From Mountain Highs to the Depths of the Sea
The Cameron Highlands were a real
treat in terms of the lovely cool weather, the great scenery and the relaxing fresh mountain air. This crisp air was about to be replaced with something out of a compressed tank as we headed east through the mountains toward the deep blue sea of the Perhentian Islands.
From Cameron Highlands you can take a shared minibus to the Jetty at Kuala Besut where one of the many speedboats will whisk you across the Malacca Straits on a 45 minute bumpy, bouncy trip to either Perhentian Besar (Big Island) or in our case the smaller, Perhentian Kecil (Small Island). We got an 'all in' ticket which included the return ferry cost and the van from Cameron Highlands for MYR 115 (about US $30). The total journey takes around 5 hours depending on how long you have to wait for the ferry. You can easily pick a boat ticket up at the ferry terminal if your travelling from KL.
If you get off the boat on the islands at anywhere other than the main jetty you will be ferried from your large speedboat on one of the local boat taxis to the beach for the final 50M of your journey and you will pay MYR 2 for the privilege.
Kecil Island is small and consists of a range of mostly budget accommodation (with a few mid and upper range rooms if you feel the need to splurge) set along either Long Beach or Coral Bay. None of the budget places took any reservations at this time of the year so it is up to you to get there and do the rounds to see who has beds left to accommodate you. We chose Long Beach, and settled for a basic chalet at the Panorama resort and dive centre. In peak season it is best to get there early or your choice of accommodation will be limited to what is left at the end of each day.
While the chalets were very basic, and like most places on the island, electricity limited to evenings and early morning, the package which included five fun dives for me came to grand total of MYR 500 (US $150). This included three nights’ accommodation for the both of us, the five dives including all equipment and even a free dive shop t-shirt. Now I call that good value.
What to do in the Perhentian Islands
If you don’t snorkel, swim, sunbathe or dive there is little on the island for you other than a jungle trek through the centre of the island to meet the local snakes, monitor lizards and other creatures that inhabit this land. Although, you don't need to trek to see any of the nature here, as it will come to you. I was perfectly happy with this limitation as this would be where I could hopefully improve my diving skills without the added pressures of a PADI certification and the associated homework and underwater skills tests.
There are a few bars dotted about the front of Long Beach, with the Monkey Bar being the most popular. Like everywhere in Malaysia alcohol is not very cheap and you will pay MYR 8 for a small can of beer or MYR 20 for a half bottle of Orang Utan local spirit (its good and only 25% proof). This place offers a local band playing (mostly) reggae and other popular tunes and a large screen TV which for our time there concentrated on the Olympics coverage.
Food on the island is varied and of a good quality, our favourite place to eat was the Panorama. The staff are really cheeky, and the place has a friendly vibe with a great low cost menu. They don't serve alcohol, and the smoothies and juices are excellent, you can take your own beer in if your that desperate from the local shop or bar.
Most evenings there'll be a few fireworks and beach fires taking place on the beach that you can enjoy. Apparently they also have a full moon party here, but we can't really comment on that as we didn't visit at that time, but guess it is nothing like its Thai namesake.
Visitors to the island are a real mix of ages and nationalities. Long Beach had a very relaxed and harmonious atmosphere, which was maybe a little more sophisticated that the usual island scene around Asia. We found the Coral Beach to be a little sharp, so be careful - that's the corals not the people.
You can produce your own itinerary for any water based activity you fancy, whether island and beach hopping or spending the day snorkelling. I've included a price list for local water taxis in the gallery.
Bring everything with you that you might need to the Island including cash. There are no ATM’s and getting cash advances from hotels will costs you 10% over and above what you withdraw and paying by card will add 3-5% to the bill depending on where you stay/dine. There are shops that sell basic provisions and essentials, but you will pay a premium for the local service.
Diving in Perhentian
The Panorama dive shop is run very well and while it may not have had some of the newest equipment that I have been exposed to on my albeit short diving career this was easily made up by the friendliness, professionalism and general enthusiasm of the dive team here. All the equipment worked perfectly and even if it’s showing its age it is all in perfect working order.
Sharon, the manager, runs a very tight ship and has everything organised from the moment you arrive and are introduced to the divemasters and instructors. I had the pleasure of diving with Crystal, Natalie and Halla on my five dives. I also met some trainee divemasters Dai and Zara from Wales, who were just embarking on their month long training at the dive shop.
The Panorama Way
Every dive starts with a clear briefing of the dive site and the usual safety and signal run throughs. Unlike some other dive shops I have used; this was not a cursory run through but a thorough explanation of the dive along with a clear briefing of the sea life and corals that you are likely to experience. The divemasters also add at the briefing the special sightings they have made at each of the sites. It really does make for a great start to your dive.
Similarly at the end of the dive there is no rush to get rid of the divers; you are offered free water, tea and coffee (and free internet access too) and given a full debrief of the dive including all details of the different things that were seen by each of the groups. If you are like me, and like to complete your dive log in detail; this is great and leads to a real friendly group atmosphere.
For me, Halla deserves a special mention as she leads her dives slowly, has no real interest in getting as deep as possible or rushing along to try and find that rare shark or specimen stingray. She taught me a lot about control and relaxation under water and I can safely say that it is in no small part due to her that I have moved myself from being a nervous diver to a comfortable one. As such, I enjoyed these dives more than any I have done in my short time getting to grips with this sport. Thank you Halla.
I rented a camera for my last dive and it turned out to be a poor choice on a number of levels. I had probably the worst visibility of any of the dives that I had been on. The site was also less about the fish and more about topography; the exciting swim-throughs in the coral and the rock formations under water. I tried my best, but the results aren’t fantastic, but I hope will give you a taste of life under the water here when I post them on the dedicated Perhentian dive site post
in a few days.
This will appeal to those with a keener interest in the dive sites here as I will include a dive summary of what the sites were like and the things I got to see, depths, temperature etc .
Diving and Me
I am now a better diver and really started to enjoy the peacefulness and calm of being under the water for this series of dives. Perhaps the highlight for me was on the first dive when I got to swim through a massive shoal of thousands of fusiliers and watch them part like Moses at the Red Sea, as I made my way gracefully (I thought I was graceful anyway) through their habitat, hopefully not disturbing their daily life too much.