Langkawi - Solace in Wonderland
One of the biggest risks of indulging yourself in
luxurious idleness within touching distance of a candidate for best beach
in the Far East is that it’s all too easy to overdo things. Lazing on a
long stretch of sunned, white sand beach interrupted only by the gentle
lapping of an azure sea dotted with densely-forested islets, it would be
understandable not to want to move let alone do anything remotely active.
On Langkawi, despite all the tempting rest and relaxation on offer at your
fingertips, that would be a mistake - there’s far too much to see and do
in this natural wonderland.
Langkawi comprises an archipelago of 99 tropical
islands (104 at low tide) located in the Straits of Melaka, off the
northwestern shore of Peninsular Malaysia. The islands are clad in dense
mangrove and rainforest, fringed by pristine beaches and teem with exotic
flora and fauna.
Small villages with their traditional wooden houses
built on stilts complement classic rural vistas of plantations and padi
fields. Bustling night markets in some of the larger towns form an
enticing nocturnal focus for the senses. Rustic open air cafés and
restaurants occupy many roadsides. The only slight eyesore is the cement
factory that sits incongruously on the northern coast.
Coconut palms sway abundantly. Fallen coconuts are so
plentiful you need to take care not to trip over them, although my main
concern was from their aerial threat. As I walked nervously beneath the
lofty trees, I wondered how many people had been killed by direct hits
from falling fruit. “Don’t worry,” my guide assured me, “coconuts
Langkawi’s population is around 60,000, having
swelled from 25,000 in 1989 with the arrival of tourism. Fortunately,
tourism doesn’t seem to have harmed the island’s traditional charms.
Rubber growing, fishing and, to a lesser extent, farming, co-exist happily
with tourism. Even in high season, Langkawi doesn’t feel at all busy.
It’s possible to visit tourist “hotspots” and hardly meet any
tourists. Obviously, most have fallen prey to the lure of inactivity.
I was based at Tanjung Rhu, an idyllic, secluded cove
hidden in the northwest of the main island. Getting around on the
island’s smooth, open roads is easy. Many of Langkawi’s roads are so
densely lined with trees they seem to have been hacked straight through a
virgin forest. Clear and meandering, these roads invite unruffled,
high-gear cruising, although care needs to be taken as hidden dangers
lurk. In the wet season, buffalo which usually graze in the padi fields
often prefer to lie instead on the warm tarmac against which their grey
hides are perfectly camouflaged.
Returning to the coast and determined not to fall
victim to inactivity, I boarded a small motor launch from our isolated
beach to take a sea and river tour of the surroundings. Although the main
island is small enough to be manageable from wherever you are staying,
Tanjung Rhu has the advantage that many of Langkawi’s natural highlights
are right on its doorstep.
Our first stop was Dangli Island, a small islet
crowned by a lighthouse. A lone oyster hunter worked on the rocky shore
while the trees above him quivered with “flying fox” bats. A number of
anchovy fishermen bobbed in small wooden boats. Rounding Turtle Island,
the islet connected to Tanjung Rhu’s beach by a sand spit at low tide,
we headed towards the narrow estuary of the Kilim River. This sheltered
river provides a safe haven for boats during the monsoon season. We were
soon surrounded by dense forest, broken only by occasional tiny
tributaries whose mouths were frequently spanned by fishermen’s lines.
Already steeped in myths and legends, much of Langkawi
is covered in mysterious mangrove forests which expose their weird and
tangled root formations at low tide. With their efficient filter systems,
mangroves are the only trees that flourish in salt water. Many species of
fish, including barracuda, grouper, snapper and bass, lay eggs here. The
twisted roots afford protection for the fry and crab eggs provide ample
A radar station high up on the hillside monitors the
nearby border with Thailand and was one of the few signs of human
activity. Shortly afterwards we passed the ramshackle waterside dwellings
of a small charcoal factory. Itinerant workers burn mangrove wood (which
leaves charcoal and not ashes when burned) in walk-in, dome-shaped
furnaces to produce barbecue coals.
Patrick, my nature guide, combines his naturalist
interests with being one of the island’s radio DJs. He pointed out
several species of fiddler crab and many prehistoric-looking mudskippers
that scurried across the mud flats. Brash monkeys were feasting on fallen
coconuts and also catch fish and crabs. We also saw the tell-tale piles of
empty clam shells that betrayed the recent presence of feeding otters. A
rare species of palm tree dating back to dinosaur ages survives on the
island. Scenes from “Anna and the King” were shot in this unspoilt
paradise. These images reminded me of several river trips through
rainforests, but the Kilim is on a much smaller scale and caused me far
fewer concerns about nasty insects.
A little further up the river, we moored at the
floating huts and pens of a local fish farm. Balancing carefully on narrow
wooden planks between the pens we peered with fascination at sea bass,
massive grouper, turtles, tiger prawns, sting rays and even a moray eel.
This brought back vivid memories of the only previous time I had visited a
fish farm. On that occasion I tasted some of the most delicious food I
have ever eaten: whole trout pan-fried just inches from the reservoir
where it had been caught minutes earlier. Now surrounded by even more
exotic fish, I was most keen to repeat that gastronomic experience. But,
sadly, we were expected for lunch elsewhere. I had to make do with a
coffee. However, any excuse to pause at this delightful riverside spot,
surrounded by dense forest and with no other signs of human activity, was
Jumping back under the pleasant shade of our boat’s
canopy, we continued further along the river. Passing through a darkened
cave we emerged in a narrow tributary which was barely wide enough to
accommodate us. We were now so close to the bank we could almost reach out
and try to catch some of the ubiquitous mudskippers, and we had close-up
views of the mangroves’ ingenious filtration systems.
Returning to the main channel of the river, the wooded
backdrop was now loftier and steeper than before and a solitary eagle
soared high overhead. Unseen by me the boatman had dropped some chicken
giblets into the water. Within seconds the air became thick with circling
and plunging eagles, shrieking their cat-like calls, in a scene that could
have come straight from the Hitchcock film. However, these birds were in
no way threatening.
Apart from one large sea eagle, the rest were smaller
Brahminy Kites, with their elegant white heads and bodies, and brown wings
that lighten to a beautiful tan as they mature. These birds obviously felt
no threat from us either and several, having clutched their share of the
spoils, retired to branches just over our heads to consume their meal. I
counted around 40 eagles. According to the boatman, the prospect of a free
lunch can attract up to 100 at a time. Even though they weren’t as
hungry as they might have been on the day I visited, I doubt I’ll ever
forget the sight of those magnificent wild eagles feeding so close to me.
But back to rest and relaxation. The Tanjung Rhu
resort is named after the resilient casuarina trees which guard the
delightful cove and provide a backdrop for 2.5km of perfect white sand
beach. The resort’s design incorporates feng shui principles, using
plentiful water gardens and fish ponds, and guests are seldom far from the
gentle babbling of an ornamental fountain. The resort’s staff have a
genuine friendliness and seem to go out of their way to greet guests.
Although most visitors to Langkawi are inevitably
drawn to the many fine beaches, privacy can virtually be assured. Should
the Tanjung Rhu beach fail to provide enough seclusion, you can choose to
spend a day on the sands of your own private island. Back at the resort
you can enjoy a private night-time beach barbecue comprising an
almost-endless stream of courses.
When you finally finish your barbecue, you may want to
walk off a little of the excess with a gentle stroll along the sand. One
of the resort’s managers is a keen stargazer and sets up a telescope on
the beach for the benefit of guests. It was here that I caught the first
sight with my own eyes of Saturn’s spectacular rings.
The mysterious allure that Langkawi conjures is
heightened by the fact the Straits of Melaka are amongst the most pirated
waters in the world. Night-time fishing trips beneath the clear, starry
sky are popular but discouraged. On my last evening, having enjoyed a
final sunset cruise around the nearby islands with my guide, our boat
arrived once more at the mouth of the Kilim River where we anchored for
Just as we were doing full justice to the dessert, my
guide abruptly stopped still and gazed with evident concern at a dark
shadow in the water approaching us from astern. Was this to be a thrilling
encounter with pirates? On this occasion, the shadow turned out to be no
more than a lone fisherman returning to harbor. However, no encounter with
pirates was necessary to cap my many magical memories of this brief, but
certain-to-be-repeated, visit to this enchanting wonderland.
For more information on Tanjung Rhu Resort, telephone 604
959 1033, fax 604 959 1899, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.tanjungrhu.com.my.
The hot, dry season from November to April is the best time to visit
is a freelance travel and lifestyles writer based in London. Born in Hong
Kong, his family moved to London when he was three. After graduating from
Cambridge University with a degree in physics, Martin worked initially in
high level positions in
financial services and capital markets. Martin has published a
number of books and articles and his topics frequent include his parchment for
hideaways destinations, adventure trips, and sports travel. (More
about this author).