23 September 2019

In the Perhentian Islands, Finding Nemo and Losing Track of Time

When I was planning my trip to Malaysia, I was able to draw on the advice of several friends and colleagues who have visited the country over the past few years and the Perhentian Islands came up consistently as a must-visit destination. The two main islands, Perhentian Besar ('big island', though really 'bigger' as it's pretty small itself) and Perhentian Kecil ('small island), as well as several even tinier islands, are located some 10 miles off the northeast shore of Malaysia, close to the Thai border. The biggest draw is the warm, clear, turquoise waters with coral reefs just steps from the shore, although the lovely beaches are also highly appealing.

I decided to stay on Perhentian Besar as I'd heard it was less developed and quieter than the small island. I spent a long time deciding where to stay, considering The Barat (which a colleague recommended), and the Perhentian Island Resort (which has a coral-free beach (pictured below) that is good for paddling and wading, as well as turtles) and Coral View Island Resort, both of which ended up being a bit over my budget. I had read that in general, the accommodation tended to be rather pricey given that it is very basic (rustic cabins on the beach, for the most part), and although Travelfish has a good and very recent guide to the Perhentian Islands, the accommodation section didn't help me greatly as everything was either very basic or too expensive.

In the end, I settled on Tuna Bay Island Resort, mainly because of its location. Although the beaches of Tuna Bay are nice but not the finest on the island, because it's in the centre of Perhentian Besar's west coast, you can either walk south along the beach and stone walkways to the beautiful, quiet Teluk KK beach (pictured in the third photo below) or north (via a steep 15-minute 'jungle trek') to the gorgeous Turtle Beach and Perhentian Island Resort beach for soft sand, great views and turtle sightings. I paid about 1,100 RM (about £210) for a two-night, three-day package, including accommodation, all meals, two snorkelling trips, and return land and boat transfers to Kota Bharu.

I flew in to Kota Bharu airport from KL early on Tuesday morning, took a car to Kuala Besut (the journey is about 1 hour), and then caught Tuna Bay's boat direct to Perhentian Besar (45 minutes). I spent ages working out various itineraries with KL, Perhentian Islands and Penang to maximise the time in my destinations and minimise the time waiting at airports — the limited flights between Kota Bharu and Penang made this quite tricky, although my outbound journey was very efficient, and having landed at KB at 9:30 am, I was on the island by 11:30. NB, you have to pay the marine park entry fee (30 RM) on entering the jetty — and you can also buy a boat ticket from the various operators if you don't have one already.

Check-in at Tuna Bay isn't until 2 pm, but after I started rearranging my suitcase in the reception area to get out my swimming gear, my room became available early. First, though, was the included lunch (with no choice) — a hugely unappetising joint of chicken, fried and with its limb socket still attached. Luckily, the buffet breakfast (with an egg and waffle bar) and dinner (where I could choose two dishes from the Asian menu) was much better.

My cabin was in the second row, just steps from the beach. The cabins were 'semi-detached' and two deep, with very thin walls — and indeed, no lock on the door to the connecting beachfront cabin, which wasn't great from a security perspective — but luckily, other than one early morning singing session (!), my neighbours were generally respectful.

I took one snorkelling trip on the first afternoon and another the following morning. We visited five or six different sites in total, including Shark Point (quite a deep site, with complex reef structures, where I did see reef sharks and pufferfish), Turtle Point (where I saw turtles on two occasions, one of which I watched rise to the surface for air majestically and then dive back down to the sea bed), and various sites for countless tropical fish. I found Nemo so many times, as well as parrotfish, a shoal of squid, a stingray, angelfish, clams, and many more that I didn't recognise. The water was clear and although the coral was quite damaged in some places, the diversity of marine life was impressive.

It's unfair of me to compare to my last snorkelling trip, which was with a marine conservation organisation on the Great Barrier Reef, but the level of guiding here was mixed — one guide was great, accompanying us to Shark Point, pointing out various sharks and getting rather too close to the pufferfish (pictured below) and large, aggressive triggerfish for my liking.

I also enjoyed my own snorkelling sessions, particularly on the quiet beaches at the south end of the island, where I had the more pristine reefs to myself, for the most part, and I put my underwater camera to very good use, although somehow ended up with several hundred clownfish photos and only one blurry shark.

There's diving too, of course, and you can also take boat trips to other beaches or to the other island. As I only had 2.5 days, I stayed on the big island snorkelling, swimming and even a little bit of sunbathing; unfortunately, although it didn't rain it was very hazy, which detracted somewhat from the tropical paradise aesthetic. There are also a couple of 'jungle treks' you can do across the island, both of which took me 20–30 minutes. The path is steep and quite difficult and slippy in places, so definitely wear trainers or hiking shoes. I saw a few monkeys and birds, but as it was so hot, it was quite a tiring experience. And it isn't possible to walk all the way from the northwest end of Besar to the south along the beach — the jungle trek or a taxi boat are the only options.

On balance, then, although part of me wished I'd splashed out to stay at Coral View, I was happy with the flexibility Tuna Bay's location afforded me. The staff at Tuna Bay were also really lovely and helpful, and the BBQ fish I had for dinner on my last night was delicious. Just don't go expecting great luxury (or much in the way of 4G/wifi), and enjoy the beautiful islands for what they are. One woman I met said she'd returned to the islands after first visiting 27 years ago — unsurprisingly, they have changed a huge amount in terms of the development. There's even a mosque just across from Tuna Bay on the small island, and the call to prayer would ring out several times a day.

On the way back to mainland, the Tuna Bay boat broke and we had to return to shore, but they put us in a speedboat instead, which was faster and more comfortable. I couldn't face spending 5 hours in the tiny Kota Bharu airport so I asked my driver to drop me in Kota Bharu town instead. I had hoped to leave my suitcase for a couple of hours at a backpacker's hostel, but this wasn't possible; meanwhile, the guy in charge of left luggage at the bus station was asleep, so I decided it would probably be best to keep my suitcase with me. It was, of course, really hot, and I hadn't factored in that most of the museums would close early on a Thursday. I did have a really good fish curry, however, and got to see the central market and a street art lane, before calling a Grab back to the airport.

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