Sungai Kilim Nature Park
My cabbie looks sheepish when I ask him why I have to pay for two drivers, with his mate sitting in the front passenger seat as we speed through the dark night roads.
“Stories,” he explains, looking through the corner of his eye to his friend.
“What stories?” I ask.
He hesitates. “You will not understand. This is Malay knowledge.”
He looks again at his friend, who shrugs.
“There are people on this road,” he begins. “People who are not people.” Another pause. “My friend was driving to your hotel. It is dark. His car is empty. Then he looks around and there are people in the back. Then he looks to the road. He is frightened. He looks back. They are gone again.” His friend nods. “Now, always two drivers.”
Ghosts and monsters are everywhere in Langkawii, part of a 99-island archipelago in the Andaman Sea about 30 kilometres off Malaysia’s northwestern coast. The black sand on one of its fine beaches is said to be a product of a terrible fight between two giants who roamed back in the mists of time. And, for centuries, the island was neglected, believed to be cursed by a princess who was killed in a family feud. As her blood was spilled, she decreed that the land would remain barren for seven generations. Fortunately for travellers, the time is up.
The sculpture at Dataran Helang, also known as Eagle Square.
In 1986, then Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad declared Langkawi open for business. In the years following, luxury hotels moved in and the island gained Unesco World Geopark status in recognition of its biodiversity and unusual landscape, formed by volcanic eruptions that left the land bursting skyward into mountains everywhere you look. Once on the island – a family-friendly paradise with warm sands, picturesque waterfalls and greenery in abundance – it seems silly to think it was ever avoided. But who I am to question a legend? Even now, I soon learn, nature is ready to fight back.
Langkawi’s range of habitats includes mangroves, beaches, estuaries, coral reefs and caves, but I start my visit with a gentle hike through one of the rain forests that surrounds the island’s three waterfalls. Padding through the jungle, I tread lightly so as not to disturb anything that might not want to be disturbed. It’s a tricky proposition, though, and comes to an abrupt end in the green, scaly face of a monitor lizard who is clearly planning to hike the same trail as me, but in the opposite direction. One of us has to back down – and it’s not going to be him. I stand aside and he stalks past with a beady eye trained on my face, as if to warn me off any funny business. Eventually I come to the waterfall itself, cascading down through boulders into a dark pool below (which holds five bobbing German tourists; you can’t have everything). The spray is cooling, and I sit back and watch creatures hop and flit through the trees.
Telaga Harbour Park.
I can’t escape nature – not that I really want to – even back at my hotel. I am staying at the Andaman, a gorgeous open-plan resort with its own beach, spa and conservation program. As I sit down for breakfast at the open-air restaurant the next morning, I pick up a copy of the weekly newsletter. “A few words on monkeys,” it reads.
“We have two kinds of monkeys at the Andaman. The brown macaques are the naughty ones. There is a South Wing Team and North Wing Team, both of whom use cunning strategies to get into your room to raid the mini bar. And there is a young team of teenagers who scoot across the lobby and raid the breakfast tables.” At this point, a teenage monkey scoots across the lobby and raids a breakfast table, making off with sachets of sugar. (I wonder just what strategies his pals use to raid your mini-bar. Do they knock on your door in pairs, pretending to be from housekeeping, and one keeps you talking while the other hits the booze?)
You might want to stay away from the mini-bar yourself, because Langkawi is not an inexpensive getaway. Accommodations consist mainly of four- or five-star beachside resorts. An average stay is $250 a night, and most of the hotels are set along winding lanes through the countryside so it’s not easy to eat out. If you fancy a change, you can spend a day at the Oriental Village – a leisure complex with activities such as elephant rides – but the food is plasticy and the shops are uninspiring.
The SkyCab rises 1,700 metres for spectacular views across the islands.
There is, however, one excellent reason to visit: the cable car. It is one of the most popular activities on the island – as demonstrated by the fact that I am in the queue for about an hour before I finally set foot in the cabin. Then, for 1,700 metres we float above lush rain forests, gently climbing to one of the peaks that rise out of the thick greenery. At the top I emerge into sharper air that gusts around me. A short scramble takes me to the tip of Machinchang mountain, where I watch birds circling below. Look in the right direction and you see beyond Langkawi, beyond the borders of Malaysia even, and on to Thailand.
But the wonders of Langkawi are best viewed up-close. Back at the Andaman, I head to its coral nursery, created to help replenish the population of this strange undersea creature that was devastated here by the 2004 tsunami.
In the nursery – a large, shallow pool – different species of coral are carefully introduced in balance with fish, plants and other beasts of the deep; once they are strong enough, they will be transplanted to the open water. Guests are welcome to take a dip under the eye of the resort’s resident eco-champion, an Irishman named Darren Neilan. He is just explaining to me the value of the project when an agonizing pain in my foot elicits a torrent of strong words from my mouth. I have stepped on a spiny sea urchin, one of the water’s quiet assassins. Here I am, paying for a nice warm home for him to live in, and this is the thanks I get. I am about to pick the spines out when Darren runs to the bar and returns with a lime, which he squeezes over the wounds. Instantly, it feels better, and he explains that the acid dissolves the calcium spines far more efficiently than I could hope to pull them out.
Conservation efforts are under way to restore some of Langkawi’s coral reef, which was damaged in the 2004 tsunami.
After gingerly stepping back into the pool and floating around to see the colours and textures of the coral, we walk over to the beach itself. A few people play watersports, but most simply chill on beach loungers, reading or watching their kids splash about. About once a month, many guests participate in coral clearing – removing dead specimens that could otherwise damage the 6,000-year-old reef – or take a guided reef walk. One thing you will never see here is a beach crowded with red-baked tourists dropping beer bottles into the sand.
Because here you are not just a visitor, you are literally giving something back – repopulating the ocean. Ghosts, monkeys and sea urchins aside, even nature on Langkawi sometimes needs a helping hand.
IF YOU GO
KLM flies from Toronto to Kuala Lumpur. From there, you can take a connecting flight to Langkawi.
If you want a packaged experience, Tucan Travel runs two-week adventure tours to Singapore from Bangkok via Langkawi that mix cultural encounters with relaxation and beach time. Prices from $1,550, including travel and accommodation. tucantravel.com
Where to stay
Options at the Andaman, a Luxury Collection Resort, range from deluxe rooms with jungle views to expansive suites with private plunge pools and gardens. Guests can take part in a coral-clearing program and then relax in the spa, which features an astonishing range of treatments. From $300 a night. theandaman.com
What to do
Hop into the SkyCab cable car for 360-degree views of the Langkawi islands and even Thailand. Adult ticket, $10. panoramalangkawi.com
Langkawi Coral offers a variety of snorkel and dive excursions. It takes about an hour by ferry to get to the site, but it’s a great way to see the rocky, rugged coastline. The undersea life includes black-tip reef sharks. langkawicoral.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Tucan Travel and the Andaman. They did not review or approve the article.
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