Perhentian Island review 2

RM160 escapade: Island on a budget (Perhentian ISLAND)

You don't need to be rich to holiday on a South China Sea island. For a paltry sum, PUTRI ZANINA finds a slice of paradise in Pulau Perhentian Kecil.

ALL you need is just RM160 and you can escape to a world-class island. How? Well, travel on the cheap, like backpackers do. Your destination? Pulau Perhentian Kecil, off the coast of Terengganu and well known all over the world as a backpackers’ haven.

Lonely Planet, the popular guidebook for those who travel on a shoestring budget, describes the island as having “one of the best backpacker beaches in mainland Southeast Asia”. It’s not surprising then to see a young international crowd, mostly singles, converging on the island, turning it into a small global village. Here, everyone gets into island mode – relaxing under the sun and sinking gently into the tranquility of this heavenly spot with its warm, welcoming sea.
Sins & Families

That morning, when our boat sped towards the island from the jetty at Kuala Besut, our boatman enquired whether we were going to the big island or the small island. “The small one,” we told him, referring to Perhentian Kecil, one of two islands that make up Pulau Perhentian. The big one, Perhentian Besar, is separated from the little one by just 10 minutes by boat. He smiled, his yellow-tainted teeth shining against the bright sunlight. “Itu pulau maksiat,” he said, his voice rising above the roar of the engine. We smiled at him knowingly. We knew that some locals dubbed Perhentian Kecil as the “island of vice (maksiat)” where singles and the “single-at-heart” meet, mingle and party.

The boatman then told us that locals prefer Perhentian Besar. “It is suitable for families. You can find more comfortable lodging there. Only two of you travelling together?” he enquired, looking at us as he squinted against the sun. Because he was such a nosy character, we gingerly steered him away from personal stuff and into small talk about how beautiful the sea was. And beautiful it was indeed, the blue-green sea with water glinting in the sunlight. The sweeping view of sky and sea, punctuated with little boats in the horizon, was nothing short of dazzling.

Village Ambience

About 30 minutes later, we approached the shore of Perhentian Besar where half the number of passengers in the boat, all locals, got off. The rest of us, 10 altogether, including a motley group of western backpackers, would be going on to the little island. Barely rising from above the waves, a gentle slope of white sand beach festooned with coconut palms and casuarina trees loomed into view. Our boat stopped not too far from the beach.

Almost on cue, several little boats sped towards us. These would ferry us to the shore. When we finally stepped on land, we hung on to our backpacks and walked along the beach under the searing sun. Thirsty and exhausted, we stopped at the nearest chalet. Tucked against a rocky headland in the southeastern side of the island, the wooden shacks of the Lemon Grass Chalets, well shaded among trees, beckoned like a cool oasis. It looked like a small village with traditional Malay houses built on stilts.

We decided to book a chalet there. The rate was unbelievably low. Only RM35 for a chalet for two! Each chalet has a veranda. Our neighbours, two caucasian girls clad in batik sarong tied over their bikinis, were within hearing shot! They had a ready smile when we waved and responded with a cheerful “hello!” Once inside the chalet, however, we couldn’t wait to get out! It was steaming hot inside and we couldn’t switch on the table fan as electricity was available only from 7pm to 7am.

There was a double bed with a thin mattress covered with, thankfully, a clean sheet. That was all but hey, we couldn’t expect more for the meagre amount we paid. A common bath area and the toilets are located outside. Rainwater is collected in barrels and this is used for washing, and even bathing, when the piped water runs low. Owned by Ma Hussin Yusof, Lemon Grass has been in operation for the last nine years.

There are 16 units of chalets, occupied mainly by foreigners. “Only about five per cent are locals,” said the reception staff. A quick glance through the guest-book showed that the guests were mainly students from England and other parts of Europe. We were told that some have stayed on the island for over a month. A few even worked part time at local sundry shops and snorkelling/diving centres to raise money before they moved on to other places. A few have even settled down here, marrying locals or staying with adopted families.

Famous Long Beach
On the island, the great outdoors are everyone’s playground. The action is all out there, especially over at the Long Beach. It’s the most famous and the longest stretch of beach on the island. Hardly anyone calls it by its local name, Pantai Pasir Panjang. Lazy chairs and colourful umbrellas dot the sparkling white sand beach.

If you’re taking a stroll along the beach, you may find it hard to keep your eyes “straight” ahead. But try you must, as it is rude to stare at the skimpily clad men and women sunbathing and relaxing under the sun. Here, the code of conduct is “don’t stare, judge or comment”. Just smile and if you feel like it, strike up a conversation and ask a few friendly questions.

Despite the many people on the beach, you can still find your own spot of privacy. Why, even white belly eagles seem tame and often land on a quiet spot here. Lining the beach are rustic little beach cafes and restaurants with wooden poles and nipah roofs. Buoys, flags and batik sarongs hanging from the roofs or hung on poles and walls add colour to the lazy island ambience. Equally enchanting are the names of some of the drinking joints, eateries and chalets – Matahari (sun), Symphony, Moonlight, Panorama and D’Lagoon, all of which add to the touch of romance in the air.

Do Not Disturb
We spent the afternoon sipping the island’s specialty drink, coconut shake — coconut milk or santan blended with ice and vanilla ice cream and served in a tall glass. Just perfect for chilling out in the hot afternoon. We gazed at the turquoise-blue waters, watching others bathe in the sea or set out in boats for a spot of snorkelling and diving. The surrounding waters are protected areas so there’s a thriving marine life and healthy coral gardens to admire. The young crowd on the beach was oblivious to others. Hours passed with many of them just lying on lazy chairs or on towels spread on the sand. Reading, sunbathing, sleeping or having quiet chat over cool drinks – it was each to his or her own private indulgence. Very little broke the peace of the quiet moments except for the occasional sounds of boats passing by.

Lots Of Green
For a change of scene, we trekked the hilly, lightly forested interior towards the western side of the island. Well-posted signs directed us along the trail from Long Beach to the tiny and pretty Coral Bay or Aur Bay on the western part. It was an easy 15-minute walk along footpaths through the jungle. The highest point with tall trees accorded us a peek at the sea, craggy mountainside and picturesque chalets tucked among pockets of greens. Much of the island remains shrouded in greenery, rocky land and cliffs surrounding the bays and inlets. These are home to birds, monitor lizards and bees humming among flowery bushes. Coral Bay has a small strip of beach and not too far away is the Sunset Beach. The best time to be there is obviously when the sun is going down. Watching the white sand turning gold and amber as the sun went down below the horizon made our day.

Party Time!
Walking back to Long Beach, we saw lights twinkling on the beachfront. When the sun goes down, the tempo goes up. Night is definitely not the time to retire to the chalets and catch some sleep. It is time to party! There was music and, if anyone chose, there was dancing. Certainly, there was a lot of merrymaking, drinking and dining. Beach parties are one of the island’s attractions. But we saw no evidence of purportedly “wild” scenes of drunken people getting rowdy or couples smooching openly. Instead, everyone was having a good time, eating and drinking and listening to music that went on till the wee hours.

Feeling Right At Home
Sleep came very hard but we managed to knock off for maybe two to three hours. At the crack of dawn, we were back on the beach. At that time, the island was totally seductive, the water inviting. We took a dip and found the water warm and wonderfully soothing. We had the beach all to ourselves while the rest of the island slept on. The rocky cliffs seemed so familiar then and we felt so comfortably at home. Yes, in a way we did as I am sure so many others must have felt too. But for now, we were all cocooned in our own beautiful dreams on this island paradise.
How Much

The estimated budget of RM160 covers the cost for one person on 2D/1N stay (twin sharing RM17.50 each) in a budget chalet, return bus fare Kuala Lumpur-Kuala Besut jetty (RM14), return speed boat fare Kuala Besut jetty-Pulau Perhentian Kecil (RM60), return small boat transfer (RM4), entrance fee to the island, which is within a marine park (RM5) and meals for two days (RM60).

If you travel by express train from Kuala Lumpur, you will need to pay more. Economy seat on train (RM56 return) and taxi fare from the train station in Wakaf Baru in Kelantan to Kuala Besut (about RM80 return). If you want to snorkel or dive, set aside another RM40 for the trip and RM65 to RM90 per dive. Bring more cash for contingencies and if you want to splurge a little.

Where To Stay
Long Beach: Lemon Grass Chalets, Matahari Chalets, Chempaka Chalets and Panorama Chalets for back to basic lodging. Bubu Long Beach Resort offers a more comfortable stay.

Coral Bay: Fatimah Chalets, Maya Beach Resort and Aur Bay Chalets. There are many other chalets that charge from RM10 for dormitory-style accommodation to over RM270 for room with air-conditioning and bathroom.

Most chalets don’t accept advance booking and they are fully occupied most of the time. Plan to arrive early at the island to check for room availability. Bring along a tent in case all rooms are fully booked, especially during peak season. For details, contact local travel agents offering tours to Perhentian.

Two of these are Kuala Besut Travel & Tours (09-697 4948) or Ping Anchorage Travel & Tours (09-626 2020). Lemon Grass Chalets can be reached by calling 019-938 3893/012-900 8393.

What To Eat
Beach cafes and restaurants offer both local and western fare. You can get some fairly good western food as eateries there cater mostly to westerners. Western breakfast (toast and pancakes, from RM3 to RM6), sandwiches RM4.50 to RM6, main dishes like spaghetti and rice dishes (from RM7) and barbecue (from RM10).

How To Get There
Pulau Perhentian in the South China Sea is located 20km off the coast of Terengganu. The main gateway is Kuala Besut, 108km from Kuala Terengganu (about two hours) and 54km from Kota Baru or Wakaf Baru, Kelantan (about one hour). Boat ride from Kuala Besut: 30 minutes by speedboat and 1 1/2 hours by slow boat.

Best Time To Go
March to September, but avoid school holidays and public holidays. The island is closed during the monsoon season from October to February.

What’s On
Mark August in your calendar for the annual Perhentian Island Challenge. This year, it will be from August 24 to 26. It is a multi-sport endurance race that includes swimming, kayaking, trail/beach running and water orienteering. Now into its fourth year, the challenge this year offers cash prizes totalling RM50,000.

There is a new category for first-timers in addition to the Elite category. Be there to watch participants from all over the world in keen competition. Entertainment, traditional games and food fair are added attractions.

For details, contact or call 013-210 9283 or 03-2142 6688.


Extremely informative and detailed. Thanks a lot, helps me a lot to plan my wkend vacation. thanks !

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