After 4 days of strawberries, tea plantations and strenuous trekking, we headed to the North Eastern coast to hop on a ferry bound for The Perhentians – two small islands with a reputation for incredible diving and snorkelling. The port is in the state of Kelantan, a place that has well and truly taken Islam to heart and has semi-independence. Kelantan borders Hat Yai a place very well known for their determination to form an islamic state that is independent from Thailand.
In Kota Bharu the difference in culture is obvious. You’ll struggle to find a woman in a headdress and covered up from head to toe. Men tend to wear trousers (despite it being stupidly hot) and a little white hat and at times you could imagine you are in the Middle East. Whereas the rest of Malaysia is Muslim in name, Kelantan is Muslim at heart. It has also meant that for the first time since Istanbul we’ve been woken at 4.30 by the Mosques crying out their calls to prayer (you often get a mash of two to three mosques wailing through loud speakers at the same time).
The drive down from the Cameron Highlands to the port was surprisingly bad. This was quite surprising as the oil money in Malaysia has meant that the majority of the infrastructure is very modern and well maintained. Once again we were herded into a minivan and then driven at 60mph along a road that had reverse speed bumps every 100m. It was staggering that the driver didn’t think slowing down was a good idea and proceeded to continue thundering along whilst everyone was continuously thrown out their seats for 4 hours. The speedboat to the islands wasn’t much better as the lunatic driving seems to spread to all forms of transport. I guess that as boats don’t have the restriction of roads and there’s very little traffic that captains tend to just go crazy. At one point he turned so hard that all 26 of us (on a boat intended for 12) were close to falling out whilst the speedboat near capsized.
Despite the lunatic drivers to get there, The Perhentian Islands are incredible. Upon reaching the pier you see the water getting lighter from a dark blue to an azure blue then to a turquoise-green colour. It’s crystal clear and its obvious why the diving is so popular. Even without a dive mask you can see hundreds of fish and sometimes more. However, like with many South-East Asian islands, the accommodation borders on criminal. The conditions are inhumane as for £20 (which in many countries gets you a perfectly decent room) we got a building site which had plug sockets falling out the walls, sand solidified on the walls of the shower and endless dirt. We were joined by the resident cockroaches, huge spider and millions of ants. Sadly, this was one of the better rooms available on Long Beach.
To combat the filth, our plan was to stay out the room as much as possible. As the sun slowly cooked our room through the glass doors in the morning as soon as it rose, getting up early wasn’t difficult. At the time it was unbearable, but in retrospect it was a good way of ensuring we did as much as possible. My personal highlight was the snorkelling trip we did. I’ve never seen turtles before, so to swim alongside them was an amazing experience. They were surprisingly big and quick, so we quickly learned that once you spotted one you had to swim hard to keep up. The boat driver described this as “when you see turtle, follow follow follow!”. The best part was when you’d follow as they came up for air and you could see their head poke out the water. We followed this up by swimming with Black Tipped Reef Sharks, an experience that was interesting and slightly daunting at the same time (I was later told that they’re not aggressive).
The Perhentians were our last stop in the brief time we had in Malaysia. It’s a country often overlooked by travellers and I can’t understand why. It has just about everything you could want with incredible nature and culture in a small area. Our next stop is Indonesia, the last country we head to before work in Australia. The 4.30 mosque wake up calls will continue for now.