I stayed on the Perhentian Islands in the northeast of the Malaysian peninsula to get a scuba diving certificate. To get there, I took a seven-hour bus ride from Penang to a city named Kota Bharu and then a one-hour taxi ride to Kuala Besut, the closest mainland port to the islands. I spent one night in Kuala Besut since I arrived there after the last boat to the Perhentians had left. While the hosts at my guesthouse were very kind, there isn’t much to do in Kuala Besut. The Perhentians are the real attraction.
The diving around the Perhentians is known for being relatively inexpensive. The water was calm and warm, which made it a good location to learn how to dive. I did a three-day PADI open water course with Anti Gravity Divers. Storm, a 22-year-old Malaysian, was the instructor for me and a Jordanian who had lived in Malaysia for a few years before returning to the Middle East.
In addition to having the coolest name, Storm was so relaxed and mature. He patiently explained theory and didn’t get ruffled when we – or I, to be more accurate – fumbled through drills. With Storm’s guidance, we miraculously passed our open water exam. (Let’s be honest again here: it was a miracle I passed. I had no doubts about my course buddy.)
After finishing the course, I did a couple of recreational dives with my course buddy, his girlfriend, and Storm. My course buddy’s girlfriend and Storm were experienced divers who could serenely glide near reefs and fish without incident. In contrast, I was a lot jerkier and had to paddle my hands to scuttle away from reefs. My diving “skills” clearly needed more work. Since I was still trying to master buoyancy, I didn’t take photos, but we saw clownfish (forever known as “Nemos”), a small school of shrimpfish that floated vertically, and an adorable moray eel.
The Perhentians consist of two main islands. Perhentian Besar, the larger one, has a reputation for catering toward families. Perhentian Kecil, the smaller island, is more of a backpacker haven. I stayed on Perhentian Kecil, which has two main beaches. Long Beach is larger and has more of a party scene, while Coral Bay is smaller and quieter. Anti Gravity was in Coral Bay, so I stayed in a room right across from the shop.
Coral Bay was a tranquil retreat after my diving lessons. I was exhausted after diving but remembered to take one shot of the bay.
I visited Long Beach one morning and preferred Coral Bay. Long Beach was more crowded, and there were a number of trash bags on the beach when I visited. Since I was drained from diving, I didn’t partake in the nightlife on Long Beach, but friends who did had a good time.
As for non-diving entertainment, Ombak Resort on Coral Bay played two movies every night. Admission was free as long as you bought a drink or food item. The drinks and food were expensive, but I couldn’t complain when I was being given free entertainment. I went to the Ombak movie night twice. On the first night, I happened to sit next to a receptionist who worked at the resort, so I got to meet and hang out with a few other staff members.
I’m no movie critic (I haven’t even seen any Star Wars movies), but below are my one- and two-sentence reviews of the movies I saw:
- Assassin’s Creed: reminded me a lot of The Da Vinci Code, but I was surprised that I actually got into the movie.
- Me Before You: not sure if I agreed with how the movie handled the issue of living with physical handicaps, but the chemistry between Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin was off the charts.
- The Smurfs: meh. I wasn’t expecting an Oscar-worthy story, but I was unimpressed.
- If I Stay: more meh. The story was pretty heavy, but I couldn’t get myself to care about any of the characters.
Below are a few more notes about the Perhentians:
- Accommodations on the islands are limited, and the cost is expensive for what you get. I stayed in a private room on Coral Bay, which cost 40 MYR (about $9.50) per night. The room had a fan but no air conditioning. The bed had a mosquito net with a few holes, and the bathroom was pretty bleak. The room was fine for a few nights, but you shouldn’t expect luxury digs on the islands.
- There are no ATMs on the islands, so you have to make sure you bring enough cash to cover your stay. It’s a good thing I didn’t go out on Long Beach because I ran out of cash on my last night. I thought I had tracked how much cash I had, but I embarrassingly didn’t have enough to pay for my accommodation. The guesthouse owner was incredibly gracious and understanding, and Anti Gravity let me send them an online payment, which they transferred to the owner. A million thanks to the guesthouse owner and Anti Gravity.
- Coral Bay and Long Beach are on opposite sides of Perhentian Kecil. A path connects the two beaches, and a 10-minute walk will get you from one side to the other. The path isn’t lit at night, which can be a problem if you’re returning to Coral Bay after a night on Long Beach. Thefts have occurred. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking down the path alone at night.
- Cellular service was spotty on the islands, so bring a good book for entertainment.