The Perhentian Islands consist of two islands, Perhentian Kecil and Perhentian Besar, situated 20 km off the eastern coast of Malaysia and offering endless stretches of palm-lined and brilliant-white sandy beaches, lapped by crystal-clear water and fringed by coral reefs. Besar, which is the more expensive island, attracts mostly families and those who want to avoid the backpacker party scene on the cheaper sister island, Kecil. If you are looking for an unsophisticated destination, where a book and a nap supplant the TV as the favourite form of relaxation, then maybe the Perhentians are the place for you.
The islands offer a slice of paradise, but not a particularly large one. If you like your creature comforts then you should check into one of Langkawi’s superb resorts, where caked-sized slices of paradise are available to those who can afford them. Although there are as yet no luxury accommodation or cuisine on the Perhentian islands, they are home to one somewhat special resort, the Tuna Bay Island Resort, whose restaurant serves some of the best food on the island and where excellent snorkeling is just a wade away from the smart bungalows perched atop the lovely white sand beach.
The islands’ main draws, after the beaches, are the inexpensive longhouse bunks for those on gap years, and the stupendous snorkeling and scuba diving.
On the Perhentian Islands many travellers will feel as close to nature as they have ever felt. The area occupied by humans is only a thin coastal strip surrounding the rugged interior of the island, which is the undisputed domain of all sorts of creepy-crawlies and insects. These bugs go on the offensive at dusk, seeming to try to sting and bite all humans back into the sea from where we came: insect repellant is essential.
Over the last few years the Perhentian Islands’ reputation as a diving destination has steadily grown, to the point where they are regarded as being amongst the top half dozen dive destinations in southeast Asia. Much of this success can be attributed to the large numbers of travellers who learn to dive in neighbouring Thailand and then gravitate to the Perhentian Islands, en route to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, looking for one more fix for their recently-acquired ‘aquaholism’ before they board the plane home or onwards.
The Perhentians, together with their uninhabited satellite islands Susu Dara, Seringgi and Rawa, form a protected marine park, so designated in order to protect the islands’ topography, flora and fauna. It is particularly unfortunate, considering that Mother Nature was in such a bounteous mood when she endowed the Perhentians with such beauty, that Her gifts are currently being squandered by a lackadaisical attitude to garbage disposal. Most restaurants and resorts deposit their litter in the approved places, but the authorities can’t be bothered to dispose of it properly. Garbage bags fall off over-full boats, later washing up on the beaches and fouling the reefs.
All tourists pay a marine park entrance fee on arrival, so lack of available funds does not appear to be the problem: it seems that all that is required is a bit more effort on the part of those responsible. If the Perhentians are to have a future then this problem must be resolved, if not for the sake of the islands themselves, then in order for them to keep earning tourist revenue. Visitors will surely be put off by having to sunbathe, snorkel and dive amongst garbage. Readers who are interested in visiting the Perhentians are advised to check before going, on one of the travel forum sites (for example www.lonelyplanet.com or www.travellerspoint.com), that the islands’ refuse problem has been resolved.
The Perhentians are one of Malaysia’s top snorkeling destinations, with every colour of the rainbow represented by the vividly coloured fishes and corals. Whilst these are spectacular enough, the highlight for many people is the chance to swim with sharks, right up close and personal. If frightened, take a look around you at all the gorgeous-looking fish and try to put yourself in the shark’s shoes – if you were it, would you bother taking a bite out of you when such tasty-looking alternatives abound. Maybe have a go at ‘snorkeling meditation’: just lie motionless, face-down in the water and observing everything, but attempting not to attach to any of the physical or mental sensations that occur.
The snorkeling kit on hire can be a bit variable in quality, so it’s a good idea, if you want to avoid the possible need for facial reconstruction surgery afterwards, to try out a few masks before selecting the one you wish to hire for the day. Whilst on the boat keep a beedy eye open at all times, particularly when your boatman is busy, as otherwise he might miss something amazing, such as a turtle coming up to breathe, or a manta ray resting on the bottom, just a few metres down and so easily within snorkeling range.
The Perhentian islands are an ideal place to learn to dive, due to the generally low swells, the shallow dives and the proximity of the dive sites to the beach. Maybe the most impressive site is Tokong Laut (“Temple of the Sea”), where a jumble of boulders is home to vividly technicolour soft coral formations, several species of shark and many representatives of the damselfish family, including its best know member, the anemone clownfish, or ‘nemo’ fish.
Taking a PADI Advanced Open Water course is a good idea here too, as there are two wrecks to practice around and in.
The Sugar Wreck swarms with a dazzling if slightly bewildering array of rainbow runners and damsels, being chased all over the place by barracudas and kingfish. Only those with nerves of steel are advised to dive inside the Vietnamese Wreck: whilst this is supposedly a perfectly sensible thing to do, you might not feel that safe, when encased in a tomb-like metal structure 24 metres underwater: just the knowledge of the consequences of a panic attack could be the cause of one. Perhentians diving, which is best between April and October, is also good value for money, when compared to neighbouring Thailand.
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