For beach bliss in Asia, nearly everyone does Thailand, Bali, Goa and nowadays Vietnam. But there’s a place* fewer people visit that has untapped beach bliss, and it’s called the Perhentians in Malaysia, a pair of islands with the clearest, warmest, most gorgeous water we’ve ever set foot in — water so clear that we could easily see fish, sting rays and even a baby shark from the water’s surface.
We’ve been to a lot of beaches together — both on this trip and before — and this schooled them all. On the Perhentians, you realize rather quickly that, yep, life definitely does not suck.
Our trip here was a bit of luck. You may remember that a Malaysian man on our Halong Bay cruise mentioned the Islands in passing. He showed us some pictures on his iPhone, and at the time, we thought, “Oh yeah, that’s nice.” But once we saw a gap in our itinerary and realized flying to India from Kuala Lumpur was the cheapest option, we squeezed it in between Myanmar and India. And you better believe beach time is invaluable between those two crazy countries.
As we found out, the Perhentians are much less developed than the various kohs of Thailand, but it’s still got enough movement, fun and people to feel alive. For me, the best part was that because Malaysia is an Islamic country, alcohol is (mostly) prohibited, so you’d be hard-pressed to find drunk backpackers raging on the beach. It’s all about laying out, snorkeling, SCUBA diving and trying the various BBQs along the beach at night. (We didn’t dive, but apparently it’s very good there.)
Since we had 8 full days, we split our time between Kecil (the small island, where you’ll find backpackers, cheaper food and cheaper accommodation) and Besar (the big island, where you’ll find slightly posher digs, and romance-seeking couples and families).
Long Beach is the go-to place on Kecil. But please tell me why. It may have the better beach of the island, but you’d never be able to enjoy it with all the boats crowding the view.
It’s an ugly sight, so one day on Long Beach was good enough for us. We preferred and stayed on Coray Bay, where we saw reef sharks and sting rays pretty close to the beach, where the food was cheaper and the vibe was fun without being too party-party. And best of all, the sunsets from Coral Bay were off-the-chain.
Standard breakfast at the hotel was the traditional Malaysian dish roti canai.
The great thing about Asia is that most businesses are owned by families, so you’ll always be surrounded by cute kids. I loved how these guys were glued to the TV. In another instance, the little girl below was obsessed with taking pictures of me on her dad’s phone.
No alcohol? Pssh. Eaman slipped some Myanmar rum — an airport purchase — into his lychee drink.
A few restaurants had movie nights, an idea that we were shocked not to have seen in Thailand. I mean, what else are you going to do on a beach at night? (Um, maybe don’t answer that.) The people at Ombak, a restaurant and hotel, were so lovely that when we inquired about movie night, they let us pick the movie!
Really chic set-up.
Hello, Marky Mark! We chose the remake of The Italian Job.
Long Beach may have had a crowded beach, but it also had a PG-13 version of Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party. I’m not sure how the logistics work, but alcohol was certainly flowing despite Malaysia’s Islamic mandates. Thankfully, the vibe was just right — like the most laid-back, beautiful beach bash you could imagine. One restaurant had set up rows of hookahs and mats on the beach, and there was a fire juggler entertaining in the background. And since it just so happened to be Malaysian Independence Day, things felt a little extra festive.
Contrary to popular belief, there is cheap accommodation on Besar. We stayed at the very nice Mama’s Place (65 RM/night), which was cheaper than Maya’s, our hotel on Kecil (70 RM/night).
Socially speaking, Besar was a different ball game. There’s zilch to do after dinner, but the sands are filled with hot Europeans, the trees are littered with adorable monkeys and the ocean is swarming with giant turtles who swim freely amongst snorkelers. It’s also home to the best beach of the Perhentians (located in front of the Perhentian Island Resort). We swam, body-surfed (!), collected seashells and passed out by 10 pm each night.
I know everyone says, “Oh, I could live on [insert tropical island name here] forever,” but after the second day on Besar, I really meant it. This felt less like a tropical getaway and more like normal life. We made friends with the Malay waitresses at the restaurants, played with our hotel owner’s baby nephew, and fruit stand-hopped for mangosteens and bananas. It was a life I could definitely get used to. I mean, the first two pictures on this post were taken on Besar, so you see what I mean.
Further proof below.
Coral View Island Resort, a fancier resort we couldn’t afford on our dwindling budgets, but nice if you have a regular salary!
For a beach that doesn’t get a lot of waves at this time of the year, we caught some pretty decent ones and somehow ignored the fact that sting rays were swimming amongst us. Here, Eaman demonstrates the four steps of body-surfing.
We miss you, Ayou and Emma, our favorite locals!
Ice cream always.
Our humble abode.
Thank goodness for social media. It’s how we found out Uncle Bill made a speech that was kind of a big deal. And thank goodness for WiFi on the island!
Splashed out on a delicious dinner on our last night: pizza that was actually really good — it IS possible in Asia! — and chicken tandoori BBQ.
We left the Perhentians with heavy hearts. Goodbye, paradise. It was hard to leave you. We’ll be back someday.
*I think The Philippines is the other untapped paradise in SE Asia. We’ll save that for another trip.