Our first stop after Singapore was the island paradise of Perhentian Kecil – the “cheaper” of the two Perhentian Islands, more popular with backpackers and staging point for diving and snorkelling trips, where you can feed the fish, see sharks and possibly swim with turtles.
We left Singapore on a bus. Well two buses, first of all the public transit bus to the bus transit stop and then on our bus that would take us across the border and up to Kuala Terengganu (KT), our stopping off point to head to the Perhentian Islands. We’d bought our tickets for the Singapore-KT online, arrived at the back of the Park Royal Hotel on Beach Road skirted through a little luxury and sat waiting for the bus after raiding the local 711 for food during the journey.
There’s one thing you can always guarantee in Asia. There will be something to eat wherever you stop. Even if you don’t stop, someone will get on a bus and try and sell you something. Of course you might not want to eat it.. and so we bought some sandwiches.
Our Trans Nasional bus took us from central Singapore to the border at Johor Bharu, waited for us as we exited Singapore and were stamped into Malaysia and then took us to the bus station in Kuala Terengganu, where we spent the night in a tiny windowless room in the DJ Citi Point Hotel, a few minutes walk from the bus station.
To get to the Perhentians we needed one of the three daily buses that go there. We’d opted for the 0730, so arrived at 0700 “just in case”. This was the local bus of local buses. Despite being on a relatively well Banana Pancaked route, there was little information in English and ours, gleaned from the information booth of the bus company running the route the night before, was wrong. We left at 0800, but the tickets did indeed cost 10.80 RM each.
Just under two hours later we pulled up outside a travel agency near the bus station in Kuala Besut, and our driver pointed us inside to get our tickets. There were 8 of us. Two needed money (there are no ATM’s on the Perhentians as of 2015) and were whipped off on motorbikes to the ATM, the rest of us bought “fast boat” tickets.
It’s a bit of a misnomer, as this is the only way to get there now, but still it was 35 RM for the return ticket – if you can buy a single ticket they weren’t selling them there.
Next there’s a yomp around to the harbor where we each pay our 5 RM National Park Entrance fee, which supposedly lasts for 3 days, I don’t know what happens if you stay for longer, but I still have a stinky cold, so we won’t be diving here, I’m not even convinced I’ll be snorkeling.
Kecil is the backpacker hangout, so we’re told. The big island is more refined and highbrow. For that we read expensive, so decide to so go to the small island. The boat will either take us to Coral Bay (Teluk Aur) or to Pasir Panjang (Long Beach). We opt for Long Beach, the main backpacker hangout. It might be noisier, but this is the off season, so we’re hopeful it’s just open. Our boat stops some 40 meters out, whereupon a few guys with smaller boats head on over.
it’s a 2 RM transfer fee, so unless we want to swim (with our bags) from here, we pay up and he get us there, almost without my feet getting wet – it’s a door to doorish service, he basically asks where we’re staying and he drops you on the beach opposite where that accommodation is.
We haven’t booked anything, because the only places to stay that you can book online are expensive. Like US$50 a night expensive.
But this is what everyone does. They rock up, wander up and down the beach to find something, presumably eventually finding something and then crash. So hence the early start. Although now it’s about noon and it’s only us and the mad dogs that are traipsing up and down the beach.
Head over here if you do want to book your accommodation in the Perhentians
The Matahari Chalet is too expensive, their 60 RM rooms have gone and its now 140 RM for an air con room which isn’t that great. We head back along the beach and check out the Lemon Grass, which makes me shudder. Then the next door set of bungalows which has a large pool of stagnant water outside (which just makes me think Malaria, Dengue and getting bitten all night) and then head back down the beach trailed by the mad dogs. (note the mad dogs are in my imagination and are related to the midday sun and Englishmen, we didn’t actually see, hear or spot any in our trip to the Perhentians…)
We find our home at the Panorama Chalets, where for 120 RM (US$28) a night we get a fan cooled room, with a private bathroom and cold shower. It’s grungy and it’s expensive but its the cheapest we’re getting ourselves into, the others were just too horrid.
There’s electric, there’s internet, and there’s a free meal each per night included in the cost. This place apparently serves the best pizzas on the island so I’m sold. Although the island is small, how hard can it be to have the best pizzas?
We’d planned originally to dive here, but the remnants of my cold mean that it’s not going to happen, so we’re here to see what it’s like more than anything. If it’s paradise, then it’s similar to the Gili Islands in that paradise means the accommodation is basic and/or expensive. It means that paradise means you can get pizza, burger and a tuna sandwich and that there’s always a cold beer within reach, especially at sunset.
it’s partly rainy season here, so the clouds are ominous on an afternoon, and although we don’t get wet, it’s enough to have us heading for cover at the end of the day.
Each place to stay and each dive shop offers snorkeling trips, so steeling ourselves against the memories of the Gili Islands, where 70 of us crowded onto a 40 person capacity boat, we sign up. How bad can it be?
It turns out to be incredible. There are five stops. There are 14 of us on the boat, and the boats designed for perhaps 20. There are other boats, but not too many. We see multiple turtles, but don’t chase them like our guide did in the Gili’s. There are amazing amounts of brightly colored fish (our guide cum boatman brings bread and they feed from our hands). The coral is somewhat disappointing, but that’s I think to be expected when I see multiple people standing on it.
When something similar happened in Cancun, the marine park reacted by opening an underwater art museum its a unique experience that’s well worth a visit!
We even get to see junior black tipped sharks and that is amazing. Even if I had an underwater camera, (and this was another oh, we REALLY need one moment ) I wouldn’t have been quick enough to catch them. They are incredibly fast.
And while our final stop is on the beach on the big island, I stay in the water just enjoying the moment and the solitude.
The Perhentians were a pleasant diversion, the snorkeling was superb and the break from the reality that is budget travel in Asia was nice – no buses to deal with, no washing to do, I ate pizza (and it was good pizza) two nights in a row and I drank 7RM cans of Chang beer sitting on the beach watching the storm clouds. It wasn’t paradise, but the more I see of beach paradises, the more I think my paradise is a mountain somewhere with lakes, trees and endless skies. And that means we either need to go back to Nepal or book the flight to New Zealand..
Enough dreaming.. next stop is up the coast, Kota Bharu, where World War II started in the Pacific, the site of the first Japanese landing.
Don’t forget to book your buses, ferries and trains – and confirm your travel. Easybook have the largest network in South East Asia!
- Where we stayed in Singapore – the Amrise Hotel
- Where we stayed in Kuala Terenggau – the DJ Citi Point
- Where we stayed in Perhentian Kecil – The Panorama Chalets
- Crossing the border from Malaysia to Thailand at Rantau Panjang
- What to Eat in Penang