Paradise has its faults – The Perhentian Islands

Having spent the last 5 weeks traveling around Indonesia and Malaysia, posting numerous positive social media updates and uploading photos of tropical beaches that would make just about anyone and everyone jealous, I feel I have some confessions to make. The first and most important one I will outline in this blog post. Just because a photograph looks “postcard perfect”, does not mean the destination is absolute paradise. Up until this trip I always thought I could define paradise. I thought that any beach with beautiful white sand, crystal clear waters, rows of hammocks swinging from palm trees and with a sprinkling of friendly beach boys selling Pina Coladas out of fresh coconuts was my idea of ABSOLUTE PARADISE.

On a recent trip to The Perhentian Islands off the East coast of Malaysia, I had to pause and re-evaluate my idea of paradise. Before my travels, everyone I had met who had travelled South East Asia said I simply MUST go to the Perhentian Islands.  (Both The Perhentian Islands and The Gilis (in Indonesia) seemed to be high up on everyones lists so I decided I needed to visit both!) One friend, Jessica, told me it was the best place she had ever been snorkelling in her life – that the water was unbelievably clear and the place was paradise. My friend Jeni told me that if she could go on her Honeymoon again, she would go back to the Perhentian Islands. In my mind, this place was going to be absolute paradise.

Is this paradise?

Is this paradise?

View of Coral Bay - the nicest part of the small island

View of Coral Bay – the nicest part of the small island

Praise aside, I had also done some research and knew not to have my expectations TOO high. These were remote islands, after all, with only a few hours of electricity a day and no roads, no cars and not even a donkey and carts like the Gili Islands. So, I’m sure you are waiting to hear what could possibly make me think this place was not perfect, so let me explain.

On the boat to the island I was pretty mesmerized.  Everyone had been right about the colour of the water…it was like NOTHING I had ever seen before. Taking into account I have now visited 43 countries, that is a seriously big deal. The water around these islands was so amazing that it almost looked fake, as if you were whizzing through the worlds largest swimming pool.

The water was CRYSTAL CLEAR

The water was CRYSTAL CLEAR

View of the beach from the jungle interior

View of the beach from the jungle interior

It wasn’t until we arrived on the island that the real trouble started. First of all, the ferry/speed boat will not take you the whole way to the shore. They stop about 200 metres from the beach and insist you pay a local beach boy 2 dollars to take you the rest of the way. Not very much money, but it’s the principal! Plus, can you imagine trying to maneuver yourself, your backpack and your suitcase from a ferry onto a teeny tiny unstable speed boat as they pull up side my side?! NOT AN EASY FEAT!!

On arrival on the actual beach you feel relieved to have landed safely, and dry, with all your possessions  But you can’t chill for more than 2 minutes as the race is on. As everyone piles off the little speed boats there is panic as people start running up the beaches to the various accommodation choices, searching for a place to stay. Why? There simply is not enough supply to meet the demand. Every few hours tourists arrive and they are continuously told by lodging after lodging that they are fully booked, despite telling us over the phone that they “don’t take bookings”. We went to over 10 places, and were turned away from every single one. We finally found some chalets at the end of the beach – ‘D Rock Garden’ that had a spare cabin for 3 nights. Regardless of price, service or what it even looked like we said yes and were relieved that we would not have to spend the night sleeping on the beach!

We spent 20 minutes trying to find the cabin as nobody would help us. To say the staff were unhelpful would be the understatement of the century, They were appalling. We eventually found it, and discovered our “en-suite” bathroom was totally flooded with who knows what covering the ground! We complained and they didn’t seem to care. We complained again the next day and they said they would “maybe look at it”. Wow, so helpful. I wouldn’t mind so much but we were actually paying quite a lot for this cabin, not that we had much choice. As we had paid for a room for 3 people, but were given only ONE bed, we asked for an extra mattress. We, miraculously got this, but they didn’t even put it in our room. They just left it outside our door, with no sheets, no extra pillow…nothing!

Here's your mattress, as requested!

Here’s your mattress, as requested!

Friendly signs everywhere!

Friendly signs everywhere!

We moved to a cheaper place next door on day 3, which was about 1/3 of the price and seemed a lot more simpler. We were greeted with a sign on arrival that said, “stay at least 2 nights. If you wish to extend, it depends on how generous you are. E.g if you book our snorkeling trip, but our breakfast etc. If not, forget about it. Thank you.” What a lovely way to welcome guests to your accommodation!!

Next, let’s talk about the food. Or lack there of. There is 3 choices on long beach – the blue plastic chairs, the red plastic chairs, and the yellow plastic chairs. The “western” food they serve, thats right they pretty much all serve the same menu, is some of the worst food I have ever tasted in my life. While the local food isn’t too bad, waiting between 1 and 2 hours for a bowl of noodles is pure ridiculous. The they tend to forget about you, or forget your order, which doubles your frustration.

Let’s talk about the beach, which Lonely Planet says is “the most popular backpacker destination in Malaysia”. Maybe this is true but heaven knows why! The beach is dirty, with cigarette butts and empty beer cans floating in the water and stuffed in the sand. There were even used sanitary pads floating in the water, which was seriously disgusting. There were so many beach boys speeding around in their boats all day that your “perfect view” was pretty much ruined.

While the snorkeling was one of the best experiences I had while on the island, swimming with turtles, Clown fish, trigger fish and hundreds more, it also made me quite sad. Nearly all the coral was dead, due to tourists stepping on it and the lack of experienced guides. The guides also didn’t seem to care about tourists touching the turtles and even dived in and tried to encourage then to come up above the water. These people are so busy trying to make a quick buck they really don’t care about their beautiful environment, something which surely won’t last forever the way they are treating it.

Amazing snorkeling wIth NEMO!

Amazing snorkeling wIth NEMO!

Snorkelling with Trigger fish

Snorkelling with Trigger fish

Let’s summarize – the accommodation is limited and you have to fight hard or run fast to actual find a place to sleep. The staff are unfriendly and rude. The food is bad and the waiting times awful. The beach and water can be quite dirty and the view isn’t even that great, and all the coral is dead due to lack of care. 

Now comes the question that is really bothering me. Are the Perhentians still viewed as “paradise” to some people?? Have I been too spoiled throughout my travels with beautiful beaches, friendly people, delicious food and stunning scenery that I can no longer see appreciate paradise when it is staring me in the face? Have I have gotten so old that I can no longer see the fun in staying in the dingey backpacker haunts I used once frequent?! Or am I right in thinking that tourism may have ruined the islands, as the rate of tourists visiting them has grown faster than the locals could handle?

What do you think, what is YOUR idea of paradise?

  • Betty Londergan
    July 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I think your post is SO insightful and hell NO, you’re not wrong. That place sounds disgusting — and why would anybody ever choose to go there with the dirty, dead reef; lack of accommodations, gross food and terrible service? There are way, WAY too many places to choose to go that have everything to offer — sounds to me as if they’ve peed in the pool, so to speak, and it won’t be long before anybody with real money to spend will avoid that place like the plague. I’m really grateful for your honesty!

  • napoleancomplexjakarta
    July 30, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Good post, a refreshing change from the usual erhmerghawddisplaceizamazzzzzzing travel posts that clutter the blogsphere. I’ll scratch the Perhentians off the list. As an aside, you missed a trick by only going to The Gili’s (meth and giglao’s…..) and Bali (pissed Aussie youths……) while in Indo, time constraints not withstanding. Best of luck in Korea. If you’re ever back in this neck of the world drop us a line, like. Colm.

  • silkpurseproductions
    July 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    How disappointing for you but a real eyeopener. It sounds like the locals really need some education on how to keep their “paradise” hospitable for those visiting. What a shame.

  • Our Life In 3D
    July 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    My idea of Paradise revolves around a tropical island. And thre are so many. Thailand, Greece, the Caribbean. So many are scenic so it comes down to how you are treated, right? We vowed never to go back to Jamaica becuse the locals could be so nasty, similar to The Perhentian Islands. One of the best experiences of Paradise then for me was at a ‘Beaches Resort’ in St. Lucia. St. Lucia itself was pretty fair as tropical islands go but Beaches Resorts spoiled us. They have 3 resorts on the island and we could go to any one of them. The dining was extraordinary! The resorts left you feeling very pampered.
    Heree is another hidden gem with a feeling of Paradise:

  • epicuriousgirl
    July 31, 2013 at 4:22 am

    hey Janet,

    I just came back from the Perhentian islands and as a local, I had some “revelations” about the place too… it wasn’t exactly paradise and we did have bad service when it came to food (plus it was fasting month, so operating hours were shorter than usual!) but it was much quieter on the bigger island where we staying and we didn’t have the floating rubbish issue either. The boat did bring us right up to the jetty and we had a decent chalet with seaview. And since we were there to dive, we could still appreciate that the dive sites had a lot to offer but I do agree with you that the Malaysian authorities need to buck up on conservation or else my next dive there will be similar to what you say re dead reefs etc due to the guides nonchalance. So I guess in some ways your experience was also marred by the overcrowding of tourists that the locals couldn’t handle…

  • Patti O. Woodward
    August 3, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    My partner and I visited the Perhentians on a last minute trip in May last year and we were really happy with the Tuna Bay resort. The staff were really friendly and accomodating. We were given a refreshing drink on arrival and the communal space in the restaurant/ bar is a great shade from the heat and serves delicious Mango Lassi’s to keep you cool! The food was delicious every day. There was a very varied menu with a daily barbeque option serving fresh barbecued fish which you choose. The atmosphere in the restaurant was a combination of lively and also relaxing. As with anywhere on the islands – everyone is chilled out in beach wear and bare feet. Some playing cards and some meeting other guests and discussing their day’s diving.The rooms are wooden beachfront bungalows (some are set back further inland) quite basic but better than most of the accomodation on the islands. They have a little en suite shower room, wardrobe and a desk. In our room there was a comfortable double bed and a single bed also. There is also air conditioning in the rooms which is great if you go in the height of summer! The snorkelling just off the beach is good – there are many clown fish and rabbit fish and the turtles just beyond the snorkelling area in the channel between the islands make an appearance every day which is great because you can get off of the boat taxi’s and swim with them!There is also an excellent dive shop next door called Universal Divers. The manager Charlotte is lovely as were all the dive masters and instructors. All in all our stay was perfect. The diving was fantastic. The location was great. The food was very good and the staff could not have been better or more helpful.

  • Matt J Smith
    June 1, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Just stumbled upon your article and based on a trip there 12 months ago I would second every single one of your thoughts. Although I stayed in different accommodation my experience was very much the same. What is a real shame though is that I’d been to the island about 4 years previously and the deterioration in cleanliness and service was quite stunning.

  • Lauren Ross
    May 31, 2015 at 10:25 am

    I have just returned from a trip out to the Perhentian Islands and was so devastated by what I saw I had to have a look and see if anyone else was as appalled as I was. My husband is Malaysian and had never been so, when we went to visit family, I insisted on a quick jaunt out to the idyllic islands. I was last there ten years ago and it really was the picture of absolute paradise. there were so few people it was like a little family on Long beach. No rubbish, only a couple of boats and your pick of places of which bungalow you would like to stay in. I had painted the dream for him and was so excited to take him to see what had always stuck in my head as being the most beautiful place I had ever been. The horror hit when we turned the corner and I thought they had accidentally detoured and we had returned to some horror show in Europe. I didn’t recognise the place at all and had to request that we wanted to go to Long Beach. After insisting that this mass of gaudy umbrellas and naff restaurants was, in fact, the little dream that I had left behind all those years ago. When we got off the boats, it got worse! we didn’t have trouble finding somewhere to stay as we were out of season but we actually had to walk across a bridge of rubbish to reach the bungalow!! It was the saddest thing I have ever seen. The locals, as you said, were less than helpful but to be honest I don’t blame them! The type of tourism they seem to have become accustomed to, I would probably lose faith in humanity too along with any motivation I may have to serve them! Everything was more the chore and it was such a shame as it was such a far cry from what I remember. We only stayed on Long Beach the one night then moved on to Coral Bay which had slightly less rubbish but still far too crowded! We took a kayak to a few bays and even there ended up clearing piles of bottles, cans and rubbish bags.
    I am sorry this was your experience. Please believe me when I say that once upon a time it really was paradise. That place has long gone and we are left with the ruin of greedy, lazy, inconsiderate tourists and locals that can’t see what they have done to a magical place. I will keep looking for a clean up campaign as I believe it is necessary for the marine life alone but I fear the overdevelopment of the island itself may have lost the charm forever.

  • Pablo Podhorzer
    September 4, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    Is not so bad. Yes, restaurants are over-priced. Yes, it is full of Euro flash-packers. However, it is not urban nor over-developed on the Thai style, it has a rugged feel, and the snorkeling is sublime. The beach is not the best sand you can witness (that goes to Koh Samet), and the water, while crystal clear, is not the same than in the coast of Trang (where I got vertigo from looking under-water because I could see forever).

    I would go again with proper company, but with so many islands to choose from (including my favorite, Koh Kood; and my heavily touristic favorite Langkawi), it is more an issue of how much do you value snorkeling.

    September 7, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    Paradise has its faults – The Perhentian Islands – Journalist On The Run

    September 12, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Paradise has its faults – The Perhentian Islands – Journalist On The Run

  • Escaping Abroad
    January 12, 2016 at 7:27 am

    Here’s the problem I have with this. You arrived without reservations (there are numerous hotels and resorts that do take them online and at the dock in town before you leave) and left your entire experience up to chance. That’s how many people travel, but when you do so you risk experiences like this one.

    You’re complaining the boats can’t come to shore.. did you see a dock? Many small islands have this exact same situation all over Asia. I had to deal with it in Malapascua, Philippines. But my resort in Perhentians took me right up to the beach without any middle man.

    Had you stayed in a nicer part of the islands and arrived with a place to stay beforehand (like honeymooners do) you would have had a completely different experience. I stayed at Bubbles Dive Resort, which is isolated from everything and everyone else; has its own private beach, wonderful staff, and is in pristine condition. They even have a turtle conservation program where you can watch turtles hatch or lay eggs on the beach nightly. The diving was also awesome.