We debated visiting the Cameron Highlands. They are supposed to be lovely, with cool weather and stunning vistas. We decided that a quick visit would be good. It was great having such cool weather. We didn’t find any great restaurants while there that really shined, but did really enjoy getting to do some hiking and checking out the tea plantations. A highlight of the highlands really was hitchhiking. Hitchhiking isn’t really common through much of Southeast Asia, there are a lot of other transport options normally that are fairly cost effective. The Cameron highlands, with regular traffic but limited public transport seems to be an exception though in that hitchhiking seems more common. We had heard this before arriving and were a little unsure. But, we decided to try and both times were picked up almost immediately by friendly couples who were curious about our travels. The first time we were picked up by a couple that owned and operated a local restaurant the next town over (we didn’t get a chance to visit unfortunately) and the second time by a couple visiting from Johor (near Singapore) for a weekend vacation. It was fun getting to talk to both couples a bit and learn a bit more about them as well.
After a few days in the highlands, we decided to head down and check out the Perentian Islands, a set of trading stopover islands in the past now a tourist destination famed for beautiful beaches and world-class diving.
Perentian Kecil is gorgeous. Simply beautiful crystal clear waters, lovely jungle and reefs just off the beach. Getting to the island was a bit of an experience. There was the van down from the Cameron Highlands to the East coast with the driver determined to prove that Malaysia has world class racing talent just waiting to be discovered followed by the boat whose driver who was equally determined to prove the same thing. I’ve never been on a passenger ferry that caught air off of waves before, but the other ferries we blew past seemed duly impressed. We had unfortunately run out of life vests on the boat, so I held onto my bag with the hope it was more buoyant than seawater in case we caught a wave a bit askew and didn’t nail the landing. Thankfully, bruised bums all around seemed like the only downside to our speedy ride.
Once we got to the island it began to feel like we were possibly going to find ourselves caught in the cost trap of limited options when the boat stopped about 100 yards from shore and the boat captain informed us that our boat ticket to the island did not include the boat that brought us to shore, for that we would have to pay another fee and switch boats. With little other option (we had a few too many electronics with not enough waterproofing to get stubborn on this one) we went along and climbed into the other boat to go to shore. When we got to the beach we found that despite traveling in the low season, almost every bungalow, guesthouse and hotel was full; and most had doubled their prices since the last publication we had read which was 6 months old. Thanking the Chinese and international oil prices for a string dollar to Ringgit conversion; we got a private bungalow at $22/night. It included a raw cement ‘bathroom’ that looked like something from a horror movie, an AC unit on the wall with bare wires hanging down, a mosquito net with holes roughly the size of softballs and large gaps in the wood and cement that made up the structure. It wouldn’t be our nicest accommodation, but we decided we could deal with it for the night since there were few to no other options available. Time to do a quick stroll around to other places checking on availability for the next day and celebrate the beautiful island with a few beers (our first beers in Malaysia if memory serves correctly) on a gorgeous powdery white sand beach waiting for the sun to set behind the island and the sky to light up.
That night after the beach restaurants and bars shutdown, the island wildlife came out. It was about 1:30-2am when I woke up to a rat scurrying over my feet (I now understood the holes in the mosquito net). I grabbed my flashlight and spent the rest of the night playing flashlight tag with rats. Liz woke a few times when the rats got into fights; she thought drunken tourists were trying to get into our room. I let that assumption slide for the next day or two.
The next morning we got out bright and early. We decided to head across to the Coral Bay side of the island, which seemed a little more promising and see if there were departures from any of the guesthouses. We were in luck and got a bungalow back in the trees at Fatimah (one of the older and better reviewed guesthouses on the island). The cost was still high compared t everything we had read, but at $18 was a far better deal than the previous night. Our bungalow was simple and clean with a working fan and good mosquito net. We did some constructive arranging of the mosquito net to get the wall-mounted fan inside without compromising the defensive barrier of nylon. So, it wasn’t perfect. The tokay that lived under our bungalow was potty trained to use our bathroom; so we woke up each morning to find fresh lizard poop on the floor. Coral Bay was really nice with a dock out about 50-60 yards from the beach, there were coral reefs most of the way out to the dock. The bay was very shallow and it was borderline impossible to swim at low tide because of the coral. Sunsets from the beach were fantastic. Another bonus is the beachside grills that were so popular in Cambodia seemed equally popular here, so we would pick a type of fish or other meat and get a bit set-menu of items along with it for a pretty reasonable price. It only took us one night to realize that we should plan about an hour between ordering and getting food. When the food did finally arrive it was tasty.
We took a snorkeling trip around the islands, which was really nice. We saw turtles grazing on eel grass, small reef sharks swimming between the coral, all sorts of fish large and small, beautiful coral and anemones. The snorkeling was great, and my sunburn could have been way worse.
The islands really were just beautiful, lovely beaches, coral and wildlife. It was a shame that it felt that the local tourism industry wasn’t able to keep up with the demand. The islands name comes from their earlier usage as a stopover for traders sailing between Malaysia/Singapore and Thailand. Hopefully we’ll be able to visit again, maybe on one of the RVs of the Seas.
A few more Pics from Liz: