Being in KL (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia for three weekends for work, I decided that I wanted to do something for the weekend in between... but where to go? Should I stay in Kaula Lumpur to explore the city more thoroughly or should I go somewhere else in Asia... ? After speaking with Keith (a local Malaysian), he said that I could not leave Malaysia this time without going to Pulau Perhentian (Perhentian Island), a non-touristy island right off the eastern coast of the Malaysian peninsula. After a lot of planning and convincing, I got my two body guards (Petter and Dhiaa) to come with me with the reasoning that most likely in our lives, we would come back to KL, but possibly never have the chance to go to this remote island paradise. When looking at lodging options, there are dirt cheap hostels and "five star" hotels. Petter did not want to settle for less than a nice hotel, but looking at the options available on the island (which really were not many to start with) there was only one hotel with the availability for our one weekend, Perhentian Island Resort. This resort is the most luxurious and also most expensive hotel on the island. I have realized that searching and booking online for any of the hotels one this island was very difficult (especially last minute), so I had to call around to all the resort's booking agencies in KL and fax in a paper form with my payment information to confirm a room. Flights were purchased through AirAsia, a budget airline, with round trip tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu (the closest airport to Pulau Perhentian) costing only 440 RM which is less than 130 USD... That's a damn good deal for a weekend getaway to a remote island... FO SHO! But this was the easy part.
Planning the logistics on getting there seemed a bit difficult but doable and worth it. The tentative itinerary was to fly from Kuala Lumpur Airport (KUL) to Kota Bharu (KBR), take a taxi from Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut, then take a taxi boat from Kuala Besut to Perhentian Island.... little did I know how stressful and difficult it would be... In actuality, it took a 1 hour taxi ride from KL city center to Kuala Lumpur Airport (KUL), then going through security and all that jazz at the airport, get onto a 1 hour flight, get luggage and go get a taxi, 1 hour taxi ride from Kota Bhar Airport to Kuala Besut, spend the night in Kuala Besut with nothing open or barely any means of transportation available, then take a taxi to the Kuala Besut jetty, take a 1 - 1.5 hour boat taxi to the island, and then we are at Pulau Perhentian. Whew! What a mouthful! But was it worth it? Two words... HELL YES.
A couple of tips while en route to Pulau Perhentian: there will be one stand at the KBR (Kota Bharu) airport which handles taxis. You can either go to this stand and pay 75 RM (about 23USD) and get a blue slip (shown on the left) or go outside and find another taxi on your own for cheaper. It seems a bit of a stretch, money wise, especially for Malaysia but it is definitely worth the money as the 1 hour ride to Kuala Besut is a bumpy and hot one. With this blue taxi slip, you will get a legitimate and clean taxi with air condition going straight to your hotel. Malaysian taxi drivers are crazy drivers, so prepare yourself for one of the scariest car rides of your life: super fast through the bumpy, windy, and narrow "streets" through the Malaysian jungle.
Another tip is to make sure you time things correctly. There are limited number of taxi boats that leave from Kuala Besut jetty to Perhentian Island. There are only four times going to the island (8:30, 10:30, 13:30, and 16:30) and only three times coming back from the island (8:00, 12:00, and 16:00). Because we didn't get into Kota Bharu until 6:30PM and then an hour taxi to the jetty, there was no way we would've made it to the last taxi boat to the island. Instead, we stayed one night in Kuala Besut at The Manor Beach Resort. The owners were very accommodating; they gave us a ride to a restaurant close by, even arranged for us to pick up beers/snacks at a local family owned shop, and also arranged a taxi for the next morning to the jetty. The place itself had nice outdoor seating under well kept gazebos. The rooms were sub-par, but was good enough for our one night's stay. Our room was literally a meeting place/conference room with beds in it... It was really bazaar. Nonetheless, we had a great night sitting at one of the gazebos drinking Tiger, eating Pringles and other Malaysian snacks, relaxing, and getting eaten alive by mosquitos. Malaysian mosquitos are no joke! They love my kimchee blood and can't get enough of it. I was extremely uncomfortable being fully clothed in jeans/sweater/sneakers in this hot humid weather, but I gotta do what I gotta do to protect myself from these nasty mosquitos. It was a good thing that I had good beer and good company to keep me distracted!
The next morning, we got onto the earliest 8:00AM taxi boat to the island. Man! The taxi drivers in Malaysia are ruthless! It was definitely a bumpy yet exciting ride out there. They drive as fast as they want through whatever conditions! Pulau Perhentian is made up of two islands, the Big Island (Besar) and Small Island (Kecil). Luckily these taxi boats drop you off right at your resort so we just went straight to the front desk, received two maps of the island and resort (see below), we changed into swimsuits, and went to explore the beach. The beaches here were just as gorgeous as Kota Kinabalu but minus the crowds. Untouched, isolated, and striking clear blue waters. The waters were a bit murky, but it was still a great day of snorkeling and fish watching. I even spotted and followed a shark around! There were fish with eyeballs as big as baseballs... It was scary as shit especially when the giant fish you've been following does a 180 and comes swimming straight back at you. It was intriguing and fascinating to analyze all the colorful marine life found in the waters surrounding this island.
To get beer at all on the whole Big Island (Besar), you have to walk to the south side of the island past Tuna Bay Resort to these little wooden shacks that sell beer and food. Surrounding these wooden shacks are colorful chairs and chickens running around... Here, was probably the best green curry I have ever eaten homemade by a little Malaysian lady in what I guess you could call a "kitchen."
Our room was supposedly the highest accommodation Perhentian Island Resort has to offer, "five star" lodging. To be completely honest, for an American, this is definitely not a five star. There is a restricted amount of water used for showering, there are ants crawling throughout the room, dirt and sand in every crevice, creaky beds, questionable cleanliness of sheets, but for me, this was exactly what I was expecting... Come on, it's Malaysia! This country is still considered third world. So if you are ever thinking about visiting, do not expect westernized five star... but Malaysian five star. One tip I give others when traveling, ALWAYS KEEP AN OPEN MIND! With an open mind, anywhere can be pleasurable and fun :)
After a full day of snorkeling and soaking in the marvelous island paradise, we decided to take a taxi boat to check out Kecil (small island), since we heard beer was easily accessible over there. When the taxi got to the shore of Kecil, it docked about 50 feet from the actual bay. We had to actually get out of the boat, into the water, and walk through the water up to shore. Good thing I was wearing flip flops! Once we got onto shore, boy was I surprised! It was bumpin' on this little island with lively music, tons of people sitting out on the beach drinking beer, and having a BBQ seafood dinner. The night life was surprisingly really great! There were tons of little BBQ restaurants right off the shore, so we decided to stop at one and have dinner. For about 15 RM (less than 5USD), we had a choice of a local fish (even a choice of shark!) and a side with any type of sauce to be BBQed over an open fire (what a steal!).
During my time in Malaysia, I got a canker sore on my inner top lip, which somehow got infected (most likely from the water quality). It got super swollen while I was in KL and got even worse once I got to the island, probably due to the all the stress of our travels. While snorkeling and swimming in the salt water, my lip would go through a deathly cycle of draining then swelling, then draining and swelling, and over and over again.While waiting for our fish to be cooked during dinner, I went into a little convenience store and found some lip cream for canker sores! Exactly what I was looking for so of course I bought it right away!! I was so excited that I found this, I put it on right when I sat back at the table. When I put it on, I screamed bloody hell since it burned so badly... I looked at the box, and it was expired for over a year.... WHY?! WHHYY?! At this moment, I missed Walmart. As an American, I am so spoiled to have Walmart... Seriously...
After the initial burning on my lip went away, our food came and I totally forgot about the pain my lip had caused me since the food was so amazing. The fish was extremely tender, sweet, and soft. Probably one of the best seafood meals I have had in Asia.. EVER. With full tummies, we walked along the beach shore and found so many little night clubs/bars. We stopped at this lively "treehouse" bar that sold 15RM personal bottle of spirits (SO CHEAP!). We took our shoes off and climbed up the ladder to the upstairs of the treehouse bar and enjoyed our bottle of very inexpensive spirits and black currant juice. There was Michael Jackson blaring loudly on repeat which reminded me of the time at Ilha Grande in Brazil... Why do they only play Michael Jackson everywhere I go?! haha Other than the Michael Jackson, the relaxed atmosphere and decor inside this treehouse was just a great place to chill out. There was surprisingly a lot of British and a SHIT TON of French people! Although there was maybe only a couple hundred of people on these islands, it was quite touristy on Kecil Island. It surprised me to see so many foreigners on this island because Pulau Perhentian is a well kept secret among the locals of Malaysia.
After the treehouse bar, we walked to the other side of Kecil Island where we found tables with hookahs and placemats as seating placed right on the beach. There were little platforms for fire performers (fire poy) and top 40's American pop music playing in the background. It was a very fun, interesting, and relaxed place to hang out right on the beach. We stopped by every one of the little bars/clubs along the coast and ended our night at the most liveliest beach "club" on this island where we spent the rest of the night drinking and dancing on the sand by the water...
One thing I want to say is that there is literally one bathroom area for public use. It is at the absolute end of the beach away from all of the bars/clubs and even past Shari-La Resort in a dark and shady area. I have used some terrifying bathrooms... but this was probably the MOST terrifying and disgusting place I have ever used... I am not sure if I can even call this place a restroom as it was just a hole in the floor of a shipping container. You have to get a small water bucket, fill it up from a large tank full of water, and throw the water into your toilet hole until your waste "flushes" using gravity. Unfortunately, I left my flip flops with the guys on the beach... big mistake... Please do not forget footwear when you use the restrooms out here! You will thank me once you see these "restrooms."
After a full night of dancing on the beach, we spent a chill morning the next day snorkeling until our taxi boat back to Kuala Besut. Our last day on paradise island was filled with extremely clear waters and I was able to see a ton of turtles at Turtle Point right in front of our hotel. I never realized how majestic and graceful turtles are as they swim... such a magical sight to see!
With some time to kill in Kuala Besut, we found a little Chinese restaurant (forget the name) with amazing food. Our main dish was by far the ugliest fish I have ever seen, but one of the best fish I have ever eaten! Watch out for the hot sauce though... Definitely try just a little taste before putting it on the fish. I got greedy and put a huge dabble of hot sauce and basically lost all sensation to my tongue for about 30 minutes even after 3-4 cups of water, 2 watermelon drinks, and a cup of milk.
Our long taxi ride from Kuala Besut to Kota Baru Airport was not pre-arranged with the taxi stand at the airport. This was a mistake as all the taxis in Kuala Besut are disgusting. Our car looked like one of those vehicles that would be abandoned with a bomb in it. The seats were completely ripped up with ANTS crawling out of the seat cushions and out of every crevice of the car, all seatbelts and handles were broken, all of the fabric material was hard and crunchy (literally) from the many years of sun, and it was just a terrible taxi to ride in for 1 - 1.5 hours. I seriously did not want to touch anything in that car because it was so filthy. Luckily, there was A/C!
But riding in this taxi and driving through Malaysia made me really see how people lived outside the main city (outside of Kuala Lumpur). At this very moment, I now understood how Malaysia is still considered third world as people are living in literally shacks made of metal sheets and 2x4's. The more I travel, the more grateful I become for being raised as an American. I realize how lucky I am to live with the comforts of a home, a nice bed, and clean clothes. Even with the struggles of my swollen, infected lip, I am SO lucky to just be able to drive up to a Walmart and get non-expired medicine! As Americans, we really take the small things for granted. I have always known that Americans live comfortable lives, but seeing it first hand in this run-down taxi really opened my eyes and really hit home for me.
Although it took a shit load of time and energy to get to this exquisite island, I am glad I was able to see and experience Pulau Perhentian. I would do it again, even faster than a heartbeat. It was seriously one of the best ideas I have had to take this weekend to see this paradise. I am a sucker for a beautiful beach and this island was pure bliss. I will never forget snorkeling with the turtles in the clear turquoise waters of this island. But most importantly, I will never forget what I saw driving through Malaysian country side nor the feeling of how thankful I am for my upbringing in the USA. I am continually grateful of how blessed I am with the things I was given growing up.