For travelers in pursuit of (or are immune to) the combination of affordability, adventure and occasional inconveniences that persist at destinations popular among the backpacker set, the Perhentian Islands off the coast of northeastern Malaysia near the Thai border are an excellent option.
Lodging and food are cheap (though the latter is markedly more expensive than the mainland, as everything has to be imported), and the nightlife is straight from the happier moments in 2000′s The Beach.
Though tourists make the journey to the islands for the purposes of jungle trekking, turtle conservation programs, socializing, camping, sea kayaking, and other typical Malaysia attractions, the single largest recreational draw is the profusion of outfits offering affordable scuba diving and snorkeling. The coral-ringed islands are a designated marine park and are teeming with fish, sea turtles and many species of shark (all of which aren’t considered dangerous unless provoked).
The islands take their name from the Malay word for “stopping point”, owing to the tendency of Bangkok-bound ships to use the islands as a jumping off point. The two main islands are Perhentian Besar (or Big Perhentian) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian). Kecil is the more popular of the two, as it has a wider array of cheap accommodations, but travelers hoping to steer clear (within reason) of backpackers often opt for Besar, which, while somewhat more expensive, nonetheless caters to families and tourists seeking quiet contemplation rather than excitement.
Apart from walking, the main mode of transportation on the islands is water taxi, and there are plenty to choose from. Divers should take extra care to examine the state of equipment used by the various dive shops, as some outfits have become notorious for possessing sub par gear. Suffice it to say, it’s not worth it to sacrifice safety in the hope of saving a couple of bucks.
Read more about Malaysia’s best beaches.