2020 had been a challenging and rather uneventful year. However, at least for me the silver lining to being country-bound is that I get to explore my own backyard, local travel destinations which I have always wanted to check out but never bothered to. One of them is Pulau Perhentian.
Pulau Perhentian (Perhentian islands) is off the north eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, in the state of Terrenganu. There 2 main islands are Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian). Kecil offers more cheaper accommodation, suitable for backpackers, while Besar caters to families and those who not prefer the party scenes.
When (not) to go
The only consideration is to make sure you avoid monsoon season. East coast gets hit by some of the worst floods every year, so really want to avoid November to January. Most resorts will be closed anyways. So, if you do choose to travel there during off-season, be warned that most restaurants and shops will be closed.
To get to Pulau Perhentian, you take a boat from Kuala Besut. Boat fare is about RM70 (14 EUR) return trip per adult. You want to pre book your boat trip, especially if you are visiting during weekends of public holidays. The jetty can get really busy! We pre booked our boat trip with Seven Seas.
With Seven Seas, we were made to wait about 45 minutes from our pre arranged departure time. My guess is that Seven Seas is just a sales and ticketing company, they don’t own any boats, so they are at mercy of boat availability during peak periods. On hindsight, we should have just gone with the boat transfer arrangement offered by our resort, which costs the same. So, best to check with your resort if they provide such service, and compare the cost.
Getting to Kuala Besut, you can either drive by car. From KL, it takes about 6 hours with minimal stops, so you should really plan your trip. Some people opt to do an overnight stop in Kuantan, which breaks the trip into two 3 hours leg.
Kuantan is the capital of Pahang, and it offers beautiful beach resort and the best ikan bakar (barbecue fish).
If you are driving, parking is a nightmare at Kuala Besut jetty. Let’s just say it has the worst infrastructure given how much tourist traffic it has. There is no proper parking facilities (unlike Pangkor Laut). You can either park at roadside (at your own risk), or find one of many house-turned-parking-lot small businesses. They charge a reasonable RM10 a night, but do find out if you need to leave your keys. We were not comfortable leaving our keys, so we searched around for one and found Save Park which didn’t require us to do so.
Another alternative to get to Kuala Besut is by flying in Kota Bahru Airport (KBR) which is the closest to Kuala Besut. From KBR, you either take a bus or taxi. Bus is the not the most convenient, as you need to get to Kota Bahru Bus Terminal first before getting on another bus to Kuala Besut (about 60-90 minutes). Taxi costs about RM60-70 (14 EUR).
Where to stay
Kecil (despite being the smaller island) has more accommodation options. It is a popular backpacker destination, considering it has more cheaper options (starting from as little as RM20 per person per night for a bed in a communal longhouse). However, although dubbed the backpacker island, Kecil has the only two high end resorts in Perhentian, i.e. Alunan Resort and Bubu Villa.
Besar has family friendly accommodation. It may not be the most luxurious, but it is away from the backpacker party scene. Most accommodation here are chalet style, best suited for families.
Alunan Resort – Hotel review
For our trip in late August, we checked in Alunan Resort. Now, here is where I need to manage your expectation. While the resort’s price point makes it seem like a luxury resort, the rooms and facilities are rather basic. Normal room rate starts at RM1000 per night for 2, though we managed to negotiate a discount and paid about RM800 a night. And this is for rooms and breakfast only.
In comparison, YTL’s Pangkor Laut Resort normal rate starts at about RM950 per night, 3 meals included; and with MCO discount, it could even go down to RM800 per night, 3 meals included!
Now, let’s start with arrival. The view of the hotel as we were approaching from our boat is gorgeous! It has one of the views where everyone on the boat will take out their camera phones and start shooting.
The chalets are built on the slope of the hill, which means everyone gets the sea view; if not blocked by your front neighbours doing yoga or worse hanging out their laundry. See the chalets all have rooftop sundeck with hammock, and clothes hanging line. And so when you draw your curtains, your bed will be on the direct line of sight of your front neighbour’s rooftop. Not much privacy I would say.
The beach front of the resort is very disappointing. It is small and next to the water runoff from the hill. That said, if you just swim about 100m to the west, you reach a small sandy beach with large boulders. You want to be extra careful especially if the waves are strong.
The food options in Alunan Resort are also rather limited and not the most impressive. But, it is probably the best food the island has to offer. We had a walk to Fisherman Village on Long beach (about 500m by food through the forest), and let’s just say it wasn’t worth the long walk, and the almost life threatening boat ride back to Alunan in pitch darkness!
After dinner at Long beach, we figured it wasn’t safe for us at all to trek the jungle in the dark. So, we asked for a water taxi to ferry us back to our hotel. The fare was a reasonable RM10 (2 EUR) per person. But, when the water taxi arrived and we were told to board it, it was completely not what we expected! It was a narrow long boat with no headlights! First, one of us had to pull the boat to the side of the jetty while the rest of us boarded ourselves. The boatman had one hand maneuvering the motor, while the other holding a hand held flashlight! We were all running worst case scenarios in our head, praying for no accidents. Thankfully, we arrived our hotel safely. But, on hindsight, probably not something you want to try especially if you are travelling with younger kids.
However, the snorkelling experience almost made up for all the let downs mentioned above. The resort has a coral restoration program. So, just 100m swim out of the beach, it is a coral nursery! Never have I seen so many live corals and fishes from snorkelling (usually only from diving)! Some of the more interesting sightings from the nursery are moray eel, one big puffer fish, a school of grouper etc.
What to do
We also did the half day snorkelling excursion, which brought us to 3 other snorkelling points. The first was Coral point, which is one of the most crowded sites. This site is full of massive table corals! And the water is so shallow, you can swim right on top of them, and spot tiny marine lives living on the coral. The most interesting we saw is christmas tree slug!
Caution: Please do NOT step on the table corals. We saw a lot of people standing on it, because the water is so shallow. First, you can potentially hurt yourself, i.e. get a cut from the sharp edges. Secondly or the more critical consequence is that you may damage or kill the coral, which will take decades to heal or restore!
The second site was Shark point. Unfortunately, we did not get any sighting of black tip reef shark which is common in this water.
The last site was Turtle point. And this was definitely the highlight of the trip! Upon getting in the water, we immediately saw two turtles swimming just beneath us. If you tail them long enough, you can even see them coming up to the surface for air. I have never gotten so close with turtles from snorkelling (I have never even got so close from scuba diving)! By the end of this, I had saw five turtles! Needless to say, we were all very excited, if not more than the kids.
TL:DR and my verdict for Alunan Resort
- Avoid monsoon season, the floods on the East coast are the worst!
- Perhentian Kecil has more party scenes, Perhentian Besar more suitable for families; though the only two high end hotels are on Kecil
- Alunan Resort’s rooms and amenities are basic, definitely overpriced given the many options Malaysia has to offer
- While at Perhentian, you definitely must do snorkelling, and if there’s just one site you can go, you must go to Turtle point!
- And if you do, bring a Gopro!