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Peace on the Perhentians


Paradise. Pure unadulterated Paradise. If the Garden of Eden was on a beach, this would be it. Islands of ice white sand, abandoned rainforest, uninhabited lagoons and crystal clear waters that stretch as far as the eye can see. Untouched and exquisite, where man’s steps create no lasting print in the sand and no voices echo through the trees. A deserted island which only you have discovered. Bliss. Pure bliss. When, in the past, people have said they have seen paradise I know now that they were lying. Because they hadn’t been here. They haven’t been to the Perhentians.

There are many islands we associate with Paradise in the world but never have I been to a place like this; where nature has been left so unharmed that a wild beauty roams freely through the tree tops and lies seductively on the beach. 

‘This is what Thailand was like before all the tourists invaded,’ people often told me. But, having been to Thailand, I’m not sure if they’re entirely accurate. This is Thailand before… fake longboats, haggard snorkelling trips and the familiar smell of alcohol and weed; this is Thailand before… boats ever made it across the shore; this is Thailand before…anyone ever stepped foot on the islands. This may never have been Thailand at all. But this is a nearby secret. So near it makes you wonder why so many people visit Thailand instead, but then I’m not complaining because it’s a secret I’m happy to keep from young party goers, and rich resort companies. For the Perhentian Islands, locked in a cove in the South China Sea, this…is Malaysia. 

Twenty-five kilometres off the east coast of Malaysia’s peninsular, rests two little gems: Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil; two remote deserted islands with only a handful of residents who know better than to share their secret with the rest of the world. Only 523 kilometres away rests the party island of Thailand’s Kho Phagnan with its monthly full moon party and thousands of hedonistic teenagers. These islands are chaste by comparison and are more beautiful for it.
In Malay, Perhentian means ‘Place to stop’. This is exactly what you must do here. Stop. Stay. And unwind.

Everything here is almost magical – a place so fine you couldn’t even imagine it. Until the late 1980s, the Perhentian Islands were a well-kept secret but as the popularity of the Thai islands shot up, word has slowly spread about the Perhentians. They are the first choice destination on Malaysia’s East Coast but remain as deliciously discrete as they have always been.

Perhentian Besar is the bigger of the two islands and most popular among resort-goers. Residents have managed to restrict the number of resorts on the island so hotels are far and few between. Instead, rustic chalets and wooden huts are the usual accommodation on the Perhentians, keeping things tastefully simple and island-friendly. 
 This is especially the case for Perhentian Kecil. Popular amongst the younger twenty-, and thirty-something’s, accommodation is basic but you’ll find the atmosophere rich with warmth; sociable, and undeniably genuine. Budget wooden cabins border the coastline of Kecil’s two beautiful beaches, Long Beach (Pasir Panjang) and Coral Bay (Teluk Aur), whilst mid-range chalets rest camouflaged further up in the trees.

Everything here is pretty minimal: electricity is limited, the water supply is held in tanks, and only a couple of shops-cum-restaurants-cum-internet cafes-cum-music spots exist but for a short stay, this is all you need. At the same time, the ‘no-thrills’ treatment is a refreshing change from our usual surplus choice and excessiveness making this sparseness not bare and basic, but deliciously liberating.        

And simplicity in the Perhentians really is the key. The strict protection over the island’s nature has prevented developers constructing in the centre of the islands, meaning that their interiors are nearly entirely uninhabited jungle. This is what makes them so exceptional. The only buildings are the few wooden A-Frames scattered on the islands’ periphery and one or two hotels. Everything else is pure rainforest, which makes the Perhentians as damn close to Eden as conceivably possible.

There are no roads on the islands, no cars or motorbikes, no traffic and no pollution. Travellers wanting to get from one beach to another can climb between the curtain of jungle through a couple of footpaths or use the most of common form of transport here and arguably the easiest, the water taxi. Instantly accessible from any beach, water taxis are wooden speed boats that for a reasonable price, can take you to any cove, any beach, or any lagoon your heart desires. 

Kecil’s two popular beaches, Long Beach and Coral Bay contrast significantly to each other but both offer the visitor uncontaminated beaches, seclusion and heavenly sunshine. Coral Bay is a little smaller and boasts spectacular views of the sunset. Long Beach provides a greater selection of restaurants but most invitingly, a long stretch of glossy fine sand. The island is so small that you can easily visit the other and I recommend attempting the short twenty minute walk through the rainforest for its beautiful foilage, and indeed, as water taxis overcharge heavily for this short trip.

Treks over the leafy hilltop will also bring you closer to Kecil’s unmatched flora and fauna as well as give you the opportunity to get a glimpse of Malaysia’s unique wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might spot mouse deer, fruit bats, flying foxes and of course, monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. You will almost certainly find Malaysia’s famous Monitor Lizard. The reptile measures nearly 1.5 m in length and can be found anywhere, on forest paths, near your chalet or slowly walking along the beach. It can be a rather strange experience walking beside the crocodile-like creature but one that most certainly brings you closer to Malaysia’s exotic nature. 

If it’s absorbing yourself in wildlife that interests you then the Perhentians should be on top of your places to visit. Renowned as one of the best scuba diving sites in the world, it boasts an abundance of colourful coral and a huge variety of magnificent exotic fish (www.turtlebaydivers.com). For the less adventurous, the small diving centres also offer snorkelling trips that can last from half an hour to a whole day. To get the most out of Malaysia’s underwater paradise, the longer trips are definitely recommended and can be found for as little as 40RM (£8), including all use of snorkelling equipment. After just five minutes on the boat, you won’t believe your eyes. The sea becomes so incredibly clear that even without sinking yourself into the water you’ll be able to see the countless shoals of fish bustling past each other.
Dunking into the sea you become immersed in an entirely different world altogether. Barracuda, needlefish, clown fish are just a few of the millions of creatures you will spot flipping around. The water sparkles with such clarity making visits from the unknown marginally less shocking than possibly could have been. Lost in a kingdom of coral mountains, starfish, crabs, sea urchins and sea cucumbers, don’t be surprised to get a couple of larger visitors too. 

Indeed, splashing around carefree with my Little Mermaid goggles firmly attached I managed to spot not one, but three, Bumphead Parrot fish swimming towards me. It may not sound like much but measuring 1.3m in length they are almost as long as me. Such elusive creatures, it was a truly phenomenal experience to be welcomed into their own private world of turquoise colours and silent fairytales.

But if spotting mysterious creatures of the deep lagoon tickles your fancy then you will almost certainly enjoy catching a glimpse of two of South China Sea’s greatest inhabitants: the giant turtle and, more alarmingly, the black tip reef shark. Jumping into the deeper waters it was only when its sparkling clearness turned eerily dark and shadows of toothed figures began to encircle us that I realised the impact of my hasty decision to go looking for the world’s most deadly fish. In reality, Perhentian’s sharks are not dangerous creatures. Feeding mainly on small reef fish, they show no interest in pasty tourists and swimming among them is a relatively safe activity. Nevertheless, spotting the Great White’s cousin is rather spooky and its entire 2m length an imposing presence.

The giant turtles were again an extraordinary experience. Slipping into bottomless cloudy waters, the emptiness and mystery of these hidden depths are amplified when these friendly creatures slowly float past you in a serene hypnotic fashion.

A protected marine park, the Perhentian Islands most certainly have the best snorkelling opportunities I had ever practised. However, even if diving into the cool blue isn’t your thing, lying on isolated beaches with velvet sands softly slipping between your toes most probably will be.

Taking a private boat taxi to isolated coves and undiscovered lagoons is the perfect way to unwind; an exclusive beach experience and a step closer to that ‘deserted tropical island’ dream. Long beaches with stretches of sheer narrow waters contrast with deeper emerald coves and intense illuminating turquoise lagoons, so striking that only when you come here do you realise that that word ‘turquoise’ has been so wrongly used in all cases before. Only here, does the word truly come to life; where in one view, deep sapphires melt into bright cobalt slipping softly upon the shore as lucent waters.

The silence here is exceptional bliss. On the secluded coves, you can literally have the beach all to yourself; perfect for a romantic trip or a peaceful getaway. Each island remains so unspoiled and so remarkably natural that it can sometimes feel as though, with each footprint delicately washed away, no one had stepped on this shore before. And as your prints sink into the silky sand, the cove will remain as natural and untainted as when you first arrived.

This unspoiled air that softly envelops the Perhentians alludes to some sort of majesty; something so pure and innocently charming that it almost feels like an illusion. After all, how has it possibly escaped the prying pollution of mass tourism and commercialisation for all this time?
The answer lies with its people. The very few inhabitants of the Perhentians protect their tropical paradise just as you would if you lived here. Though they could benefit from the growth of tourism, they choose to preserve their corner of the world and keep it just as it is: a pure taste of heaven.  For this reason they have also enforced a strict alcohol ban on the islands, owing to their Muslim religion.

This means that bars and restaurants are not allowed to serve or sell alcohol in any of their premises. Though this may put off some excitable travellers, they are probably the ones you wouldn’t want in this sweet paradise anyway. That’s not to say that the atmosphere here isn’t electric. Long Beach, Kecil’s main strip, offers a small but plentiful selection of alcohol-free restaurants, and the evening comes alive as the woody smell of barbecue wisps through the salty air and guitars are strummed poetically around log fires. When the soft buzz of music and chatter drifts along the beach, the charm of the island comes alive; its ease and warmness openly embracing strangers like us.           

This laidback atmosphere is what makes the islands so unique and its abstinence is a refreshing resolution to the regular flame-throwing, dance music, boozy island hops. 

Certainly, it is probably its alcohol-free policy that has prevented it from becoming soiled by drunk and hedonistic backpackers. When people visit the Perhentians they do so for its incomparable magnetism; its incredible wildlife and its graceful charisma. With no alcohol, it remains chilled and relaxed, and sincerely beautiful.

It may even be reminiscent of a Thailand that once was. But for us now, the Perhentians are a gem, a true gift of nature with its tropical beaches under a canopy of thick, untamed forest. A retreat we’d never want to leave.           

A discreet glimpse into Paradise that we are privileged to see. A hideaway that we must not abuse and a secret we can only whisper so that not everyone hears.

A place to stop, it says. A place to stop indeed.


TRAVEL INFORMATION
Malaysia is eight hours ahead of England (GMT). Currency is the Malaysian Ringgit (£1 = 5.90 MYR) where a meal costs around 10MYR and a coffee from 3-5MYR. Malaysia’s capital is Kuala Lumpur (KL); flights depart daily from London Heathrow to KL from £154 one way (www.airasia.com) and takes 12 hours.

To reach the Perhentians, you can take a short one hour flight from KL to Johar Bharu for 39RM (£6.50) each way through Asia’s budget airline, AirAsia (www.airasia.com). From here you can find a taxi (one way 65RM= £11) to the port of Kuala Besut, where you take a boat to the Perhentians.

Alternatively, overnight coaches leave KL daily direct for Kuala Besut and take 9 hours, reaching the port in time to catch the first boat to the islands. The return bus journey costs 80RM (£13.50).
Speed boats leave Kuala Besut several times a day for the beach of your choice and takes approximately 30 minutes to reach the islands. The boat tickets can be bought at Kuala Besut and costs 70RM return (£12).

Temperatures in the Perhentians remain high throughout the year (21–32˚C) but heavy rains occur during the Monsoon season (November to February) when the islands virtually shut down. Peak season is between July and August; prices rise during this busy time and it is advisable to make your bookings in advance.

Life on the islands remain very simple; it has a strong religious influence so alcohol has been banned and topless bathing isn’t permitted. However the hospitality of the islanders is always warm and welcoming. There are no cash machines on either of the islands nor in Kuala Besut so it is advised to take your cash out before you depart for the Perhentians and always plan ahead. 

The Perhentians may be isolated and simplistic but it is rich in nature and atmosphere. Each panoramic sea view exudes a touch of tropical bliss that you could only ever find on a Paradise island, such as this.
For more information visit: www.perhentian.com/my

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