- Accommodation: Bintang Views Chalets (45 ringgits/night for double room, fan only, shared outdoor bathrooms). I really liked Bintang; it almost felt like we were camping in cabins. The chalets weren’t right on the beach, but we preferred this anyways since you get more of a breeze up in the hills. Plus it’s quieter not being directly on the beach. The chalets are very simple, but they’re clean and they all have cute porches in front. There are probably 10-12 cabins in all. The shared bathrooms are outdoors and the toilets weren’t working properly when we were there, which was kind of annoying, but everything else worked fine. The electricity only works from sunset to sunrise since it runs off a generator, but it’s ok since you’re not in the room during the day anyways. And the showers and toilets work throughout the day, which is the most important part. Plus there’s free wifi at night! They have a restaurant but it wasn’t open when we were there. The Irish woman that runs the place said her husband was going food shopping on the mainland and it would be up and running in a day or two. I would definitely recommend staying at Bintang and I would try to book ahead because it was full every night we were there, and it wasn’t even high season yet.
- Bubu’s: The lady who runs Bintang recommended the restaurant Bubu’s on Long Beach, so we decided to go there since we were both starving from a long day of traveling. The food was very good (we both ordered seafood pasta) but it was way overpriced. The bill was 125 ringgits whereas most of our other meals in Malaysia have been 40-50 ringgits maximum. And in Taman Negara they were usually no more than 20 ringgits total. I know we were on an island and it was a more upscale restaurant, but it was definitely way out of our price range. And it’s weird that the woman suggested it to us considering she knows that most people who stay at her place are on a budget.
- Maya’s: Good, inexpensive breakfast place (10 ringgit/person) in Coral Bay. Really good banana shakes and watermelon juice. They also have good fried food for lunch and dinner if you’re in the mood to be unhealthy!
- Mama’s: Good seafood BBQ restaurant in Coral Bay. I got squid and Rosie got lobster along with a bunch of sides all for 18 ringgits/person.
- Long Beach restaurants: There are a few restaurants right next to each other on Long Beach, their menus all looked pretty similar. We only ate breakfast there, but the food was pretty good for the price and the fruit was so fresh, especially the watermelon (we were there during watermelon season).
We left Taman Negara at 8am and headed back to Jerantut where we switched vans to go to Kuala Besut, the town to catch boats to the Perhentians. Again, I highly recommend booking through NKS or a similar tour agency. If we tried to figure out all the transfers and time schedules on our own it would have taken us double the time for almost the same price. Rosie got a bad migraine so the 7 hour journey was not very enjoyable for her. But at least the scenery was beautiful; there were miles and miles of big limestone cliffs and palm trees. It was really sad to see that they’re destroying so much of it through deforestation though. We saw a lot of trucks go by full of logs and we witnessed bulldozers clearing huge tracts of land. I can only hope that some sort of conservation effort is underway.
We arrived in Kuala Besut around 4:30pm and we were shown to the jetty where they made us pay a government tax, which I’m pretty sure the guys working there were just pocketing. Fortunately it was only 5 ringgits/person. We got into a motorboat with 8 other people and all of our bags. I read online that the boat ride was pretty crazy and it definitely did not disappoint! I guess when they force everyone to put on life jackets before leaving, in a country that has pretty lax safety rules, we knew we were in for a wild ride. It also didn’t help that our boat driver was probably 14. I was worried about Rosie getting sick since she already wasn’t feeling well and I just envisioned her puking on everybody. But again she miraculously did not experience motion sickness, even though she felt pretty woozy. As soon as we left the jetty the driver gunned it – I can honestly say that I’ve never gone so fast in a motorboat in my life. We were literally flying over choppy waves; I have no idea how everyone didn’t end up soaking wet. I was sitting towards the back so I actually thought it was fun, but the people towards the front did not look too happy! (To avoid getting wet try to sit towards the back of the boat).
There are two islands, Pulau Perhentian Besar (big) and Pulau Perhentian Kecil (small). Most backpackers and budget travelers stay on the small island, whereas the big island caters to families and couples (or so I’ve read). We arrived at the small island about 35-40 minutes later. We were dropped off in Coral Bay so we had to walk for 10-15 minutes on a path in the center of the island to reach Long Beach on the other side where we were staying.
We initially wanted to stay at the Pentani Beach Chalets, but unfortunately they were fully booked. However it actually worked out for the best because Pentani beach is pretty isolated whereas Bintang Chalets (the guesthouse where we ended up staying) is located on a hill overlooking Long Beach, so there was more going on. Although if you’re looking for a party island then you’ll be disappointed as the Perhentians are pretty relaxed and have a chill vibe. There are a few outdoor bars on the beach, and I’m sure it picks up some during high season, but it’s nothing like Phi Phi or Koh Phangan.
I was also worried about the weather in the Perhentians that time of year since the east coast of Malaysia was just coming out of monsoon season in March. I didn’t want to travel all the way there and then have it rain every day. It ended up being overcast or raining about half the time, which wasn’t ideal but truthfully my skin was still recovering from my Bali sunburn so I’m not sure how much sun I actually could have handled. Additionally if we had gone much later I’m sure it would have been more crowded and more expensive as high season kicked into gear.
The next morning Rosie still had a bad migraine so she slept in while I read on the porch. When she started feeling better we went to get breakfast on Coral Bay at a place called Maya’s. Unfortunately it started to rain while we were eating and it remained overcast for most of the rest of the day. We still wanted to go to the beach though, so we asked our guesthouse if there were trails to other beaches on the island besides Coral Bay and Long Beach. Coral Bay is really more of a small harbor for boats than it is a swimming beach, and when the tide goes out it’s really shallow. It’s a beautiful harbor and there are good beach restaurants there, but it’s not a beach to sunbathe on. And I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with Long Beach. The first night we walked down there, there was a large tractor digging a trench in the sand. I couldn’t tell if they were fixing the beach or systematically destroying it. There were a lot of new developments being built, which I fear will ultimately make the islands lose their laid-back vibe. Fortunately when we returned the following day the beach was back to looking normal so maybe they were just burying pipes or something.
Anyways, we found the trail that goes around the island. If you’re in Coral Bay looking at the water, keep going all the way to the left until you reach the end of the beach, past the Butterfly Hotel. The trail was completely overgrown but it was still passable for most of the way. We walked along for 20-30 minutes before finding a nice secluded beach with only a few other people on it. We hung out for the rest of the afternoon, went swimming and read our books until sunset. Afterwards we headed back to eat dinner at Mama’s. I really liked the food on the island and most places were relatively inexpensive. There was a lot of fresh seafood, which was a nice break from rice and noodles.
The following day we were very lazy again. It was overcast in the morning but it cleared up in the afternoon. We decided to walk along the trail that circles the island again, but this time we went further and stopped at a pretty little secluded beach right before Pentani Beach – the place that we had originally tried to stay at. We read our books for most of the day, went swimming and took naps. And the sun even came out in the afternoon!
I must say that it was pretty sad to see what was happening to the island though. There was so much litter everywhere, not on Coral Bay, but definitely on parts of Long Beach and scattered along the trail we walked on. I bet those beaches used to be absolutely pristine – and they’re still beautiful – but I feel like they’re on the cusp of being destroyed. If we come back in 10-15 years I bet they’ll look completely different. Fortunately they’re not easy to get to so it will be more difficult for them to become major tourist destinations and to have total unchecked development. Also, a lot of the litter isn’t produced on the island – debris has just washed ashore from other places.
I was never particularly interested in eco-tourism before, but after this trip I realized the importance of conservation. I know the US is the biggest culprit of the ocean being littered with trash (i.e. the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) so it would be very hypocritical to be denouncing developing countries who have less resources to deal with this issue. It’s just sad to see what’s happening to one of the most naturally beautiful regions in the world. No doubt one of the biggest problems is the lack of a proper trash removal program in most SEA countries. I have no idea how expensive that is to operate, but even small measures like putting more trash cans around cities would help. Again, I realize the US is the biggest problem here though and we’re really the ones who need to work on sustainability and conservation measures since we’re the biggest polluters sullying the ocean and air with all of our crap! I hope SEA countries can learn from our conservation policy failures in order to preserve the natural beauty of this region.
We took a noon boat the next day back to Kuala Besut from Coral Bay (they leave Kecil at 8am, 12pm & 4pm). We found our friend from the NKS office in Kuala Besut and he gave us a ride to Kota Bharu for 60 ringgits. He phoned ahead to see if there were seats available on the night bus to Singapore, but unfortunately they were completely sold out because it was a vacation week for schools. All the tickets to Johor Bharu (the Malaysian town right across the border) were sold out as well, which was our back-up plan. We were so disappointed and frustrated because we feared we would have to take an overnight bus to Kuala Lumpur and then transfer to Singapore from there – thereby wasting a whole other day and not leaving us any time to see Singapore.
It took us about an 1-1.5 hours to get to the bus station in Kota Bharu. I believe there are 2 bus terminals in Kota Bharu and I think we were at the domestic one, whereas the international buses left from a different station (but I could be wrong). We eventually decided to take a bus to Melaka (40 ringgits/person), which is further south than KL, and from there we took another bus to Singapore the next morning. It was far from ideal but at least we still got to spend an afternoon in Singapore.
We had 6 hours to kill before our bus to Melaka left at 8pm. There was literally nothing around this bus depot except for a huge Tesco across the street, which happened to have a large food court on the first floor. So we basically spent the afternoon hopping from one fast food chain to the next. We ate lunch at KFC and Rosie got a root-beer float at A&W; it’s like we were at a mall in the US. It’s funny how popular KFC is in Malaysia. It’s literally in every town! The Tesco turned out to actually be a great people watching experience too as there were a lot of Malaysian families walking around and no westerners. The northeastern region of Malaysia tends to be more conservative and undeveloped – definitely a different crowd than Kuala Lumpur. Although I’m still amazed at how many people spoke english, even in remote places.
We were pretty exhausted when we arrived in Melaka the next morning at 8am. It was a long 12 hour bus trip and we made about 8 unscheduled stops throughout the night, sometimes for more than an hour. The bus was on the crappier side and the seats hardly reclined. The only good part is that there wasn’t any “entertainment” playing. (We took SKA Express but we should have tried to get on a KKKL, Transnacional, or Cyber Bus which all looked much nicer). I definitely didn’t think I would be back in Melaka twice in one week, but at least we were familiar with the bus station at that point.