The Deep End: The Perhentian Islands with Kids

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East coast of Peninsular Malaysia — An Epic Education

[NOTE: I shelved this post for nearly six months, wondering if I should broadcast such harsh criticisms on a place I’ve been for less than a week. Since then, however, I’ve met with a number of people who’ve been recently and confirmed my fears, so I publish it now  — with a few edits and additions — for your perusal]

One advantage that expat life in Malaysia has over most of its Southeast Asian neighbors is a more advanced transportation system. Buses are clean and (fairly) punctual, and the roads on the peninsula are consistently better-maintained. Driving here may take some getting used to, but the infrastructure is well set up, and the land surrounding it simply begs to be explored. We’ve certainly done our share of exploring — to Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi and Malacca, as well as a trip across the peninsula to the east coast, the very area that is now stricken by floods. We wish the area a quick recovery.

Perhentian Shore — Perhentian Islands — An Epic Education

I would recommend a visit to Malaysia’s east coast, and I’m sure that once the cleanup is finished, they could certainly use the tourist dollars. What I wouldn’t recommend is visiting the Perhentian Islands with kids. We had a decent time there, and the area certainly is beautiful, but I am afraid that it won’t be beautiful there for much longer.

Perhentian Fish — Perhentian Islands — An Epic Education

Everywhere we went, I felt like we were part of the problem. I witnessed boat drivers dumping trash and oil-like sludge into pristine waters, while other drivers took us to small patches of live coral (nestled amongst acres of dead coral), where they released us and dozens of other tourists without any instructions. Most of our group seemed oblivious to the damage they were causing as they crunched coral underfoot while they stood on it taking selfies with each other.

Sea Turtle — Perhentian Islands — An Epic EducationWildlife still seemed abundant in places. There were plenty of fish here and there, but the guides kept shoving bread and other crappy processed human food into the hands of guests so they could get the thrill of fish eating out of their hands. Nice now, of course, but not a wise move long-term. When a few sea turtles were spotted, Jamie quickly grabbed the shot you see above, but boat drivers went one further, chasing them down so that some kids on their boats could jump off and grab the turtle for a photo — not touch them, grab them. It was a little disturbing.

Perhentian Islands — An Epic EducationMalaysia’s east coast is beautiful, and we plan to explore the peninsula further, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was part of the problem every minute I was on these islands. These pics may not match my sentiment, but at the time I wasn’t thinking of blogging about this, and had no desire to document what I thought was wrong.

It’s possible that I simply had a string of bad coincidences, as I frequently witnessed guides and staff wantonly dump garbage on the sand and in the sea. I hesitate to judge an entire island by one 5-day experience, but I’ve just never seen such consistent and blatant carelessness. I’m sure that this kind of crap happens all over the region, and I’ve been witness to some, but never so brazen as what I saw here.

K asleep on the boat — Perhentian Islands with Kids — An Epic EducationIt appeared that the locals just didn’t understand that they were destroying their own livelihoods — once the beauty and wildlife are gone, the tourist money will dry up. For this reason, we won’t return. If you’re in the region and considering time in the Perhentian Islands with kids, I’d advise you to skip it and head north into Thailand. Southern Thailand — including our favorite, Krabi, another beautiful (and rapidly developing area) — is much cheaper, on average, and arguably more beautiful. Do the Thais care for their coastline better? I can’t say. But what I saw in the Perhentians put me off the place for good.

Am I over-reacting? Am I wrong about this? I’d love to be wrong here. Am I looking at Southern Thailand with rose-colored glasses?

Comments

  1. We found the same when visiting Koh Lipe in Thailand with both our kids. We had to ensure that they wore shoes all the time when stepping into the water. As few times, we found shards of glass hidden beneath the sand! And plenty of rubbish on the shoreline, everywhere. Plastic pieces floating everywhere. It is sad, really. As the island is really a gem. But our children probably won’t get to enjoy it later down the road.

  2. Great post Jason.This has been on our list for a very long time. Will get there one day. 🙂

  3. Honestly, I find this is a huge problem in many places across SE Asia. Having been to the Perhentians, I can say I’ve even seen a lot worse in other parts of the region. It seems to be all about short term gain for the local population without any concern for the environment or sustainable tourism. That’s just a fact of life in this part of the world though.

    • I’m afraid you’re right, Bethaney. This isn’t a problem specific to these islands only — it’s just where I saw it at its most flagrant. There’s a lot of greed and short-term thinking going on, to be sure, but I believe that a lot of people are simply unaware of the ramifications, and there’s no one they trust around to set things straight. I’d like to think that if people in some of these local areas really understood the impact of what they were doing, they’d quickly change, but some white dude tourist like me parachuting in for a week and wagging my finger would do no one any good. I wish I knew the solution. It will be very, very sad when these beautiful places are gone.

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