The beautiful Perhentian islands off the north-east coast of Malaysia’s mainland are still little-known to the travel world at large, but that is changing quite rapidly as top-level infrastructure is added.
Terrengganu state’s islands fast growing in popularity – and profile
Terengganu’s coastal landscape overlooks the South China Sea where archipelagos of emerald islands such as Perhentian, Lang Tengah, Redang, Bidong, Gemia, Kapas and Tenggol offer dazzling clean, powdery white sandy beaches and lush green jungle while the turquoise waters are dotted with coral reefs, teeming with marine life. The tranquil hideaway islands are the enticing factor that now sees flocks of travellers seeking fun in the sun, sand and sea, escaping the reality of the concrete jungle for a truly memorable holiday in the tropics.
Located 21 km off the coast of Terengganu, Pulau Perhentian consists of the islands of Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian). The name Perhentian means “stopover point” in Malay, referring to the islands’ traditional role as a sanctuary for fishermen and ancient traders plying the eastern and western sea routes. Both islands are covered by untouched jungle, a stopover for migratory birds, fringed by powdery white sandy beaches, windswept palms and surrounded by sapphire blue waters. Its excellent underwater seascape is lush with a wide variety of soft and hard coral gardens, sea- turtles, and diverse marine life.
Pulau Perhentian was chosen by a CNN survey in 2013 as the 13th Best Beach in the world. In 2010, The Lonely Planet Travel Guide Book recognised Pulau Perhentian as the 5th Best Beach to Swing the Hammock. Both the islands offer options of accommodation and facilities that suit discerning holiday makers of all ages and budgets.
New hotels add to attractiveness
Purporting to be one of the only hotels on the two main islands with full-time electricity (a big plus), the brand new four-star Mimpi Perhentian Long Beach Resort (pictured – top of page) opened its doors in time for the high-season 2018 with around 50 of its eventual total of 75 rooms operational, and several other high-end hotels are due to open their doors shortly.
Mimpi’s Resort Manager, Fazli Abd Rahman explains, “The water supply here comes all the way from the mainland, but electricity has to come from local sources. Some years ago, the government built wind and solar generators on the highest point of the island, but they broke down shortly afterwards, and there has been great debate since then as to how to replace them”.
The concept of the hotel came from Thai architects and designers, integrating the use of solid heavy local timbers.
The owner of the new Mimpi resort is, explains Abd Rahman, a local Malay who previously worked other types of constructions. This is his first hotel project. “We are more targeting families,” he states. “We do not serve alcohol, and even though our biggest clientele is made up of foreigners, we remain a non-alcoholic property. In any case, there are numerous bars and restaurants all along the beach where people can go for a drink if they so wish.”
In Perhentian, this is one of the only hotels that operates with 24-hour electricity. Most of the others only run electricity at night – for 12 hours a day. “Electricity here comes from the latest generation diesel generator,” says Abd Rahman. “We use solar energy for hot water heating. While our fresh water supply comes all the way from the mainland, all electricity has to be generated here. This is also the only hotel with an elevator. We have electronic key cards, and have safety boxes in all rooms. The resort is also extremely convenient, as it is directly connected to the Long Beach pier. To get to the other hotels along the beach, people generally have to drag their baggage over the sand, which can be quite inconvenient.”
So what is the future plan for the electricity here? (The hotel GM laughs) “In the last general election (eds: time of writing in June – now the second last general election), there were promises, but we have seen nothing yet. The locals have been fighting for this for a long time. They started with this wind turbine project, which broke down and was abandoned. Three years ago, the Chief Minister came over and spoke to the villagers and said they would lay a cable bringing power to the villages. That was three years ago. But on the positive side, we are looking into other infrastructure – for example broadband technology. They are going to pull a fibre-optic cable all the way from the mainland to here. The project has already started, and should be complete by early 2019.”
Long Beach is lined with numerous bars, hotels and restaurants, frequented largely by a younger European crowd: a fun, and thankfully still not overcrowded place to visit!
Perhentian islands are a paradise for beach-goers, nature lovers and divers. Day trips take snorkelers to numerous points of interest, including Shark Point, where black-tip reef sharks may be observed, and other points where one can get a close-up view of the local sea turtles, which are protected and adored by the locals.
Island “spokesman” looks back at development… and says “let’s not repeat the same mistakes”
Without having the title of “mayor”, Aziz, owner/manager of Mama’s Chalet and restaurant is unofficially the “spokesman” for Perhentian. He is one of the most vociferous when it comes to finding a viable replacement for the failed “green” electric scheme.
Originally from Kuala Terangganu, Aziz came to the islands in 1986, when he was contracted to build new houses for fishermen on the islands. “There was hardly anything here then… there were only two chalets. It was beautiful.”
From 1991, tourism began picking up on the islands, as people started to realise that Malaysia’s east coast had some wonderful islands. In 2003, a jetty was built, and that’s when tourism started to pick up.
Originally built by Aziz’s father-in-law, the tradition at Mama’s Chalet is perpetuated, but Aziz says he is very concerned about climate change, which has already changed the landscape of the islands. “Before, when the monsoons began, the winds were north-easterly, but since the change in climate over the past 20 years, the winds blow from the west, and our beach has been blown away. In 2000, the sea came up all the way under the restaurant.”
Length of stay of foreign tourists: 4-5 days on average. “We also have foreign visitors who stay for two weeks or one month, doing nothing – just for a pure holiday, lying on the beach every day. For local tourists, the average stay is around two nights.”
Aziz also has a local TO company called “Mama’s Travel”, and says he works extensively with travel agents and tour operators around the globe. 70% of reservations are however done directly with the property.
Perhentian Turtle Project
Voluntourism is another key attraction for young international visitors to Perhentian Islands. Indeed, what can be better than staying on a beautiful tropical island, and at the same time helping to protect sea turtles through beach patrols and snorkelling sessions? It’s no wonder that this is a highly popular volunteering activity. The Perhentian Turtle project (https://www.facebook.com/perhentianturtleproject/) is now well-established and is fully integrated with a community project to help the local fishing village transition to sustainable tourism. Thus, volunteers are able to interact with a diverse group of people during this amazing volunteering stint.
From a couple of weeks to several months, volunteers work in a team helping to collect underwater images of individual sea turtles for the project database. Apart from this day job, they patrol beaches where turtles are nesting at night, to deter any poachers, and collect the eggs for the hatchery, in cooperation with the local Fisheries Department of Terengganu State. They also are able to work with the community team that helps with the teaching of the local school kids and other activities, such as awareness campaigns and beach cleans. They meet villagers for traditional Malay meals at their home or during other community activities. There is also chill time in their packed schedule, with either mornings or afternoons off.
A divers’ paradise
Diving is one of the main attractions on Perhentian Islands, with numerous spots for snorkelling and SCUBA diving. The key “selling point” is that the sites are not “over-dived”.
The islands belong to the Terengganu Marine Park, and in all there are about 20 dive sites around the small archipelago accessible within a short boat ride.
Water temperature is between 27°C to 32°C year round. Most dive sites are easy and are accessible by all divers. The current is generally very gentle.
The marine life is rich with a broad variety of Southeast Asian reef fish. One can also spot pelagic fishes, turtles, reef sharks, and it is possible to encounter manta rays and even occasional whale sharks.
Numerous dive centres can be found. The newest is the “Below the Surface” centre at the Mimpi Resort, which is run by young professionals with over ten years’ combined local diving experience.
There are no ATMs on the islands, so travellers should bring enough cash for their stay for small expenses. However, most diving centres, restaurants and resorts tend to accept credit cards.
How to get there
Kuala Besut Tourist Jetty – (1 1⁄2 hours’ drive north from Kuala Terengganu). There are ferries and speedboats available daily with morning departures. The return ticket to the island is around RM70.00 per person. There are water taxis available for shuttles between the village and all the resorts on Perhentian Kecil and Perhentian Besar. Rates vary depending from which resort on which island. It costs double for transfers after 7.00 pm.