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Langkawi - Solace in Wonderland

By Martin Li

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 have eyes.”

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 food.

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 most welcome.

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 dinner.

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.

Travel Facts

For more information on Tanjung Rhu Resort, telephone 604 959 1033, fax 604 959 1899, e-mail resort@tanjungrhu.com.my or visit www.tanjungrhu.com.my. The hot, dry season from November to April is the best time to visit Langkawi.


Martin Li 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).

Martin Li

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