Pulau Perhentian, as the islands are known in Malay, lie about 12 miles off of the east coast of Malaysia near the Thai border. Picture your favorite beach-themed screen saver. Where are those places? Well, the Perhentians wouldn’t be a bad guess. Scuba diving and chillaxing account for the largest part of the island’s GDP and that’s exactly why we were there. Backpackers mostly head for the small island, Pulau Perhentian Kecil (as did everyone on our boat). We took the road (strait?) less traveled to Deep Bay (Teluk Dalam) on Pulau Perhentian Besar, the big island’s quiet, southernmost beach.

The travel and diving season runs from April to October when the monsoons die down. We arrived in early April just as things got going. Here’s our take on this South China Sea gem.

Sleeping

The islands are (refreshingly) lightly developed. There are no roads and no cars. That said, there are plenty of places to stay. We opted for a beachfront bungalow at Samudra Chalets for about RM50 ($16) a night. A bungalow right on the beach for $16, you say!? Yes, but it’s basic… For starters there was no hot water, which was a real test of will at first, but not so bad after a few minutes. Also, the electricity only worked at night. Geckos roamed freely through the room when we opened the windows (and even when we didn’t). And the sink in our room didn’t connect to the pipe underneath it, making for a wet bathroom floor. But, eh, what do you want for $16 bucks? It was basic but clean, had a nice patio, and did we mention it was right on the beach? In the Perhentians though the beach is never far—the interiors of both islands are unbroken jungle.

For other options check Lonely Planet or some of the resources listed at the end of this post. We noticed nice chalets at Abdul’s on Besar’s west side. The Deep Bay side of the island is gorgeous though, and for us being right next door to the dive school was a plus.

Our beachfront bungalow on the Perhentians

Oops, this gecko got caught off guard, last season by the looks of it.

Water taxi rates...

Diving

We can highly recommend Alu Alu for diving. Maybe it was because it was early in the season, but they set up a class just for us. When we arrived our excellent instructor, Sanne, said we could start at any time. They had a great restaurant as well. Walking up and down the beach later, we didn’t see any other place we would rather have tried.

There are a couple of wrecks nearby and Sanne said she regularly saw sharks and turtles. The introductory dives were in places with lots of dead coral, mostly so that if we crashed into things while learning to control our buoyancy under water, we wouldn’t do much damage.

I also ended up having to shave the mustache part of my beard because it kept my mask from making a watertight seal. This left me looking very “Captain Ahab.” Natalie found my new look funny at first. After three days though she wanted her old, non-sea captain boyfriend back.

The weather in early April was a little rough at times. After bobbing around in the anchored dive boat, and being tossed by the currents in the water, nausea got the better of me and I shared my lunch with the sea.

Me explaining that no way would I have to shave for diving

The dive boat gets ready to go out

Natalie on board

Oops, I was wrong. Captain Ahab at your service.

We explore the deep

Sanne, our dive instructor

Food

We found good food and good prices at a place next door to Alu Alu called B’First. They had tables right on the sand as well as a tiny beach bar with a palm frond roof. Since Malaysia is predominately Muslim, not a lot of places serve alcohol. Not that we drank anyway since everyone says it’s a bad idea to drink and dive. We never saw any underwater sobriety checkpoints, but still…

It was at B’First that we had our first roti canai (pronounced roti janai). Roti canai looks like a cross between nan and a pancake. They served it cut up in a little pile with either hot sauce or honey. Natalie liked the hot version and I the sweet. We both thought it delicious and it became a breakfast staple.

The other fun food discovery was the mango shake. Somehow they managed to magically pile extra shake much higher than the glass itself. Tasty!

Mango shakes and roti canai at Samudra

The Jungle

There were two hiking trails accessible from Deep Bay. One led to KK Bay (Teluk Keke, on Besar’s southwestern corner). The other led to Teluk Pauh on the northwest side of the island. We never found the trail to Teluk Pauh and the one to KK Bay is also easy to miss. If you go, walk all the way down to the western end of the beach, past the abandoned resort, and make a right onto what looks like an old sidewalk. You’ll see a trail heading off to the left. It’s a steep climb and takes about half hour to get to the other side. Wear bug spray and shoes that won’t mind getting wet. Bring water too. We were sweating furiously by the end of the hike.

A walk in the jungle requires stream crossings

Ancient stairs lead to Abdul’s and other resorts

A group of fishing boats huddle around a pier.

We also took a quick walk into the jungle from the middle of Deep Bay beach, where the resorts end. And there, only a few steps in, we found honest-to-God monkeys! Natalie’s one goal for the trip was to hold a baby monkey and—what do you know!—we saw a mama holding her baby in her lap. The monkeys weren’t so keen on us looking at them, let alone letting us babysit, so we moved on. It was a quick hike. Strange spiders, lack of a real trail, and thought of being eaten alive by mosquitoes dissuaded us from a grand trek.

Monkeys! As far as I was able to find out, they’re called Dusky Langur Monkeys.

A big lizzard takes cover.

Natalie finds a Land of the Lost-sized snail shell

Other Adventures

One day, while we were out, a huge spider walked in to get out of the rain. Not knowing how deadly it was we called in the helpful Samudra staff. A chase ensued. Ooh, did he run into our luggage!? No, just under the dresser. We would have opted for the spider relocation program but this one, unfortunately, got smooshed by a broom.

Ahh, the flash reflects back from his little eyes!!

Me strutting my stuff, sea captain-style before...

going beardless!

Thanks, Pulua Besar!

Here’s a Wikitravel guide to the Perhentians:
Wikitravel, Perhentian Islands

And here’s a quick diving guide:
Dive Happy, Scuba Diving Perhentian Islands, Malaysia: A Quick Guide