Our night bus to Perhentian from Penang (170 RM – £34, so pretty pricey at my daily budget!) was only half full so there was plenty of room but it was also absolutely freezing, and we made that classic stop after midnight so it was really difficult to get any proper rest, especially as we arrived in Perhentian at 4:30am and had to wait around until our boat left the jetty at 7am. Thank goodness there was a 7-Eleven down the road and a crazy, enthusiastic tour guide to yell “come, come!” at us before zooming off on his moped as we desperately tried to keep up with him on foot with our heavy backpacks. He was certainly a character, and the entertainment he provided made for an interesting and bizarre early morning.
The are two Perhentian islands; the “big” island of Besut, which is more chilled out and offers amazing places for snorkelling and scuba diving, and the “small” island of Kecil, which is cheaper and therefore more filled with backpackers and has a nightlife to suit. I had already decided to go for the big island as, after 3 weeks on the party islands of Thailand and being around other people, I really needed some time out by myself on a quiet, remote island. However as we were queuing up for the different boats I was the only one out of 10 going to the big island, and the eccentric tour guide from earlier was providing confusing, mixed information, that at the very last second I changed my mind and joined the small island boat.
We then set off by speed boat for a half hour joy rent across the ocean to the islands, light up by the sun rising behind them. I don’t think I would get on a boat so soon after my eight ferries in Thailand, but being on this speed boat was refreshing and nourishing, the wind cool across my face and blowing my hair in every direction. We arrived at Kecil but had to transfer to a smaller boat to take us all the way in as the speed boat couldn’t get that close, paying 2 RM each but somehow still managing to get my clothes wet anyway. Once on the island (Long Beach) I set out to find accommodation but soon discovered most places were full, and only being able to find a chalet with a hard mattress and toilets far away. As my mild panic earlier about going to the big island in my own had subsided and I wasn’t won over with my sleeping options here (nor the small size of the beach that was clearly set up for drinking into the early hours) I made a decision and paid 20 RM (£4) to be taken by small boat to the big island instead. It was turning out to be a very expensive journey and I should have just stuck with my initial instincts, but either way I was back on track and felt so much better when I arrived at the pier to the main beach on Besut.
I walked about 5 minutes to reach Mama’s Chalet and Restaurant, where a bungalow to myself would set me back 100 RM (20 quid) for one night, but with a cool, spacious and comfy (the bed was amazing) bungalow to myself with a decent and clean en suite, with the most stunning view of the ocean and neighbouring island whilst being on the island I actually wanted to stay on, I was more than happy to pay it.
By the time I settled myself in it was 9:30am by the time I hired snorkelling gear (10 RM for mask and fins for the day, so £2) and walked to the rocks at the edge of the bay to snorkel all the way around the rocks to reach the next bay. The water was crystal clear – a bright but transparent blue, with Ray’s of sunlight piercing through the ocean across my eyeline and to the sea bed below – and the visibility of the coral below and fish surrounding me was literally spectacular. Some of my favourite moments were being literally surrounded by tons of tiny fish (I’m not sure of the name, but similar to those you find at a foot spa – Garra Rufa??); heading towards a big, orange and brown fish the size of my upper body; swimming past a group of identical silver flat fish (can you tell I know nothing about fish?!) all lined up in a triangular shape, staring in the same direction towards the rocks, either attending their daily fish meeting or embarking in a meditative ritual; spying a fish heading towards the sea bed, only for it to head butt a sly rock hidden amongst a gust of sand dust and then be ricocheted back up, shake his head and continue; and, my absolute highlight, spotting two sharks whilst making my way to shore. While they’re nowhere near the size of sharks to be afraid of, there is still that moment in your head where you go “shit – shark” before being completely amazed by what you are seeing. I tried to keep up with them, kicking my fins as hard as I could, but they are speedy things and I lost them after a few minutes as they danced in and out of the coral. It’s hard to put into words how amazing it was – swimming amongst the sea creatures and sharing the same living space as stingrays, gar fish (the thin ones with the needle noses) and hundreds of tropical fish – I felt as though I was part of a whole different world and it was completely enchanting. I finally understand what Sebastian was singing about.
I headed back to my bungalow, tired and happy, before grabbing a coconut shake (for 7 RM and the best I have had so far) from Mama’s and went to sunbathe on the beach. I spent the rest of the afternoon flitting between laying in the sun, swimming in the sea and taking naps; ideal day, really. That evening I had my first meal of Nasi Goreng (Claire, it was soooo good!) whilst watching the boats lit up at night and then had one of my best sleeps in my bungalow before getting up for my speed boat back to the mainland before transferring onto a bus for my journey to the Cameron Highlands. I hadn’t expected to get so much from my time on the island after being on many others for 3 weeks, but this place is literally stunning and the second-to-none snorkelling opportunities not to be missed.
“Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor; such wonderful things around you, what more are you looking for?”