Having spent the last 5 weeks traveling around Indonesia and Malaysia, posting numerous positive social media updates and uploading photos of tropical beaches that would make just about anyone and everyone jealous, I feel I have some confessions to make. The first and most important one I will outline in this blog post. Just because a photograph looks “postcard perfect”, does not mean the destination is absolute paradise. Up until this trip I always thought I could define paradise. I thought that any beach with beautiful white sand, crystal clear waters, rows of hammocks swinging from palm trees and with a sprinkling of friendly beach boys selling Pina Coladas out of fresh coconuts was my idea of ABSOLUTE PARADISE.
On a recent trip to The Perhentian Islands off the East coast of Malaysia, I had to pause and re-evaluate my idea of paradise. Before my travels, everyone I had met who had travelled South East Asia said I simply MUST go to the Perhentian Islands. (Both The Perhentian Islands and The Gilis (in Indonesia) seemed to be high up on everyones lists so I decided I needed to visit both!) One friend, Jessica, told me it was the best place she had ever been snorkelling in her life – that the water was unbelievably clear and the place was paradise. My friend Jeni told me that if she could go on her Honeymoon again, she would go back to the Perhentian Islands. In my mind, this place was going to be absolute paradise.
Praise aside, I had also done some research and knew not to have my expectations TOO high. These were remote islands, after all, with only a few hours of electricity a day and no roads, no cars and not even a donkey and carts like the Gili Islands. So, I’m sure you are waiting to hear what could possibly make me think this place was not perfect, so let me explain.
On the boat to the island I was pretty mesmerized. Everyone had been right about the colour of the water…it was like NOTHING I had ever seen before. Taking into account I have now visited 43 countries, that is a seriously big deal. The water around these islands was so amazing that it almost looked fake, as if you were whizzing through the worlds largest swimming pool.
It wasn’t until we arrived on the island that the real trouble started. First of all, the ferry/speed boat will not take you the whole way to the shore. They stop about 200 metres from the beach and insist you pay a local beach boy 2 dollars to take you the rest of the way. Not very much money, but it’s the principal! Plus, can you imagine trying to maneuver yourself, your backpack and your suitcase from a ferry onto a teeny tiny unstable speed boat as they pull up side my side?! NOT AN EASY FEAT!!
On arrival on the actual beach you feel relieved to have landed safely, and dry, with all your possessions But you can’t chill for more than 2 minutes as the race is on. As everyone piles off the little speed boats there is panic as people start running up the beaches to the various accommodation choices, searching for a place to stay. Why? There simply is not enough supply to meet the demand. Every few hours tourists arrive and they are continuously told by lodging after lodging that they are fully booked, despite telling us over the phone that they “don’t take bookings”. We went to over 10 places, and were turned away from every single one. We finally found some chalets at the end of the beach – ‘D Rock Garden’ that had a spare cabin for 3 nights. Regardless of price, service or what it even looked like we said yes and were relieved that we would not have to spend the night sleeping on the beach!
We spent 20 minutes trying to find the cabin as nobody would help us. To say the staff were unhelpful would be the understatement of the century, They were appalling. We eventually found it, and discovered our “en-suite” bathroom was totally flooded with who knows what covering the ground! We complained and they didn’t seem to care. We complained again the next day and they said they would “maybe look at it”. Wow, so helpful. I wouldn’t mind so much but we were actually paying quite a lot for this cabin, not that we had much choice. As we had paid for a room for 3 people, but were given only ONE bed, we asked for an extra mattress. We, miraculously got this, but they didn’t even put it in our room. They just left it outside our door, with no sheets, no extra pillow…nothing!
We moved to a cheaper place next door on day 3, which was about 1/3 of the price and seemed a lot more simpler. We were greeted with a sign on arrival that said, “stay at least 2 nights. If you wish to extend, it depends on how generous you are. E.g if you book our snorkeling trip, but our breakfast etc. If not, forget about it. Thank you.” What a lovely way to welcome guests to your accommodation!!
Next, let’s talk about the food. Or lack there of. There is 3 choices on long beach – the blue plastic chairs, the red plastic chairs, and the yellow plastic chairs. The “western” food they serve, thats right they pretty much all serve the same menu, is some of the worst food I have ever tasted in my life. While the local food isn’t too bad, waiting between 1 and 2 hours for a bowl of noodles is pure ridiculous. The they tend to forget about you, or forget your order, which doubles your frustration.
Let’s talk about the beach, which Lonely Planet says is “the most popular backpacker destination in Malaysia”. Maybe this is true but heaven knows why! The beach is dirty, with cigarette butts and empty beer cans floating in the water and stuffed in the sand. There were even used sanitary pads floating in the water, which was seriously disgusting. There were so many beach boys speeding around in their boats all day that your “perfect view” was pretty much ruined.
While the snorkeling was one of the best experiences I had while on the island, swimming with turtles, Clown fish, trigger fish and hundreds more, it also made me quite sad. Nearly all the coral was dead, due to tourists stepping on it and the lack of experienced guides. The guides also didn’t seem to care about tourists touching the turtles and even dived in and tried to encourage then to come up above the water. These people are so busy trying to make a quick buck they really don’t care about their beautiful environment, something which surely won’t last forever the way they are treating it.
Let’s summarize – the accommodation is limited and you have to fight hard or run fast to actual find a place to sleep. The staff are unfriendly and rude. The food is bad and the waiting times awful. The beach and water can be quite dirty and the view isn’t even that great, and all the coral is dead due to lack of care.
Now comes the question that is really bothering me. Are the Perhentians still viewed as “paradise” to some people?? Have I been too spoiled throughout my travels with beautiful beaches, friendly people, delicious food and stunning scenery that I can no longer see appreciate paradise when it is staring me in the face? Have I have gotten so old that I can no longer see the fun in staying in the dingey backpacker haunts I used once frequent?! Or am I right in thinking that tourism may have ruined the islands, as the rate of tourists visiting them has grown faster than the locals could handle?