The Ultimate Backpacker Guide to the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
The Perhentian Islands (pronounced PER HEN TEE-AHN) are composed of 2 coral-fringed islands, Perhentian Kecil (small island) and Perhentian Besar (big island) and are located on the northeast coast of Malaysia.
We spent our time on the small island which is known to attract more backpackers and the larger island with more families, honeymooners and a quieter atmosphere. Due to this, please note this below post is based on Perhentian Kecil.
On both islands, you’ll find accommodation, restaurants and stunning beaches along with an assortment of activities, including diving and snorkelling which is wildly popular due to the crystal clear waters and the astonishing amount of reef fish, sharks, turtles and coral. It’s also one of the cheapest places to dive in the world.
The main areas of Kecil are narrowed down to two beaches on either side of the land; Long Beach and Coral Bay.
There are no roads on the islands so be prepared to walk everywhere or use the water taxis to access other beaches. This is the real island life! Embrace it :)
How to get to the Perhentian Islands
The Perhentian islands are located slightly out of the way to Malaysia’s other attractions but once you’re swimming in the pristine waters and relaxing on the beaches you’ll forget how you even got there in the first place.
The main access point to the Islands is of course by boat. There is one terminal that the boats leave from, Kuala Besut. A return boat trip is 70 MYR regardless of who you buy it from, so don’t pay any more than that. It is the same cost getting a return or 2 one-ways so save yourself the trouble and get a return ticket. You’ll also have to pay a “Marine Park Conservation Charge” of 30 MYR ($7 USD) or 5 MYR if you are a local.
The speed boat takes 30–40 minutes depending on the sea conditions and should only hold between 12–15 people. When you board the boat, the driver will ask where you are staying or what beach you want to go to and he will drop you as close as possible. If you don’t know, we advise saying either Long Beach or Coral Bay.
- Kuala Besut to Perhentian Islands: 8:00 am, 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm. Occasionally at 10:00 am.
- Perhentian Islands to Kuala Besut: 8:00 am, 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm
How to get to Kuala Besut:
- Bus: The bus system in Malaysia is pretty efficient. At times, a little too fast. The drivers are actually mad. You can take a bus from Kuala Lumpur/ Penang and most other cities. See here for bus schedules.
Note: Buses from Penang arrive between 3:00 am — 4:00 am so you have quite a lot of time to wait before the first boat will leave. We avoided this and flew instead.
- Flight: The closest airport is Kota Bharu. From the airport, take a taxi (70 MYR ) to the jetty and away you go.
- If you are arriving too late to take the boat, we spent the night at IZ Budget, a hotel right by the jetty. They will organise your boat tickets and drop you to the boat in the morning.
- If you need a hotel before your flight out, The Sofea Inn Transit Rooms were perfect. Great owners, walking distance to the airport (although they will give you a free ride) and very clean, comfortable rooms with good wifi.
What’s the best time to visit the Perhentians?
Due to the east coast monsoon, 4 months of the year are not advisable to visit the Perhentian Islands. The best time to go is between March — October where you’ll have sunny skies, hot days, limited rain and fellow travellers. Outside of this time, most of the accommodation is closed, as are the restaurants. The seas can be very rough, overcast skies and strong currents making it quite dangerous for swimming.
During the weekends, it can be busy with locals, especially during their holidays. High season is July/August due to European holidays. We visited in April and it was perfect, hot, very hot but perfect blue skies and no rain!
How long do you need?
Everyone always asks us this question and it’s really hard to give an answer as everyone’s opinions & needs are very different. As a guideline, we stayed 5 days in a non-A/C room and felt this was a sufficient amount of time, but even 3–4 would be OK.
There’s not a whole lot to do (see below for more information) but we both managed to finish 2 books, take in a lot of the sun, get covered in mosquito bites, eat more fried rice and drink more Oreo milkshakes than we’ve ever done before. It was probably a good thing we left ;)
Where to stay
Accommodation is one thing that deters people from returning to the Perhentian Islands. The quality and the price don’t really add up all too well. As mentioned, we stayed on the small Island (Perhentian Kecil) so the recommendations given are for this island only. On Perhentian Kecil, there are two main beaches which have the most accommodation options. Long Beach and Coral Bay.
Booking accommodation on this island is old school. Research hotels, get their phone number, call them, get a price, hang up, call someone else, compare, then look at reviews and call back to book. Barely any hotels, you can book online apart from the larger more expensive resorts, so it was rather painful trying to determine where to stay.
Here are some recommendations based on our research.
- Ewan’s Place (between Coral Bay/Long Beach, shown above) — We stayed here and recommend it to any backpacker looking for a budget option. The chalets are basic with private bathrooms, little balconies and 4 posted beds with mosquito nets. The only downside is the heat. It was unbearable inside during the day but the evenings were doable (they include 2 strong fans). They also have the #1 restaurant on the island and the fastest Wifi in the whole of the Perhentians and 24/7 electricity, unlike most other places. Cost 90 MYR/$20 USD or 75 MYR/$17 USD if you stay longer than 3 nights.
- Butterfly Chalets (Coral Beach, shown below) — A rather interesting concept. Butterfly Chalets are a DIY hotel. What does that even mean? It means you go there, look up on the board, see what is available and check yourself in. The owner will eventually come and collect your money. Whilst these are located in a prime location overlooking Coral Bay, the standards were not great at all. If you want old school island rustic, then these may be for you! Cost 60 MYR ($13 USD).
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Photo Credit: Travelfish[/caption]
- Matahari (Long Beach) — A great option if A/C is a must. Request a room away from the generator as it can be quite noisy. During the day there is no power. The rooms were big, clean and had a private bathroom. Cost 100 MYR (fan room) — 150 MYR (A/C room) $ 23 USD — $34 USD. Breakfast included.
- Senja Bay Resort (Coral Bay) — Located at the far end of Coral Beach. You can’t beat the view from this hotel, especially if you have an ocean front room. Rooms are basic. Buffet breakfast included. Cost 200 MYR to 260 MYR ($46 USD — $60 USD) depending on which room you have.
- BuBu’s Villa and BuBu’s Resort (Long Beach) — Feeling like a splurge? Bubu’s is located at either end of Long Beach and are by far the nicest (most expensive) resort on the Island. Cost starts at 700 MYR — 1500 MYR ($160 USD — $500 + USD) Definitely not backpacker friendly!
See here for a full list of choices and please note prices can change depending on the time of year.
What are the best restaurants?
Food on the island is nothing to write home about. Mango shakes from the beach stalls were our go-to’s, as well as Oreo milkshakes. In terms of restaurants, most of our meals were had at the following:
- Ewans Place — Our go to for the majority of our stay, purely because it was cheap, quick, tasty and right by our chalet!
- Shari-La Resort — At first glance, you wouldn’t think this would be the place to eat, however for only 19 MYR ($4 USD) you have a full dinner buffet as well as a grilled fresh protein. Such good value for money and right on the water at Coral Bay.
- Amelia’s Place — Basic, budget dishes with seafood served on the beach.
- Cafe Linda — Great breakfasts, set menu for dinner (25 MYR, $6) with really fresh seafood.
- Ombark — We had just one meal but we don’t recommend eating here, especially for backpackers. Overpriced & lacking quality.
- BuBu’s — Resort style dinners, with the resort price tag.
Top things to do on the Perhentians
1/ Diving + PADI Certificate
The Perhentian Islands are the cheapest place in the world to get your PADI Open Water Dive Certificate and all of them offer 3–4 day courses starting at 950 MYR — 1200 (MYR $220 — $279 USD). There are plenty of dive schools offering this with some companies better than others. We heard some horror stories about faulty equipment.
If you’ve already got your PADI certificate, you can book “Fun Dives” with these companies which are usually around 70 MYR ($16 USD) and your accommodation is then free or heavily discounted! We’ve never heard of this before but it seems like an amazing deal… if only we were certified!
2/ Snorkelling Tours
If you aren’t qualified to dive but are keen to see what life under water is like in the Perhentian Islands, there are countless snorkelling companies offering short, long, special and group trips.
We walked along Long Beach and were overwhelmed with the number of companies offering the same trip. After realising they all go to the same place and are the same cost, we just chose one and thankfully there was only 4 of us on the tour. The entire tour which lasted from 10:30 am — 4:00 pm cost us 50 MYR, that’s less than $10 USD. We saw turtles, swam with sharks, fed reef fish, climbed rocks, found Nemo and stopped in a local village for lunch. One of the best-value-for-money tours we’ve ever taken.
The entire tour which lasted from 10:30 am — 4:00 pm cost us 50 MYR, that’s less than $10 USD. We saw turtles, swam with sharks, fed reef fish, climbed rocks, found Nemo and stopped in a local village for lunch. One of the best-value-for-money tours we’ve ever taken.
Unfortunately, there are also plenty of other boats doing the same tour but if you get a nice driver, ask him to take you in a different order so you aren’t with all the other tourists.
3/ Relaxing on the Beach
Do nothing! For once we came to a place that didn’t require us to check a bunch of things off a list. Some people may find this boring but it was very relaxing. The beaches aren’t too crowded, there are many places to lay under a big umbrella and read a book, people watch, have a mango shake (so good!) and take in the scenery. The water in the Perhentian islands was SO WARM. Sometimes a little too warm considering the temperatures outside!
4/ Movie Nights
Ombark Resort has movie night every night at 7:30 pm. They have a great set up with a large projector screen and they also serve alcohol. The food is quite expensive and in our opinion, not at all worth the extra cost. Nevertheless, come here to wind down after a day in the sun! It’s free!
5/ Jungle Walks
Considering there are no roads on the Islands, you have to be prepared to walk everywhere. The walk between Coral Bay and Long Beach (path shown above) is only 10/15 minutes however there are many other small trails that lead you from one beach to the other.
Make sure you’re ready to sweat! And cover yourself in bug spray! One of the most popular hikes is from Long Beach to the windmill for 360 views of the Islands. There isn’t a lot of signage so make sure to ask for directions when you can.
6/ Day Trips
If you’re looking for a change of beach, jump in a taxi boat and head to another beach close by. The price changes greatly depending on which beach you want to go too. We went for the day to “Romantic Beach” about 10 minutes from Coral Bay by taxi. It cost 36 MYR ($8 USD) return. Just make sure to let them know when you want to be picked up. There are no restaurants/water stalls or anything on these secluded beaches so pack lunch/snacks and water. This was one of our favourite things we did, especially as we had the whole beach to ourselves.
Where do I Party?
Hmm, don’t come to the Perhentian Islands and expect massive parties and buckets filled with alcohol. It’s very chilled island with minimal alcohol served and definitely no loud music. There are only 3 bars on the island that remotely resemble a “party” and they are all located on Long Beach.
- Monkey Bar- Fun staff members work here. Light beers are almost the same cost as cocktails at 13 MYR ($3 USD) for a beer and 15–22 MYR for a cocktail ($3 — $ USD). Some nights they put on a game of beer pong.
- Panorama Bar — Great Pizzas (although expensive) and the most “bar” feel of them all.
- Beach Bar — Beach bar puts small tables, candles and cushions out on the sand and has a fire show nightly. You can also smoke shisha here.
Top Tips for the Perhentian Islands
- Make sure you shop around for dive packages but keep safety in mind.
- Very limited places sell alcohol, apart from the larger resorts so if you can’t or don’t want to stay off the booze, bring your own from the mainland.
- Electricity is not 24/7 at some hotels. Check their schedule.
- During high season, accommodation is sometimes impossible to find. Aim for the 8:00 am ferry so you are first on the island to find somewhere to stay. High season is July-August mainly due to the European holidays and people are known to leave the island the same day because they cannot find somewhere to stay.
- Some people will try and rip you off at the ferry terminal saying things like “I have a hotel available, pay me here and I’ll take you to the hotel”. Don’t listen to them. Go directly to the hotels yourself or you may well just pay a stranger for nothing.
- Don’t leave your valuables lying around on the beach, especially on the more popular beaches like Long Beach and Coral Bay.
- There are NO ATM’s on either island, come prepared! 9/10 places will only take cash.
- Bring sunscreen and bug spray, it is more expensive on the island.
- Be sure to tell you guest house the day before you want to leave and what time so they can make sure to book you on a boat.
Are the islands worth the trek?
In short, yes. But lower your expectations and come with an open mind. Embrace the rustic island life and you’ll leave with a lasting impression. Don’t come here expecting the Maldives or Bora Bora, although the clear colour of the water was pretty on par.
Married Days Survived: 777