Saturday, August 9, 2008

You're on Island time now: Perhentian style


Destination: Perhentian Islands (Kecil, aka. "the little island") Number of Days there: 7

Our Best of: Dive Temple of the Sea, Grab a Shake from the Pit Stop Cafe and soak up the sunshine

One thing unexpected: Generosity of fellow travelers and complete strangers

Times we took the: Bus: 0 Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 0 It's an island without roads!

Estimated KM walked: maybe 2 km and that's a stretch Times we were “lost”: 0

Where we stayed: Panorama Inn - 85 RM (US $29 including RM 15 for dinner)

Favorite Restaurants: Pit Stop Cafe - Awesome mango shakes - RM 5 (US $1.75) & Snickers shakes - RM 6 (US $2); Panorama - Squid Tempura - RM 7 (US $2.35) & Tandoori Squid - RM 15 (US $5)

Dives: Temple of the Sea (our favorite!), T3, Seabell, D'Lagoon, Tangung Basi, Sugarwreck

Day 1: Cramped Minivan, Crazy Boatman, No room for you!

After getting our taste of the cooler hillside, we opted to head over to the island of Perhentian Kecil, aka. the Little Island, for some fun in the sun and water. The Perhentian Islands are located just off the Northeastern coast of Malaysia and are known for crystal clear water, white sandy beaches, and great coral reefs just off their shores. Defying the natural law of physics, our minivan cramped ten people plus our luggage (mostly all backpacks) into the space that really should hold 6-7 comfortably. To top off the cramped conditions, the roads are not straight and the drivers seem to think the roads are their personal racetracks. They weave in and out of lanes as they wind around corners. Seven long hours after departure we arrive at the boat dock jarred and ready to at least stretch our legs. The boat drivers, much like their counterparts on land, have no regard for the passengers comfort. Crammed shoulder to shoulder with our feet resting on our bags off we go on the boat ride from hell. Now I understand what really people really mean when they say they may never want to leave, they fear the return boat ride! It almost seemed the driver was intentionally hitting every swell on the ocean sending the passengers on board up and down from their wooden and uncovered seats. After an hour of unnerving jarring we arrived at our destination of Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil and thought we could find a place to stay, book a dive or two, and take it easy for the rest of the night. Little did we know at the time that the island had other plans. First hotel on our list to check out - full, second one - full, third - a head shake before we even asked. Tired and exhausted, we park the bags and Jason along with a fellow traveler, Dorian, go out in search of a room somewhere, anywhere. Between the two of them they check all the hotels and there is not a room to be found anywhere on Long Beach. Finally, after picking up a calling card we found three dorm beds available on the other side of the island. There were four of us searching for a place to stay so we figured we would beg the manager to let us stay for the night and to squeeze in one additional person. Of course since the only open place was across the island and the only form of transport being by boat the "friendly" boat taxi man quoted us 20 RM per person, that's the night rate after all - that's 80RM (US $28) for a 10 minute boat ride in case you were wondering. Outrageous! The dorm room was only going to be 15 RM per person. Luckily we were saved from trekking across the island to spend the night in a dorm by a friendly couple from France! Thank you Cristina & Vincent! They kindly offered us an extra mattress in their room (hidden under their bed) and we slept on their porch for the night. The next morning we got up and found someone checking out at the Panorama so we moved in there for the next week. We spent the first day relaxing on the beach which we felt was very deserved after our long trip! We looked into a couple of dive shops and settled on Seadragon Divers (highly recommended).

Days 3-5: Dive, have a shake, lay on the beach, have dinner

The next couple of days, after the crazy travel day, we ended up changing our opinion of the island. All the rude and unfriendly people from the day before grew on us as did the island and we ended up really enjoying our time here. After the first day of doing absolutely nothing we spent the next three days doing pretty much the same exact thing. Wake up and dive, go to the Pit Stop Cafe for the best shakes on the island, not to mention "reasonable" prices for lunch (3-6 RM per dish) and then lay out on the beach for the rest of the afternoon. Since our hotel included a free dinner, it made our dinner location decision an easy choice. The most popular meal on the island, and probably the best, had to be the nightly BBQs that were pretty much offered at every restaurant along with a nightly movie. Fresh grilled fish, chicken and squid (yum!) filled the night air with a wonderful aroma. The movie thing is a bit quirky if nothing else. All the hotels placed the movie of the night on their boards. With titles like Run Fat Boy Run, Over Her Dead Body, After the Sunset and The Love Guru they seemed to be more of a draw for the locals than anything else. On an island powered by generators running all the time and no roads, the folks living there can't exactly go to the local movie theater or mall for that matter. Aside from eating all day, we did manage to work in a one tank dive each day. At 70M ($23US) per dive including all equipment, it was a great bargain. Our favorite dive site was Temple of the Sea, an interesting rock formation starting at around 22 meters below the sea and spiraling up to an exposed surface area of only about 3 meters above the sea and around 5-10 meters wide at the top. The natural topography makes for an easy and enjoyable dive as you start at the bottom and just circle around spiraling up. Even the 5 meter safety stop is enjoyable with schools of fish and the occasional turtle or two hovering in that same area. Aside from temple, we also did D'lagoon, T3 and Tanjung Basi. Long Beach is nestled in a little cove that is filled with pristine crystal clear waters and fringed on either side with rock cliffs and dense jungles. At the northern edge of the bay, there is plenty of snorkeling to be had just a few meters from shore where we saw quite a bit of coral and was home to a large triggerfish (check out those teeth).

Day 6 and 7: Wreck dive certification, a scary moment, it's island time man, we wave good bye

Since we were enjoying our time here, we extended our stay on the island an extra couple of days and decided to go ahead and take the first of five required advance dive courses - Wreck Dive Certification. Sugar Wreck refers to a barge loaded with sugar that was in tow to the mainland, took on water and went down in only 20 meters of water. It's only seven years old so a relatively young site so the ship itself is in good condition and in such shallow waters for wreck dives that it is considered an easy dive to learn with good visibility. After dropping down 5 meters, you are right on top of it! We dropped down past the propeller on the back side and the plan was to swim from one end to the other weaving into one of the cargo holds, back out, and onto the top to explore a bit. Just as we were approaching the middle of the ship, Jason heard a humming noise that sounded like a boat on the surface and didn't think much of it until the humming turned into a loud bang. As soon as the bang went off he felt something hit him in the back of the head. Thinking that something had fallen onto his head or he had accidentally swam into a part of the ship, he spun around to look up and saw nothing but a lot of bubbles flying to the surface. He then checked his air pressure gauge and then realized that it was dropping fast in pressure. Something was definitely wrong, but all he could hear was the sound of air escaping out of the tank. The dive master, Rob, came swimming over with his second stage regulator in hand and we prepared for an emergency assent. Only after getting to the surface did we realize that the low pressure hose had burst at 20 meters, or 60 feet below the surface! I guess it's a good thing you go through all those emergency procedures for times just like this. It really does happen so fast that you really don't panic as long as you remember what to do. Luckily for us, aside from the obvious surviving to tell the tell, Jason was just down long enough to qualify as a completed wreck dive so that one is on the books!

The last day in the Perhentians we decided to take it easy and rest on the beac. We stopped by the Pit Stop for one last daily ration of shakes and fried rice and noodles and we hit up the "free" WIFI (you have to buy food at Rumours Restaurant at Moshin Hotel) to make a few Skype calls back home. While on the island we came across another inspiring couple traveling the world for what seems like infinity, or at least as long as they can. We were simply amazed that not only had they been traveling for over SIX years, but they also had in tow two beautiful twin girls for the past year of the journey. They decided to rent out their flat in Bangkok and live off that by bicycling around the world as long as a visa lasts in each country. To check out their journey, visit

Transit by bus to long distance locations like were we are going next, Singapore, can be arranged at the Lazy Bouys shop (apparently the only place on the island) by the interesting shop owner. The first day we went by at 11:30 am and it was closed. The next time we went by, the bus office was closed, "come back tomorrow". "What time do you open in the morning?" reply: "When I wake up." The third time, "Bus office is out to lunch, come back at 3". Fourth visit: "Bus is full...wait...let me call first...where you go again?" After a few minutes on the phone, "oh ok, no problem, tomorrow right?" We shake our head yes and he replies "let me call again." Another minute on the phone, he turns and says "ok, 140 RM." It was just another interaction that at first was frustrating but in the end the guy redeemed himself by showing us his true side. He was really proud of his music, typically American rap mixed with Techno that he blared throughout the stop and offered to show us the file sharing program he used,, which has albums and albums that you can stream online. He asked us to type in a band, any band, and I of course typed in Pink Floyd which he replied, "oh yes, my favorite!" Our feelings of everyone on the island are all pretty much the same, they have a hard outer shell, but it's fairly thin and given a minute to get to know them they are all warm and genuinely nice. We were really reluctant to be leaving (in small part for the impending boat ride from Hell pt. 2), but the rest of the world is calling and the islands aren't exactly the cheapest place to settle in for an extended stay.

After giving the island one last good look the owner of the Pit Stop took us by boat to the speedboat and we started the next leg of our journey. We made about twenty stops before setting off, each time piling in more and more people as well as luggage until we were sufficiently miserable. Then the driver cranked it wide open running back to the mainland. From the jetty, it was a 30 minute taxi to the main bus stop bound for Singapore. Our bus was an overnight VIP bus and as is typical in this part of the world "VIP" stands for Very Intensely Powered Air Conditioning. They really love the air conditioning on the buses and it does not stop no matter how cold it gets. After 10+ hours in the "meat locker", we clear customs and get ready to explore the pristine city state that is Singapore!

To see more pictures of our trip to the Perhentian Islands please click here!


Jess Mason said...

Oh thank goodness - a new posting from you guys - just when I was thinking I was going to have to get to work, you saved me 15 minutes! :) Loving it - every bit you write is like gold to me. Thanks! Jess Mason

Jason & Tracy said...

We're trying to do better and to carve out time for writing! Singapore is halfway done and then we have 3 for Sarawak to get together. The pictures should post later today though! Soon we'll have another one I promise!