtle Point
There was lots of coral and colourful fish here. A lot of the coral isn’t too healthy, but it’s still a nice area to explore. There are some deeper sections which are fun to free dive down to. Keep an eye out for the different Moray Eel species protruding from their borrow’s like this Honeycomb Moray.
It’s all about the Blacktip Reef Sharks here. But don’t worry they are harmless (unless you’re a fish!) Generally timid and shy, don’t go expecting guaranteed sightings or close up experiences. But with luck on our side, we saw several sleek sharks darting around.
We don’t know how many hundreds of Sea Turtles we’ve swum with over the years, but it never gets any less exciting. We saw several Green Sea Turtles here. If you want a more intimate experience, search slightly further away from the other groups and you’ll likely have some turtles all to yourself.
This area was all about the fish. Swim away from the boats (and the guides feeding the fish) and there’s some nice areas to be found. There’s a coral tunnel to free dive down to and through if you fancy it. We even found Nemo the Ocellaris Clownfish (False Percula Clownfish). Look for their Sea anemone homes if you want to try finding Nemo too.
The final stop. There’s still lots to see in the water here and it was where we saw the most Nemo’s (Ocellaris Clownfish). But you can also just chill out on this nice quiet beach and soak up some rays if you prefer. A really nice way to finish to the trip. Definitely great value for money and we were so glad to have done this in a small group with only two other people. The full trip lasted from 10:30am to 16:00pm.
Beaches around the Perhentian Kecil
There are so many to choose from! The two main beaches on Pulau Perhentian Kecil are Long Beach and Coral Bay. Both are in the mid point of the Island, but on different sides. Long Beach is on the east coast and is considered more touristy, with beachside parties, younger backpackers and lots of restaurants. On the west coast (joined by a 10 minute walking track to Long beach) is Coral Bay. This is where we stayed and spent the vast majority of our time.
In our opinion the nicest beaches are found to he north and south of Coral Bay and it’s worth the walk to find them. 20 minutes walk to the south passing Rainforest Beach, you’ll find the lovely, much quieter Keranji Beach. Hidden away, this is a lovely chilled beach.
To the north of coral bay the relatively close Golden Sand Beach (Golden Bay) was our go to beach. Only a short walk from the north part of Coral Bay where we were staying, we never came across more than 2-3 other people here at any one time.
For the best beach views, follow the sweaty trail up from Long Beach to the Windmill for an elevated view over Perhentian Kecil. But be warned the trail is not all in the best condition! Best done first thing or later in the afternoon, when its slightly cooler. If the latter make sure to reward yourself with a sunset beer or two on one of the west coast beaches.
Accommodation on the Perhentian Kecil
The two main Perhentian Islands tend to cater for two quite different crowds. The larger Besar has the luxury resorts and the smaller Kecil has budget backpacker options. So we were always going to stay on Kecil. One thing you will notice with the island is there is very little accommodation available to pre-book online. So just like backpacking in the good old days, you’ll generally need to find accommodation when you arrive!
Budget conscious as ever, when we first arrived on Kecil our plan was to book on the Coral Bay side. We walked up the Butterfly Chalet hoping to stay there. But on arrival this DIY hostel was fully booked (according to ‘sign-up’ board). So we backtracked to the north end of Coral Bay and booked 3 nights at Ewan’s Place. Located on the track to Long Beach, this was the best value budget option on this side of the island – cheap, no-frills, private bathroom, but a little hot (fan only). Rates were cheaper when booking 3 nights+.
For a last 2 nights and to celebrate Imbi’s birthday, we treated ourselves to a couple of nights at Ombak Resort. This was a beautifully well-kept resort with lovely rooms and awesome open air movie nights, which were a great way to finish the day.
Eating on Perhentian Kecil
Long beach has the majority of options and is good place to go for a cheap feed. Expect to pay around RM10 for a Nasi Goreng at one of the local beachside restaurants. On the Coral Bay side, Ewan’s Cafe was the best budget option with well-priced dishes and the bonus of free reliable wifi.
There’s a few more cheapish cafes dotted along the beach between Ombak dive resort and Butterfly chalets. Only a few places served beer, but there were more options for alcoholic beverages on Long Beach.
When to visit the Perhentian Islands
You can only visit the Perhentian Islands from February to October due to the weather. Boats cease operating to the islands for tourists in the monsoon period when the seas get rough. All resorts close from November through til mid-February. Conversely the high peak season months of July and August can be particularly busy and cheap accommodation can be very hard to find, especially on the weekends. The seasons area as follow:
- Low Season – Mid-February, March and October
- Peak Season – April, May, June & September
- High Peak – July & August
Getting to Perhentian Kecil
The Perhentians Islands are accessible by boat from Kuala Besut jetty. Boats run throughout the day and take between 30-45 minutes depending on conditions. It costs RM70 for a return ticket and is no cheaper than buying two singles. The boatmen will ask which island and which beach you want to be dropped off at. So don’t forget to plan ahead and work out where you want to disembark. At the time of our visit, the boat schedule was:
- Kuala Besut to Perhentian Islands: 8:00 am, 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm
- Perhentian Islands to Kuala Besut: 8:00 am, 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm
Getting to Kuala Besut jetty
Getting to Kuala Besut from almost anywhere in Peninsular Malaysia is easy. Buses run from major tourist areas including:
- Kuala Lumpur (7-8 hours, night bus available)
- Penang (7-10 hours)
- Tanah Rata – Cameron Highlands (6-7 hours)
For more details, check out the Perhentian Islands website.
Flying can also be an incredibly cheap option. The 2 closest airports are in Kota Bharu and Kuala Terengganu. Taking a taxi/Grab is the easiest option for getting between the airports and the Kuala Besut Jetty. Chat to other travellers and it’s often easy to find people to share taxi’s with and split the costs.
- It’s about a 70 minute drive from the Sultan Ismail Petra Airport in Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut Jetty. A taxi should cost around RM70.
- It’s about a 90 minute drive from the Sultan Mahmud Airport in Kuala Terengganu to Kuala Besut Jetty. A taxi will cost from RM100.
- There are also buses that run between the airpots and Kuala Besut, however the timetables may not line up with the boat departures and if it’s later in the day, you may miss the last boat.
Tip: If you have time to kill before or after a flight in Kuala Terengganu, make sure to check out the Crystal Mosque (Masjid Kristal) in nearby Wan Man.
Useful information and packing essentials
- Do your bit in minimising plastic waste on the island by bringing a reusable water bottle. Ombak Resort and various other restaurants, hotels and dive companies had refillable water stations. Not only does it minimise plastic waste, which is a big problem on the island, but it saves money. Travelling with a reusable water bottle is a must anywhere in the world.
- If you smoke, dispose of your cigarette butts responsibly. Please don’t flick them into the ocean or beach.
- Take plenty of good ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen with you. Regular sunscreens contain ingredients that contribute to coral bleaching. We love Sunbutter Skincare, which comes in a tin and is good for our oceans. You will likely fry yourself on these islands without decent sun protection.
- A rash vest is also a great option to protect your back, shoulders and arms from the sun. Just make sure it has a UV rating.
- If you like underwater photography, a decent underwater camera or GoPro is a must for a trip like this.
- Don’t touch, kick or stand on the coral. A lot of corals in this area are already in a bad way, so please respect the ocean and explore the underwater world responsibly.
- Swimming with sea turtles is a magical experience. But please remember they are wild creatures. Don’t shove your GoPro right up into their face, don’t chase them, touch them or try to grab them as they come up for air. PLEASE!!!
- Bring plenty of mosquito repellent. There were lots around during our late May visit.
- At the time of our visit there was no ATM on Kecil, so take plenty of cash with you! Some of the bigger dive shops and resorts excepted credit cards, but there were large processing fees attached to transactions.
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