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

DSC03737 (640x427)

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 😉