If you think you’ve seen paradise, then wait till you visit the Perhentian Islands. Off the northeast coast of Malaysia, this pair of islands offer jungle-fringed beaches with calm water and flawless diving conditions. But getting here is a faff. Here are our route suggestions.
One of the reasons the Perhentian Islands remain so unspoilt is the challenge of finding them – so there’s a refreshing lack of tourists. We’ve broken down the journey into manageable chunks so you can visit Malaysia’s secret beach utopia and diving oasis. It’s worth it, we promise.
The Perhentian Islands offer tourist-free tropical beaches, spectacular snorkelling conditions and affordable scuba diving schools. While the tourist trail might lead you to Penang or Langkawi, these islands are surprisingly uncommercial. Rather than cars and motorbikes, you’ll find jungle trails and water taxis. But the chance to visit this paradise comes at a cost, which is the schlepp to get here. Be prepared for a full day of travel including flights, a two-hour bus journey and a bumpy half-hour boat ride.
The Perhentians’ most tempting characteristic directly relates to the challenge of getting here. Visitors need to either take a domestic flight or travel eight hours by road from Kuala Lumpur. If you fly, you’ll head to Kuala Terengganu or Kota Bahru in neighbouring Kelantan state. From the airport, it’s a bus ride to Kuala Besut. The ferry covers the 20km (12mi) to the Perhentian Islands, but be aware that the boats stop operating after 4pm, so time your arrival in Kuala Besut as early as possible. Alternatively, you could book a night in either Kota Bahru or Kuala Terengganu.
Foreign tourists need to pay a RM30 (US$7) conservation fee, while Malaysian citizens pay RM5 (US$1). This is valid for three days (nobody checks and it’s more of an excuse to charge an admission fee). Because of the Eastern Monsoon, the Perhentian Islands only open for business between April and September. Choppy water, torrential rain and storms close much of the islands during the rainy season.
Here are the essentials about how to travel to the Perhentian Islands; they include flying, taking the bus and what to expect with the ferry. We strongly recommend flying to Kota Bahru, which cuts travel time in half. Be prepared for three (or four) legs of the journey. Allocate a full day from departure to checking in at your beachfront idyll on the Perhentian Islands.
Fly to Kota Bahru
Direct flights connect Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kuching in Sarawak to Kota Bahru. The fastest way to travel from Sultan Ismail Petra Airport in Kota Bahru to Kuala Besut is by taxi. Fares cost approximately RM80 (US$20) and should take no more than an hour. Alternatively, buses depart every hour costing RM25 (US$6). If you’re on a budget, the 639 bus connects the state capital to Kuala Besut for less than RM10 (US$2.50). However, this third option takes an hour and a half to cover the 56km (34.8mi). And you need to get into the city to catch the bus. Pro tip: because ferries to the Perhentian Islands stop operating each day at 4pm, a taxi for this portion of your journey is definitely worth the cost.
Fly to Kuala Terengganu
Flying into Kuala Terengganu from either Kuala Lumpur or Johor Bahru is an option, too. The Terengganu state capital lies 110km (68.4mi) south of Kuala Besut. Unless you want to explore more of the city, we don’t recommend this option, since it takes twice as long to get to the port compared to flying into Kota Bahru. However, if you want to see Kuala Terengganu as well, and choose this way to travel to the Perhentian Islands, then take the bus to nearby Jerteh. Almost all buses heading north pass through this small town – expect a two-hour journey. From Jerteh, get a taxi to Kuala Besut.
Buses and trains
Direct buses connect Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Besut on a daily basis; the journey takes anywhere between six and eight hours and costs from RM35 (US$8) per person, and bus drops you off within walking distance of the port at Kuala Besut. Bus departures are limited – there’s one in the morning and one at 10pm. We recommend you take the night bus, which arrives early morning: the last ferry to the islands leaves Kuala Besut at 4pm so if you took the morning bus you’d get here too late and would need to book overnight accommodation. Train services from Kuala Lumpur are even more limited. The train isn’t a great option – there are very few departures and it stop at Wakaf Bahru Station in Kota Bahru, where you have to take a bus or taxi to Kuala Besut.
Ferry from Kuala Besut to the Perhentian Islands
When you arrive in the small port town of Kuala Besut, the final leg involves a speedboat transfer. Almost everyone will try to convince you to use their boat. And they only depart when they’re full between 9am and 4pm. Tickets cost RM35 (US$9) one-way or RM70 (US$17) return (not including a conservation fee).
The ferry should drop you off at your destination in the Perhentian Islands. We suggest buying a return ticket for the sake of convenience. Pro tip: Some companies offer up to 25% discount on return ferries; it pays to shop around. Be prepared for overcrowding on the speedboat and hold tight onto your belongings; it won’t hurt to wrap your electronics in a waterproof cover. In theory, ferries returning to Kuala Besut depart at 8am, 12pm and 4pm. Confirm the time as soon as you get to the Perhentian Islands.
It may be a faff, but you’ll soon forget it and be grateful you made it here at all. Welcome to paradise!