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How to Visit Malaysia's Laid-Back (and Cheap) Perhentian Islands

Malaysia Beaches and Islands
by India-Jayne Trainor Jul 31, 2023

When tourists visit Malaysia, the country’s west coast usually gets all the attention. Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands, and Penang are the main stops on the tourist trail; sometimes, visitors might head to Malaysia’s sunny island of Langkawi for a few days afterward.

However, just off the northeastern coast lie two sister islands that hold some of the country’s clearest waters and most spectacular marine life. The Perhentian Islands, known as Besar (Big Island) and Kecil (Little Island), are in the country’s Redang National Marine Park and attract far fewer visitors than Langkawi, their western counterpart. With no cars, minimal development (unpredictable electricity!), and an abundance of white-sand beaches, the Perhentian Islands prove that living like you’re on a nearly deserted island is very much alive and well for those seeking a slice of paradise.

How to get to the Perhentian Islands

The Perhentian Islands have remained mostly undeveloped for so long thanks to the challenge of reaching them, though it can be fairly straightforward with a little advance planning. Most people arrive to the country in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. From there, it’s a flight or a bus to reach Malaysia’s east coast.

By plane: Flights depart Kuala Lumpur (and Penang, though less frequently) for the eastern cities of Kota Bahru and Kuala Terengganu; the flight to either is about an hour. If you can, fly to Kota Bharu, as it’s closer to the boat that heads to the islands.

On arrival at Kota Bharu, you’ll need to take a minibus to Kuala Besut, which takes up to an hour. At the Kuala Besut jetty, you can catch the 45-minute speedboat to the islands. This flight, minibus, and boat combination costs very little: flights are usually less than 200 MYR ($44) and the minibus and boat cost about 30 MYR ($6) and 35MYR ($15), respectively.

By bus: Buses travel directly from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Besut, which can seem like a far easier and more affordable option for travelers. However, the journey takes anywhere from five to eight hours, and as the boat stops running after 4 PM, arriving late could mean spending a night in Kuala Besut at an extra cost. If you do opt to take the bus, it’s a good idea to take an overnight bus, arriving in time for one of the first morning speedboats. Perdana is one of the primary bus operators.

Explore beneath the waves

Perhentian Islands scuba diver on wreck

Photo: Ye Choh Wah/Shutterstock

With water so clear you can see to the bottom, multiple reefs near the shore, sunken wrecks, and the nearby Terengganu Marine Park, the Perhentian Islands draw scuba divers from far and wide to experience the incredible underwater world. And the variety of sites means both beginners and more experienced divers can find something to love.

The islands are known for having the world’s most affordable diving, at an average of just $20 per dive. There are dozens of diving schools for those looking to get certified, with Turtle Bay Divers on Perhentian Kecil being one of the best-rated – though there are many other popular shops on Long Beach and Coral Bay. Deep dives to the Vietnamese and Police wrecks or drift diving at Batu Nisan are ideal for more advanced divers.

Dazzling coral in a spectrum of colors and rarely seen marine life await offshore at more than 20 accessible dive sites. On an average day, it’s possible to see blacktip sharks, blue-spotted stingrays, bamboo sharks, and moray eels at most sites, with an average of 60-70 feet of visibility and tropical-temperature water. If you’re lucky, you may be able to see rarer species like whale sharks.

The one dive not to miss in the Perhentian Islands is Tokong Laut, also known as “The Temple of the Sea.” The top of the underwater pinnacle sits 25 feet under the surface, is covered in coral, and hides an array of tropical fish and other species. This site can be a little rough when the currents are choppy, but it’s worth it, given the array of creatures that call the area home.

The best beaches on the Perhentian Islands

Scattered with diving schools, beach bars, and watersports outlets, the Perhentian Islands are all about beach life, so prepare to relax when you’re not diving or swimming.

On Perhentian Kecil, Coral Bay and Long Beach have many shops and restaurants. This creates a lively evening atmosphere, but isn’t ideal for tranquility. Instead, catch a water taxi to the secluded Adam and Eve Beach, Romantic Beach, or D’Lagoon Beach for little-visited, white-sand coves where you can snorkel straight from the beach.

On Perhentian Besar, Teluk Keke and PIR Beach (in front of the Perhentian Island Resort), are equally dreamy. However, for many residents, the best Perhentian Islands beaches are closely-guarded secrets. Fortunately, with just a short walk around either island, you can discover hidden bays and secluded coves that are truly off the map.

Other ocean adventures

perhentian islands things to do snorkel

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There are plenty of other activities available on the islands for non-divers.

Both islands have shallows stretching roughly 150 feet from the shorelines, making it a great place for swimming and paddling, especially for inexperienced paddles. Sea and glass-bottomed kayaks are both fun ways of touring around the islands, and stand-up paddleboards are perfect for short-distance exploring, given the islands’ generally calm water. You can also rent snorkeling gear for a small fee at most shops and hotels.

The main reef just offshore from Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil’s, Batu Nisan, is easy to reach with just a short swim. It’s home to octopus, turtles, and lionfish; be sure not to touch the latter, of course. There are also a range of half- and full-day snorkeling trips further afield to locations such as Shark Point and Rawa Island.

If wildlife is your thing, you’ll be happy to know the Perhentian Islands are one of the best places in South East Asia for seeing green and hawksbill turtles, both of which are endangered. Visitors can often spot the majestic creatures on dives, snorkeling trips, or sometimes while swimming, especially near seagrass.

But for a more impactful way to help the cute marine animals, spend some time with the Perhentian Turtle Project on Perhentian Besar, run by the Department of Fisheries. You can spend anywhere from two weeks or more volunteering with the project, helping with everything from sea turtle counts to data analysis to sea turtle releases. But if you don’t have much time, consider bringing needed supplies with you to donate, or virtually adopting one of the many turtles in the organization’s database instead.

Eating and drinking

perhentian islands things to do beaches beach bar

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Although infrastructure on the islands might be slightly scarce, excellent local beach bars and restaurants have flourished on the Perhentian Islands regardless. Concentrated along Long Beach and Coral Bay on Perhentian Kecil, and PIR and West Beach on Besar, the beach bars serve a mixture of softs and alcoholic drinks, depending on government licenses. Instead of splashing out on an overpriced beer, try one of the milkshakes that are somewhat famous on the islands (yes, really). Choose from oreo, strawberry or milo (a sort of chocolate-flavored drink). They’re ice cold and satisfying in the heat.

Fishing is banned within two miles of the islands as they’re in a marine park, but the local fishermen don’t seem to mind traveling a bit further. The catch of the day could be anything from snapper to barracuda, and you’ll see smoke drifting across the sand from dozens of beachfront barbecues if you walk along the beaches at sunset. Pit Stop and Panorama Cafe on Long Beach both serve Kecil’s best Malaysian and Western food, while Blue Paradise and Mama’s Restaurant hog the limelight on Besar.

Perhentian Islands travel tips

malaysia island beach

Photo: Izuddin Helmi/Shutterstock

Before heading to the Perhentian Islands, there are a few things to note that can maximize your trip.

  • Travel around the Perhentian Islands becomes unsafe during monsoon season (November to March), so the islands mostly close. No businesses are open and boats don’t run between the mainland and the islands.
  • Most guesthouses, hotels, and dive shops can assist with booking your minivan from the airport to the jetty and your speedboat transfer, taking the stress out of the journey.
  • The speedboat runs between 9 AM and 4 PM. Expect to get wet, so bring a waterproof cover for your bags and electronics. Tourists are also required to pay a 30 MYR ($7) conservation fee before boarding the boat, which goes towards protecting the islands.
  • There are no ATMs on the Perhentian Islands, so bring enough cash with you. Usually diving, tours, and hotels can be paid with credit cards, but most restaurants are cash-only.
  • Know that Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country. Alcohol is available on the Perhentian Islands in some hotels and bars, but it’s fairly expensive. Whether you drink or not, plan to respect the country’s culture and avoid wild behavior.

Perhentian Islands hotels

Accommodations vary greatly on the Perhentian Islands, from campgrounds to basic hotels and local guesthouses to high-end resorts. Kecil tends to have the more affordable Perhentian Islands hotels, with more backpacker hotels and hostels, while Besar has more resort-style hotels frequented by couples and families.

We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

Alunan Resort

alunan resort - Perhentian Islands

Photo: Expedia

Alunan Resort is a boutique hotel on the beach on Perhentian Kecil. All the rooms have A/C and balconies looking out on the ocean, and stays include free breakfast — though you can also book an inclusive package that includes unlimited dining and unlimited activities. The resort has an on-site restaurant and is own activity booking desk in case you want to go jungle trekking or head out on a sunset sail without doing the inclusive offering. Rooms start around $150 per night.
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Ombak Dive Resort


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Sitting on the sand in Coral Bay on Perhentian Kecil, Ombak Dive Resort is one of the best value Perhentian Islands hotels for divers. The spacious, clean rooms have much-needed A/C and can be packaged with activities like snorkeling and diving. The resort also has a small shop, diving school, and a restaurant, and holds beachfront movie nights under the stars. Diving packages for three nights are very budget-friendly, starting around $300 per person.
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