Ummm…what is the Perhentian Islands?!
That’s a great question, considering most people who visit Malaysia haven’t even heard of it! The Perhentian Islands consist of two islands, Perhentian Besar (big) and Perhentian Kecil (small) and are off the east coast of mainland Malaysia. Not only do the Perhentians have the cheapest diving (seriously, cheaper than Koh Tao aka $18USD for a fun dive including all gear), but it’s also amazing! The visibility is typically excellent (I saw 20+ meters vis at some sites), and I have seen everything from sharks to turtles to octopi to Humphead Parrotfish to Trigger fish. The Perhentians are a hidden diver’s oasis, but are also great for relaxing on the beach with crystal clear water and white sand. I have a feeling this place will become a lot more popular once more people start finding out about it :).
When to go:
The Perhentian Islands are open from March through mid-October and completely close from November to March during monsoon season. Peak season is June-August but you can find great weather and diving conditions throughout the season.
What to do:
Diving is definitely the number one thing to do on the Perhentians, but snorkeling is also popular and even cheaper. Relax in a hammock or on the beach, explore the viewpoints and different bays, go to the beach parties at night on Long Beach, or watch a movie at the multiple places who offer free movie nights. I recommend heading to Ombok Hotel/Restaurant at Coral Bay for their nightly big-screen movie 7:30, which is an awesome way to relax with some popcorn or dinner.
How to get there:
Part of what makes the Perhentians a hidden gem in Malaysia is that not everyone is willing to go through the effort to get there. However, those who do are greatly rewarded and I am one of the many people who came back for a second time.
Fly: You can fly into Kota Bharu airport and take an hour long expensive taxi ride to Kuala Besut, which must be timed right unless you want to stay overnight to catch the ferry.
Bus: The majority of budget backpackers take the night bus from various locations around Malaysia. I have gotten to the Perhentians from both Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, which are on the opposite side of the country, but it was relatively painless. You can book a bus at easybook.com or busonlineticket.com and simply check in with your emailed boarding pass at the bus terminal of your choosing. The bus ticket cost will vary, but mine was 46 ringgit from KL, which is about $11 USD. Not bad for saving a night of accommodation as well!
After you arrive to Kuala Besut, you can catch one of the ferries to the islands which run from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The return ticket is 70 ringgit no matter where you buy it (doesn’t save you any money to buy a return since one way is 35, it’s just more convenient), and just show up to the ferry terminal 15 minutes beforehand. The boat ride is about 30-45 minutes, depending on conditions and how many stops the boat makes. To get back to Kuala Besut, you can take any of the ferries which run at 8:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., usually the first or last depending on whether you want to take the day bus or night bus back to a main city.
Where to stay:
Perhentian Besar- nicer resorts, more expensive, “honeymoon” area
Perhentian Kecil- cheaper, more backpacker vibe, especially Long Beach
Note that many people are put off by the Perhentians because virtually no accommodation options are listed online, so they think they have limited/expensive options. Not true! Just show up and find somewhere that fits your needs :).
Matahari Divers (Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil)- 25 ringgit for a fan dorm room and the best dive packages. I highly recommend diving with them whether you stay there or not! To give you an idea of cost, I paid 400 ringgit (a little under $100USD) for 4 nights of accommodation and 4 fun dives with all gear included. How crazy is that?!
Panorama Divers (Long Beach)- Inexpensive dorm rooms are available here (Somewhere around 25-30 ringgit if I remember correctly) with dive packages, but Matahari has better package pricing. This is a much bigger dive resort and has an AMAZING buffet breakfast that you should definitely try once!
Monkey Divers (Long Beach)- 50 ringgit for an air-con dorm room (game changer!) and they also offer affordable diving packages.
Oh La La- Dorm rooms run around 30 ringgit per night and the location is great (right next to Panorama, Monkey and Matahari dive centres. I haven’t personally stayed here but I’ve heard good things!
Maya Bungalows (Coral Bay on Perhentian Kecil)- 50 ringgit for a 2-person fan bungalow on the beach with ensuite bathroom. I stayed here for a few nights last year and thought it was a great deal!
Sunrise Hostel (Long Beach)- 20 ringgit for a dorm room, but I really wouldn’t recommend staying here unless you are desperate for super cheap accommodation. There is zero security and the staff was rude last time I stayed there, even after someone got robbed in my room!
There are also plenty of random bungalows you can walk around Long Beach or Coral Bay to find, but pricing will depend on the place. Bubu Villas are on the far side of Long Beach from the pier if you’re looking for a fancier hotel and Ombak is on Coral Bay which is also on the pricier side.
Bring CASH with you! There are NO ATMs on the islands- nope, not one. If you plan to do a big diving course, most places will accept credit cards for an extra fee. However, Matahari does cash advances from a card with a 5% fee for customers and 10% for non-customers (handy to know!). Also, bring your own locks because most of the budget accommodation options don’t have much security (no doors, keys or lockers), so it’s better to be safe than sorry :). Bring plenty of books for relaxing at the beach between dives, because all of the book exchanges on the island require you to trade two books to take one, aka BYO!
Have any more recommendations for the Perhentians that I missed?! Let me know in the comments section! If you do decide to visit, feel free to reach out to me and I am more than willing to answer any questions! Thanks for reading and happy travels :).