Journey to the Perhentians
Coral Bay (Pulau Perhentian Kecil), Malaysia
Not once before arriving in Kuala Lumpur had I heard the name "Perhentians," and I watched as the eccentric receptionist of my hostel in the Malaysian capital preached about their beauty as he gave backpackers instructions on how travel there. My curiosity was peaked.
Background, Motive, and the Perfect Loop
The Perhentian Islands are located in the South China Sea, off the northeastern coast of the peninsula, near the border with Thailand. Composed of Pulau Besar and Pulau Kecil (the smaller of the two), they are, according to my guidebook, "Malaysia's showpiece islands. A paradise of expansive white-sand beaches, turquoise-blue water, and a jungle-fringed interior refreshingly undeveloped—no cars, no high-rises, and no mainland hassles. Generators are the source of power, and run during limited hours. There are no banks or public phones."
Travelers were doing little to downplay their Perhentian experience in the Cameron Highlands—typically the tanner they were, the bigger their endorsement. I failed to encounter a single person that told me not to go.
Hearing all this, coupled with my natural propensity to gravitate towards beaches, pretty much sealed the deal that I was going to visit the place. But my motives were slightly more complicated than just sun and sand.
I was, and still am, on a bit of a time crunch. I've known since the beginning of the month that I needed to be back in Bangkok by the 23rd of June to meet up with one of my oldest friends, Aaron, who's flying in from language school in Syria to holiday for a week. Traveling up the east coast to the Perhentians would allow me to stop over in Dungun, take a peek at the islands, and then personally evaluate the stability of the "dangerous" overland border crossing with Thailand at Sungai Kolok. Additionally, I'd be probing the island scene to see if they're worth returning to with my friend, Lindsey, who'll be flying out from the U.S. to travel with me for a few weeks in July.
Transport Trials and Tribulations
Getting from Dungun to the island of Kecil was a full-day event. Waiting in the morning hours on the side of the highway for a north-bound bus was simple enough, but things got complicated quickly thereafter.
I arrived in Kuala Terengganu around 11:30 in the morning, just missing the connecting bus that would've taken me directly to Kuala Besut (bee-su). I didn't particularly feel like waiting around for three hours until the next bus, which was sure to be full of tourists, and decided to get creative. I'd execute a double-jump through an alternative northern city that would then allow me to then hop over to Kuala Besut. With any luck I'd be getting on a boat before the tourist-laden bus even left the station at Terengganu.
Ahhh, but sometimes the unconventional route can really be a cruel, time consumer. The bus that was to take me to town of Jerteh ended up dropping me off at a bus stop in a random part of Terengganu, after the money collector discovered where I wanted to go. After bickering back and forth in single word English statements, it became apparent that even though the dilapidated bus was going to a city that should take me past Jerteh, it would not be stopping there.
A least 15-minutes out of the terminal, I had no idea where I was in the city. But not wanting to throw in the towel (by getting a taxi to take me to the bus terminal and twiddle my thumbs as I waited for the 14:30 bus), I started showing locals waiting at the bus stop a piece of paper with two city names I'd written on it (Jerteh and Pasir Puteh).
A friendly dark-skinned fellow around my age spoke up with good English. He was from a nearby tourist island called Redang, where he worked as a diver, and offered to put me on the right bus to Jerteh (which arrived about a half-hour later).
I took the benched seat behind the driver, where the massive mirror above his head was angled in such a way as our eyes met every time I looked forward. I think that mirror and that open seat could have very well saved my life.
What unfolded before me embodied what every traveler has to come to terms with when exposing themselves to bus transport—the chance that you could easily be killed in a head-on collision.
It was hot day, and the aging bus was not air conditioned. We were nearly an hour out of Kuala Terengganu when I noticed the driver's head dip, ever so slightly, only to snap up a moment later. Through my sunglasses I watched the alarmed look on his sleepy face fade, as his eyes got heavy once again, and his head dipped.
It's called a microsleep. A brief period (usually only a few seconds) in which the brain enters a sleep state regardless of the activity the person is performing at the time.
We were driving on a very busy highway, with just a single lane in each direction (and no dividing barrier). Impact with a vehicle any larger than a motorcycle would mean certain death, and as I processed the situation, I watched the man begin to drift into the oncoming lane, only to wake up a moment later, jerking the large steering wheel to correct our path.
This scene repeated several times over the course of a minute or two, before I snapped into action, my brain screaming: Oh Hell no! You are not going to let this end your life on a bus in Malaysia!
He knew what I'd seen before I said a word. And as I walked down the little stairs to his driving position, I crouching next to him and said, "Are you OK, buddy? You need to get a coffee or something—it's OK to stop the bus and get out for a minute or two. You really need to wake up."
Playing off his embarrassment with a smile and chuckle, he retorted, "It's OK! Relax-lah!"
A few minutes later the bus was pulled over at the side of the road, the driver outside, out of sight, getting a caffeinated beverage from a vendor.
Arriving in Jerteh, thankful to be alive, I discovered the next scheduled bus that was to take me to Kuala Besut had broken down. I waited, ate, waited, and eventually sat on transport that doubled as a school bus in the late afternoon hour. Could we please not stop every 15 meters, I thought silently.
And after all that, I only arrived in Besut about 20 minutes before the direct bus from Terengganu unloaded its cargo of foreigners. Lovely.
The last fast-boat service to the islands departs around 17:00, and I was happy to have made it in time. When buying passage, the trick is to not let them force you into a round-trip ticket (for RM$60). It costs the same to buy each direction at the time of departure, and doesn't lock you into one particular "boat company" for your return.
I had to grin at kids who wanted to sit towards the bow of the fast-boat—my ass was in the far back, with the captain and a few locals. I knew better, and was moderately entertained by the moans and groans let out by travelers getting doused with the sea-spray, as the bow of the low-profile boat slammed down after launching over a surging wave.
It was only any hour or so away from sunset, and even in the dimming light, the water color was still the most amazing I've seen in SE Asia—I'm such a sucker for warm, turquoise-blue water.
I let my fingers skim the surface of the water as we motored closer to the islands, my spirit soaring. The rumors were true; I was already in love.