The Perhentian Islands sit almost 20km off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, in a protected maritime area. As you get near them, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d died and gone to heaven. Or, perhaps, that you’d stumbled into some giant, elaborate Hollywood film set. It just doesn’t seem real; it’s too damned beautiful. The waters, the skies, the jungles… it’s all tooperfect.
The islands are surrounded by warm tropical waters which were, during my visit at least, perfectly calm. The only swells come from the little speed boats ferrying tourists from one beach to the next. From these boats, you can see right down to the bottom of the sea at any point between the islands. The Perhentians are perhaps even more impressive when viewed underwater than above. Underwater, visibility is almost always high, and nearly everyone who comes here ends up diving or snorkelling – cruising slowly over immensely colourful reefs, teeming with all sorts of life.
The Perhentians have famously great reefs for snorkelling, and that’s what brought me all the way here. In particular, I came to see sharks. I’ve swum with sharks before, but it’s a thrill that hasn’t yet worn thin. I have an obsession with these atavistic predators. On my right bicep I even have a tattoo of a shark. Moreover, I still hadn’t gotten a good photo of these elusive creatures from the deep… All I had were blurry, partial shots from various expeditions over the years.
As recounted at the end of my previous blog post, I found a shark quite literally within one minute of setting foot in the water, although it was just a baby. The next morning, I booked a snorkelling trip to five different locations around Perhentian Besar (the “big island”). At the first stop, we all jumped out of the boat and almost landed on a big hawksbill turtle. It just calmly fed from the coral at the bottom, completely uninterested in the cluster of Homo sapiens above it.
On the second dive, I asked our guide, “So where are we likely to see sharks?”
“You want to see sharks?” he asked, surprised.
I said, of course, that I did.
“Well, maybe here,” he said, waving at an area of water just behind the boat. He didn’t seem convinced.
I swam around for ten or fifteen minutes (it’s always hard to keep track underwater) and then, when it was time to head back to the boat, I suddenly turned and found myself very close to a blacktip reef shark. I’m not good at estimating size or distance underwater, but it was definitely more than a meter and less than three. Possibly it was about the same size as me. In any case, in the crystal clear waters it made a tremendous sight. These creatures are so graceful, so impossibly perfect after hundreds of millions of years of fine-tuning evolutionary processes, that I am simply awe-struck each and every time I have the privilege of sharing the water with one of them. I snapped a few photos with my GoPro and tried to swim after it, but it was shy and far quicker than me, and in a few moments it was gone.
Later, we saw more incredible reefs just swarming with staggering arrays of life, and yet that one shark sighting made it worthwhile for me. Later in the day I went snorkelling myself and saw yet more incredible sea life – a few big blue-spotted stingrays, some titan trigger fish, massive bumphead parrot fish, a medium-sized moray eel, a kaleidoscopic plethora of brightly coloured fish… But it was the shark that stuck in my mind.
As the red sun began to set over the horizon, over the faint spectre of peninsular Malaysia, I headed back through the jungle to Turtle Beach, looking to swim here in search of more life – specifically, more sharks. However, as I had half-expected, the tide was far out and swimming was nearly impossible. The sharp coral was only a few inches below the surface at some points, and it stayed this way for at least thirty meters. Any attempt to swim would’ve resulted in a severely scarred torso from the sharp coral. I persevered and walked as far as ten meters across jagged and sometimes slippery rocks in a vain search for some inlet, but there was nothing. As I stood looking out and resigned to a wait until the morning, a small shark shot frantically past my legs and out towards the sea. It was the second baby blacktip I’d seen at Turtle Beach. Indeed, perhaps it was the same one…
On day two, I went snorkelling early in the morning by myself, covering a large area of sea over perhaps two hours. It reaffirmed what I’d learned the day before – that the creatures in the water here are absolutely stunning. I saw many more stingrays (but never did manage to get a good shot – those slippery bastards are not only well-camouflaged, but move a lightning speed when they suspect a paparazzo is nearby), giant shoals of smaller fish, several colourful moray eels and one albino, some ludicrously big bumphead parrot fish, a big hawksbill turtle, and another baby blacktip reef shark, just off the beach at D’Lagoon. I chased the shark in circles for a few minutes before it swam off over coral that was too shallow for me, and said goodbye.
I was particularly happy to see several moray eels. All my life, I’ve had an irrational fear of these animals, and although I’ve seen them on several occasions, I’ve always panicked badly when confronted. This time, however, I first kept my distance and watched, and then later got in close for some photos. Hopefully I have now overcome my fear of these solitary animals who, like me, prefer to keep to themselves.
Sea Turtle at Perhentian Islands.
I’ve spent many, many hours in the water here on Perhentian Kecil (“the small island”). I try to fit in as much swimming time as possible, although I do trek around the island a little, or sit on the balcony of my obscenely expensive Rising Sun hillside bungalow overlooking the lagoon, reading Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson. This has been a sober section of my trip… With this part of Malaysia being deeply Muslim, there isn’t much in the way of alcohol nearby, and what there is is expensive. So it goes. I’m happy to spend a few days just drinking in the view, hiking through the jungle, and chasing sharks in circles around the nearest reef.
On the beach, there is also a fantastic array of life. At D’Lagoon this past weekend, all the rooms were filled, and some severely overfilled, with many daytrippers stopping by to spend time on the beach and in the water. There have been a lot of wealthy Malaysians – mostly families, but also one large group of young women, all clad in hijabs except for one, who was somewhat conservatively dressed, but nonetheless conspicuous for not wearing Muslim clothing. It is fascinating to me that these young women wear hijabs or burkhas even when snorkelling or scuba diving. Compare them to the countless French women on the beach here (I don’t know why, but more than half the tourists on the Perhentians are French) who wear skimpy bikinis, sometimes thongs, and often go topless. Yet, the wonderful thing about the Perhentians – and maybe this is proof that I have in fact died and gone to heaven, because I can hardly believe my eyes – is that here in paradise, even this epic clash of cultures means nothing. The Muslims girls don’t look at the French girls in disgust, and the French girls don’t look at the Muslims girls in pity. Everyone seems at ease here by the water, happy to show their true colours, whatever they may be.
Due to having no internet access on Perhentian Kecil, this post has been delayed by four days. I’ll post updates from the island in the coming days.
Escape from Sihanoukville
After some five nights in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, taking care of business, and mostly just drinking beer, I made my move towards the Perhentian Islands. I’ve been obsessed with sharks since I was a child, and in my quest to view them all over the world I discovered that the Perhentian Islands, off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, have plenty of sharks which are easy to see from the beaches.
It seemed foolproof, but of course life is never so simple. First, there was the small matter of getting there – from one out-of-the-way tropical destination to another. How hard could it be?
Leaving Sihanoukville should have been the easy part. I lived there for more than a year and have made the journey from Sihanoukville to the airport at Phnom Penh on many occasions. Yet this part of the journey, much like the rest of it, would be a series of punches to the gut.
I was staying out near Otres, with a rented motorcycle as my transport back into town when the time came to make my move. I had booked a ticket on a so-called VIP minibus leaving from outside Mick & Craig’s, which seemed like a convenient location, as it was just around the corner from my motorcycle rental outfit. However, from the offset, small problems arose. First, my laundry was late in being delivered. (This is the first time on the trip I had someone else do my laundry – don’t judge me.) Then, when it arrived, my bike wouldn’t start. I had to use the kicker over and over to boot some life into the old engine, which was not easy in the fine rain and deep sand, whilst balancing various heavy or valuable bags.
(Several days earlier, when I’d rented the little bike, the owner told me not to worry about it being stolen, which is generally a big problem in this part of the world. “The thieves won’t bother with this one,” he said, confidently. “It’s too old.” That was good enough for me, and indeed until it refused to start at the most inopportune of moments, I saw no holes in the plan. Even the fact that the engine would stop running any time the throttle was released didn’t trouble me – I’ve never been one to go easy on the throttle.)
After I managed to kick some life into the addled Honda Dream, I set off towards town, determined not to stop for fear that the goddamn machine wouldn’t get going again. But the gods had it in for me from the offset and, within a mere thirty seconds of setting off, the skies exploded and an almighty downpour commenced. There was nothing I could do. Thanks to my late laundry delivery, I only just had enough time to get into town and return the bike before catching my bus. Waiting for a break in the rain simply wouldn’t do.
Cambodia knows a thing or two about rain. In this part of the world, every now and then, when it suits the gods in the clouds, they will unleash an unimaginable volume of water, pounding down so hard that it stings your skin, even when you’re not riding into it on a motorcycle. It can rain harder in the tropics than I ever thought was possible back home in Scotland… and believe me when I say Scottish people know a thing or two about rain. When it buckets down in Cambodia, you can fill buckets in seconds. The water hits the street hard enough that it bounces back and gets you on the chin. When it hits water it penetrates like a bullet. Roads turn to rivers, and rivers burst their banks and consume all the surrounding flatland. It comes down so hard and fast that I swear it goes through you – it soaks you so much that even if you went home, changed, and dried yourself thoroughly with a towel, you’d still feel wet for days. Such is the power of a tropical rainstorm.
And it was one of these – one of the hardest and most unforgiving I’ve ever encountered – that commenced literally seconds after I set off from Mien Mien Bungalows on Otres, for a long ride back to Sihanoukville. By the time I arrived, there was nothing on me that remained dry. I was soaked through to the bone. My bags, too, were utterly drenched – everything I had was wet. Somehow, by some minor miracle, my electronics seem to have survived, but my books are mulch, my money and my passport just floppy bits of thin paper, and my clothes all completely drenched.
So, soaked to the bone and with nothing I could do about it, I walked through the driving rain to Mick & Craig’s and stood outside, under a large awning, and waited for my minibus. After forty-five minutes of waiting, I asked a nice girl working at a nearby travel agency to call and inquire about the bus, which then showed up five minutes later, having evidently forgotten about me.
Yes, it was going to be one of those days.
I got into the little bus and had my first break of good luck for the day – it was nearly empty. I had a whole row of seats to myself, so I took off my hiking boots, which were filled to the brim with dirty brown foot-stink water, and spread myself out awkwardly, hoping to dry off a little. The problem with Cambodian buses, however, and indeed buses throughout Southeast Asia, is that they blast their air conditioning relentlessly. The other passenger on the bus was wearing a thick hoody and a scarf, while I shivered in misery for four and a half gruelling hours. I was already fighting a cold, and I didn’t need this to add to my woes.
At Phnom Penh airport, I lost my temper at a tuk-tuk driver. I have little tolerance for these parasitic bastards, and if there is anything I loathe worse than a parasite, it’s an idiot – and this guy was evidently both. After alighting from my bus outside the airport departures gate, the driver approached me and shouted, “’otobike? ‘otobike? ‘otobike?”
“Do I look like I need a fucking motorbike?!” I shouted. “Where do you think I’m going?” I pointed at the airport, but it didn’t seem he understood. “’otobike?” he said again. These people are not all bad, and they’re certainly not all stupid, but most of them are heavily into crystal meth, and that happens to push people a little into both categories. On the twenty meters I walked to the gate of the airport, another half dozen drivers accosted me. The desperation in their eyes as they saw a white man walking outside the airport overwhelmed them – here was a mark they could scam, someone to swindle or rob. Or so they thought.
I went into the airport, leaving the leprous swine behind. First on the agenda was to change out of my sodden boots and into some flip-flops. I checked through my bags and found I had no dry clothes to change into, but that didn’t matter. I was getting used to sitting in these damp clothes and, by the time I arrived in Malaysia, I was sure I’d finally be dry.
Arriving in Malaysia
The flights went quite smoothly, and at 11:45pm we touched down at Kota Bharu airport. I had no idea what Kota Bharu was like; in fact, I knew almost nothing about the town at all. It was just a jumping off point on the way to the Perhentians, as far as I knew. My credit card expired last month and I had been unable to book a hotel, but that was ok… I have a very long track record of rolling into towns in the middle of the night with no reservations and everything turning out just fine.
But this wasn’t going to be one of those times.
The first small problem was that when I got to the arrival gate there were booths for hotels and buses to Kuala Besut – where the ferry departs for the Perhentians – but, sadly, they were not staffed. In fact, as I walked around the airport I saw that it was almost entirely empty. I found a woman who told me there was a hotel nearby, and walked out of the airport grounds and onto a large road with few lights. I walked around for an hour, finding only one guesthouse and a number of pissed off buffalo, but the guesthouse had no one working on the front desk. So I decided I’d return to the airport and either take a taxi into town to find a hotel, or just sleep on the floor in the airport itself.
However, the airport was now closed.
I took stock of my options, and things looked grim. I could try to find someplace to sleep outside, but I’d only just started to feel dry again, and I didn’t fancy the chances of it not raining overnight. In the end, I resolved to walk downtown and find a hotel. My phone battery was almost dead, but the GPS app told me it was maybe 12km along a single road into the middle of town, where there were dozens of small hotels. One of them would surely have staff at the reception desk.
I took off walking along the dark highway, lugging some 20kg of luggage in flip-flops at almost one o’clock in the morning, while the temperature was still around 30’C. Yet the road was not empty. At this hour, in Kota Bharu, evidently the local young men take to the streets for illegal races in ridiculous suped-up cars, firing along the dark road as fast as they can go. For the first few kilometres, though, they just stood about beside their cars, talking, lingering in shadows. There were more than fifty of these ludicrous vehicles amidst a frenzy of testosterone and petrol fumes.
This left me in a nervous state of mind. Besides the obvious danger of being hit and killed by one of these maniacs, there was also the fact that I was a foreigner in this strange land, wandering along the road with all his worldly possessions – or at least a good few thousand dollars’ worth of cash and electronics – in the middle of the night, surrounded by wild-eyed young men in shady groups. Where I come from, this situation would not end well, whether you are foreign or local – except the locals would know better than to put themselves in such a position. We call these people “boy racers,” which is a polite way of saying criminal psychopaths, or the sort of bored idiots for whom A Clockwork Orange is a sort of watered down biopic.
Around three o’clock, halfway to town, I found a small hotel whose proprietor bore an uncanny resemblance to Breaking Bad’s ultraviolent villain, Tuco. Mercifully, Tuco gave me a room for 80RM (US$10), although at this point I would’ve traded him both my kidneys and hoped for a transplant in the morning. I settled into my awful little room and spread out all my possessions in front of the air conditioner, hoping that they’d dry just a bit before morning. It was freezing and the air conditioning aggravated my sore throat, but I soon fell into a deep sleep.
Heading for the Islands
In the morning I slept through my alarm, but woke about 8:30. Tuco said he had no idea how to get to Kuala Besut, and so I continued my walk – this time wearing my soaked hiking boots, which still slushed with every step. My feet were badly blistered from walking so far in flip-flops.
The heat was unbearable even by 9am, and I stuck to the shadows as much as possible. It occurred to me for the first time that I wasn’t that far from the equator. The roads seemed quieter in the daylight, or perhaps they were just less threatening. I noticed that the “boy racer” car – a suped-up little model with a low-slung chassis, spoiler, and noisy exhaust – seemed to be the go-to vehicle for just about everyone in Kota Bharu, and not just young men. Along the road, people stopped for breakfast at little cafes with tables pouring out into the street, and men sat around in dour-faced groups listening to angry Arabic tirades coming from loudspeakers outside various mosques. I saw one or two people who were clearly not Muslim, but it seemed that here almost everyone was. All the women, certainly, wore hijabs and some were even fully covered except for their eyes. It seemed there were three types of social group – large groups of (usually elderly) men, small groups of women, and young families with a single child. There was little mixing of the genders, except for those who were clearly married. This was all very different from what I remembered seeing in Kuala Lumpur, but then this part of Malaysia is devoutly Muslim.
At the bus station, I wandered around until I stumbled upon the bus to Kuala Besut. I kept asking people and getting nowhere. It wasn’t that people were trying to be unhelpful, but rather that they all pointed here and there very vaguely, and told me different bus numbers. I noticed that when anyone pointed, they wouldn’t use their whole finger – I’d heard this was an Islamic trait.
Soon I was on a bus full of women in full Muslim garb, heading on a very circuitous route towards Kuala Besut. It was nice to see this group laughing with one another. In the West, we see very few positive depictions of Muslims these days, and yet here were lots of Muslim women, young and old, chatting and joking and taking selfies just the same as people anywhere else. One young woman of about twenty was reclined across two seats, seductively biting her lip and sucking on her finger, presumably sending selfies to some lucky beau. I suppose Allah is only one of the important men in her life.
At Kuala Besut I walked around the tiny port town and then found the jetty for the fast boat to the Perhentians. At one o’clock the boat took off across the sea, skipping at speed over the waves. I’d been told that the ride would be very wet and uncomfortable, but it was actually incredibly pleasant. Or maybe I’d just become accustomed to wet and uncomfortable rides and this forty minute hop was nothing I couldn’t handle… Besides, looking out over azure waters at the looming islands was enough to put me in a good mood after the difficult journey. I was almost there.
Once again, without a credit card I’d been unable to book a hotel on the island, and so when the boatmen asked me where I was going, I picked a place whose name I’d seen on the wall of a travel agency – D’Lagoon, on Perhentian Kecil. It was, annoyingly, the last stop, and on the penultimate stop someone accidentally took my bag and we had to turn around and find them. At D’Lagoon, the speed boat dropped me on a tiny wooden floating platform and told me someone would come to pick me up soon. And so I stood there, bobbing on the sea, hoping that no wave would tip me over – which would’ve fit perfectly with my luck for the previous few days.
But it didn’t flip over, and a few minutes later a man in a small boat came and picked me up. At reception I asked for a room but they said they only had one dorm bed left. I wasn’t happy about it, but for some reason I’d picked the hotel furthest from any other on the island, and I was stuck with the dorm bed or long hike through mountainous jungle on unknown trails… He showed me to a dark, cramped, dirty little dorm with one fan and a dozen creaky beds. Oh well, I thought, maybe something would open up later.
The Difficult Journey Pays Off
Perhentian Kecil proved to be staggeringly beautiful, and the area immediately around D’Lagoon is particularly stunning. Dense jungle covers the islands save for small stretches of white beach here and there, and a few winding, steep paths lead from one beach to another – although the most common way to travel is by “water taxi.” The seas are an unreal turquoise colour – more like an idealistic painting than a real place. I trekked through the jungle from D’Lagoon to Turtle Beach, a ten minute barefoot walk. En route I saw numerous water monitors, which are thankfully afraid of people in spite of their massive size, some bright red squirrels, and a few long-tailed birds. However, I’d come to the Perhentians for one reason – sharks. At Turtle Beach, which could be used as a set for any movie requiring a tropical paradise, I stood next to the pristine water and looked out over the sea to the Malaysian peninsula, just silhouetted on the horizon. Just then, within a minute of arriving, something caught my eye. There was a small shark just two meters from my feet! It was a baby blacktip reef shark cruising the shallow tidal pools right next to the beach. I couldn’t believe my luck.
And with that fleeting glimpse, a tiny shark in a rock pool undid all the bullshit of the previous thirty-two hours, and made me glad I’d embarked upon this absurd journey. In life, nothing worthwhile ever comes easily.