Until recently locals on the Malaysian Island of Langkawi believed that their home was cursed. According to legent, in the early 19th century a beautiful woman named Mahsuri was wrongfully accused of adultery. During her execution, blood ran white from her wounds, revealing her innocence, and in her dying breath Mahsuri declared that bad fortune would befall Langkawi for seven generations.
If Langkawi’s history of failed crops and Siamese invasions are signs that there may have been something to this legend, the island – and its wider archipelago with the same name – is certainly not without its blessing. Located just south of the border with Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Langkawi offers turquoise waters, stretches of white sand beaches, pristine rainforests and dramatic, cloud scraping mountains. In 2007, it was awarded the status of UNESCO Geopark for its rich geological heritage.
Yes, in terms of tourist arrivals, Langkawi still trails other established regional tourist spots. Last year, the island welcomed 2.4 million visitors, a figure that has remained unchanged since 2007, and is a far cry from Bali’s 4.1 million or Phuket’s 7.5 million in 2011. One reason could be is location. Langkawi is separated from Peninsular Malaysia and remains relatively isolated from major air routes. You can only fly there via Singapore or Kuala Lampur. Another reason, which many locals believe to be true as fervently as they subscribe to Mahsuri’s curse, is that Langkawi’s branding needs some polishing. For example, a recent marketing campaign focusing on its UNESCO Geopark status proved to be a flop, with one local saying that that it made Langkawi sound “like a bunch of rocks.”
Still, the fact that Langkawi, with a sparse population of 90,000, is emptier than other popular destinations in Southeast Asia has actually helped to attract discerning travelers. With relatively unoccupied beaches, unspoiled greenery and a lack of nightlife, this destination provides a quieter, more contemplative sort of island holiday experience. It also helps that resorts such as the Alhambra inspired Four Seasons Resort and the Datai, part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, are here to offer generous luxury, along with well thought out activities that highlight Langkawi’s natural landscape.
At the start of the mangrove tour, AIDI ABDULLAH, a naturalist with the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi, tells me to “See everything here with nature eyes,” not “city eyes.” Look hard, and look well.” At that very moment, an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin surfaces for air in front of our boat. “I see it, I see it!” I screech, a little too excitedly. Abdullah reports that he has already spotted four dolphins, and possibly a porpoise as well.
For this affable naturalist, Langkawi’s rich eco-system is not just a tourist attraction, but also the perfect classroom of life. It’s a far cry from his management days in Kuala Lampur, which he as “totally burnt out with all kinds of health problems.” Within a year of moving to Langkawi, he says most of his ailments disappeared. “Every day, in the course of my work, I see how flora and fauna fight and adapt to survive, and this has shown me that hope is everywhere.”
As we meander through the dense mangrove wilderness of Kilim River on a multi-purpose boat. Abdullah provides a mixture of entertaining commentary and philosophical lessons. He points out two mudskippers “slugging it out,” as he calls it. “Lots of action, but not much substance. Like drunk men in a brawl.” Seconds later, a blue fiddler crab waves at a female with his big claw. “He’s going, “Hey baby, check me out!” Abdullah says. “I tell you, what we think of as human nature is actually found in all of nature.”
Environmental education aside, there’s also something irresistible about appreciating nature in the most indulgent of settings. Within the Four Seasons 20 hectare compound, I am treated to a view of lush green islets, jagged limestone and the glistening Andaman Sea. In the evening, I enjoy a brilliant red sunset while sipping mojitos on a cushioned swing at Rhu Bar, on Tanjong Rhu Beach.
This juxtaposition of luxury and nature continues later at the Datai, which opened in 1993 as Langkawi’s first luxury hideaway resort. Nestled in a valley in the northwest of the island, its wooden architecture integrates with its surroundings, offering guests access to both a rainforest and Datai Bay beach. Kerry Hill, the acclaimed hotel architect who built The Datai, took great pains to ensure minimal environmental disruption and used elephants instead of bulldozers to cause less damage to the forest.
Indeed, nature truly thrives at The Datai. Outside my room, a group of dusky leaf monkeys are perched on treetops, gnawing on leaves. Swallows flutter across the pool to take dainty sips of water during my morning laps. The open air spa villa looks out to a winding stream. During a hot stone massage, I am lulled by the sounds of trickling water, crooning cicadas and rustling leaves.
“I am all for this kind of tourism for Langkawi where people get to reconnect with nature in a non threatening way,” says Irshad Mobarak, a local naturalist, on our nature walk the next day. For almost two decades. Mobarak has been leading The Datai guests on morning walks and educating them about the wildlife around the resort.
Mobarak is a gifted storyteller and gives a compelling account of a territorial feud between the white bellied sea eagles and the Brahminy kites that made their nests near the resort entrance. For three years, the kites relentlessly stole food from the eagles, making the mother eagle so stressed that she wasn’t able to lay eggs. Because the eagles had their nest in a taller tree, however, “they won in the end and the kites upped and left,” Mobarak recalls.
Later, while explaining how a bird’s nest fern gets its host tree, he suddenly stops talking and emits a few guttural squawks. We soon hear a few faint mournful hoots coming from the distance in response apparently, distressed hornbills are warning of predatory birds. “Do you really talk to them?” I ask. He laugh. “No, they are just humouring me.”
After the beaches and rainforests, I decide to get better acquainted with Langkawi’s two most famous mountains. Gunung Raya and Gunung Mat Cincang. Legend has it that they are named after two giants who were best friends until the wedding of their children, when the groom had a roving eye and the father-in-law attacked him. The giants threw pots and pans at each other, and a pot of curry fell on a spot where Kuah, the district capital Langkawi, is located today.
Speaking of curry, while climbing up the steps of Gunung Raya. Langkawi’s tallest mountain. I feel a twinge of regret at the huge bowl of chicken curry and roti canai, the Indian flatbread. I had four breakfast. Ashraff Zimmerman, who runs an obstacle course there called Langkawi Canopy Adventures, reassures me. “Its not about being fit,” he says as I huff and puff while also trying to keep my breakfast in. “It’s all about having fun in the forest.”
It takes 4.287 steps to get to the peak of Gunung Raya, but because Langkawi Canopy Adventures is nearer the base of the mountain, we have to climb “only” 716 stairs and crawl through some rocky terrain to get to the obstacle course. Zimmerman’s assistant, Saiful Nizam, demonstrates some of the obstacles. He nimbly cross a rope course over a small gorge, hovers along a zip line above a rainforest canopy and abseils swiftly down a huge rock in about 15 minutes. It is inspiring to watch – all that adrenaline coupled with the dramatic mountainous landscape. I forget about the curry and eagerly put on my safety harness. Then it begins to pour.
The rain is a bit of an anomaly. Langkawi enjoys clear and sunny whether on most days, especially during its dry season from November to March. Zimmerman shrugs his shoulders, and packs up the equipment. “When it rains, it rains,” he says.
Fortunately, the next day it is gloriously sunny when I hop onto the SkyCab, a cable car that carries me from Oriental Village to the top of Ganung Mat Cincang, a 550 million year old peak that is, according to geologists, the first rock formation in Southeast Asia. Seven hundred meteres above sea level, a shimmering 125 metre curved steel suspension bridge provides panoramic views of jungle clad mountain ridges and even islands in Southern Thailand. One of the young staff there, Redha Rashid, can’t help but whisper a soft “wow” under under his breath even as he’s trying to play informative host. “I never get tired of this view. My friends in Kuala Lampur get so jealous when I post work pictures on Facebook. Sure, there’s not much of a nightlife in Langkawi with everything closing by 11, but the scenery here wins hands down.” Rashid says.
“Even before working here, it has always been my place of retreat,” says Briton Alison Fraser, who runs side by side rustic chick boutique resorts Bon Ton and Temple Tree together with Australian Narelle Mcmurtie on the southwest corner of the island. Their two resorts feature eclectic Malaysian village houses that have been transplanted, resorted and refurbished. Fraser and Mcmurtie also provide a sanctuary for 80 stray cats and 120 dogs at the Langkawi Animal Shelter & Sanctuary that they set up 12 years ago. Through the shelter was established as a labour of love, “it has become one of the selling points of our resorts,” says Fraser.
The closest I get to party animals, however, is at nearby Pantai Cenang, a popular stretch of beach with rainbow parasails gliding in the sky, screaming teenagers bobbing about on banana boats and rows of lobster red European Tourists baking in the sun. Occasionally, there’s loud rap music blasting out from a beach bar or two in the afternoon, but by the evening it’s all Beatles tunes.
I am staying at Casa del Mar, a Spanish themed boutique resort along Pantai Cenang that offered a pocket of privacy with beach villas, each with its own courtyard. After a day of acclimatizing to the spike in human traffic. I begin to appreciate this close proximity to the ocean and enjoy strolling up and down the beach and taking in that unmistakable salty, energetic buzz of a popular seaside haunt. I also discover a surprisingly sophisticated restaurant at the end of the beach called The Cliff, which serves contemporary Malay cuisine. The restaurant manager, Ramesh Somu, tells us that he and his friend opened the place last year because they wanted to offer a new dining concept that went beyond the typical Malay, Thai and Western offerings here. Excitedly, he tells us about how the Malaysian government will be investing USD 1.5 billion to develop Langkawi is ready for new things.”
Provided that those improvements are carried out with a forward looking thoughtfulness, Langkawi and its visitors will benefit. Regardless, like its natural inhabitants – including those blue fiddler crabs and Brahminy kites – the island will continue to adapt to change. And for anyone who has experienced firsthand the diversity and character of this Malaysian island, it’s easy to believe that its greatest stories are yet to be told.