Malaysia | The Heart + Soul of Asia

I can’t take credit for the title. This was a verse from the very catchy welcome song that sang as we landed, and (to my chagrin) it’s been playing on repeat in my head this whole time, haha. BUT there is definitely some truth to the statement.

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Malaysia is an absolute GEM and I’ve only spent time on one little island off the mainland. This is a place that I wasn’t planning to discover, but now that I have I’ll have to be back to explore more. The reason I even found myself here this time is because I was looking for an off-shoot trip from my time in Singapore, to which a quick google search (honestly) landed me on the Perhentian Islands and I was hooked.

Everything was absolutely seamless getting here. Starting with the one-hour flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, connecting to a second one-hour flight to Kota Bharu followed by a one-ish hour taxi trip from the airport to the Kuala Besut Jetty – it was a process, but it was seamless.

The most noteworthy thing upon landing in Kuala Lumpur given that I was also travelling during the off-season to the Perhentian Islands, is that I was very much a “stand-out” guest heading to Kota Bharu. Being a predominantly Muslim country, I was prepared with modest cover but make sure you have clothing to cover your shoulders and knees despite the crippling heat when travelling here, and be prepared for a lot of people to ask to take their picture with you LOL I think I’m famous on a local insta page somewhere by now.

The second most notable point for me upon landing in Kota Bharu (aside from being placed with a female driver as a solo-female traveller – this has never happened to me before and I was actually so grateful for it!) was just how many palm trees there are here! Seriously! I’ve never seen so many palm trees all together in one place in all my life. It’s beautiful.

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My race-car, I mean taxi, driver was ripping down these streets and thankfully she moved quickly because I was able to catch a ferry to the islands TWO hours earlier than I had bargained for – an amazing bonus.

I’ll admit, after having been a naive tourist who was twice taken advantage of in Vietnam years ago, I was expecting to be ‘tried-on’ in Kota Bharu and I’m totally regretful for having felt that way. My experience was in fact the exact opposite. There was no haggling or bartering, and honestly it was almost to the point where most people were apathetic to my clear “I-don’t-know-where-I-am-or-what-I’m-doing, please-help” vibe. That being said, as soon as I would ask someone for assistance they would go so far above and beyond the call of duty I felt completely welcomed and at ease.

And then, after a drawn-out day of travel…paradise.

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Perhentian Kecil (the bigger of the islands and the more attractive option for backpackers in particular) was one of the most laid-back, beautiful beaches I have found in my travels to date. Actually, it might even take the #1 title for best swimming, softest sand and clearest blue waters in my books.

I spent my week on this one island with budget accommodation on the first three nights, followed by a VERY welcome upgrade to the fanciest resort on the beach for the last two nights. As it turns out – the island essentially shuts on on October 15th (news to me! But also, Monsoon season) so when I checked in to my less-than-best budget Inn, I was greeted with the warmest smile and the welcoming phrase, “I have some bad news.”

Well, this bad news (aka the place would be shutting down for the season half-way through my stay) turned into everything I needed to “break the bank” and treat myself to a proper bed, rainfall shower, SOAP, electricity and pure full-on luxury that manifested itself in the bathrobe I basically lived in haha. Turns out, in some cases money truly can buy you happiness.

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With that, I bring to you the best of time here, my highlights of the Perhentian Islands:

BEACH BATHING | I said it before, but wow this beach is insanely perfect in every way. Soft white sand, beautiful clear, blue water, heat that will melt you if you let it (but refer to the clear, blue water and you’ve found your reprieve).

I spent entire days on the beach, rotating like a rotisserie chicken before taking a quick dip to cool off. Taking advantage of low tide I would walk from Long Beach to a tiny tucked away secluded area away from the bustle of main strip, and on two very special occasions did I have this whole place entirely to myself.

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SNORKELLING + DIVING | I didn’t dive, but I have to mention that Perhentian Islands are THE place if you want to get PADI certified in paradise, for less. Especially on Long Beach you’ll find Dive Shop after Dive Shop boasting courses to get you ready for the freedom of being certified to dive anywhere in the world.

For me, snorkelling was enough, and truthfully I almost didn’t do it, but I’ve come to learn it’s these experiences that aren’t at the top of my to-do list which are often the most transformative or plain-old fun for me, so the sheer fact that I wasn’t SUPER keen to go was indication enough for me to go ahead and sign right up.

Wow, wow, WOW! I did the “short trip” (there are basically 4 standard trips you can take all building off of this most basic one I chose), but this alone was epic.

Stop 1: Fish Point with massive coral bigger than any I’ve ever seen – some was probably 3 or 4 feet tall with schools on schools of colourful fishies flitting about.

Stop 2: Shark Point was reached with the preface that it’s very rare to actually see any sharks. I’m not sure what luck was on my side but I must have swam alongside at least 6 black-tipped reef sharks. SHARKS! Just free-swimming like that! This was easily a highlight for me and such an amazing experience to see these majestic creatures up close and personal in their own environment. I wish I had an underwater camera to share with you the beauty of it all.

Stop 3: Turtle Point in which a gigantor sea turtle was actually floating at the surface with his little head above water (taking in some O2 I imagine) right as we arrived. I have NEVER seen this before. He later floated back down and swam along the ocean floor as slowly and calmly as you would imagine him to.

Are you sold yet?

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WINDMILL HIKE + BLUE LAGOON | I’m being generous with the term “hike.” This is more of an uphill climb through the jungle on a very-well trodden path for like, 20 minutes haha. If you scale down to the broken dock though, I’d say to allow yourself probably an hour, and at least one or two moments of panic where it feels like the whole thing is about to come crashing down…but I digress.

To start out, you walk behind the campsite from Long Beach west of Awatif Cafe and look for the signs to Kincir Angin which you’ll basically follow these signs all the way. There are many off-shoot paths that can be potentially confusing, but look for the sign at each fork because it is there, even if hidden.

Of course I went 8 months without crossing paths with a snake in Australia, and the first trek I take here I nearly stepped on one within 5 minutes, but that aside the jungle walk itself up to the windmill is really not that picturesque. I also encountered multiple of these massive black flying beetles which look like a character straight out of a Disney Pixar movie (or maybe it’s the other way around) but in either case, they’re BIG and not the most agile in flight so they’ll sometimes bee-line straight towards your face…so, duck.

It’s once you walk around the windmill to the treacherous, rusted out staircase on the back-side where the going gets good! I know that sounds sarcastic, but it’s actually not.

Here, see for yourself:

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Yes, you have to hold on to the shaky sides and side-step for most of it, but it’s a small thrill that I enjoyed, and I was definitely rewarded by the views. You could take a dip at the bottom as well depending on how high the tide is, and if you’re up for another small climb to get to and from another little strip of beach. Diving off the broken dock would also be an awesome, but I didn’t see a clear way to get back up?! I guess dive at your own risk on that one.

TIPS FOR TRAVEL TO THE PERHENTIAN ISLANDS
The Islands are very adept to the tourist traffic that has increasingly found it’s way here over the years, but there are a few points that I think are worth mentioning to help you plan your time here:

– There is no ATM/Bank on the island, so bring cash. Very few places, aside from the fancy (read expensive) resorts will take credit card, so plan your budget and bring enough cash to get you through (and then some in case you fall in love with it so much you decide to stay longer…a very common story here I’d imagine)!
Electricity is not a given. Most places will shut down for the majority of the day with no power, maybe a generator, but that would only run for a few hours in the afternoon at best. The budget room I stayed at only had power between 7PM and 7AM which meant no lights/charge capabilities or anything else that comes along with electric during the day. Not a huge deal as you’re usually not in your room during those hours anyways, but just a word of warning to make sure you’re fully charged overnight. Wifi can otherwise almost always be found at restaurants if your accommodation ‘loses’ power during the day-times.
Slow-season (bordering on No-season) was something I was not aware of! It must have been a booking flaw that I was even able to reserve my original room for as long as I did because, as we know, the place and most places around it shut down on October 15th. It’s evident in the zero-fucks-given attitude by most homestays/restaurants/cafes who are clearly at the end of their working season and are ready for a well-earned break. Everyone is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it’s clear that the general feeling is that of it being 4PM on a Friday before a long weekend and they’re ready to get the fuck out of the “office” haha.  The silver-lining? The island is SO quiet, for the most part deals are a bounty, and you can get some beautiful beach time all to yourself.
– There is no need to book a Ferry in advance during slow season – just show up to the Jetty and find yourself a ride. High season is apparently a different story in which you can can book online in advance – I did this anyways via Perhentian Trans Holiday at busonlineticket.com.
– You have to book a round-trip Ferry, but most places (or at least the place I booked with) also offer a cheap shuttle back to the Kota Bharu Airport or your next destination as part of the return trip so this is a welcome and easy bonus.
– Even once you have your return ticket booked you MUST CALL about an hour prior to your scheduled pick-up time on departure day to ensure the boat is in fact running and confirm with them you are in fact planning to use your ticket as scheduled. Of course your accommodation can make this call for you unless you have a local SIM.
– There is also no need to book accommodation in advance during low-season, and you could potentially have the opportunity to negotiate a great price by simply showing up and starting your search when you get there. Many places will offer 50% off rates as a walk-in special starting in and around October 14/15th.
– Long Beach is known as the Backpackers/Party Island and it definitely has a vibe, even in the slow times. Little Tiki huts pop-up for happy hour (or hours as they often run from 4PM – 7PM) offering deals on cocktails that will run you about 15 or 20RM per drink. Beer is otherwise around 10 to 15RM on Long Beach BUT I did speak to one girl from the Netherlands who stayed in the Fisherman’s Village and she was buying beers for 1RM (this is like, 30 cents) so – keeping that in mind if you really want to get into it! You’ll need a taxi from Fisherman’s Village to Long Beach though, and FYI they require a minimum of 2 persons to make the trip.

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BUDGET EXPECTATIONS IN PERHENTIAN ISLANDS
I know I just told you that you can’t get cash on the island, so it’s likely helpful if I give you a more fulsome indication of costs to get/stay here!

Taxi from Airport: 78RM
Ferry from Jetty (Return): 70RM
Shuttle Back to Airport: 25RM
Tax/Entrance Fee to Island: 15RM
Accommodation: Varies
Snorkel Tours: 40-70RM
Price per Meal: 15-50+RM

A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT BUDGET…
Accommodation will obviously vary based on your preferences, but you can find a private room ranging from $25-30CDN+ or a dorm which will be of course a fraction of that cost. If you’re doing your dive course, some places will even offer free accommodation if you do your certification with them! Look at Oh Lala Divers for that deal in particular.
Diving certification costs I can’t speak to because I didn’t do it, but from everyone I’ve talked to it’s less expensive than Thailand, Indonesia or anywhere in Europe so you get the best of the best deal here with full PADI accreditation. Either rock-up and pick one or research your faves in advance. Angel Divers seems to be a really popular one on Long Beach from what I can tell.
Food is relatively cheap depending on what you go for/where you dine, but I would basically have a Watermelon or Pineapple juice and something small for each meal averaging 15-25RM per meal which is basically $5-$8CDN haha NOT BAD! For those of you who are big eaters/drinkers though, I’d assume closer to the 35-65RM per meal including a drink, should you fancy. Keep in mind – few restaurants serve alcohol so you’ll likely need to find a Tiki Bar for that, or dine at one of the nicer resorts on a splurge.

As an aside, Coral Bay on the reverse side from Long Beach has a series of amazing cafes and bars as well, and THIS is where to go to watch the sunset. Long Beach is where you’ll want to be during the sunny hours for swimming and splashing around, but it’s nice to have differing options anyways.

There is so much of Malaysia I have yet to explore, but as an introduction the Perhentian Islands have definitely made a charming first impression, and I’m excited to return again and delve deeper into this country that abounds with beauty and culture.

All of this to say, I would definitely recommend a trip to this magical oasis if you get the chance – despite the potentially long day of travel (I’d suggest you stay and explore Kuala Lumpur, Taman Negara or Cameron Highlands from here as it’ll save you a few of the steps I’m having to take as I make my way back to Singapore). I would be willing to guarantee you won’t regret it.

Bon Voyage!

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