Perhentian Islands, Malaysia: A Whole New World

Note from the author: Sorry for the radio silence! It’s been a wonderfully busy Christmas season and we’ve been really busy stuffing our faces with turkey and….well, stuffing 🙂 Hope you’re enjoying the holidays too!

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Sunset over the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Have you ever tried something that ended up opening up a whole new world for you?  I’m not talking about something like discovering you love seafood one day, after a lifetime of avoiding it – although that’s still a pretty awesome turning point in life.

Fresh seafood (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Fresh seafood

I’m talking about discovering something that literally opens up a completely foreign and beautiful new world that you’ve never before experienced.  That’s what happened to me and Jason in Malaysia – specifically the Perhentian Islands.

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Beautiful white sand beaches on Perhentian Besar

View of Perhentian Kecil from Perhentian Besar (Malaysia)

View of Perhentian Kecil (“Small Perhentian”) from Perhentian Besar (“Big Perhentian”)

The Perhentian Islands are off the northeastern coast of peninsular Malaysia and home to beautiful pristine white sand beaches and untouched reefs and sealife.  The Perhentian Islands are still relatively undiscovered by mass tourism.  Turquoise blue sea surrounds the islands that are covered in tropical jungle, with few trails, no roads, and no ATMs.  Hotels and dorm options are relatively basic – you won’t find any 5-star options on the islands.  I’m pretty sure this is as close to a secluded island paradise as I’ve ever been but I’m sure it won’t last long.

White sand beaches in front of Universal Diver (Perhentian Besar, Malaysia)

White sand beaches in front of our dive shop. Universal Diver

We arrived here in early October, just before the monsoon season was set to hit.  I’m glad we had done our research before settling on a route through Malaysia or we would’ve missed the window to dive in the Perhentians.  The weather was perfect for the beach – scorchingly hot and sunny with the occasional afternoon storm to cool things off for the evening.

Approaching storm (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

One of the rare storms we experienced was magnificent to watch. It approached slowly and ominously from the mainland.

After the storm (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

After the storm passed, a gorgeous sunset light up the sky

On the bigger of the Perhentian Islands – Perhentian Besar – we discovered the wonderful world of scuba diving.  I don’t know what took us so long to try it.  I don’t really blame Jason since he’s never really been that comfortable in the water, but I LOVE water.  I was probably a fish in some past life.  I grew up immersed in a pool on a weekly basis: swimming classes, life-saving workshops, synchronized swimming lessons – I’ve done them all.  I love beach vacations, most of my favourite travel destinations are on the coast, and I live on Lake Shore Boulevard in Toronto. 😛

One exception though – I don’t really like snorkeling.  Something about salt water always leaking into my mask and up my nose just turns me off from it.  So maybe that’s why I was never really that interested in scuba diving.

However, during our scuba lessons, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that clearing your scuba mask of water was a cinch –  so suddenly a leaking mask was no longer an issue.  I was also a little nervous for Jason being able to equalize his ears underwater since his ears are a little sensitive to equalization during flights.  Again, no issues!

Descent Line (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Descending via a line on our first open water dive

Taking your first breath underwater is a really strange experience, as is trusting that your scuba regulator will continue to deliver air to you as you descend deeper and deeper into the turquoise water.  But once you wrap your head around that, this whole new world underwater is unlike anything you’ll have experienced before.

Gearing up (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Getting ready and gearing up on the boat. It’s always a little chaotic above water

At the surface, it’s often a bit chaotic with the wind and waves and other divers entering the water.  Once you go below the surface, all that chaos disappears and you find that the deeper you go, the calmer it becomes.  Everything goes quiet and all movement seems to slow down.  The feeling of weightlessness is also incredibly relaxing.

Descending into the blue (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Descending into the blue

And as your eyes start focusing into the blue water, this beautiful world starts emerging from the depths.  Impressive sea fans, colourful corals, and hypnotic anemone cover the sea floor and rock walls.  Massive schools of neon yellow fish flash by.

Beautiful soft sea coral (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Beautiful soft sea coral

Anemone swaying in the current (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Anemone swaying in the current

Us swaying in the current (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Us swaying in the current

Jason and I took our PADI Open Water certification course at Universal Diver. The staff there was so friendly and welcoming.  Their divemasters and instructors were amazing.  And the dive shop’s operation and equipment were set up so well

Universal Diver Dive Shop & School (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Universal Diver Dive Shop & School: where we spent most of our time when we weren’t in the water

Universal Diver Dive Boat (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Universal Diver Dive Boat

Our dive gear (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our dive gear

Our instructor, Alvaro, was excellent.  He was very safety-conscious yet fun, strict yet laid-back at the same time – which was perfect for an Open Water course.

Dive briefing (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our group getting briefed before one of our final open water dives

Scuba theory class (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia0

Looking too happy to be learning scuba diving theory

Our Open Water instructor and fellow classmates (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our Open Water instructor and fellow classmates

Open Water students are typically brand new to diving and it can be nerve-wracking if you don’t feel like you can trust your instructor.  But, Alvaro was incredibly knowledgeable when it came to the theory and very thorough when it came to the practical instruction.

Perfect formation (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our instructor was always scolding us for bumping into each other or swimming over each other.  The rare time we actually swam in perfect formation!

We met two girls from Sweden, Ellen and Josephine, who had just arrived straight from Sweden and kicking off their two months of travel in Southeast Asia.  They were very sweet and funny and we had a great time spending the next five days with them in the water and on land over our many shared meals.

Diving buddies (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Jason and I with Ellen and Josephine, our diving course buddies

Speaking of meals, we were lucky enough to uncover some pretty decent food options on the island.  We visited every single one of the beach resorts on the eastern side of Perhentian Besar.  The best food was found at Mama’s Place – which required a 10 to 15 minute hike through the jungle.

Tom Yum noodles (Mama's Place. Perhentian Islands)

Tom yam noodle soup – perfect balance of savoury and tart.  Malaysia’s version of Thailand’s Tom Yum

(Maggi Goreng (Mama's Place, Perhentian Islands)

Maggi Goreng – stir fried Maggi instant noodles with a fried egg

Curry Noodles (Mama's Place Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Curry Noodles

Tuna Bay Resort also had well-prepared dishes and the best iced coffee but they were more expensive than the other restaurants.

Kuey Tiew  (Tuna Bay Resort, Perhentians, Malaysia)

Kuey Tiew – a popular fried noodle dish made of flat rice noodles. I ordered the whole steamed fish (first picture above)

We also had many meals at Cocohut since they were the closest option – fortunately, their food wasn’t half bad.

Tom Yam noodle soup (Cocohut, Perhentian Islands)

Tom Yam noodle soup – not a very authentic version

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Sambal Fish (Cocohut, Perhentian Islands)

Sambal Fish – fish marinated in sambal (a sweet and spicy chili paste)

After a final written exam (94% baby! Yes, I’m a nerd even when it comes to scuba diving), 3.5 days of exercises and assessments, we all got a passing grade from our instructor!  Yay – certified Open Water divers!

Graduation! (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Graduation Day!

The four of us celebrated with a dinner at Cocohut and then joined the staff and other divers at the dive shop for a night of raucous behaviour and…things that shall go unmentioned in this blog.  Let’s just say that everyone (i.e. both divers and staff) lucked out as I forgot to bring my camera along.  I guess what happens in the Perhentian Islands, stays in the Perhentian Island 😉

Hot & Steamy Cartagena

Have you ever seen the movie “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”? The scene, where the characters portrayed by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt first meet, is supposed to be set in the capital city of Colombia: Bogota.

They’d portrayed Bogota as this hot, steamy city. Let me tell you: Hollywood got it all wrong. Bogota is cold! (i.e. an average temperature of about 19°C year-round) They must’ve mixed up their Colombian cities. Perhaps they meant to use Cartagena instead? Because this place is definitely hot and steamy! This is us simmering in the Caribbean heat.

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Jason and I are on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the city of Cartagena. I’ve read mixed reviews about this place, but I personally loved it (once I was able to stop scratching long enough to enjoy the Caribbean heat). The palm trees were beautiful, the beaches were plenty, and we had a front row view of the ocean.

View from our apartment (Cartagena, Colombia)

Beautiful ocean view from our Bocagrande apartment

Before we moved closer to the ocean, we stayed for a few days in the old walled city.

Casa Villa Colonial (Cartagena, Colombia)

Our hostel in Getsemani: Casa Villa Colonial. Beautiful, airy, and bright. I would definitely recommend this place to any traveller staying in Cartagena

There are three areas within the walled cIty: the beautiful original part of the walled city called Old City, the newer part called San Diego, and the grittier, sketchier area of Getsmani, where the majority of the hostels were.

Old City (Cartagena, Colombia)

The ramparts that surround the Old City in Cartagena.

We stayed in Getsemani and fell in love with how it best represented local life in Cartagena. The food was authentic and cheap, music was always blaring at night, and old men sat around watching the pedestrian traffic pass by.

Getsemani (Cartagena, Colombia)

Grittier (but no less beautiful) Getsemani.

When we decided to stay in Cartagena for a little longer, we rented an apartment nearby in Bocagrande, a modern area dotted with high-rise hotels and accommodations for Colombian vacationers.

Bocagrande (Cartagena, Colombia)

The pool terrace at the apartment we stayed at in Bocagrande

I loved the attractiveness of Cartagena: the colourful Spanish-colonial architecture; the narrow winding stone-paved streets, and the surprise of turning a corner and happening upon yet another one of the city’s many plazas.

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Speaking of surprises and plazas, check out this strange spectacle in Plaza Fernandez de Madrid:

Street performers (Cartagena, Colombia)

Eye-popping tricks by street performers

We were pretty captivated with him until we figured out how was he doing it. Can you figure it out?

And then after dark, the Old City got even more enchanting. Seriously, this city is like the girls you see roaming the club district in Toronto – gets more beautiful after dark.

Old City (Cartagena, Colombia)

Jason watching people-watching people in the open air cafe

Old City (Cartagena, Colombia)

Old City Cartagena all lit up at night

See? I wasn’t kidding you. She’s pretty gorgeous. Feel free to ask her for her phone number.