It felt like we were leaving Sumatra too soon, but the flights were booked, so we had no choice but to spend a regrettable night in Medan (blood-stained sheets, broken windows, manic traffic, 4am calls to prayer) before making our way back to Malaysia, where Georgetown received us once more. We had already spent about a week there before our Sumatran journey, so it was comforting to get back to a familiar city for once. Georgetown is actually deserving of a post on its own – the heritage, the atmosphere and the food are all amazing and it is the kind of city where you imagine living, rather than just visiting. But, on our first night there (the first time), we bumped into some friends from home — absolutely by chance – and the next days were spent eating delicious food and catching up. So despite having a whale of a time eating waffles at a massive open air food court called Red Garden, trying all the local specialties, and spending long evenings at the deservingly famous Indian restaurants along Lebuh Chulia (Kapitan being a stand-out), we were not very good ‘tourists.’
We eventually got around to going up Penang Hill, which was a little disappointing, and visiting the Peranakan Mansion, which was beautiful and very interesting. However, the allure of Georgetown is more in merely being there; walking down the busy streets, marvelling at the restored heritage buildings, enjoying the gorgeous French toast breakfasts at quirky little galleries/eateries, and the prospect of more phenomenal food experiences throughout the day. It was a pleasure to soak it up in the company of good friends, but that’s about all we have to share. Our second visit was a quick transit as we got ourselves onto the first available night bus across country to Kuala Besut, the jumping off point for all travels to Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands. We made it just in time to catch the 7am high-speed ferry and were grateful to arrive on the smaller, more backpacker-friendly Island of Kecil in what was left of the relative cool of the morning 45minutes later.
Our friends had recommended a really good value place just off of Coral Beach (the quieter of the island’s two main beaches), but true to form, we had forgotten the name and couldn’t find where we had written it down. Luckily there is only one path that connects Coral Beach to the busier, party-oriented Long Beach, so we managed to find Ewan’s Place quite quickly. You really can’t beat this spot for value. Ewan (who started off as a painter with dreams of owning his own place) and his family are wonderful – so friendly and obliging – and our bungalow was immaculate! We happily got settled and headed off to explore our surrounds. Within minutes we’d had our first close encounter with one of the island’s many large monitor lizards and these enormous reptiles paid us a daily visit from then on. Walking over to Long beach, we realised why we’d heard some Phi Phi comparisons from other travellers. The bay was overrun by gung-ho motorboat drivers, the water was murky and the sand was littered with the remnants of the previous night’s party. But Coral Beach was much quieter, with a row of restaurants whose seating spilled out onto the sand, giving diners a great view of the aquamarine waters and the spectacular sunsets.
The following day we rented a kayak and paddled ourselves over to the next little bay, known to the locals as ‘Romantic Beach’ and it took one glance to understand why. It was paradise. There was not a soul on the gleaming white sand and the crystalline waters house some extensive shallow reef which provides for a great day’s snorkelling. During our breaks from the water, we found shelter from the midday sun under a beautiful old tree that had coral and driftwood mobiles hanging off all its branches, and a rope swing to complete picture. Throughout the day we were joined by a total of six other people but, for the most part, we had it all to ourselves. It felt incredibly surreal to be in such a beautiful place without hordes of other people jostling to get a look.
After our wonderful day at romantic beach, we just had to see more, and so we signed up for a full day snorkelling tour around the islands. The one thing that separates the Perhentians from their unfortunate Thai counterparts like Phi Phi, is that a concerted effort has been made to reduce the damage done by visitors and boat traffic. So even though the damage of the past is still evident, simple practices such as respecting the ‘no boat zones’ and drifting, rather than anchoring on the coral, have allowed many of the reefs (outside of the two main bays) a chance to regenerate. We stopped at six different spots, and with amazing visibility, we were treated to the best snorkelling we’ve done so far. By the end of the day we’d seen a couple of black-tip reef sharks, a giant sea turtle, plenty of vibrant fish and some truly wondrous rehabilitated coral gardens.
Happy, exhausted, and burned to a crisp, we took our seats at one of the beach front cafes and sipped our iced milos, watching the local waterbabies splash around in the shallows until the sun bowed out in its usual ceremony of red, pink, and orange. The rest of our stay was spent in much the same way; blissful days of snorkelling around the nearby bays, and long, restful evenings lapping up the beauty of these extraordinary islands.