Lazy days and lan­guid nights

How to be happy do­ing noth­ing much at all on the slow is­land of Langkawi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - VI­JAY VERGH­ESE VI­JAY VERGH­ESE

FEW things are as hugely evoca­tive as the six-let­ter word is­land. Think: pic­ture-post­card beaches, un­speak­able ro­mance, culi­nary de­lights, bar­gain shop­ping and heart-stop­ping bliss.

Langkawi, the tiny Malaysian is­land north of Pe­nang on the west coast, goes well beyond this pedes­trian clut­ter.

The is­land of ea­gles — per­son­i­fied by the 12m-tall bird statue at Ea­gle (or Lang) Square at the new Jetty Mall com­plex in Kuah — con­jures en­chant­ing vi­sions of ab­so­lutely noth­ing. (One guide de­scribes Langkawi as a group of 104 trop­i­cal is­lands dur­ing low tide and 99 is­lands dur­ing high tide, so the romantics among you should choose your sand­bar care­fully when pop­ping the big ques­tion.)

But then, noth­ing is a rel­a­tive term as it is in search of soli­tude that trav­ellers flock to this is­land, mostly ar­riv­ing at Kuah Town, the main set­tle­ment and the ferry point on the south­east cor­ner of the is­land.

Former Malaysian prime min­is­ter Ma­hathir Mo­hamed in­terned here just be­fore he got mar­ried and took ad­van­tage of the slow pace and anonymity of the place to grow a raff­ish beard.

As he quipped, ‘ ‘ So you see, there are things you can do in Langkawi.’’

With a pop­u­la­tion tick­ling 65,000, things are pre­dictably slow and un­hur­ried — though it’s chang­ing, if slowly.

Leg­end has it that years back, in the days when even less hap­pened on Langkawi, princess Mah­suri was falsely ac­cused by her wan­der­ing hus­band of in­fi­delity. The hap­less maiden was done to death and it is said white blood flowed from her slashed veins, in­con­tro­vert­ibly prov­ing her in­no­cence.

Be­fore de­part­ing, the feisty princess placed the is­land un­der a seven-gen­er­a­tion curse that, for­tu­nately, has just fin­ished its term, re­leas­ing the is­land once again to pur­sue its j oy­ous path of, well, do­ing ab­so­lutely noth­ing.

But fret not. Herein lies its charm. Langkawi is un­spoilt, friendly and some­how gen­teel. This is no mys­ti­cal Bali, throb­bing Phuket or curry- in- a- hurry Pe­nang. It is a place for walks, wa­ter­falls, rain­for­est walks, deep re­flec­tion, and midlife crises with no one to in­ter­rupt your beach­side rant. Men, if you brought the fam­ily along, be pre­pared for con­ver­sa­tions. There’s no get­ting away. Get­ting around Be­fore you plunge in, you might want to look at a map of Langkawi. The best way to get around is by rental car. Petrol costs about the same as min­eral wa­ter, so don’t feel shy. It takes about two hours to drive right around the is­land. The flat­tish south­ern half is where the air­port and Kuah Town are lo­cated, while the north fea­tures a hilly spine clad in ver­dant rain­for­est and rub­ber plan­ta­tions.

Both the forests and the plan­ta­tions, with their grace­ful white­bark trees set in evenly spaced rows, are en­dan­gered species — the former on ac­count of creep­ing de­vel­op­ment and the lat­ter due to the steady evap­o­ra­tion of the orig­i­nal In­dian mi­grant work­ers brought in to tap the rub­ber.

It is in the north that Langkawi comes alive and na­ture is at its most vi­brant. Sight­see­ing and ac­tiv­i­ties The east coast is fringed by dense man­grove swamps and lime­stone hills, and it is worth ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a river tour topped off by feed­ing the ea­gles. Scores of red ea­gles swoop down to claim their prize and it is a sight to be­hold. Canopy trekking, which in­volves ab­seil­ing or rap­pelling and gen­er­ally hang­ing from high branches up in the for­est canopy, is catch­ing on. And in Pu­lau Pa­yar Marine Park, 30km south of Langkawi, you can dive in gin-blue wa­ters, snorkel and ac­tu­ally feed sharks (OK, baby sharks).

Keep your toes buried well in the sand lest the feisty crit­ters mis­take them for small fish and grab a cou­ple to go. The ea­gle has landed Up in the cool high­lands of Gu­nung Raya moun­tain, smack at the cen­tre of Langkawi, horn­bills can be oc­ca­sion­ally sighted but the green tur­tles that once made the beach of Pan­tai Ce­nang their home are not spot­ted of­ten.

An­other day ex­cur­sion is to Pu­lau Dayang Bunting, the Is­land of the Preg­nant Maiden, a 15-minute boat trip from Langkawi. Its high­light is a cave haunted by a fear­some ban­shee (which has not de­terred sou­venir-sell­ers), and Tasik Dayang Bunting, a fresh­wa­ter lake that ap­par­ently be­stows the gift of chil­dren on bar­ren women who drink from it.

There are all the usual hys­ter­i­cal trap­pings of mod­ern tourism — crocodile farms where the crea­tures do things God never AT the far north­west cor­ner of the is­land, shrouded in rain­for­est with echo­ing bird­calls and over­look­ing a pri­vate bay, is the des­ti­na­tion’s orig­i­nal gem, The Datai Langkawi. Its 40 vil­las may not be as large as some of the newer prop­er­ties but they are stun­ningly sited, ut­terly pri­vate and up­scale. There is ho­tel-style ac­com­mo­da­tion as well in the main build­ing, con­sist­ing of 54 deluxe rooms and 12 suites. An ad­di­tional 14 beach vil­las are due to open in Novem­ber, in­tended, bird shows, aquar­i­ums and so on — that have been dumped here and there in an at­tempt to tart up the place. But do pop by the in­vig­o­rat­ing Fast Track Speed­zone go-kart track where MRY35 ($11) will get you 10 to 15 of­fer­ing pri­vate pools, flower gar­dens, di­rect ac­cess to Datai Beach and views of the An­daman Sea.

The place is a hon­ey­moon­ers’ dream, with all man­ner of snug nooks and cran­nies and am­bling path­ways. The Datai Langkawi was for­merly min­utes, or six to eight laps, of a long, loop­ing cir­cuit un­der a bak­ing sun. Call it a high-speed tan. Wa­ter, wa­ter ev­ery­where The best Langkawi beaches, while not the finest in Asia, are pretty man­aged by GHM, which brought the brand to promi­nence, and was taken over in July last year by Ar­chi­pel­ago Ho­tels & Re­sorts.

The el­e­gant main pool at the up­per level is for guests aged 16 or older, while the live­lier beach-club pool fronts a gor­geous white-sand cove shared with the neigh­bour­ing prop­erty, The An­daman.

Rain­for­est walks, moun­tain bik­ing and the spa will keep you en­ter­tained and sat­is­fy­ingly ex­hausted. At night, when the up­lights come on, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the for­est canopy, the re­sort looks its post­card best. More: the­datai.com.my. de­cent, with a few white- sand stretches to ri­val any. The sunny and hot dry sea­son runs from Novem­ber to March, with the mon­soons trick­ling in from May on­wards. The key beaches are Pan­tai Ce­nang, the main strip near the air­port where sev­eral of the larger ho­tels are lo­cated; Datai Bay, in the north­west, a splen­did cove of ex­clu­sive white sand set in stun­ning rain­for­est; and a broad, sparkling white bay to the north­east.

Up north is the tiny, rus­tic, hideaway cove of Pasir Tengko­rak, with a few small huts that can be rented from the govern­ment for MRY15.

Just for the fab­u­lous views, hitch a ride up the 708m Mt Mach­in­chang on the Langkawi Ca­ble Car from Ori­en­tal Vil­lage, close to the Ber­jaya re­sort. Ac­cord­ing to the photo gallery on its web­site, you can ac­tu­ally see the Grand Canyon and the snow­clad Rock­ies — that is some view.

Or walk up to one of the three wa­ter­falls — Te­laga Tu­juh (Seven Wells), Air Ter­jun Te­mu­run, or Durian Peran­gin Falls. Don’t bother dur­ing the dry sea­son as there won’t be much wa­ter, fall­ing or oth­er­wise. Shop­ping and din­ing Langkawi is a des­ig­nated du­tyfree is­land ( only al­co­hol, cig­a­rettes and elec­tron­ics are taxed), so much of the bric-a-brac on of­fer is con­sid­er­ably cheaper than on the main­land. Peo­ple come here to buy cars and yachts, too — du­tyfree. Go fig­ure. Langkawi Fair, just south of Kuah Town, is as good a start­ing point as any. The com­plex hosts Sun­day Home Decor (and its Sun­day Bistro) where you can pick up stuff for the home and an­tiques. There is a fac­tory out­let here as well. Other shop­ping spots in­clude Jetty Point (close to Langkawi Fair), Plaza Langkawi (near the Bayview Ho­tel), and Teow Soon Huat.

Kuah Town is a cou­ple of rows of re­built shop­houses with a de­cid­edly sleepy feel. Here you’ll come across re­mark­able names like Husky Trad­ing (elec­tronic games) and Flint Stones Hand­i­crafts. Shops are open about 10am to 10pm and most are closed on Fri­days (the Mus­lim week­end). The bright stalls of the night mar­ket that move around the is­land, de­pend­ing on the day of the week, of­fer an­other pleas­ant dis­trac­tion.

At Pan­tai Ce­nang beach, some in­cred­i­ble bar­gains are to be had, es­pe­cially if you wish to snap up DVDs, T-shirts or sa­tays. The Langkawi night mar­ket usu­ally runs in Kuah Town on Satur­days.

Din­ing op­tions have taken off, though you may have to mo­tor about a bit to get any­where. Kuah Town is worth a browse if you want good Chi­nese seafood in ca­sual sur­rounds. Try the pop­u­lar Restoran Hi Liang or Rootian Seafood next to the Wa­ter Gar­den Hawker Cen­tre. For de­li­cious and spicy roll-up-your-sleeves MalayIn­dian cur­ries and dosas get set­tled in at Da­wood Nasi Kan­dar, where two din­ers can have a hearty meal for a tri­fling MRY10.

Sev­eral fine-din­ing op­tions are avail­able now as well. Fas­t­ex­pand­ing Te­laga Har­bour at Per­dana Quay, Pan­tai Kok, is a mini Sin­ga­pore Boat Quay looka­like with trendy eater­ies and bars, and this is where The Danna Langkawi is lo­cated.

There are a few fash­ion bou­tiques sprin­kled around as well to cater for tourists and the smart set moored along the board­walk in gleam­ing yachts. Op­po­site the bay, Petronas Quay also of­fers snacks and al­fresco din­ing.

Else­where on the is­land, choices in­clude the Unkaizan Ja­panese Restau­rant, with nice open views in the far south at Pan­tai Ten­gah, the Light­house restau­rant and beach bar, in the same vicin­ity, the Cap­tain’s Deck at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club and the quaint, old-world Chin Chin Bar at the Bon Ton Re­sort.

For Malaysian food there’s Rasa at Pan­tai Ce­nang. And af­ter the feast­ing, comes the cleansing at one of the many small day spas or glam re­sort sanc­tu­ar­ies across the is­land. Hong Kong-based Vi­jay Vergh­ese runs the smart­trav­e­la­sia.com e-mag­a­zine. touris­m­malaysia.com.au panora­malangkawi.com tela­ga­har­bour.com langkawiy­acht­club.com

Clock­wise from main pic­ture, a kiosk sell­ing gro­ceries and bric-a-brac in Kuah Town on Langkawi Is­land; Langkawi Ca­ble Car on Mt Mach­in­chang; gin-clear wa­ters in Pu­lau Pa­yar Marine Park

MAIN PIC­TURE: ALAMY; CA­BLE CAR AND MARINE PARK: GETTY

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