Monday, February 11, 2008

The Perhentians of Malaysia

It's time to go to the East Coast of Malaysia to experience what they say are their best beaches. Redang and the Perhentians are the top two destination in the Northern East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. When I inquired about the islands, they told me that they were closed. Yes, the islands were closed, and they are every monsoon season, from November to February. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, so I asked directly from the resorts there. Fortunately, one responded that they will be opening on Feb. 1, the day we planned to visit.

From Kuala Lumpur, take an Air Asia flight to Kota Bharu or Kuala Terengganu. We flew to the former since it was 30 minutes less travel time by land to the Kuala Besut jetty, the jump off point for the Perhentians. If you wish to go to Redang, Kuala Terengganu is the place to fly into. The flight takes only 50 minutes, the land trip around 45 mins and the speed boat also 45 mins (because of the rough waters). Make the total travel time three hours.

As soon as we arrived near the islands, the waters calmed and the sun began to show. Perfect. First impressions were bland. Ok, the resorts perched on a backdrop of lush forest mountains. Nothing impressive. the water was clear but not as clear as other beaches in the Philippines. Then, we saw the rocks. What makes the Perhentians so interesting are the mocha orange rock boulders along the shoreline that seem like huge pebbles thrown by the gods. The landscape became more interesting and I knew I just had to explore the islands.

The Perhentians are actually two islands, Besar and Kecil (Big and Small). Blogs said Kecil was better and more rustic, but I couldn't find an open resort there. Some resorts would open on Feb 6 in time for Chinese New Year. The rest will open in March. But it's weird, since, coming from a tropical country, we know that the monsoon season is erratic, and you can still enjoy sunshine and calm waters during this season. But that's the deal with the Malaysians. I still can't get it.

The resort was Tuna Bay Island Resort in Perhentian Besar (Big Island). The family owned resort was pleasant and clean. Decent enough but if you've been to other Malaysian resorts, this was just average or even below. Malaysian resorts have huge rooms, and seem like they are renovated every year. The room rate was RM 170 with breakfast for two, so that's about P2,100. Good price especially if you compare it to the Philippines.

So to make a 3 days short, we practically lazed around in an island with 27 guests. Tuna Bay was the only resort open, and the receptionist said that 27 guests would come one by one over the weekend. On the last day, more came though. Food was limited to the resort, as nothing was open. Good thing a nearby resort, Coco Hut, opened the next day, and we were their only customers for two days. Their food was better than Tuna Bay and cheaper as well. We also snorkeled a lot, as there was a great reef near the shore. We also visited the other island, Kecil, and other snorkeling points in Besar like Shark Point, though I wasn't able to see the sharks. The tide was too high and the visibility was low. But the highlight was chasing after sea turtles in the channel that divided the two islands. As soon as we spot turtles, we dive down to get close. I never thought they were fast swimmers and they were huge. One was around 4 feet in diameter I think. I saw a lot of turtles, around 8 I think. That was truly a trip highlight.

We also tired trekking around the island, going through jungle paths. We also veered towards a sandy bay that we saw while we were snorkeling. That bay had clear waters and the finest of sand I have ever touched. FYI, the sand in the Perhentians in like Boracay's, sugary, white and cold underneath. It had layers though, and as you dig in some areas, the sand becomes gray but still powder. That beach was arguably one of the best I have seen. It was isolated, and you really feel detached from the real world. The high tide formed sea pools between the rocks with a clean, coral and shell free sandy floor. I couldn't ask for more. Your feet will submerge in the sand almost up to the shins, a sign of how virgin the beach is. No words could describe the place. It was truly paradise.

All in all, the Perhentians are worth a visit when in Malaysia. And it's easy to go to. Just call the resort and they'll arrange everything. If you plan to go independent, ferries and speedboat taxis are waiting at the ports. Easy and convenient, just like Thailand. Thailand and Malaysia may have less beaches than ours, but with what they have, they take care. I really get frustrated with our tourism department because it seems nothing is being done with infrastructure. They just keep marketing the Philippines, lure rich travellers to stay in 5 star resorts. I have met people in KL who have backpacked and will be travelling to the Philippines independently. If the infrastructure and transport system was just better and more efficient, it would be more convenient for travellers to experience our country. I still believe that tourism is our way out of poverty.

Well, back to the Perhentians. For a rustic setting, immaculate beaches, unique landscapes and a relaxed atmosphere, the Perhentians in the East Coast of the Peninsula are an excellent choice in Malaysia.

* Forgot to say that my Nikon DLSR broke down during the entire trip so I used my friend's Canon 40D for some pictures. I took pictures of the beach I was talking about using my Olympus that also had a problem, as moisture got in the camera. The Canon lost battery as well during our stay in the secluded beach. So, that's the story. We came back the next day but it was low tide, and the sun didn't shine. It seemed it didn't want its pictures to be taken.

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