Sunday, May 2, 2010

20. To the islands

Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia
When I booked my flight with Malaysia Airlines from Auckland to Delhi return, I was told there would be a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Perfect, I thought. I figured I would need a few days on a beach with lots of sun and good eating to recover from my month in the mountains of India. I could extend my stopover on my way home by a few days and head to an island somewhere in either Malaysia or Thailand.
When I first came to Malaysia in 2002, one place I didn’t go due to the monsoon season was a word of mouth destination my travelling buddy Steve had recommended – the Perhentian Islands. So I hit ol’ Steve up on the ol’ email to ask him what he thought:
Hi Steve, long time no hear. 
I’m off to India for a month on Friday, my first time there.
On the way back I’m stopping over in Malaysia, and I decided to stick around there for a few days. I remember back in the day when we were in Thailand you told me about the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia – sounded nice, worth a visit? I decided to extend my stay in Malaysia to 5 days based solely on a hazy recommendation from you to visit those islands!
Refresh my memory – what’s your opinion on the Perhentian Islands? Hmm, maybe I’ll just catch a cheap flight up to Phuket and go hang out at Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.
Hasta luego, Matt
And Steve’s response:
hey matt! good to hear from you!
the perhentian island are well worth a visit. possibly the most beautiful place i went in malaysia. we went snorkling and swam with giant turtles, sharks, and all kind of wonderful sealife you could think of. no need to scuba dive there. the waters are shallow and crystal clear! there were loads of small, uninhabited beaches to get away from it all too. maybe different nowadays, although it is a national park cos of the turtle breeding beaches, but you never know. the locals are muslim, so yeah the rule is no alcohol. however when i was there the locals drank more than the tourists! once their off the mainland they change the traditional muslim garb for beachwear and drink for their lives! that said, i have heard rumours that the police had cleaned the place up (not that it was that messy for a westerner, just the religious police). when i was there the police used to come every now and again and urine test the locals for drugs and alcohol.
they sell hard alcohol by the bottle, but its pricy. you're best visiting a chinese shop on the mainland to stock up before you go. the booze isn't on show in the chinese stores, but if you ask for it they have it in the back out of sight. respect for the local religion, etc. all in all, if it were me going back i'd deffo choose these islands over thailand any day!
All right, so with Steve’s recommendation confirmed I booked an Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bahru. From the Kota Bahru airport it was a 70 ringgit (NZ$30) 1 hour taxi ride to the town of Kuala Bessut, and from there a 35 ringgit speedboat ride to the islands.
malaysia map
There we are, right at the top of Malaysia on the east coast. Very close to Thailand.
The speedboat ride was probably the fastest I’ve been on the water. The young guys who drive them sometimes let the testosterone get to their heads and start racing each other. Listen to the 2 x 200Hp V6 engines scream:
Let me quickly insert here that my month in India wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. After all, I didn’t do that much travelling around and I was lucky enough to stay in family homes with Bruce for most of it. Sure, the last few days getting to Agra to see the Taj had been rough and I’m glad I didn’t spend my entire month travelling around like that. I’d lost a little bit of weight due to the constant diarrhoea one expects in India (I probably had the shits for about half my trip) but I was feeling pretty good and already had a suntan going on.
But I already had the trip booked in and I was looking forward to hitting the beach before going back to the start of NZ’s winter. I stayed at Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil Island, which was rumoured to be the party beach. On arrival it was just what the doctor ordered:
Perhentian - 06 -
White sand, crystal clear water, temperature about 32°C. If anything the water was too warm, so warm that you’d never cool off. But that’s just being picky! It was lovely. The surf on that first day was completely flat and I assumed every day would be the same.
That night I went out and got talking with an English barman – quite a lot of Westerners work on the island for a season as waitresses or dive instructors – and he told me that that night (Saturday) was a big party and that quite a lot of Malaysians from KL had come over just for that night. I was keen to stay out but was too tired from all the travelling.
Perhentian - 07 -
The islands are in a marine reserve so fishing etc is banned, as is new building which has kept development low. There’s no power to the island – each hotel runs its own generator, usually only at night. So sleeping in gets hard when the power cuts out at 7am – no power means no fan so the bungalow gets damn hot by about 8am.
Accommodation is expensive by SE Asian standards – 45 ringgit (US$15) for a tiny bungalow with bed, mosquito net, fan and power 12 hours a day. I’m not sure what the going rate in Thailand is these days, but I’d expect it to be around US$5 for something similar.
Perhentian - 08 -
Bungle in the jungle

Well that night a storm blew up and it was cloudy and windy and the sea totally rough the next day. Completely different from the previous day. Local surfers were out catching waves.
Perhentian - 02 - Surf
The next day was even worse – it rained non-stop til about 3 in the afternoon. I didn’t mind too much though, since it was cool so I slept in til after lunch.
Perhentian - 01 - Rain


By the fourth day the weather had cleared up enough that we could go on a snorkelling trip. A boat takes you around various snorkelling spots and everything about it was great. Good masks, warm water so you never want to get out, and lots to see. First stop was shark point where we saw a whole bunch of reef sharks from 1m-2m in length. I dived down to try and swim with them but they’re quite fast moving. That was the first time I’d seen a shark in the water.
An Indian guy I met, Nikhal, later told me a great story about his snorkelling trip. The guide took a piece of bread down which he’d hold in his hand and small fish would swarm. He’d catch one of them and swiftly snap it in two. Then he’d dangle it in front of the sharks. The sharks would circle around and around them waiting for the fish. The guide seemed to know what he was doing though and would act aggressive enough to keep the sharks at bay.
Next stop was turtle bay, and our boat circled around until the driver spotted a turtle. We found a huge one – more than a metre long and a metre wide. I dove down underneath him and saw him swimming along with a couple of cleaner fish clinging to his belly. He even did a poop in front of us.
Perhentian - 03 - Lena Anna Lou Charlie Emilie Anna Antony
After that we went to like 3 more spots. At one of them there were heaps and heaps of tropical fish like you’d see in an aquarium, which were going nuts swarming us looking for bread. I got bitten like 4 times with little nibbles which were fine when you’d seem them nibble your fingers, but it was rather alarming when you’d suddenly feel a bite on your back which you didn’t see coming!
Of course the coral formations were amazing too. Charlie, one of the guys on our trip was a really good swimmer and I’d follow him when I could. My lungs weren’t as strong as his and I couldn’t equalise very well though so my ears would get sore with the pressure. But because of the relaxing temperature of the warm water I could stay under longer than I can in the cold water of NZ. At one point Charlie swam down and found a bunch of clownfish (aka Nemo) nestling in anemones. I dove down and joined him, and they’re very docile – you could easily coax them into the palm of your hand.
It was so far the best snorkelling I’ve experienced, and great value too at 40 ringgit (US$12) for the entire trip, including gear.
Perhentian - 04 - Antony Anna Emilie Matt Charlie Lena Lou


There’s quite a good party scene on the island too, although it’s more restrained than the islands of Thailand - no Full Moon bucket parties then. Mostly because alcohol is so comparatively expensive in Malaysia. A small can of beer was 10 ringgit. Hip flasks of spirits were available for around 20 ringgit. The local drink of choice was “Orang Utan”, aka Monkey Juice. At only 25% alcohol it goes down quite nicely straight from the bottle, or on the rocks.
Perhentian - 18 - Monkey juice
We had some great nights partying on the island. I met up with some Chileans and some Spanish guys and got to practice my Spanish again. After a night on the piss with them I woke up the next morning dreaming and thinking in Spanish. The Chileans moved on but the Spaniards stuck around so I hung out with them a fair bit.
After the snorkelling trip I got my “baby guitar” (as Coco from Madrid called it) out and Charlie had his guitar out and along with the four Swedish girls from the snorkelling we had some great singalongs. As well as some great old school metal jams. Man, this one Spanish guy, Javier, absolutely shredded. We played One by Metallica from beginning to end, with me doing rhythm on the baby guitar and him cranking out the solos note for note. Likewise for Fade to Black.

That’s all folks

So that was it. I was sad to leave the island after five fun days and nights and having made a few friends. It was a fitting end to what has been an awesome, memorable trip.
Hope you enjoyed reading about it
2 May 2010
 Sunset on the Perhentian Islands

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