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THE BOAT TO THE ISLES - Jane visits the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia

Jane Shotliff

is a travel writer for


Click for Jane's Bio

There may have been a sign saying ‘not suitable for expectant mothers and people with heart, back or neck conditions’ - but I doubt it. Fortunately, being the wrong side of 50, I certainly wasn’t pregnant, wasn’t aware I had a heart condition (to start with) and my long-standing back problem has been ‘in remission’ for the past couple of years. However, it soon became apparent that the 45-minute boat ride from mainland Malaysia to the much-lauded Perhentian Islands was not for the faint-hearted. Nor for anyone with any of the aforementioned health issues.  


This was no gentle cruise across crystal blue seas. It was a 50-knot marathon in a 30-foot speedboat driven by a man on a mission. Or on drugs. For one who baulks at the tamest theme park ride, this was nothing short of hell. A bit like its adrenalin-fuelled namesake, once committed, there really was ‘No Way Out.’  


So began my mid-life introduction to the world of backpacking. As the crazed craft bobbed and lurched, I became painfully aware that most of the vertebrae in my spine were slowly being realigned. The problem with visiting the Perhentians – popular with backpackers and a must for divers – is that there is no other way to approach this cluster of coral-fringed isles, off the north eastern coast of Malaysia.


The country’s main airport is a day’s drive away in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and, although there is a small internal airport at Kota Bharu, you can’t fly to these islands. So, unless you fancy swimming or rowing the distance, you’re at the mercy of the boat operators in Kuala Besut. But the journey does mean you get away from the crowds which head for the more-easily accessible and more commercialised island of Langkawi, on Malaysia’s west coast, or its nearby Thai sisters.  


If you’re an adrenalin junkie, it might add to the thrill. But one serious word of caution. Many speed boats operators don’t follow safety rules so beware of overloaded boats. They safely hold about 12 passengers – not 20.  


Because of their inaccessibility, the Perhentian Islands still remain largely unspoiled; the soft white sandy beaches are edged with lush tropical palms and frequented by sizeable monitor lizards, squirrels and the occasional monkey.  However, this means that most of the accommodation lags well behind even Asian standards so you need to have a tough stomach – and not just for that boat ride. Hygiene standards apart, the food is awesome – and cheap as the proverbial chips.

You can get a plentiful meal for four for under a tenner.  Rice and noodles abound, as you might expect, but Western food has – sadly – found its way onto the menu of most beachside bars. But don’t wait until you are hungry before deciding to eat – service can take up to two hours at the most popular cafes! But this is a laid-back kind of life….

It’s almost too much effort to roll out of a beachside hammock to take advantage of the fantastic diving opportunities and excellent snorkelling just yards offshore.


Both snorkelling and scuba diving are accessible directly from the beach in many places – ideal for we less-confident swimmers who hate the prospect of plunging into the oceans from a boat. You don’t need to be an Olympic standard swimmer either to swim out from Flora Beach to the aptly-named Shark Point to find yourself surrounded by sharks of varying sizes, sea turtles and spectacular coral reefs. And the water is so warm, you don’t need to wrestle with a wet suit.


Diving is relatively inexpensive, costing RM70-90 (£12-£13) per dive and there are an abundance of companies offering their services. Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil is by far the busiest beach on these fascinating islands and a magnet for young backpackers who party the night away, watching fire dancers and listening to Ibiza-style music into the wee small hours.


If you prefer the prospect of snoozing throughout long hot days which roll seamlessly into long humid evenings, then flip-flopping Crusoe-style to the nearest beach bar, head for Perhentian Besar instead – but it will mean another of those pesky boat rides. Water taxis from one island to another are cheap – in line with everything else, really.

If you are a backpacker on a budget, you might find the accommodation here expensive.  If you’re used to 5*, however, it’s ludicrously cheap.


A beach-side log chalet for two, complete with en-suite bathroom and shower (hot if you are really lucky) is around £30 a night.  Basic, but it does the job. Because of the eastern monsoon, the season in the Perhentians is short, starting in June and ending in late October.  The climate is hot and humid but the ‘chill’ factor of these islands more than compensates – the only challenge is getting there.  



Jane Shotliff


* Flying times to Kuala Lumpur from Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow start from around 16 hours. Emirates,  

 British Airways, Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific offer return flights starting from £385

* Air Asia flies to Kota Bharu from £11  

* The return boat trip from Kota Bharu to the islands is RM70 – about £13.

* A water taxi between the islands costs RM25 per person - around £4.50 each – while the short transfer from boat to shore is

  just RM2 (33p)


* Accommodation starts from as little as £10 for a double room at the Matahari Chalet – double that if you want aircon (and you

  do!) – to £81 per night for a super deluxe sea view chalet at the popular Tuna Bay Island Resort.

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