Dear readers and travellers,
Welcome to the fourth and final instalment of our Malaysian adventure, about the last place that we visited, the island of Langkawi (Pulau Langkawi in Malay). This was our chance for some relaxation on the beach after all the travelling we had done, and we also decided to indulge a little more on our accommodation.
Our accomodation was the Nadias Hotel Cenang, just in front of Pantai Cenang beach and it was an absolute treat. The room was big and comfortable, everything was clean, and the food was extremely nice, with an abundant buffet for breakfast. It is not just that they had endless dishes of noodles for breakfast, it is that they really cater for everyone and I was appalled by how complicated people can be even in this situation. I am not talking about allergies or dietary requirements in general, that is justified; I am talking about grown-ups wanting everything exactly as mum would cook it! For instance, there was a person cooking eggs on demand and to taste and nothing was good enough for some people. Sometimes we forget that people are not our servants or our moms just because we are on holidays and we are paying, and that they cannot cook exactly as our granny used to for us when we were kids!
Langkawi is the northernmost Malay island on the west coast, which makes it a popular destination for those travelling from the nearby Thai islands in the north. Part of an archipelago of 104 islands which bears the same name, Langkawi is the biggest of these islands and one of only two that are inhabited.
Access to the island is only possible by sea or by air, with ferry services from Penang and Thailand arriving at the ferry terminal in Kuah (the biggest town on Langkawi Island) and flights from all over the region arriving at the international airport near Pantai Cenang. There are no public transport services on the island, so once there your only choices are to take taxis or to hire a vehicle if you want to get around the island. We used taxis to take us from the ferry terminal on arrival and to the airport when we left, and we found them cheap and easy to find. The main taxi rank in town had a price list displayed, so it’s easy to find out how much the fare should be to eliminate any fears of being scammed.
There are a number of great beaches on the island, we stayed near Pantai Cenang (Cenang Beach), while the interior of the island is mostly covered in forest. The northern coast of the island is also famous for its mangroves, which can be seen on guided boat tours. One of the most popular attractions on the island is the Langkawi Cable Car and Skybridge. Located in the northwest corner of the island, these give the opportunity to see the island and its natural features from above. We didn’t have time to visit, but we heard from other travellers that it is often closed due to strong winds or poor visibility so it requires a bit of patience or luck to catch it on a good day!
Kuah is the biggest town and capital of Langkawi, and also where we disembarked from the ferry from Penang. This wasn’t where we would be staying however, and after a fifteen minute taxi ride we arrived at Pantai Cenang. This is possibly the tourist capital of Langkawi, and consists almost purely of hotels, restaurants, and gift shops, all lining the main (and almost only) street. This runs directly behind, and perpendicular to, the beach, which is a long stretch of soft white sand. The beach is the reason behind the town’s name, which translates from Malay as Cenang Beach. This may bring thoughts of places like Benidorm or Surfers Paradise to mind, but happily Pantai Cenang has taken measures to avoid the transformation into an overcrowded high-rise tourist trap. Planning laws have been passed which ban any developments that would be higher than a coconut tree, and as a result hotels have had to expand outwards rather than upwards. It also preserves the view from the beach and the traditional feel of the town.
There is no avoiding that this is a place built for tourists however, something which is not helped by Langkawi’s duty-free status. There are large duty-free shops all along the street which are all very similar to those you would find at the airport, although the alcohol and tobacco areas are much more hidden and discrete. You will also find all the western brands you can think of here, from fast-food chains to clothes retailers and everything in between. These are all interspersed by gift shops which all seem to be selling the exact same things (mostly clothes and accessories), although there are some unique shops with local crafts hidden amongst them. Finally, the last few remaining plots are taken up by local restaurants, and every cuisine from all around the world seems to be catered for.
As I said before, despite all the tourist businesses here, it does still retain a traditional feel to the town and it is still very easy to eat local foods and to find local products. We found it very enjoyable to stroll up and down the street after dark and to try as much of the food that was available from the stalls (most of which only appeared after 6pm), as well as to see what else was on offer. It was here that we discovered the joys of deep-fried ice cream and Pandan leaf curries, both of which are compelling reasons to go back!
Our favourite place to eat was D’Khas Café, a place open 24 hours according to the big sign outside (Google doesn’t agree but we didn’t check personally if that were true). They serve an interesting mix of oriental food and had a very relaxed staff. We have eaten there at least three times and the best way to describe the place is with a picture of their wall.
Langkawi is also pretty famous for its seafood restaurants and you can see plenty of places with their aquarium at the entrance to show you their availability. Partly because of my origin and partly because of our favourite dishes, we skipped these places and stayed loyal to noodles and satay, but your hotel staff and your tour guides will definitely suggest the best seafood restaurants if you fancy that. One thing that we had a few times there and nowhere else in Malaysia is ice cream. Fried ice cream (aiskrim goreng), as Mr Wander said, is very popular, with a few stalls serving it, but you also have a very nice ice cream place near the beach, Gelato Cabana, definitely good quality, creamy gelato. As we were in Langkawi for Mr Wander’s birthday, we also had a slice of cake from Leena Bakery. We passed in front of this place many times as it was next to D’Khas Café, and we decided to try their desserts: Thumbs up! If you want to know more about Malaysian food, our supplementary page is available here.
Our main reason for coming to Langkawi, and for staying at Pantai Cenang, was to go to the beach. With all this tourist activity going on, I had some concerns that the beach was going to be similar to the one we went to in Egypt and that we wouldn’t get a moment’s peace without someone trying to sell us something. Walking on the beach we were confronted with signs advertising watersports and other activities, and the jetskis and inflatable boats all along the beach seemed to confirm my fears. I needn’t have worries though, as this was the end of the sales pitch and at no point did anyone come over to try and sell us anything. We were able to relax and enjoy the beach and the water to our heart’s content, and we did just that. The sand was very soft and reasonably clean, while the water was warm and certainly the cleanest we saw in Malaysia.
One of our favourite activities on the beach was to watch the tiny crabs busy at work both in the morning (video here) and at night (video here). You have quite a few restaurants on the beach but you can easily enjoy a mix from the food stalls that start opening around 8 p.m. and have it on the beach while watching the sunset. Most of the places on the beach have a nice view but also a puzzling mix of western fast food that seems a shame to eat instead of the amazing local cuisine.
The only thing that did concern me was the number of boats and jetskis that were whizzing around on the water, coupled with the lack of lifeguards or segregation from swimmers. We didn’t witness any incidents however so I was probably worrying for nothing! There wasn’t too much else to do here, so it was the perfect place to relax and revitalise ourselves after all the travelling we had done over the last two weeks.
Of all the things that impacted me in these few days, probably the two main ones are those related to the trip to the airport before leaving. I had noticed a few times that the cows had all their companion cattle egret by their side (see them here). One actually had it on their head and not having my phone ready to immortalise that in a picture to show you is another big regret of this trip. I don’t know you, but this symbiotic relationship always fascinated me since when, as a little kid at school, I learnt about it. I had never seen these two animals together and I don’t think I had ever seen water buffaloes either. Well, the reason why I love this pair has probably to do with language, what a surprise. In Italian, the name for the cattle egret is airone guardabuoi, which literally is look-after-cows egret or, as I usually translate it, cows’ caretaker egret. I just find it incredibly poetic, that’s all. Well, here comes the other impacting thing: I was looking out of the car window to get a better picture of this strange couple, and I saw a dead buffalo in the middle of a field, not abandoned there, it looked as if it had just happened, it was lying there, the legs up in the air. I got hit all of a sudden by the fact that in most fields there was only one animal, probably all that the families could afford, and I felt sad for this family. I know, it is a sad note, but sometimes we forget about the actual reality of the countries we visit as we only see the tourist side.
Not wanting to spoil your enjoyment of this post any longer, I will also say that we were lucky enough to many cute animals much more alive and jumping about. This last part of the trip included Mr Wander’s birthday and he chose a few tours as presents. We booked them both with Dev’s Adventure Tours and we highly recommend them. Their tours offer some of the main things we like: Respect for the environment and immersion in nature. Our first choices were the Jungle Trek Evening Walk and the Sea Safari, but the second one is only offered with a minimum of bookings and we had to change it for the Mangrove Boat Trip.
Evening Jungle Trek
The Jungle Trek is nice and relaxed enough, you get picked up at your hotel and the tour lasts approximately 3 h starting at 5 p.m. at the Berjaya Langkawi resort, and starts with a two-hour trek through the forest behind. Similar to the treks we had done in Penang and the Cameron Highlands, there wasn’t a distinct path so our guide was most definitely appreciated! We walked up through the trees, with our guide stopping regularly to point out different species of plants and animals. Before the trek had even started we managed to spot a Dusky-eyed Leaf Monkey, along with our usual entourage of macaques.
We learnt a lot about the environment and the species of trees and animals, and we also saw a spiky tree that is still used for corporal punishment in Malaysia. But the most interesting thing of all (and I remind you that I had fluffy squirrels flying above my head) was to learn about the Bintangor Tree and its importance in trying to find a cure for HIV.
The last section of the trek was completed in ever-decreasing light levels as dusk started becoming night. Once back at the resort, we now spent another hour looking for the nocturnal inhabitants of the area and our reason for booking the evening tour.
In the tour description you are not guaranteed to see all the local animal stars but we were lucky enough to see them all: The colugo (also known as flying lemur despite the fact that it is neither a lemur nor flies), the red giant flying squirrel and the pygmy flying squirrel. Now, I’d love to show you photos, but my choice was between seeing them and trying to get a picture and missing them, so I have to admit I am not sorry I didn’t get any shots!
It was such a wonderful sight to see them leap from branches and spread their legs to open the skin between them that allows them to glide, and it was very surprising to see the speeds and distances that they are able to glide for. Unfortunately it was too dark to be able to capture any photos or video footage, but it was so fantastic to see that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Along with the squirrels and lemurs, we also saw a few other creatures of the night. A few geckos were spotted clinging to the outsides of the chalets, and bats could also be heard flying above our heads. This tour was an incredible insight into the flora and fauna of Langkawi, and an excellent chance to see two different environments at once. Trekking through the jungle really did feel like true exploring, and the accompanying commentary was very informative and entertaining. To then be able to see nocturnal life for animals on the island was a real privilege, something which we certainly couldn’t have done without the help of our guide. I would recommend this tour to absolutely everyone that goes to Langkawi, and this alone was enough to make this a very special birthday present.
Mangrove Boat Tour
The Mangrove Boat Trip is a longer trip and a more relaxed one in some ways. The tour starts at 9:30 a.m. and finishes around 3 p.m. and includes a few stops. From your hotel you are transferred to Kilim Geoforest Park. Langkawi Island is all protected as UNESCO Geopark and Kilim Karst Geoforest Park is one of the three geoforest parks associated with the Langkawi Geopark. From there, you walk to where your boat is and start your tour.
The boat was a similar style to the one we had taken to Monkey Beach in Penang (read more here), just slightly larger to accommodate more people. Again it was an exhilarating ride, which was made all the more exciting by the narrower passageways through the mangroves. We stopped a few times along the way to witness some of the natural features and wildlife of the area.
The first one is the Bats’ Cave, Gua Kelawar in Malay, where your tour guide will take you around and will explain a bit about the wildlife: The macaques, the mudskippers, and the crabs outside and the different kinds of bats inside.
You will also learn more about stalactites, stalagmites, and more rock formations, but if you read about the Batu Caves in our post about Kuala Lumpur you know enough already. If you haven’t, here is the link. Some of the stalactites have interesting shapes, such a frog or a snake, and you can also see a beautiful column formed by a stalactite and stalagmite joined together.
Outside the cave, you see the mangroves at their best at low tide with all the roots on sight, but you can also see the living fossil, a plant called cycad that exists since before the dinosaurs. After this stop, you get on the boat again to cruise along the river and see more wildlife, especially the monitor lizards which apparently, thanks to my growing up in a Campidanese house with massive garden, I am scaringly good at spotting! We also saw a few snakes that we are not sure to this day whether they were real or not as they never moved during the 10 minutes we were there, with our guides under the branches they were on.
This tours also takes you to see the eagles but doesn’t feed them, a main point for us when we booked. Now, this is a controversial point. For a long time, tour guides used to feed the eagles to attract them and, consequently, attract tourists. When this practice was deemed not environmentally friendly and the feeding stopped, it had gone on for too long and the birds were not able to hunt anymore because they hadn’t done it for generations and the mothers couldn’t teach the young ones. The birds started starving and now there is a set amount of food they can be provided. It is beautiful to see them, but our obsession with having this kind of experiences is nonsensical, what is the point if it is not natural at all anymore? By forcing animals, we are not enjoying them in their natural environment or learning how they live, we are just abusing them! Please always look up your tour companies and support those that respect the environment. The two species we saw are the white-bellied sea eagle and the brahminy kite, and this second one is said to give the name to the archipelago, as lang is a contraction of the word eagle in Malay and kawi is the reddish colour of the animal’s feathers.
After this we took the boat out onto the open sea in search of a secluded beach, which happily we found. Seeing the fishing boats at work with a few Thai islands in the background was a wonderful sight, especially as the water was so calm and clear. The beach was not too big, but thanks to its location it was not busy at all with just a few people there from another tour. The sand had a rich yellow hue and it was very soft and clean, and it’s the first time I would have described the water in Malaysia as inviting. It was so calm, clear, and warm that it was impossible not to go for a swim. As always our macaque friends were on hand to remind us not to leave our belongings unattended for too long, and our boat only stopped for about half an hour, but I would have happily stayed there all day.
The final stop after a thrilling ride back into the mangroves was a floating restaurant and fish farm. We came around a corner to find a whole floating village, with a number of restaurants and what I assume were houses for the people that worked here. We stopped at the Hole in the Wall for a traditional meal which, due to their proximity, had a definite Thai influence to it. We enjoyed our first tom yum soup followed by fried rice (nasi goreng) with choice of fish or chicken. The meal was very tasty although having the floor moving underneath was a little unnerving! Afterwards we were given the opportunity to have a look around the adjoining fish farm. This is something I could quite happily have missed, as seeing the fish swimming in circles and thrashing around in small enclosures was a bit depressing and not the best way to finish the tour. But it wasn’t quite the end and we still had another wonderful ride with incredible scenery back to the jetty. Again this is a tour I would highly recommend, and all thoughts of having missed out on the sea safari tour were strictly behind us.
As the two tours are quite different, the dressing code also is: Long trousers and T-shirt, possibly white, with comfortable hiking shoes for the jungle trek; swimming suit under shorts and T-shirt, hat or cap, and flip flops for the boat tour. In both cases, plenty of insect repellent, and sunscreen and a towel for the boat tour. You always receive bottled water included and a nice tip is to spray insect repellent on your shoes so termites don’t attack you. We are planning a post about what to bring on holidays and what to wear, so we will write more about that soon.
I think there is not much more to say about this trip apart from thanking our two guides, Jerome and Ciro (I hope I am spelling the names correctly, I apologise if I am not!). I definitely have a soft spot for Langkawi.
Well that’s about all we got up to on Langkawi, but there is still lots of other activities and sights that we didn’t have the chance to see or do. This also brings us to the end of our Malaysian adventure, as after this we took a flight back to Kuala Lumpur for one last day before catching our return flight to London. It really was an incredible trip with so many wonderful memories, and discoveries that we have brought back with us (such as our new-found love for fried noodles!). The contrasts of this country are what makes it so special, from changes in the landscape and nature to the varying mixes of cultures that are subtly yet noticeably different wherever you go. We are certainly not finished with Malaysia though, as there is so much more to explore and discover there. I cannot wait to go back to see the east coast of the peninsula (I’ve heard and seen great things of the Perhentian Islands) and a trip around Borneo is another on the wish-list. And now we know how friendly and welcoming the locals are, and how much we enjoy their culture and traditions, our appetite for more couldn’t be stronger!
I love Malaysia and I am a bit sad about the contrasts I have seen, mainly related to environment and economy, and these contrasts were even more evident and impacting in Langkawi, but maybe also for that I have fell in love with this place so much.
So all there is to say is thank you for following us around this fantastic country. We may have finished writing about our experiences, but we’ll be back soon with some handy tips for itineraries and budgeting.
Happy travels and stay tuned,
Mr Wander & Ms Lust