Malaysia offers Aussie travellers a cheap and cheerful break, filled with good times and great food. The biggest problem you’ll have with planning your Malaysian getaway is deciding to go east or west. Let us help you decide…
My boyfriend and I had three main criteria when making our Easter travel plans: we wanted a cheap, island paradise with plenty to do. That wasn’t Bali. Or Fiji. Or anywhere else that had been hyped up and, as such, could potentially let us down. Was that really too much to ask?
As it turned out, it wasn’t. Our trip to Malaysia’s popular eastern holiday spots – Redang Island and the Perhentian Islands – blew our minds, without blowing our two-grand(ish) budget. We flew in and out of Kuala Lumpur, making sure we allocated two days there for shopping time, but spent the remaining 11 days on the east coast. Put simply, it rocked.
The closest island to the mainland city of Kuala Terengganu, Redang is home to a number of snorkelling sports, resorts and beachside restaurants. Most resorts offer complimentary bus and boat transport from the airport, which is a huge bonus – especially when your chauffeur can explain why a stern man in uniform is demanding an additional 30 Ringgit before you can board the boat (it’s a Marine Park pass). Redang and its surrounding waters are a protected marine area and, once we arrived, we understood why. The water is as blue as it looks in the travel brochures – if not bluer – and is home to turtles, rays, sharks and colourful fish we’d only seen in Finding Nemo. When we hiked through the rainforest across the island, from our resort on Pasir Panjang to stunning Teluk Dalam Besar beach, we saw chevrotains – ‘mouse deer’ is the best description I can offer – brightly-coloured lizards and teeny tiny birds.
Our resort, Sari Pacifica, was palatial, with a towering lobby and open restaurant that looked out over the pool and cerulean water beyond. When we first arrived, we went all out enjoying cheap, delicious food and drinking less cheap but equally delicious drinks, floating in the pool and wandering around the resort, all the while joking a cameraman was about to jump out of the bushes and tell us we’d been punked. When we dove into the ocean for the first time, we expected it to be freezing cold – still searching for some kind of downside in what was otherwise tropical paradise – but nope. It was the perfect temperature, warm yet refreshing. Halfway through our first day, we knew we’d chosen the perfect destination.
Two main islands (Besar and Kecil) and three smaller, unpopulated islands, make up the Perhentians – a magnet for backpackers and families alike. Besar, the larger island, is sprinkled with “expensive” resorts (by Malaysian standards – we’re talking about $100/night) on its western and southern coasts, and rugged rainforest and coral reefs just about everywhere else. Our resort – the creatively-named Perhentian Island Resort – was relatively isolated in comparison to our southern neighbours, meaning we had the sea on our doorstep (and plenty of turtles, all swimming in the shallows to avoid the busy snorkelling spot ‘Turtle Point’) all to ourselves. Restaurants are few and far between on Perhentian Besar, save for a couple of restaurants at neighbouring resorts, but that wasn’t a drama. Just across the bay, easily accessible by “water taxi” (a dingy), Perhentian Kecil more than makes up for it.
Backpackers drive Kecil’s economy, and the food and bar scenes thrive as a result. Fire twirlers perform most nights at 10pm, and you can happily bar hop along the beach while you wait for the show to start. During the day, Kecil – like Besar – offers cheap snorkelling tours (usually around $30 for a full day) and is also home to the famous ‘windmill’ hike. I say ‘famous’, because it featured in just about every Malaysian travel vlog we watched on YouTube when trying to decide where to go. It takes about 20 minutes to trek up to the windmills, and it’s all downhill to the undisturbed Blue Lagoon on the other side from there. Don’t get me wrong: this hike is not for the faint of heart. While there is a staircase leading down to the lagoon, most of the wooden planks are missing, meaning you have to go “off road” or cling onto rusted railings most of the way. With that being said, it’s a fun challenge and a great photo opp (but not super achievable if you’re getting over four days of suspected food poisoning – believe me).
Redang and the Perhentian Islands have distinctly different vibes, but are the same in all of the best ways. The locals are friendly, which means the tourists are too – there’s really nothing to get angry about there. Almost everywhere is quiet and peaceful, and even the “busy” places aren’t all that busy. There’s an unspoken agreement to protect the wildlife – locals comb the beach every morning cleaning up washed up litter, and there are clear instructions posted around the resorts explaining what to do when you come across a nesting turtle. They know how special this part of the world is, and they intend to keep it that way.
To say that Malaysia ticked all of our boxes would be an understatement – we were planning our next trip before we’d even boarded the boat back to the mainland.
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