Everyone has wanted a piece of Langkawi ever since it popped out of the ocean half a billion years ago. Roughly the size of Singapore, the small island slipped between the fingers of both the kings of Siam and Funan, as well as a network of pirates, before the British came for the pepper and stayed to rule the island.
Independent Malaysia didn’t do much with the place until 1950, when 25-year-old Mahathir bin Mohamad spent a weekend cycling there to get his mind off the rigours of medical school. After days of pedalling through sleepy villages and spotless beaches, he left smitten. He would eventually return as a government physician and, finally, as the prime minister of Malaysia – a man who literally moved mountains to build a runway on the island.
Tourism grew modestly after that initial move, leaving a wildness Mahathir sought to maintain, even in his retirement. “O Langkawi – may it always be green,” he wrote in a 2010 blog post that celebrated the death of a highway expansion project that would have cost the island too many trees.
His successor’s attitude to the island couldn’t be more different. About a year after a state investment firm flew to Qatar seeking financing for Langkawi resorts and yachts, the current Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak floated the possibility of building a luxury casino that would make Langkawi the “Monaco of the East”.
In the village of Pantai Cenang, authorities have cleared away a thicket of budget hotels and thatched beach bars to make way for a condominium, a mall and a paved “boardwalk” that extends nearly to the water’s edge. After a year of dust and traffic, a one-way coastal road now overlooks an expanse of sand. Similarly, the government has also announced plans to pump in US$20 million to upgrade Langkawi International Airport’s modest parking lot and terminal.
In the meantime, though, sleepy-eyed tourists still stroll from airplane to rental car through a no-fuss building that holds a single baggage belt. On the roads beyond, women in colourful hijabs lay out home-cooked dollar breakfasts on folding tables, while elderly men dig into banana leaf-wrapped rice pyramids topped with spicy sambal. Over milk tea that smacks of roses, they puff on hand-rolled cigarettes. In the early morning, parts of the island feel much as Mahathir must have found it on his first visit.
Indeed, few locals seem worried that Langkawi will lose its myriad natural charms anytime soon. “The beaches are still beautiful and not crowded during high season,” writes TC Gerrard, a long-term resident who has chronicled some of the island’s growing pains in a popular online expat magazine.
“We have had many airport upgrades which have been very positive for the island, but we are still not over-developed, and that’s the charm of Langkawi,” agrees Australian entrepreneur Narelle McMurtie.
Animal-loving McMurtie is the owner of Bon Ton Resort, a boutique oasis hidden in the scrub behind the island’s airport. Here, rescued cats lounge on the jungled walkways that link sarong-wrapped guests from the lap pools to their en suite wooden bathtubs. Beyond the resort’s volunteer-staffed animal hospital, Bon Ton’s kaleidoscopic campus contains an ancient temple tree that serves as the centre for tastefully salvaged traditional homes – everything from a stilted structure relocated from outside Kuala Lumpur to a two-storey house lovingly transported across the Strait of Malacca from Penang. “Bon Ton is still very casual and family-oriented,” McMurtie says.
At dusk, the resort’s guests gather for dinner on the breathtaking edge of a grassy lagoon to pick through pickled pineapple acar, pandan-wrapped prawns and exquisite dry mutton curry served on a banana leaf. Save for the murmur of passing airplanes, nothing stirs except the faint call of wading birds, which spring to life as the light wanes; the water ripples as monitor lizards slither through the mirrored reflection of the sunset.
While nature is right on Bon Ton’s doorstep, the resort also makes a great base from which to explore more of the island’s flora and fauna. In Langkawi’s northeast, at the Durian Perangin Waterfall, the corrugated tin souvenir stalls are as empty as the trees that have already dropped their fruit. As dawn breaks through this lizard-green crag, streaks of light pin-ball between lush fern leaves, hanging vines and prickly palms, before disappearing into a misty natural pool.
From here, the construction boom underway in the ferry port of Kuah feels remote, and it certainly helps to have access to a guide who can better help uncover these natural gems. For a modest fee, Malaysian naturalist Wendy Chin shows up before sunrise dressed for an avian safari: long sleeves, floppy hat and bright smile. Her tour begins among long-horned Malay buffalo grazing on land reclaimed to act as a buffer between the new runway and the sea.
Chin grew up outside Kuala Lumpur and first visited Langkawi on a cruise with her parents. In her early adulthood, she quit a computer programming job and flew to Langkawi to go bird watching. Today, she works as a freelance guide with over a decade of experience exploring the island’s every nook and cranny.
After a hearty breakfast of black pepper roti (flatbread) at a roadside stand, Chin sets course for fallow shrimp farms, jetties and a small creamery. “Langkawi is a series of different habitats, and I want visitors to see each one,” she says as she turns the car onto the winding, misty road up Gunung Raya, the island’s tallest mountain. “I want people to experience the island as a whole.”
Mean-looking macaques and skittish bands of dusky leaf monkeys watch Chin roll to a stop at the base of a strangler fig. Suddenly, an enormous grunt booms out of the jungle as two great hornbills leap into view. Their wings sound like helicopter blades as they cut through the air, lugging huge technicolour beaks on impossibly slender necks. Chin rushes to plant a tripod in the underbrush, setting her spyglass on the blood-red eye of a male perched high in the trees. He opens his wings and vanishes with a whoosh.
At the top of the mountain, Chin parks at an old government guest house, which is now a hotel that has seen better days. On a clear day, you can pay RM10 to ride to the top of an observation tower and look down on thousands of tourists waiting to ascend the island’s second-highest peak in an Austrian gondola.
While Chin acknowledges the need for development, she also prays it won’t disturb the wealth of wildlife on this mountain and on other parts of the island, which remain mercifully untouched.
Over on the far side of the mountain, The Andaman is evidence of how tourism can work in balance with the natural environment. Overlooking the secluded Datai Bay, this luxury resort places particular emphasis on appreciating marine ecology.
After its surrounding coral absorbed the worst of the 2004 tsunami, The Andaman launched a programme to rebuild the damaged reef. “We felt like it saved us,” says Daia Husein, the resort’s marine and coral reef curator. “We felt like we had to give back.” When the tide recedes, guests don rubber shoes and follow naturalists onto a massive coral carpet teeming with crabs, gobi fish and pistol shrimp.
A few guests opt to wash off the day at Temurun Waterfall – a cool 200m wall of shale and sandstone that tumbles into a turquoise pool. Others opt for an evening walk beneath the jungle canopy, where a thriving population of flying lemurs sail through the night air to feast on fruit and foliage. Before retiring, signs in the resort’s sea view suites remind guests to lock and latch their balcony doors to prevent the wily resident macaques from plundering their suitcases.
In Langkawi, it seems, you needn’t go far to find nature; nature has a way of finding you.
The Andaman – Named after the ocean that surrounds the island, The Andaman places particular emphasis on appreciating marine ecology. After the resort’s surrounding coral absorbed the worst of the 2004 tsunami, The Andaman launched a programme to rebuild the reef. A small pool on the resort ground serves as a nursery for tropical fish and coral. At sunset, the grounds become a hangout for sea otters, dusky leaf monkeys and monitor lizards.
Four Seasons Resort Langkawi – On the other side of the island, this upscale resort has had naturalists leading curious guests through the mangrove forests of Kilim Geopark for over a decade. Its spa boasts five private treatment pavilions set at the front of limestone cliffs.
Ritz-Carlton Langkawi – The recently constructed Ritz-Carlton Langkawi is the newest name in Langkawi’s luxe back-to-nature resorts. Private, Bluetooth-ready villas extend into the jungle and out over the ocean, placing the natural world right at your doorstep.
The Islands Beyond
Langkawi is actually made up of over 100 different islets, which means that you’re never short of day trip options. From downtown Kuah, anglers can take you out fishing for marlin and tuna; party boats also stand ready to take groups cruising throught the archipelago. Longer boat rides can transport you to the historical heart of George Town (Penang) or into the turquoise waters of Koh Lipe – the Maldives of Thailand.
This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.