The Perhentians: a rough approach

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Just off the northeastern coast of mainland Malaysia lies a series of small islands still unscathed by tourism. Two of those islands, the Perhentians, may be in their final years of simplicity due to their recent nod as a must see place in a popular backpacker’s guide. We were skeptical. We questioned the worthiness of coming here after reading some reviews describing the destination as ‘overrated’ and ‘already ruined’. Additionally, it’s hard to get here and none of the guesthouses take reservations. Considering that it is high season this only added to our concerns.

The two islands are made up of Palau Besar (the big island supposedly with more resorts and higher standards) and Palau Kecil (the smaller, budget oriented island). Reluctant but still interested in seeing what the hype was all about, we chose Kecil for the obvious reasons.

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We trekked out here on an overnight bus from Kuala Lumpur – a 9 hour ride that found us stuffed into two tiny seats with little space for luggage. We arrived in the small city of Kota Bharu at 6am to wait for a second bus ride to the jetty. At the jetty, we were mobbed by boat companies telling us the ferry was broken and our only option to the island was a fast boat that was twice as much… Things were already starting to look bad.

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After paying an additional reef tax for island access, we were loaded onto an overcrowded boat. It is always entertaining to be the 16th person and sitting next to a sign that says ‘maximum 12′. I always wonder why they don’t just rip the signs off the boats. But without fail, the boat swiftly dropped us off at Coral Bay, and at last we had arrived. A series of small wooden shacks lining a turquoise bay filled with small motor boats welcomed us.

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After hearing that Coral Bay was already sold out, we hiked up the pedestrian path towards Long Beach- the other populated beach on the island. The trail was partially washed out, narrow, and steep amidst the thick jungle, but not in a way that speaks to a barely inhabited island paradise. To our disappointment every turn seemed to introduce old construction debris, garbage, and piles of gravel. Roughly handled and seemingly not cared about, the island appeared to be caught between Swiss Family Robinson and Armageddon.

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In the hills between Coral Bay and Long Beach we found a guesthouse with an available room, although it took us waiting for nearly two hours while the staff waited to see if anyone checked out. Dave walked around to see about finding a different place, but came back explaining that he had trouble even finding staff at the places he visited.

In a place where the most you can hope for us a room with a mattress and a mosquito net, we felt relieved to have had secured both. How we felt about the island was yet to be discovered.

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