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The Perhentian Islands

Last week’s Perhentian Sunsets and Storms post demonstrated just how moving it was to be on Perhentian Kecil at dusk. The storms swept in nightly and as the video shows, the thick clouds were surreal in their density. However, my days on the islands warranted no complaints either, thanks to a great sea-facing bungalow, newfound friends and fantastic snorkeling.

The Perhentians have long been a popular beach destination in Malaysia, but were originally a break in the long journey between Bangkok and Malaysia (“perhentian” in Bahasa Malaysia means “stopping point”). Though the islands were supported by fishing income early in their history, they are now part of Pulau Redang National Marine Park and fishing is strictly prohibited. Consequently, tourism is the primary source of income, and the staggering beauty of the fine sand beaches, crystal-clear water and thriving marine life has resulted in a booming tourist trade.

Split into two separate islands, Besar (“Big”) and Kecil (“Small”), each Perhentian offers a specific brand of relaxation. Besar is the more isolated of the two and as its name would suggest, is bigger in size. Beaches dot the circumference of the island but the centre is a tangled maze of forest and jagged rock. The resorts on Besar are more expensive and cater mostly to couples or newlyweds. In contrast, Kecil’s two main beaches are perfect for the backpacker set, with the quieter Coral Bay a sunset-watching haven and Long Beach renowned for its partying and, unfortunately, for petty theft.

Opposite to the Gili Islands in Indonesia or Thailand’s aquamarine Andaman coast, there was considerably less alcohol on the Perhentian Islands — at least in 2009! There were some bars on Long Beach, but the cost and limited selection means that most tourists bring their own poison or forgo it altogether. While there was one evening of an under-the-table purchase of cheap Malay vodka (big mistake), most of my time on Perhentian Kecil was dry, and it was nice to get up early and fully enjoy my days in the sun with no hangover to speak of.

Those travellers less enthusiastic about local wildlife should be warned: there were plenty of monitor lizards, poisonous spiders and geckos to be found. While I could do without the monitor lizards and the spiders, I loved watching the geckos hop around the ceiling in search of mozzies, and would leave my outside light on when I left for dinner to get them some tasty treats.

And then there is the wildlife under the sea. Huge sea turtles, clownfish, big blue-spotted rays and black-tipped reef sharks are plentiful. Most of the resorts on Kecil have their own snorkel rental and day-long snorkeling trips, which are well worth it. A highlight: climbing and jumping off of a tall lighthouse and into the deep sea below.

For the scuba-divers, there are several diving outfits on each of Coral Bay and Long Beach who will take you out to “the Pinnacle”, a stretch of land jutting upward from the seabed and the surrounding Malaysian islands.

So colourful. All in all, my weeks on the Perhentians were perfect: my toenails managed to grow back after my Agung climb, I enjoyed my time on the beach and in the sea and I left completely relaxed and ready to conquer my next destination.