Langkawi is an island off the coast of Malaysia and within spitting distance of Thailand. It’s also an imperfect paradise.
Billed by Lonely Planet as “idyllic rural Malaysia” I was skeptical – anything hyped in Lonely Planet usually means it’s overrun with backpackers and holidaymakers right? The Starbucks at the airport didn’t do much to dispel my fears…
It’s true, Langkawi is no longer the remote Southeast Asian island of twenty of thirty years ago. Luxury resorts litter its lush rainforest covered hills, filled with honeymooners and luxury holidaymakers, and there are only plans to build more. Many Asian tourists flock to Langkawi to take advantage of its duty free tax status – it’s been that way since 1987. The island’s main tourist hubs are Kampung Lubok Buaya (a short drive from the airport) or the ferry terminal of Kedah. In Kampung Lubok Buaya you’ll find Pantai Cenang Beach, a beautiful sandy stretch lined with cheap bars and shallow cool waters – perfect for cooling off when the weather in Langkawi tips 30°C between February and April.
Step back from the beach and you’ll run straight in to another Starbucks, a 24hr McDonald’s, a duty free shopping centre and an aquarium. Not exactly my idea of rural or idyllic.
Aside from five star luxury, there are a few options for places to stay if you’re travelling on a budget. Most of them you’ll find are in the main towns, like Kampung Lubok Buaya and Kedah. I chose Zackry’s Guesthouse, which has great reviews and Zackry’s wife is a lovely woman who will help you out with almost anything, from laundry to recommending the best seafood restaurants. It’s worth noting that they have a two day minimum booking policy in case you’re planning to fly through, although it’s a great place to base yourself if you really do want to get off the beaten track. You’ll need a scooter mind, and a keen sense of direction as the locals aren’t big on road signs or maps. Venture to the north of the island, where you’ll see caves and waterfalls, as well as pretty unspoiled rainforest. Watch out for the monkeys though, they can sniff out snacks a mile off and won’t be shy about ripping off your arm to get them!
We spent a lovely afternoon at Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls, otherwise known as the Seven Wells. It’s like a natural water park, nestled in the jungle, with the perfect slides carved out of the mountain side for you to shoot between pools, coming within a whisker of dropping over the edge of the falls before diving in to a plunge pool at the very last minute. It’s not far from Oriental Village (about as ‘Oriental’ as a Pot Noodle) and the SkyCab. This is a cable car that takes you up the mountain to the top, where you’ll find the Skywalk, a terrific viewing platform for breathtaking panoramas across Langkawi. Unfortunately, the walk was closed for renovations when we went and the weather was overcast. Still, the cable car ride up the with a girl deathly afraid of heights was fun!
Si the main island hadn’t inspired me so far. But the islands around this Malaysian archipelago (there are 99 of them) are where you can still find some of that rural charm LP was talking about. Although we had to do it by organised tour (there was little to no option to go independently when I last visited in 2014) I’d recommend taking a boat out to the islands that surround Langkawi. A day’s island hopping should take in about four or five stops, including Pregnant Maiden Island, named after a woman who drowned herself in the lake here and whose unborn child is meant to haunt its ice cold waters – the place is far cheerier than its namesake I promise!
The weather wasn’t great most of the time I was in Langkawi (early December, which is meant to be a good time of year but I guess we just got unlucky) so I didn’t feel too guilty about sleeping in after some big nights out with the guys from Zackry’s. Most evenings we’re spent drinking Skol beers, dining on £1 nasi campur (mixed rice) wrapped in banana leaves and partying in One Love and/or Sunba. This usually meant that none of us would emerge before midday. What with this routine and the weather being so rubbish, we even spent an afternoon at the bowling alley down at the other tourist hub, Kedah.
Langkawi is not a place jam-packed with must see attractions. It’s about the beaches, the people and the bars, with a healthy dose of waterfall daredevil antics thrown in to the mix. Forget any travel itinerary, leave the Lonely Planet behind and go if you want to laze the days away. Just don’t expect an authentic slice of paradise to land on your plate.