After moving continents, unpacking 20 bags, finding a new place to live and doing all the nitty gritty little things that are necessary to adjust and get settled in our new home away from home we decided that it was time to take a break and explore all that Malaysia has to offer. Our itinerary involved driving north east from KL to the Perhentian Islands via Dungun and then heading west to the Cameron Highlands before making our way back south to KL. All in all a nice little loop of about 1,000km spread out over a few days that really gave us a down to earth feel of what life in Malaysia is like outside of the hustle and bustle that is KL. Here is what the itinerary looked like for us:
Leg 1 (KL to Dungun)
Getting there: We started our drive from KL around 11am and after approximately 5 hours reached our destination of Dungun. Why Dungun? Not sure really. Seemed mathematically about half way to Kuala Besut and a nice way to break the trip. The drive was mostly on a very smooth paved highway going through palm plantations and cost about RM 60 in tolls. The highway had lots of R&R places to fill up both your tank and your belly and made for a very easy drive.
Where to stay: We decided to spend the night at the Ulek Beach Resort. It is nice enough. Clean, affordable, and facing the ocean (although it also has a small pool). For some reason I don’t quite understand the ocean looks very inviting but we were warned by the hotel receptionist that “you cannot swim in it, you will drown.” Sure enough over a 20 km stretch of ocean I didn’t see anyone in the water. Seems like a bit of a mystery but “when in Rome” … so we played soccer on the beach and swam in the pool instead.
The wisdom of hindsight: Part of the plan for splitting up the journey was to have to shorter driving days with more time to see and do things. However, given that swimming in the ocean isn’t in the cards for Dungun I am not sure I would stop there again. Perhaps there are other places along the way that are more worthwhile a stop-over visit.
Leg 2 (Dungun to Perhentian Islands)
Getting there: We left just after breakfast (around 9ish) and got to the Kuala Besut boat jetty at noon. On this route there are two options, one that involved more time on the highway and one that involves more time on local roads. We opted for the more local road alternative and you pass through many small villages, some ocean-side drives and views, and many many local food and fruit stalls. Once on the local roads speeds our lower and roads narrower. When you get to the Kuala Besut boat jetty there are fellows in scooters who offer up their parking services (basically you pay them a fee of between RM 5 to 10 to park your car in a nearby vacant lot) – though they have covers to keep the cars in the shade. If your parking spot is farther than a comfortable walk then your “parking attendant” will take you back to the boat jetty by scooter and when you return will also take you back via scooter to your car. A fairly smooth operation really. In terms of getting to the Perhentian Islands, the boats run daily from 9:00 to 17:00 basically and leave whenever they are full. We were off within half an hour of arriving. When I say boats I mean speedboats that carry maybe 10-12 passengers and your gear. To make your life easier pack your belongings in a backpack as suitcases are hard to handle and the wheels don’t roll on the sand! The captain will then ask you your destination and will drop off each passenger at their lodging (beach by beach basically).
Where to stay: We opted for the Perhentian Island Resort but a Google search will bring up many options for all sorts of budgets. The resort itself is rustic but comfortable. Clean, nice hot showers, and set in greenery. Our room faced the pond and we had a few monitor lizards, bats, and monkeys hanging around. Having gone around to many of the other places as well during our three days there I will say that the Perhentian Island Resort has the nicest beach we found on the whole island. Crystal clear turquoise waters, fine white sandy beach, and turtles just a quick swim away.
The wisdom of hindsight: The food at the Perhentian Island Resort is average at best but just around the bay (5 minutes walk on the beach) there are many other beach side local restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can rent snorkeling gear but if you have your own bring it! Especially if you are staying at the PIR because it seems there are a few resident turtles there all the time. We saw a few large ones each day that we were there. I have traveled the world and have never seen water as clear as in the Perhentians – it was unreal – truly a special place. I know we will definitely be going back!
Leg 3 (Perhentian Islands to Cameron Highlands)
Getting there: Our water taxi left at 8:00 and by 14:00 we were in the Cameron Highlands. It could really be a three hour drive but we stopped along the way to visit a Strawberry farm and then indulge in some afternoon high-tea British style. This drive is also very scenic with the exception of the last couple of km driving into the Highlands as you are basically going through industrial farm plantations with greenhouses on either side (or new condo construction) and the road is very narrow and full of potholes.
Where to stay: We stayed at Casa Loma in Tanah Rata. The rooms were well appointed and large, however we were on the bottom floor and the sound proofing is not very good so we heard every trip to the bathroom that our upstairs neighbors took. Plus, while the hotel is up on a hill it is located just above the main road back into KL so quite a bit of load traffic even in the night. If you go to Casa Loma make sure to ask for (1) a room on the top floor (there are only 2 floors) and (2) a room that backs onto the inner courtyard and not the highway.
The wisdom of hindsight: The Cameron Highlands are a bucolic and welcome respite from the hot and humid weather that seems to be most of the rest of Malaysia. The draw really is the great hikes in cooler weather (many trails/difficulties/distances to choose from) and the “time-warp” that is the heritage of the Brits in Malaysia from high-tea to beaten down old Land Rovers to faux-Tudor inspired cottages and condos. Knowing this next time we come we will look for a place that is quiet and secluded to take it all in. Oh, and don’t forget your hiking shoes and a rain poncho!
Leg 4 (Cameron Highlands to KL)
Getting there: Probably the shortest leg of the trip. Just under 200 km and 3 hours. The tricky bit is negotiating the narrow twisty mountain road down to the highway entrance, though it is stunning in terms of the landscape it goes through, also passing by several waterfalls on the way. The trick I found is not to be in a rush. Everyone seems in a haste to overtake on blind corners just to get stuck behind the next slow truck. Take in the scenery and soon enough you will be on the highway. Enjoy.
Where to stay: Well, for us back to our new home away from home! Feels good getting settled and having a permanent address.
The wisdom of hindsight: I like driving and appreciate road trips for the freedom and opportunity of learning about a new place on my own terms. For example, the surprise of noticing highway road signs that alert you to the fact that the next R&R stop will have fruits and nuts, along with all the other essentials like gas and bathrooms. However, the quickest (and likely cheaper) way to get to the Perhentians is flying with AirAsia to either Kuala Besut or Kuala Terangganu and then doing a road transfer (we were quoted RM 65 and this is without haggling). And if you don’t have your own car there are buses that ply the KL to Cameron highlands route regularly and for cheap. We know we loved both places and look forward to going back to both the Cameron Highlands and Perhentian Islands but also know that we can’t wait to keep exploring all the other places Malaysia has to offer.