Lazy days and languid nights
How to be happy doing nothing much at all on the slow island of Langkawi
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