The two main Perhentian Islands in Malaysia have completely different personalities. There are many good reasons for enjoying both. Regardless, you can rest assured: no matter which island you choose will involve white sand and blue water teeming with marine life to enjoy.
A lack of high-rise developments and motorized transportation (aside from boats, of course) reinforces the feeling that you've found paradise. On Perhentian Kecil, your primary mode of transportation will be your feet — flip-flops are optional.
The correct pronunciation for Perhentian sounds like "per-hen-tee-en" and means to stop or halt in Bahasa Malay. The name is fitting; many travelers end up stopping there to enjoy island life for as long as they can! More than a few backpacking travelers have been known to burn their entire three-month Malay visas (Malaysia is very generous) in the Perhentian Islands.
Perhentian Kecil or Perhentian Besar?
That's the big question. And you'll need to know the answer before taking the boat toward the Perhentians. Don't worry, changing islands later isn't a big deal.
Tip: Pulau (pronounced: "poo-lao") simply means island in Bahasa Malay. Putting it before the island name is optional.
A majority of budget travelers visiting the Perhentian Islands end up on the smaller of the two islands, Pulau Perhentian Kecil. They go there mainly because it can be cheaper and more social than the larger island.
The other choice is Pulau Perhentian Besar, the larger of the two islands. It has a completely different vibe and a lot more room than its smaller neighbor. Many of the resorts are nicer.
With good swimming by day and a beach party scene every night, Perhentian Kecil has definitely earned its spot on the infamous Banana Pancake Trail — the informal track many travelers follow through Asia. Although nightlife is far livelier on Perhentian Kecil than Perhentian Besar, parts of Perhentian Kecil do still offer some peace and quiet.
The resorts on Perhentian Besar cater to a slightly more mature crowd which typically includes couples, honeymooners, families, and budget travelers who would rather read than socialize.
The rowdier and smallest of the two islands, Perhentian Kecil is split into two sides: Long Beach on the east side and Coral Bay on the west side.
A 15-minute, partly bricked jungle trail connects the two sides of the island. Most people head directly to Long Beach on the eastern side of the island for the better beaches. The soft-sand ocean bottom is easier on the feet for swimming. Long Beach has more eating, sleeping, and nightlife options than Coral Bay. It's certainly more "lively" and developed.
Coral Bay on the western side of the island is the place to go for spectacular sunsets, slightly cheaper prices, and better snorkeling. Small, private coves along the beach offer nooks and places for setting up a base to enjoy snorkeling. When facing the sea, walk to the right and scramble over the rocks past the last resort to find a series of small private beaches.
Although the snorkeling is better on Coral Bay, the narrow beach is strewn with dead coral and shallow water that make swimming less pleasant. The anchor ropes from parked boats stretch across the beach.
Perhentian Besar, the larger and more grown up of the Perhentians, is the place to go for nicer resorts, better food, and an overall more refined experience. But don't expect posh: there are still rustic bungalows and plenty of insects.
Aside from the usual island activities and enjoying the sea, there aren't many touristic things to do on Perhentian Besar; grab a book and relax! Snorkeling is better on the northern and eastern sides of the island.
Diving and Snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands
While both islands share the same excellent dive sites, the dive operations on Perhentian Kecil are slightly cheaper than those on Perhentian Besar.
Daytime fun dives can be as inexpensive as US $25 – 30 each depending on the company and distance to the site; night dives cost around US $40.
Divers and snorkelers in the Perhentians get to enjoy excellent visibility and reefs in fairly good condition. Plenty of reef sharks, barracudas, turtles, and even occasional mantas and whale sharks keep things interesting!
Snorkel trips can be booked at kiosks on the beach. These usually include a boat trip to several snorkeling sites including Shark Point where blacktip reef sharks dazzle and spook a few snorkelers. Yes, these are those trips where you'll be surrounded by people in life vests splashing on the surface. For a more personal snorkeling experience, rent your own gear and hire a boat or head to Coral Bay.
Getting to the Perhentians
The Perhentian Islands are located on the northeast coast of Malaysia, only around 40 miles from the border of Thailand.
Boats to the islands depart from the small town of Kuala Besut. Buses to Kuala Besut from Kuala Lumpur take around nine hours, however, you may have to change in one of the major hubs such as Kota Bharu, Jerteh, or Kuala Terengganu, father to the south.
Alternatively, you can grab a cheap flight (AirAsia and Malindo Air fly the route) from Kuala Lumpur to Sultan Ismail Petra Airport in Khota Bharu (airport code: KBR) then arrange onward transportation south to Kuala Besut.
Unless your resort has agreed to provide transportation to the islands via private/charter boat, you will have to purchase a speedboat ticket in Kuala Besut. The price of the ticket usually includes return fare; save your ticket. You'll be asked to pay an additional conservation fee at the jetty before departure.
Speedboats to the islands take around 45 minutes; the ride can get rough on choppy seas. Waterproof your valuables — sea spray can drench bags and passengers! If coming into Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil, you will need to transfer to a smaller boat while bobbing at sea, pay a small fee to the boatman, then wade ashore in knee-deep water; there is no jetty. Passengers arriving on the Coral Bay side of Perhentian Kecil can disembark onto a wooden jetty.
Boats will drop passengers directly at many of the resorts on Perhentian Besar. For the ones without a dry jetty, you'll be expected to jump into knee-deep water and wade ashore.
Note: Foreign tourists will be expected to pay a RM30 marine park fee.
When to Visit the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia
The Perhentian Islands are practically shut down during the winter months; it's a bad idea to visit between November and March. Rough seas and very few visitors force many hotels, shops, and restaurants to close up for the year.
Although, anything is possible on the road. You can still charter a boat from Kuala Besut to either island, but you may find yourself mostly alone — aside from a handful of permanent residents — with fewer options during the rainy winter months.
Kuala Lumpur gets storms throughout the year, but the peak season in the Perhentian Islands runs between June and August. Accommodation can become very expensive and competitive with backpackers even sleeping on the beach or in receptions as they wait for rooms to come open!