Family volunteering – Perhentian Islands

“Mum of Ruby, where are you going”. This was how we were farewelled from the village on Pulau Kecil where we volunteered for a week.

While I’m not convinced we made a lasting impact on the lives’ of anyone in the village, I am sure that Ruby and Lincoln will be different people having participated in this amazing week. They have learnt a lot about village life, sharing and simple living from the children. From the Ecoteer staff and our fellow volunteers they have learnt about the environment, community development, selflessness and giving back.

Our start in the village, wasn’t so idyllic though. From Penang we flew to Kota Bharu where it rained and rained. From there we caught a taxi to Kuala Besut, before the 45 minute boat trip to Kecil. It was a relatively smooth ride, except for the rain. It was some of the heaviest rain we have ever experienced. So much so that our bags and everything inside them was completely wet through.

Rainy day on the way to the Perhentians

Rain in Kota Bharu

We arrived in the Muslim village to more rain. The village was created about 60 years ago by the Malay government when they encouraged residents of the Perhentian Islands to move into the one place. Here the government provided a school, medical centre and mosque for its residents.

Village streets

Village streets

Completely drenched, we made our way through the village streets, which is footpaths (no roads), with the occasional motor bike buzzing through. The first thing that struck me was the lack of order, a labyrinth of footpaths and houses that don’t seem to make sense. We were shown to the volunteer house – a basic place with bunk beds and a shared bathroom. Being a Muslim village, Ruby and I were required to have our knees and shoulder covered, which in stifling heat was sometimes a little hard to bear. I’ll admit to feeling overwhelmed at this point. Unsure what to expect – I didn’t know if this was a safe place to bring my young family.

Volunteer house

Volunteer house

Any fears I had were completely unfounded. What seemed at first confusing, turned out to be organised chaos. The village children were curious and keen to meet our kids. Many of the locals gave us a friendly wave or smile as we walked through the village. Store owners were understanding and accommodating (if not a little amused) as we fumbled our Malay words. The Ecoteer staff were fantastic. Wonderful hosts, they suggested meals and were flexible with the scheduled activities when it was clear Lincoln and Ruby had enough. We shared the volunteer house with two English ladies who were patient and kind to our kids. Including them in activities and playing with them, even when I’m sure they preferred to be doing something else.

Volunteering at school

Linc and Georgia – so patient!

The activities included running English classes for village kids, a snorkelling tour, gardening, painting, helping out with the recycling competition, picking up hardened oil that had washed up on a turtle nesting beach and helping out at adult English classes.

Participating at school

English class

In our free time we enjoyed sampling local delights such as coconut shakes and donuts from the Perhentian Island Ladies Association (PILA), swimming, playing volleyball at a neighbouring beach and resting with new friends.

It’s hard to sum up such a busy week, but safe to say it has been an enlightening experience for all of us. We were lucky to make new, like minded, friends and gain a better understanding of the environmental and social issues facing the Perhentian Islands. I admire the persistence of the Ecoteer staff and their dedication. You can’t ignore the magnitude of the environmental problems facing the islands. Rubbish disposal, waterway health, damage to coral reefs and tourism are very real threats. How these are managed will shape the future of these beautiful islands.

See more photos of this experience in the picture gallery.


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