Most people would say the Perhentian Islands are the BEST backpacker islands in Malaysia. Some might even suggest the best in SE Asia. And even a few may argue the best in the world. Do I agree? Absolutely not.
While the Perhentian Islands are a backpacker’s paradise, I didn’t fall in love with the islands the way I imagined I would. Too many blogs talked them up. Too many travelers raved over the white sand beaches and crystal clear water. Too many people talked too big of a game. And when I arrived, it was noticeable.
The first thing I noticed was the trash.
You’d think people who LOVE the islands would want to preserve them, but there was garbage everywhere! In the water, on the beaches, lining the trails… everywhere!
The second thing I noticed was the people. With the exception of a handful of locals working on the island, everyone else was a tourist. I felt like it lacked authenticity. Once undetected on the map, the Perhentian Islands (Perhentian Kecil to be exact) is now the IT hotspot for backpackers in Malaysia.
I can’t hate on the islands too much because let’s be honest, they are stunning!
After traveling for 17 hours, anyone would be a little tired (and possibly a little grouchy) upon arrival. I guess that’s where the once overly excited, eager traveler in me has finally transitioned from “wow this is awesome” to “someone please get me a bed”.
While I LOVE exploring new places, I have been getting worn out a bit, especially this month. Don’t worry, I won’t be stopping my travels any time soon, just slowing down to catch my breath.
And that’s exactly what I did in the Perhentian Islands.
The Trip There
After catching a 45 minute Uber to the Langkawi jetty (pier), then a 1 hour ferry ride from Langkawi to the mainland, then a short walk in the most desolate town I’ve ever seen, then an 10 hour overnight bus to Kuala Besut (a port town on the East coast of Malaysia), then a 10 minute walk to the port, then a super bumpy 1 hour speed boat ride almost all the way to Perhentian Kecil, and finally a boat swap (aka jumping from one boat to the next while in the middle of the water) just 30 meters off the coast… I was finally there and needed a nap!
Here’s the thing, no one books accommodation ahead of time for the island. It’s a show up and figure it out kind of place. After traveling all night and being physically exhausted (your dinner break was at 1am), you show up to Perhentian Kecil to jump into another smaller boat, then take the small boat for 1 minute and jump into the water (holding everything you own), then carry your backpack up and down the beach in the insane heat until you find a hostel or guest house you like (and with availability of course).
I knew I wasn’t getting my nap so soon.
Luckily, I met some awesome people on the speedboat over and we hunted for a hostel together. Two of them were a couple, the other two just friends. I tagged along and the 3 of us (the friends, not the couple) decided to get a private room together and split the costs (it was cheaper than the dorm and allowed for some privacy and security).
Can you believe I would be sharing a private room with two strangers who I met less than an hour ago? I couldn’t! I really hoped this worked out and I wasn’t imposing.
Anyways, they were awesome! I really enjoyed their company!
Back to the islands…
All I wanted was a warm shower and a cool room to take a nap in. Wifi too so I could catch up on messages and maybe watch a little Netflix. When we arrived, we quickly learned that ALL of this was out of the question.
Lily and Pete (my two new friends) had another friend on the island who we ran into as soon as we docked. The island is super tiny! Everyone stays on Long Beach and you can walk the entire beach in 10 minutes. You’ll see everyone you know because all the hostels, dive shops, and restaurants are on Long Beach. I even saw two friends from Langkawi who I met a few weeks earlier.
Charles (their friend) spotted us and helped us get settled into a hostel, find some good food, and connect to decent wifi. “He knows a place.”
All of us wanted/needed wifi so we ventured to Shari-La Resort on the other side of the island (Coral Bay, a 10 minute walk from Long Beach) for an all-you-can-eat buffet (15 rm) and “strong” wifi. Strong meaning AOL dial-up circa 1999.
Charles was right though! This was the best value for breakfast and strongest wifi for the price. We stuffed out hungry faces and headed back to Long Beach.
Lily and Pete headed out for the day to relax on the beach and enjoy the island life. I opted to shower and nap. But when we checked into our private room, I was immediately taken back by the lack of electricity (until 6pm). No electricity meant no air conditioning, no fan, no water heater, and no wifi. It also meant no light in the bathroom when I wanted to shower. I can’t remember if I showered in the dark or just collapsed into my bed, but as my two friends played in the ocean, I passed out for the entire day. Yes, 11am to 6:30pm. The. Whole. Day.
I was tired!
I could go on and on with a play by play of what we did for the next 3-4 days, but I’ll just give you the highlight reel instead….
There are 2 islands, Perhentian Kecil and Perhentian Besar. Perhentian Kecil is the “small island” where all the backpackers hang out. Perhentian Besar is the “big island” and where you’ll find resorts, families, and honeymooners.
When To Visit
Dry season is from April to October, with peak tourist season being July and August. If you plan on going during July or August, email a hostel or Facebook message them ahead of time to make sure you have a place to stay. If you are outside of peak season, you should be fine showing up without a reservation.
How to Get Here
Take a bus to Kuala Besut (port town). From here, take a 1 hour speed boat to Perhentian Kecil. You can purchase boat tickets in advance with your bus ride or when you arrive at Kuala Besut. The speed boat should cost 70rm ($16) for a roundtrip ticket. Buy the return ticket in advance just in case you run out of money on the island.
Boats start leaving at 8am and there is 1 every hour on the hour until about 5pm. If you get stuck in Kuala Besut, there are hostels and guest houses to stay at. I stayed at Samudera Hotel for 80rm ($20) per night, which could be split between 4 people (4 beds). There were cheaper options but I was tired and this has 24/7 air conditioning and wifi!
There are no ATMs on the Pehentian Islands so take out cash in Kuala Besut. The buses usually arrive to Kuala Besut around 6am, but the ATMs do not open until 7am. The first speed boat leaves at 7am (and then again once per hour) so plan ahead.
Wifi is horrible on the island so grab a SIM card before heading over (the 4G is great) and download your Netflix before you leave. If you need wifi, try BuBu Villas or Ewan’s Cafe.
Where to Stay
Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil is where you’ll find most of the backpackers. There’s a handful of restaurants, bars, hostels, etc. on Long Beach so everyone stays there. If you’re looking for a slightly quieter area, choose Coral Bay. Coral Bay is on the other side of the only, but only a 10 minute walk from Long Beach. There’s also a third option, D’Lagoon. D’Lagoon is SUPER CHILL and remote. It’s about a 1 hour walk through the jungle and sand mountains to get to Long Beach. It’s super isolated and a great place to relax in a hammock. There’s one restaurant and no night life. If you want to relax on a private beach, come here. If you want some socialization, stay on Long Beach and make a day trip to this part of the island.
I didn’t really love my hostel so I can’t recommend it. I think determining the “best” hostel also depends on your budget. Expect that most (not all) hostels will have limited power, air conditioning, and wifi. Some will have power all day (like the dive hostels) which means they may have a fan or air conditioning working too. I’d pick one of those!
Hostels start at about 20rm ($4.60) per night, but if you plan on diving STAY AT A DIVE SCHOOL HOSTEL because you will get a huge discount or free accommodation. Also note that you do not need to be certified to dive. You can opt for an introductory dive (250rm, $55 USD) and still benefit from the packages. Long Beach is filled with hostels and dive schools.
If you don’t dive, a friend recommended Tropicana Inn / Tivoli Backpackers (in between Long Beach and Coral Bay). If you have a question about a hostel, leave a comment below.
There are TONS of dive schools on Long Beach. I do not know which is “better” than the others because I have yet to hear a bad review about any of them. Some that I visited include Ohh La La, Panorama, and Turtle Bay Divers.
Getting certified for your PADI or SSI Open Water is really easy and inexpensive on the islands. It actually might be cheaper here than Koh Tao! Prices range from 975-1100rm ($225-$250) for the basic Open Water 4 day course. Advanced Certification, Specialties, Search & Rescue, Dive Master, and Instructor courses can also be found on the island for cheap too!
If you don’t know how to dive but want to test it out, a Discovery Dive option is available for around 250rm which allows you to learn the basics and dive for 250rm ($55). This lasts 2-3 hours and many schools will allow you to try a Discovery Dive and if you love it, you can upgrade to the Open Water Course and they will discount you the 250rm from the course price.
Diving in the Perhentians is amazing! I wasn’t able to dive as much as I would’ve liked because the visibility wasn’t the best while I was there, but some of the top sites are:
- Sugar Wreck: This is a 80m long cargo wreck named after the sugar it was carrying when it sank. It’s a 20 minute drive from the mainland but worth it if the visibility is good. Be warned, some days the current can be very strong and the visibility very poor. I went on one of those days, but friends have visited with perfect conditions and loved it! It’s also filled with fun swim throughs (including swimming through the propeller) and awesome marine life such as bamboo sharks, puffer fish, and more!
- Temple: This place is KNOWN for insane fish! Imagine swimming in a giant aquarium. You will be amazed by the thousands of fish swimming around you.
- T3: Often voted one the the best dive sites in the Perhentians, T3 is filled with huge rock formations and interesting coral structures.
- Tanjung Besi: There are some small caves here and expect to see tons of big fish such as trevally and barracuda.
- Shark Point: Sharks, duh! Its safe, don’t worry.
- Vietnamese Wreck: Another great wreck but the current can be very strong here.
- Sail Rock: Be prepared to see black tipped sharks and sea turtles here!
Fun dives allow you to dive one site and cost about 75 – 85rm ($17-$20). Fun dives typically last 1.5-2 hours.
You can snorkel nearly anywhere off the coast. Renting a snorkel and mask will cost you about 10rm ($2.50) for the day.
- Long Beach: If you are staying on Long Beach, head all the way to the edge of the beach (past the pier/jetty) and there are tons of fish in the water.
- Adam & Eve Beach: There’s a trail you can walk up to the windmill, then back down on the other side. Here you will find a mysterious unnamed beach, Adam & Eve Beach, and D’Lagoon. All three places have great snorkeling off the coast. We saw 2 baby black tipped sharks off the coast of Adam & Eve Beach. If you’re looking for the windmill, just ask a local and they will point you in the right direction.
View from Windmill at Perhentian Kecil
Beaches & Hikes
It’s a quick 10 minute walk from Long Beach to Coral Bay. These two beaches are where you will find most (if not all) of the accommodations and “life” on the island. If you’re looking to hike to a further beach, start in Long Beach and head to Romantic Beach, Unnamed Beach, Adam & Eve Beach, Turtle Bay, and/or D’Lagoon. The furthest trek is from Long Beach to D’Lagoon lasting about 1 hour through the sand mountains and jungle. Plan ahead with snacks and water because it can get HOT on the hikes and there is nothing in the jungle. All of these hikes can be found on maps.me (download this free offline maps app).
- Long Beach: Main beach filled with hostels, dive shops, restaurants, bars, etc.
- Coral Bay: Alternative to Long Beach and also filled with hostels, dive shops, restaurants, bars, etc. but with a much chiller vibe. If you are looking at the water while at Coral Bay, head all the way to the left and there is a camping area and restaurant in the rainforest which apparently has puppies to play with outside!
- Romantic Beach: We didn’t make it here but sounds amazing! Apparently you follow the path to the “windmill” and end up here. We got lost but still had an epic day. If you make it here, leave a picture in the comments below.
- Unnamed Beach: We got lost on the way to Romantic Beach and ended up here. Its right next to Adam & Eve Beach. You can swim from here to Adam & Eve Beach but not walk. To walk, you’ll have to backtrack towards the windmill and follow the signs to D’Lagoon. Somewhere in the jungle you’ll see a sign for Adam & Eve Beach.
- Adam & Eve Beach: Another gorgeous beach with crystal clear water and awesome snorkeling off the coast. You can find this on the “windmill” hike and if you get lost, head towards D’Lagoon and there will be a sign in the jungle directing you to Adam & Eve Beach.
- Turtle Bay: I didn’t venture here but have heard awesome things! Let me know if you make it!
- D’Lagoon: Such a chill beach with a private lagoon, beach, hostel, and restaurant. After a long day of hiking and snorkeling, we plopped down here for lunch and a nap on the hammocks. After a few hours, we caught a boat ride back to Long Beach for 10rm ($2.50) each. Otherwise the walk is 1 hour.
Long Beach is the place to be for nightlife. You’ll find tons of tiki hut bars on the beach, fire dancer shows, music, and Shisa (hookah) bars. Panorama Bar (on Long Beach) has a great nighttime vibe!
Wifi on the island is horrible. If you don’t have a SIM card or desperately need to connect, try BuBu Villa or Ewan’s Cafe. When standing on Long Beach and looking at the water, BuBu Villa is all the way to the right. It’s expensive so order a water/soda and enjoy the moderately priced wifi. Ewan’s Cafe is in between Long Beach and Coral Bay. Type it into maps.me (free offline map app) or ask a local to point you to the path. Ewan’s has at least 10+ wifi routers to keep you connected.
Leaving the Island
The speed boat leaves 3 times per day at 8am, noon, and 4pm. You need to let the boat know 1 day in advance (usually) and be at the jetty (dock) 30 minutes prior to leaving. We left same-day without notifying the boat and had no issues. To notify the boat, simply tell your hostel.
I stayed in Kuala Besut after visiting Perhentian Kecil because I was in desperate need of strong wifi and cold a/c. I wasn’t able to plan my next leg of my trip with the limited wifi on Perhentian Kecil so I found comfort in the port town Kuala Besut for 2 nights. It’s a small town with nothing to do, but it was perfect for what I needed. I stayed at Samudera Hotel for 80rm ($20) per night, which could be split between 4 people (4 beds). There were cheaper options but I was tired and this has 24/7 air conditioning and wifi!
If you are planning on catching an ongoing transport, buses to the Cameron Highlands and Taman Negara leave at 10am so much sure to catch the 8am speed boat from Perhentian Kecil if you want to make this trip on the same day.
If you are headed to Kuala Lumpur (KL), I believe there are several bus options including a night bus at 8pm.
I left Perhentian Kecil and stayed in Kuala Besut for 2 nights while mapping out my route for Malaysia and then headed to the Cameron Highlands. I opted to skip Taman Negara because I heard the jungles in Borneo are better, but visit both and make the decision for yourself!
What are your travel plans while in Malaysia?
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