The last of our visitors came in April 2016 for two weeks to celebrate her 30th birthday, another one bites the dust. We’d spent months planning, created the compulsory WhatsApp group and prepared our bodies to eat and drink as much as we could in two weeks.
A few days touring Kuala Lumpur (see previous post to work out what we did) then to the east coast to a couple of islands I’d been dying to explore and if it wasn’t for the rainy season I would have done so already.
First, a stop in Kota Bharu. The guidebooks had really sucked me into this place and after a day and a night I feel they’ve over sold it. The Central Market is definitely worth a look from the floors above, the colourful rows of shops with stall holders squashed in amongst their produce. We spent a while casually observing the people and cats wandering and bartering their way around the market, enjoyable and great to photograph.
We wandered (and melted) our way around the main town centre, looking at (but not entering) Istana Bharu and Istana Jahar. However there really wasn’t that much to do or see. We bumped into a Dutch couple who said the same, they’d been there a couple of days and were really struggling. It was even difficult to find anywhere open which looked appetizing for lunch so we ate at Arnold’s Cycles. I’d actually recommend the tiny area around the China Town arch (right where Arnold’s Cycles is) for food in the evening that was the only place with some atmosphere.
We were keen to find and devour the night market; we are three people who have lived in Taiwan and therefore lived on its legendary night market cuisines. Unfortunately Kota Bharu’s night market was a definite disappointment, not many stalls, too many clothes shops, no food queues, it didn’t look good. We were recommended a restaurant by our hotel and sadly that was a let-down too, really poor quality. Overall I’m glad I saw the Central Market but Kota Bharu doesn’t need a night’s stay, maybe you could waste an hour or two here before a flight home but that’s it.
It’s more than possible to fly in from Kuala Lumpur and get a taxi straight down to Kuala Besut pier where boats to the Perhentians leave from. There’s plenty of people waving you over when you land trying to get you to book a taxi and boat through them. The flight from KL was just less than an hour and the taxi was about two and a half hours (we paid 80RM going and 75RM coming back). I can’t remember how long the boat to the Perhentians took as the sea was really rough, I was concentrating on not falling out, less than forty minutes I think.
On to Pulau Perhentian.
I’ve definitely been to a lot of beaches, I’ve explored Palawan in the Philippines, I’ve island hopped my way around the majority of Thailand, I’ve lazed on the Gilis and a bit of Bali in Indonesia, wandered Venezuelan and Colombian beaches too, a little bit of Sri Lanka plus plenty of European hops… Basically I’ve put my towel down on enough sand to be confident when I say I’ve found an incredible beach. So, when I say Turtle Beach on Pulau Perhentian Besar is utter, mind-blowing paradise it really, really is.
We spent a week on Pulau Perhentian Kecil staying at Matahari Diving & Chalet. Right let’s get the slightly negative part out of the way first. If you’re reading this blog perhaps it’s because you’ve Googled ‘accommodation Perhentian islands’ a million times and you’re just not getting anywhere. Before we settled on Matahari we searched and searched for the right place. We wanted to spend no more than £30 a night for a double room with en-suite, hot water and air conditioning. If you’ve never travelled around Asia before you might think that price is low but trust me you can travel around South-East Asia very cheaply and for much less than that in lovely accommodation (e.g. I just stayed in Chiang Mai Thailand for £25 a night in what can only be described as a boutique hotel, incredible).
Anyway I really struggled to find any decent accommodation, everywhere seemed overpriced and had terrible Trip Advisor reviews plus very few had websites (this seems to be a common issue in Malaysia). We settled on Matahari, not because it sounded good but it seemed the best of a bad bunch. After staying there I wouldn’t stay there again. It wasn’t terrible the staff were friendly and the restaurant was great but the room should’ve been no more than £15 a night (at a push). It was a double room, en-suite, AC but it wasn’t clean, light bulbs didn’t work, a tap was hanging off in the sink, we stayed for a week and they wouldn’t change our sheets even once, it was a bit dingy. In fact we did change rooms on our first night due to a very close noisy beach bar.
In Malaysia so far it seems hard to find decent accommodation on a budget, you can do it in Thailand but in Malaysia I’m not sure, quite disappointing. We met people throughout the week who said the same thing about their search for Perhentian accommodation, tough going and the place they’d booked was ‘so so’. We dived with a girl who’d changed accommodation during her stay and met another guy on the beach who’d done the same. One more thing about Matahari, the area outside the rooms was half building site, half cesspit, seriously, they need to sort themselves out (see photos above).
Matahari Divers were awesome though, we did a couple of dives with them, absolutely stunning. If you dive in the Perhentians I’d recommend Temple of the Sea, tons and tons of sea life. They are a busy dive shop though, shows how great they are but if you want a dive all to yourself I’d try a place on Perhentian Besar, our friends dived there and did all their dives by themselves.
We spent our days diving, snorkelling, swimming, walking and boat taxi-ing (yes a verb) to as many of the beaches we could manage. Perhentian Kecil is pretty small, it’s about a 15 minute walk from Long Beach up, over the hill to Coral Beach on the other side. We booked a snorkelling trip from Coral Beach as it was cheaper than the other side. I’m glad we snorkelled as we saw a couple of turtles (near to Besar) and I thoroughly enjoyed the coral around the lighthouse (I think they called it that although it’s not an actual lighthouse more like an aerial). Unfortunately there were far too many snorkelling trips happening at the same time which meant the sites were jammed AND lots of uneducated fools kept standing on the coral. If I did this again I would try and book a private boat to different locations or at least do the trip in a different order to everyone else.
Despite people saying you can’t walk around the island and books just not mentioning it, you really can. It’s a proper path, with steps down to the beaches. It’s clearly not used often as it’s incredibly easy and cheap to boat taxi around but we still gave it a go.
On Kecil we explored Mira Beach (beautiful with a tiny restaurant and a few beach huts) I’d like to return here for a quiet weekend away. From Mira we walked to Petani, a really long beach with large boulders, also pretty. We had a swim and a laze on D’Lagoon another attractive and empty beach. The beaches (apart from Long Beach) are completely empty or close to empty we were surprised more people didn’t seem to explore all the beaches on offer.
We had one day left, we asked our trusty boat taxi teenager Alif, where should we go? We wanted a stunning slice of paradise with no-one else on it. Thankfully he whizzed us over to Turtle Beach on Perhentian Besar which was unbelievable, pure perfection. It’s up there with a Filipino beach! You must go!
I think I will go back to the Perhentians and when I do I’ll try Besar. There were plenty of food options on Kecil, a few beach side alcohol stalls and one large beach bar (too loud for anyone staying in Matahari) but nothing amazing. All the food on Kecil was incredibly similar, nothing special (except Bubu, we treated ourselves to a fantastic lunch there plus they do excellent coffee).
As the books do say you have to remember the Perhentians are not Thailand, they are paradise but they don’t come with much else. Do you need anything else? Perhaps not. The reason I enjoyed the Perhentians were the beaches and the sea. I’d be happy to stay & eat in one place then boat taxi or dive my way around everywhere else next time.