We first heard about Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands during a sailing trip off the west coast of Australia. A soft-spoken Swedish couple reminisced about white sand, fresh seafood and cheap beach huts on Perhentian Kecil, the small island. “Go right after monsoon season while it’s still quiet,” they told us. “It’s a backpacker’s paradise.”
For the next three months my husband Andy and I traveled around Australia, Bali, Singapore and Thailand. In February we crossed the Thai border into Malaysia, and headed to Penang. After four days of sightseeing and sipping mango lassis in Georgetown, we were ready to head east to the Perhentian Islands. According to the travel blogs, Perhentian Kecil was open for business.
When we went to the bus station in the center of Georgetown to book tickets, the place was swarming with smooth-talking touts. “Where do you want to go?” each one asked as we walked by. We finally approached an unassuming man reading the paper. Andy told him about our plans to visit Perhentian Kecil. “Nice place,” he said. “I can get you a good deal on a bus-boat combo.”
The offer sounded sketchy but cheap. After ten months on the road, cut-rate travel had become a necessary evil. The agent read the slight hesitation on my face and quickly continued with his pitch. “You leave tonight at nine. Arrive in Kuala Besut in the morning and get on the boat right away. Such a good deal!”
“But what time will the bus get to Kuala Besut in the morning?” we asked. After a slight pause the agent smiled and replied, “At a good time. Yes. Maybe… seven o’clock.”
Throwing caution to the wind we paid for the tickets and headed to our guesthouse to grab our packs. We were the only western travelers on board the bus that night. About an hour into the journey, I walked up to the front of the bus to settle the matter of our vague arrival time. “What time will we arrive in Kuala Besut?” I asked the driver. He shook his head and said “no English,” so a man behind us, who introduced himself as Mr. Chen, aided in the translation process.
With a troubled look on his face, Mr. Chen relayed grim news. The bus would not be stopping in Kuala Besut at all, but rather 12 miles away in a town called Jertah. The estimated time of arrival in Jertah was 4:00 a.m. “The driver says you can wait at the station and take the first bus to Besut at 8:00 a.m.” My mind was racing. I was hoping that this was just a misunderstanding. I asked him to check again, but the answer was the same. “But we’ll be sitting in the dark in this Jertah place for four hours,” I said in disbelief. “Yes, yes but I’m sure there will be many other people waiting too,” Mr. Chen said optimistically.
The rest of the bus trip was a blur. I tried to get some sleep, but the butterflies in my stomach kept me from getting any real rest. Andy, on the other hand, was out like a light. Like clockwork we pulled into Jerteh at 4:00 a.m. Sleepy and anxious, we shuffled off the bus and into what can only be described as the twilight zone! After almost a year on the road, I thought I had seen all shades of strange – this was something else. A dozen or so wide-eyed, zombie-like men were draped over the benches in the bus station, glaring at us, sizing us up.
“Andy, everyone is staring at us,” I hissed as we sat down. “I seriously think we’re about to get robbed,” I added, for dramatic measure. Andy remained calm while I tried to avoid hyperventilating. Within minutes a dodgy, but sober man slithered over to peddle his services. “I can drive you right now to the travel agency in Kuala Besut for 15 Ringgit,” he said. “Or you can stay here for many hours in the dark and wait for the bussssssss.”
We weighed our options: take a taxi ride with this snake or wait it out at the bus station with the other creatures of the night. I don’t remember how we reached a decision, but we ended up in the back seat of the taxi driver’s dilapidated car. He spoke with a local man and made arrangements to take him home on the way to Kuala Besut. We were on a highway for a few minutes, then detoured onto a dark narrow road, presumably heading toward the other passenger’s house. In the dark I fumbled for the credit card in my money belt, shoved it in my bra and tried to keep calm. I whispered to Andy that he should stash some cash in his socks, just in case.
We arrived at a dark house surrounded by trees and fields at about 4:30 a.m. The other passenger got out, paid the driver and walked to his house. The driver turned the car around and headed back toward the highway. Andy and I both breathed a small sigh of relief. As we inched closer to Kuala Besut, the driver told us about the travel agency that he was planning to take us to. “It’s open now so you can stay there until the boat leaves in the morning,” he said.
“So your telling me that the travel agency is seriously open in the middle of the night?” I probed. “Oh yes,” he said. “I know the owner. He will help you.” We pulled into Kuala Besut a few minutes later. The sleepy little town had one main street leading to the jetty. We stopped at the end of the dark road in front of a small storefront with a metal rolling shutter. The driver jumped out and rapped on the door with a great deal of gusto.
A sleepy and stunned man pulled up the shutter. He stared at the driver in what appeared to be disbelief. They conversed for ages before they motioned to us to get out of the car. “Pay me, then go inside and wait until morning,” said the taxi driver. We paid him then crept into the tiny and dark travel agency. The man in the blanket motioned for us to sit on a small sofa. He left the shutter partially open, then disappeared behind the counter.
When my eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, I noticed that there were men sleeping on chairs beside us. I heard distinct snoring sounds coming from behind the counter area as well. And zombie men, like the ones in Jertah, stumbled around outside. They peaked under the shutter door every once in awhile, but thankfully, didn’t try to come inside. Unable to speak, for fear of waking the chair and floor dwellers, Andy and I sat in silence and stared at the digital alarm clock on the counter. It felt like I watched every minute pass in slow motion for more than an hour.
Just before 6:00 a.m., we heard a car. Then we saw headlights. As the car stopped outside the travel agency, I held my breath. The sounds of laughter and Scottish accents drifted in. I couldn’t stop myself. I leapt off the sofa, hurled the shutter open. I startled the couple and the taxi driver outside with my outburst. Verbal diarrhea ensued. “Ohmigod, I am sooooooo happy to see you!” I gushed. “We’ve been sitting here hoping that other travelers would arrive, and here you are! I am so happy!”
The Scottish couple laughed and brought their bags into the travel agency. By this time, the bodies on various chairs, sofas and mats began to stir. Within minutes the lights went on, revealing the sleepy faces of four harmless looking Malaysian men. They weren’t exactly thrilled to be awake so early, but they didn’t seem overly annoyed either.
The long night finally came to an end. But the boat that was promised first thing in the morning wasn’t part of the deal, after all. We had to wait until 10:00 a.m. for a boat. To be honest, I was past caring at that point. I was just happy to be in one piece with luggage, passport and credit cards in tact. So we dozed in the travel agency until our tugboat departed.
The rest of the trip was a breeze. I was a bit worried at times that the fishing boat wouldn’t make it all the way to Perhentian Kecil. But the sea was kind and the wind was light. By noon we were standing on glistening white sand. We felt tired and a bit rattled, but we couldn’t stop smiling. It was just as beautiful as the Swedish couple had promised. The perfect place to recover from our misadventure. We spent four days on the island: swimming, snorkeling, eating fresh seafood and lounging under the umbrellas on the beach.
Looking back, our time on Perhentian Kecil was the highlight of our year abroad. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t let the bus station frustration ruin a great vacation.