“You’ve got to dive this wreck,” Greg says, gushing enthusiastically about the Yongala, “it’s one of the best wreck sites in the world. Get in touch with YongalaDive and they’ll hook you up with everything you need.” Thus begins the story of the time I went diving around a shipwreck over 100 years old off the east coast of Australia. I met Greg at my hostel in Singapore. He’s from Australia, lives in Indonesia running a dive shop, but happens to be in Singapore on his way to the Philippines where he’s spending a month island hopping and diving. Greg clearly knows his diving – I write down ‘YongalaDive’ in my notebook with the intention of checking into the company once I reach Australia. A few weeks later my teeth are clattering and my body shivering – 25 meters below water in a 5mm wetsuit submerged in 72 degree water and cursing Greg …and myself.
My initial idea was that I would stay on the Perhentians for three nights. Maybe if I heard good reviews I would hop on a boat and stay a few nights on the larger island for a day or two. Ultimately I stayed for five nights due to a strange combination of terrible accommodation, the bus schedule, and having a pretty good time. Below are some stories and pictures about my time on Kecil.
The Parhentian Islands are a chain of islands off the northeast coast of Malaysia that make up the Pulau Redang National Marine Park. The marine park has four islands, but two are extremely small and uninhabited. The others are aptly named “Big” and “Small”. In Malay, Parhentian Kecil means “Small Parhentian” and Parhentian Besar is “Large Parhentian.” The two islands have contrasting reputations – Kecil is known as the cheaper and more backpacker friendly party island while Besar is known as the more expensive and family friendly resort filled island. For the last five days I’ve been staying on Kecil.
The islands are easily accessible by boats that serve as water taxis and run like clockwork. Three times a day the boats go to the islands, and three times a day the boats pick people up from the islands. All boat tickets are sold as ‘return’ tickets, meaning you pay 70 Ringgit (roughly $23) and receive tickets for both directions of your trip. In addition to the boat, you’ll need to pay a 5 Ringgit Marine Park entry fee. After taking care of your ticket and admission fee – you’re set to go. Why go to the Parhenthian islands you may ask?
There are only three reasons to visit the islands:
- Scuba Diving/Snorkeling
- Getting away from nearly everything
It should come as no surprise that an island has a number of beaches. There are two primary beaches on Kecil, which means there are only two beaches where you should expect to find anything from a lounge chair to someone selling bottles of water. The largest and most accessible is ‘Long Beach,’ which at it’s busiest has no more than 300 people lounging around. Others like ‘Romantic Beach’ require a 30 minute hike but you’ll most likely have the entire beach to yourself. Once on the beach there are only a limited number of things to do: Read and Relax. Or, if you’ve planned ahead – Snorkel.
All around the island you can rent a snorkel and mask for 5 Ringgit. You can pay another 5 if you’d like fins too. Essentially, this means that for $3 you can go snorkeling for as long as you’d like. Snorkeling around Parhentian Kecil is the cheapest activity you can do for hours at a time, and the snorkeling is actually fantastic around the beaches. No more than 20 feet off the shores of one beach in knee deep water you can swim around and find baby blacktip sharks. Swim out deeper and away from the beach and clownfish and a host of other fish are waiting to be discovered. As you’re swimming around, don’t be surprised if you come across a few grown up blacktip sharks too. These sharks can grow to roughly 1.5 meters long and are typically wary of humans. The sharks aren’t the most concerning thing underwater – Titan Triggerfish roam the waters and are extremely territorial. They also have sharp teeth. On most days when the sun is out the visibility while snorkeling is fantastic and you’ll have at least 15 meters of visibility – meaning that nothing should ever sneak up on you if you pay attention. If finding your own beach to snorkel at isn’t your idea of a good time, there are numerous shops offering snorkeling day trips that will take you to six sites (one being a stop for lunch at a local village) for 30 to 35 Ringgit ($10-12).
If snorkeling isn’t the way you want to experience the underwater life around the Parhentians – Scuba diving is the way to go. On Kecil there are roughly 10 dive shops that run boats three times a day to the 30+ sites around the two islands. Prices across the dive shops are nearly identical – ranging from 70 to 80 Ringgit a dive with discounts depending on how much diving you do. The most famous dive sites around the Parhentians are the Vietnamese Wreck, Temple of the Sea, T3, and the Sugar Wreck. Most of the dive sites are accessible to Open Water divers and very few are deep dives. This also means that, if you’re an experienced diver, you may find yourself getting frustrated with new divers who prefer to be vertical instead of horizontal. Conversely, get into a small dive group with an extra DM or DMT and they’ll be happy to spend 55 minutes taking your tank down to 40-50 Bar and really enjoying the dive site.
Finally, the last reason to visit the islands is to completely get away from whatever you were doing before you arrived on the island. On Kecil there are no more than 10 wifi spots that appear to all be sharing the same 14.4k island modem. The internet cafes offer only a slightly faster connection – which is to say that Facebook might actually load in under 10 seconds. It’s possible that the larger, more ‘grown up’ island offers better internet connectivity, but I wouldn’t bet too much on that idea. It’s best to assume that once you leave the jetty on your way to the island that the only things you have to concern yourself with are where you plan to snorkel, which BBQ place you’ll dine at for the evening, and how long its been since you last applied your sunscreen.
Visiting the island is a great way to spend a few days, just don’t expect to completely fall in love with the surroundings. For all of the positive things the island can offer, there are a number of negative ones that come along with the good. Accommodation on the island is either cheap dorm rooms, run down beach bungalows, or VIP deluxe rooms with A/C. The number of places to stay that fall in between the two sides of the spectrum are few and far between, and typically taken by people who arrived on the island before you. The variety of food on the island comes primarily from which type of noodle you plan on eating with your meal, or which BBQ place you plan to eat dinner at for the evening. Mosquitoes. None of this is to say that visiting is a bad idea – the islands are great – just in small doses. In Malay, Parhentian means “stopping point” as the islands were used by traders traveling the islands in between Bangkok and Malaysia. I think this is exactly the right way to view the islands. Stop for a few days, but don’t plan on staying.
Koh Tao isn’t ‘just’ an island; it is a shared experience of 7-11s, Scuba diving, late night dancing in the ocean, buckets of alcohol, fire dancers, and balloons filled with laughing gas.
Over the last three days I’ve been busy receiving my “Stress and Rescue” diving certification – a prerequisite to enrolling in a Dive Master course. At the same time I’ve been asking myself the following question: “What the hell am I doing?”
This is a story about a boy that only recently learned how to go underwater without holding his nose who became a top-notch Scuba diver over the course of five days.
I’m back on Koh Tao and really maximizing the island lifestyle. The last four days have been filled with Scuba stuff, but I’ve had a little bit of downtime to compose my thoughts.