Bidong Island

Bidong Island

This tiny island has become a major part of the lives of the many Vietnamese refugees that once resided there.

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Bidong Island is actually part of a group of islands located 5 miles south of Redang Island, an island famous for its beautiful diving sites. The other islands that makes up this group are Yu Besar Island, Yu Kechil Island, Gelok Island, Karah Island and Batu Tengkorak. Since opening to the public in 1999, the island has been welcoming more visitors and divers into its waters. As a result, Bidong Island is slowly making its mark amongst the diving community with its beautiful hard and soft coral reefs and the marine life.

Those who know about the Vietnam War may have heard of Bidong Island for an entirely different reason. After the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army, many of the country's people tried to flee from the rule of the Communists. Those who were lucky were able to buy themselves a space on a boat out of the country, whereas some of the less fortunate ones had to sell almost whatever prized possessions they had to get away from Vietnam. People who could not afford to buy or bribe their way out resorted to trekking across the country's boundaries over to Thailand, hoping to seek asylum in a foreign land. The Vietnamese refugees who fled by boat soon found themselves facing other kinds of peril like hunger and malnutrition, not to mention attacks by ruthless pirates who mercilessly robbed and raped those on board. They also had to brave out storms encountered along the way.

The first boat of refugees, or 'boat people' as they would later be known, arrived on the shores of Malaysia in May 1975. As the number of boat people grew, a refugee camp was set up in Bidong Island on 8th August 1978 with 121 Vietnamese refugees. It is believed that Bidong Island once sheltered approximately 40,000 refugees during its peak. Naturally, with so many people cramped into a small island, life was not easy for the refugees. Much basic infrastructure was lacking and rainstorms often sent streams of dirty water into the camp areas. Food and clean water for the refugees had to be imported from mainland. Disease like hepatitis was uncontrollable as the levels of sanitation on the island was near non-existent. Arrivals at Bidong Island decreased after a convention held in Geneva saw the leaders of Vietnam agreeing to restrain the outflow of refugees and the Western countries guaranteed to resettle majority of the refugees. At the end of Bidong Island's time as a refugee camp, it was estimated that approximately 250,000 people had resided at one time on the island. With the closing of the camp, the remaining Vietnamese refugees were sent back to Vietnam. Though Bidong Island has opened its arms to visitors in 1991, remnants of its past still remains, a sad reminder of those who once lived here not so long ago.

Bidong Island is accessible by boat. Due to its close proximity to Redang Island and the lack of accommodation on the island, the majority of its visitors consist of those who opt for day trips from Redang Island. Though it is possible to depart from Merang jetty to Bidong Island, visitors are strongly advised to make prior arrangements to avoid disappointment.