Pulau Bidong

Pulau Bidong or Palau Bidong

Pulau Bidong or Palau Bidong by the American War Veteran. This little island was also know as little Saigon and is an historical island, which lay many memories to a lot of the of the older generation and the former the Boat People I had went in search for article about the Boat people.
.. ......after reading those article I was lost with words that I had decided to post the Story of the island from journey Malaysia and other that I put up together here as I don’t think I have the right to write about things that I don’t know.

Never go to Pulau Bidong Alone even though it is not restricted to the public any more, as There are many traps in form of abandoned wells dug which was dug by the refugees for fresh water a decade ago


Pulau Bidong- The Story

In “Deer Hunter”, a movie starring Robert de Niro and Christopher Walken exploded into the theatres in 1978, and became one of the movie industry's historical turning points. This film dealt with lives of U.S. war veterans and their failure to assimilate into society back home after the Vietnam War.Many moviegoers in the U.S. knew someone or of someone who had gone off to fight and lost a part of them there. The impact of atrocities of war had never been more realised nor had it ever been so close to heart.

On the other side of the fence, whilst the Americans were picking pieces of their lives, the Vietnamese people had still to live through the terror, long after the U.S. veterans had left their land. As the last of the U.S. administrators and officers left Saigon on 29th and 30th April 1975, things began to change for the Vietnamese people. Millions of people were displaced, orphaned and millions suffered all through the next 2 decades.

Little did we realise at the time, Malaysia was already feeling the ripples caused by that war . There were many displaced victims of war, who were desperate to leave the country. They sold whatever they could and bribed anyone that was willing to ‘help' them gain a passage out of Vietnam. Those lucky enough, bought themselves space on cramped wooden boats heading for a new life in neighbouring countries. Others tried to trek across to the Thai borders where they hoped to secure asylum there.

Their journey was a perilous one. No one knew what to expect upon arrival in the new land. The boats were usually so cramped, most passengers had little more than crouching spaces. Storms came and went; illnesses and malnutrition took away a few elders, children and the weak; and pirates pillaged boats. Stories were told of pirates ruthlessly raping, killing, and throwing victims overboard. Occasionally, bodies were washed up ashore.
To others, the greatest fear was that if marine patrol boats were to catch up with them before arriving at their specified destination, their sentence would be an immediate return to Vietnam and.... a death sentence.

The Boat People in Pulau Bidong

Still even with the many danger that they face ,yet more and more of the ‘Boat People', made their parelial journeys despite the slim chances of them making the entire journey unscathed. Many arrived on Malaysian soil - praying that the Malaysian authorities would not send them back. They soon learnt that if they ‘broke' their boats by crashing them onto rocks in shallow waters, they could buy more time with the immigration officials. The officials had no choice but to house them in camps until proper documentation etc were issued.

The refugees landed wherever they could and realising that there may be more to come, the authorities agreed to allow camps to be set up for them. One chosen camp location was Pulau Bidong. The Pulau Bidong refugee camp started in 1975 and was sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR). The Malaysian Red Crescent Society, on the other hand, was responsible for the daily operations at the camp.

Some 250,000 refugees filtered through this camp between 1975 and 1991. When the camp closed , all remaining refugees were relocated or were returned to Vietnam.
Although the almost circular island has land space of about 2km in diameter, the camp occupied only a small area. Real estate was the career to choose at the camp. After all, like anywhere - it's location, location, location! Refugees leaving the camp would sell their shacks to new arrivals or brokers from as little as US$20 to as high as US$400.

Black market also thrived in the community. Local fishermen traded with several Vietnamese who were brave enough to swim out to the fishing boats, anchored some distance from the island. With black market came gangsters, vendors, suppliers and the rest. If there was a market, there was supply. Even prostitution was not uncommon. But not everyone worked for a ‘Big Brother'….not full time, that is. There were those who were employed as labourers and administrators in the offices and were paid in food parcels - the common denomination of the island's economy.

The Malaysian Red Crescent Society had an administration office at the camp. A temple was built with the help of the Malaysian government, UNCHR and the red crescent society. A school, a church, a clinic, shops and a cemetery was also set up at camp. All left abandoned now. The wooden structures are disintegrating with the years of neglect but the stories of their lives are etched, carved and preserved on slabs and in memorials left behind by the boat people….those that lived through the ordeals and unjust punishment of a war


Pulau Bidong a tourist spot?

Although this tiny island only had the capacity to accommodate for 4,500 refugees, however during some very ‘peak’ seasons, it once sheltered almost 40,000 people. To ensure the better living condition, long houses were built with schools, workshops, post office, church, temple, tailors, hair salons, bakery, noodle shops, sundry shops, even disco and bar etc. as to serve the basic needs. The home missing emotion can even seen not only on these imitation, the refugees even named on the beach here as Pantai Cina-China Beach, the famous counterpart in Vietnam. Therefore it is no doubt why Bidong was also called Little Saigon.

Bidong was the temporary home for the refugees before they are resettled to third country.Time taken for resettlement process varied from each individual. Some took a few months and some few years. While waiting for the news, UNHCR had organized vocational training, languages classes, kindergarten etc. for the refugees as a preparation for them to face the challenges of life when they are resettled in other countries. Those who are rejected in the resettlement process will then be transferred to Sungai Besi Refugee Camp.

When the last batch of the refugees left the island in 1991, Bidong Island was officially handed back to the Terengganu state government, but remains restricted to the public until 1999.

So,what happen to Bidong Island after the handover and after 1999? and what is left on the island?

Though there was proposal to preserve the relics on the island, but when the first group of visitor stepped on the island after nearly 8 years being isolated from the world outside, those collapsed and rotting buildings and overgrown bushes imply that none of the preservation action has been carried out. Few buildings had been torched, equipment that remained in the vocational work
shops has been smashed, wooden platform of the jetty was completely stripped… the nature, by the wildlife and also, by human.

Nevertheless, few structures are safe from the destructive action, such as an artificial boat besides the temple to commemorate those arrival on the island, statute of a father who pulls his beloved daughter out from the sea, cement memories with heart aching words inscribed, gravestones marking the burial plots etc. They stand like a mute reminder to the world.

Recently there are interests to turn this island into a tourist spot. But what kind of tourism can it be and should it be? This is a big question mark leaves for people whoever involves in the industry. Some say to construct new sky scrapping hotel buildings like other islands; some suggest to make the Little Saigon reborn and alive again by rebuilding the bar and disco and, some recommend to make Bidong Island a memorial island thus promoting heritage tour…

Before anything turn into reality, afford to bring tourists here has long started by some local tour operators. In year 2003, a group of former boat people who have resettled in other countries made their trip back to this island, which was once sheltered them from the waves of life. Many of them came back with their spouse. Their vision was bursting into tears, words turned into sobbing. A simple chanting ceremony was taken out by a group of Buddhism-Chinese as to calm the soul of those dead relatives and fellows. To them, this island is more than a bitter part of their history.

To date, fewer Malaysian tourists come here, not only because they are not familiar with the name but also, some of them claim that there is black spirit on the island. (there were many death)

Regardless how true it is, a 3D2N package tour with accommodation in resorts or hotel in the mainland or a day trip is available now from Kuala Terengganu to the island in order to give a chance to have a glimpse on this island before proceeding to snorkelling or diving trip in adjacent water. A guided tour is advisable even though you can simply hire a boat from Merang to the island yourself. There are many traps in form of abandoned wells dug by the refugees for fresh water.

Whether or not this island is going to be another Tourist attraction as famous as Redang or Tioman in the eyes of tourism, it remains a very special part in the heart for many Vietnamese and Malaysian Helper who had serve there. And, although Bidong Island is not familiar to the younger generation today, it will always has its place in the Malaysia’s modern history.




20 April 2012,New Straits Times
Pulau Bidong to be opened to day-trippers



Bidong is now under the preservation of Malaysian University Of Terengganu


I would like to get into contact with people who had been on the island in 1987 or 1988.


I would like to find people who had been on the island in 1987 and 1988. Please contact me


I would like to get into contact with people who had been on the island in 1987 or 1988.


Amazing history. Cant imagine what they have gone through. Im proud to know Malaysia helped these boat people 30 years back. The writer is totally right, there is definitely ripple effect of war.

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