Like precious jade surrounded by a sapphire sea, the verdant mountain ranges and pearl white sand beaches of Langkawi were treasures once claimed by pillaging pirates. An archipelago consisting of 99 islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia in the southern Andaman Sea, many of the smaller isles have retained the untamed landscape that once appealed to buccaneers. However, the 45,000 residents of the largest island, Palau Langkawi, harnessed the land’s natural resources and today this romantic 188-square-mile island is a quiet tourism capital that competes with the much larger Penang for visitors.
Enjoying balmy breezes and an annual average temperature ranging from 77 to 90 degrees, many couples are blissfully unaware that this serene strip of land was once the captive of a curse. According to legend, in the 18th century a maiden named Mahsuri was falsely accused of adultery and put to death. Before her sentence was carried out, the condemned woman vowed that the island would suffer bad luck for seven generations, a dire prophecy which seemed to hang over Langkawi until the 1980s, with the birth of Masuri’s seventh generation descendant Ironically, today Mahsuri’s final resting place attracts visitors from around the globe, contributing to Langkawi’s transition from that of a remote fishing island to that of a top tourist destination.
Although Masuri’s descendants may have finally brought good fortune to the island, the 1986 decision to make Langkawi a duty-free zone didn’t hurt either. The change, made for the intention of attracting tourism to the island, brought not only shops but an improved airport and increased ferry connections from the mainland. The island that was once considered “Malaysia’s best-kept secret” soon boasted duty-free malls and five-star resorts with international branding.
Like the rest of Malaysia, the land’s official language is Malay or Bahasa Malaysia, but visitors will likely hear Chinese, Thai, Tamil, Punjabi or Telegu along the way—a indication of the diversity of cultures on this island which harks back to its long history. Although there are few indications of its founding, a record by the Chinese Liang Dynasty record made about 500 AD mentions the kingdom of Langgasu founded in the first century. Eventually the island moved into the protection of the Sultanate of Kedah. In 1821, the state of Kedah including Langkawi were overtaken by Siam. Nearly a century later, the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 transferred the region to British rule where it remained until World War II when the Thai government, then under Japanese rule, took over briefly. Following more years of British rule, independence of what is now Malaysia was granted in 1957.
The district capital of the island group is the community of Kuah, the location of the ferry landings for arrivals from the mainland. The town is also notable for another reason: it is the home of a giant eagle monument whose outstretched wings greet visitors at Dataran Helang or Eagle Square. The bird is a symbol of Langkawi, a word whose roots mean Eagle Island. The tie is more than in name only; the eagle is a familiar sight over Langkawi’s sky. Nature lovers can glimpse the majestic birds during an eagle feeding tour at Kilim Nature Park.
The natural attractions of Langkawi, from its bird-filled parks to its rainforests and beaches, helped the island achieve World Geopark status in 2007. Awarded by UNESCO, the status highlights not only the natural beauty of a region but also its sustainable socio-economic development. UNESCO particularly pointed out the island’s Mount Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park, Kilim Geoforest Park and Pulau Tasik Dayang Bunting (Island of the Pregnant Maiden Lake) in its declaration. The importance of sustainability in the island’s development has been a long-term project. In 1989, the Langkawi Declaration on the Environment was issued here by the assembled Heads of Government of the Commonwealth of Nations. Addressing environmental sustainability the declaration was issued during the tenth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Four Seasons Langkawi, Malaysia
Located on Tanjung Rhu Beach, this elegant resort offers 91 guest units and villas overlooking the Andaman Sea. All guest rooms, distinctive for their rich tropical woods, open verandahs, high ceilings and marble baths, are decorated with Malay touches. Room amenities include either wired or wireless Internet connections, satellite television, multi-line phones, and DVD players. Some guest rooms and villas offer outdoor showers and soaking tubs. The resort is home to an extensive spa with signature treatments such as the synchronized massage and the foot reflex massage. Other facilities include a family pool and a quiet pool, a tennis court and pro, and a fitness facility overlooking the Langkawi jungle. Jalan Tanjung Rhu, tel 604 950 8888, www.fourseasons.com/langkawi/ $$$$
Tanjung Rhu Resort
Far from the hustle and bustle of Kuah town, yet still only a half-hour drive to Langkawi International Airport, the Tanjung Rhu resort combines elegance and an easy going spirit. The 136 spacious guest rooms feature Asian touches ranging from Thai silk draperies to furnishings upholstered with Indian cotton. The guest rooms, each with wooden floors and expansive windows, feature broadband internet for business travelers, and windsurfing, scuba diving, tennis courts and golf for the sports enthusiast. Guests can explore the eco-friendly surroundings on a two-hour boat ride through the mangrove jungle or hop aboard a catamaran, hydrobike or sea kayak. The resort’s JivaRhu Spa features treatments from the Malay archipelago: Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Kedah Darul Aman, tel 604 959 1033, www.tanjungrhu.com.my $$$$
The Westin Langkawi Resort and Spa
Situated on a white sand beach that stretches along the Andaman Sea, this retreat is a paradise for the traveling sports enthusiast. While the ocean offers sunset cruises, scuba diving, kayaking and hours of leisurely bottom fishing like a local, visitors can also relax in the waters of the resort’s infinity pool. Land pursuits are equally enticing, with the resort offering two floodlit tennis courts and two squash courts. The resort’s Heavenly Spa by Westin ™is located on the beachfront; its pure white décor contrasts with dark woods and verdant palms throughout the spa. The spa includes a Turkish hammam and Ayurvedic Treatment Room and offers treatments such as the Malay traditional massage. Accommodations here range from 202 guest rooms and suites to 20 villas. The rooms are distinctive for their teak touches and soothing cream and tan décor; all include high-speed internet access, plasma TV, DVD and surround sound, and a private patio or balcony. Jalan Pantai Dato Syed Omar, tel (60) (4) 9608888, fax (60) (4) 9666414, starwoodhotels.com $$$$
Raised on a diet of legends which includes that of the Guning Macinchang and Gunung Raya mountains and the towns over which they lord, which were believe to have been formed as the result of a food fight, it should come as no surprise to visitors that cuisine takes a prized place in the hearts of Langkawi inhabitants. Many restaurant menus will display a multi-ethnic mélange of tastes, from Indian-influenced Putu mayam to Chinese Bakkwa and Malaysian Keropok lekor, all served with side orders of the island’s trademark rice, harvested from local paddy fields.
Hole in the Wall Restaurant and Fish Farm
Located off the beaten path, a free seven-minute jetty ride ferries patrons into the Kilim Mangrove Forest to a floating restaurant which serves up the catch of the day– red snapper, grouper and sea bass which can be reeled in from submerged cages by the diners themselves. Part dining experience, part tourist attraction, the restaurant, which is open for both lunch and dinner, also offers a taste of adventure with half-day tours of the Mangrove swamp which includes stops to feed the eagles, explore the bat caves and visit Dangli Island. Golden Eagle Leisure Sdn. Bhd., No 75A, Jalan Pandak Mayah 7, tel 604 967 5301, www.holeinthewall.com.my $$$
Conveniently located close to such top hotels as The Datai, Mutiara Burau Bay Beach resort and the Tanjung Sanctuary Hotel resort, this eatery offers its patrons (which has included the Sultan of Kedah) a Mediterranean-inspired menu featuring such Italian classics as pasta, pizza and spaghetti garnished with extra virgin olive oil, garlic and chili or black cod and pan roasted salmon fresh from local waters. Relaxing on the red brick patio, customers can sip a cocktail or “mocktail” and watch as yachtsmen moor their sailing vessels at Perdana Quay. Perdana Quay, Telaga Harbour Park, tel 604 959 3830 $$$$
Spice Trader Restaurant
As chefs prepare an authentic Asian meal in the presence of patrons, Malaysian musicians provide food for the soul with a traditional cultural performance. The steady beat of a geduk (a double-headed drum) blends with the music of curious songbirds perched on branches just outside the treehouse restaurant, which offers the choice of outdoor seating for nature lovers. Spice Trader is just one of five dining establishments found at the Sheraton Langkawi Beach Resort. Sheraton Langkawi Beach Resort, Teluk Nibong, tel 604 9551901 $$$
Like the Brahminy Kite and White Belly Sea Eagles that soar overhead, travelers can get a bird’s eye view of the island as cable cars ascend Mat Cincang Mountain. Starting at the Oriental Village, a duty-free mall, the gondolas glide past Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) waterfall on its way to the middle station, where passengers can step off and take in the view from 650 meters above sea level, or continue the ride up to the top station to see southern Thailand in the distance.
Birding is an increasingly popular pastime in Langkawi. Peering through binoculars, visitors may catch the kaleidoscopic flutter of a blue-winged pitta’s plumage as it takes flight or the yellow bill of a female great hornbill momentarily emerging from the small opening of its enclosed mud nest as she waits for her eggs to hatch– just two of the 221 species of birds which may be spotted during a half-day ornithological expedition offered by Dev’s Adventure Tours (tel 6019 494 9193, www.langkawi-nature.com). Travelers with limited time can trek through the foliage as the residents of the rainforest awaken during a one-hour sunrise tour or as its nocturnal inhabitants begin to stir during a sunset walk. Another top birding site is the Langkawi Mangroves, one of Southeast Asia’s largest mangrove forests. Accessible by jetty 15 minutes from Kuah Town, the highlight of a visit to this site is the feeding of wild eagles.
Other popular natural attractions on the island include the 14-tier Durian Perangin waterfall in Raya Mountain Nature Park, and the island’s many accessible caves such as Gua Kelawar. Beaches are a top draw including the anomalous black sand beach at Bohor and the rainforest-fringed beach at Datai Bay. One of the most photographed beaches is Tanjung Rhu, nicknamed Casuarina Beach for its wispy casuarinas trees. During low tide, this beach is a short walk across shallow waters and sandbanks to the tiny islands of Pulau Pasir and Pulau Gasing.
For a history-filled stop, the tomb of Mahsuri, the woman at the center of the famous Langkawi legend, is an easy stop about two miles from Kuah. No stone marked the tomb until a military officer named Abdul Rahman deemed that the site needed a marker. Rahman eventually went on to become the first prime minister of Malaysia following independence. Today the compound also includes an example of a traditional Langkawi house.
Adventurers can explore the foothills of the Machincang Mountain Range atop an Asian elephant who might be a familiar face to movie buffs, having appeared with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat in the remake of Anna and the King. Offered by Langkawi Elephant Adventures (located at Oriental Village, tel 6012 512 9200, www.gajah.org), 10-minute rides take travelers into a forested area, while another 20-minute ride takes passengers across the Seven Wells River. Fans of the movie may be able to get a taxi ride past the Summer Palace, a movie set built for the movie. Located near the Oriental Village, the wooden structure is presently closed to the public.
Visitors get an up-close look at sea-faring citizens at nearby Underwater World Langkawi (Zon Pantai Cenang, Mukim Kedawang, tel 604 955 6100, www.underwaterworldlangkawi.com.my), one of Southeast Asia’s largest aquatic attractions since its opening in 1995. Situated on 6.2 acres, the aquarium is home to over 4,000 varieties of fish and sea-dwelling animals from around the world. Here visitors can walk through a tunnel surrounded by half a million liters of seawater inhabited by aquatic residents including the Green Sea Turtle. The newest building at the park houses the rainforest, temperate and sub-Antarctic ecosystems displays including a “penguinarium” with an underwater tunnel for viewing the swimming penguins.
Underwater World Langkawi also houses one of Langkawi’s most popular duty-free shopping centers, the Zone Shopping Paradise. The shopping mall is especially known for its pewter, handicraft, batik, and crystal glassware. Other top duty-free spots in Langkawi include the Jetty Point Duty Free Complex, the Langkawi Fair Shopping Complex and the popular night market, held in Kuah every Saturday and Wednesday night.
Photos courtesy Tourism Malaysia