Everything You Need to Know about Langkawi, Malaysia
Langkawi is actually the name of a group of 99 islands, 104 at low tide if you are actually counting. Pulau Langkawi however is the largest island in the group and one of only a handful of the islands that is inhabited.
This extraordinarily gorgeous hideaway in the Straits of Malacca is just a stone’s throw from Thailand, and many of its residents head into Thailand at weekends for shopping or just for an island break. And although Pulau Langkawi is probably only really a suitable location for a holiday home, its north-coast beaches are among Asia’s finest.
Sprinkled with tiny exotic seashells, the sands really are talcum powder white and squeak as you walk on it. On the horizon, jungle-clad limestone formations look like a scroll painting. Your eyes are constantly drawn to the bobbing little boats of anchovy fishermen on the horizon and sea eagles riding the ocean thermals closer to shore.
And of course there are expats who live here on a permanent basis. These expats like a quieter, slower pace of life, untroubled by traffic jams and the glitzy shopping malls of Penang and Kuala Lumpur. The majority of them run their own businesses such as boutique hotels and yacht charters, there’s even one who makes and sells beef jerky and exports it to Penang and Kuala Lumpur. For them this small island is paradise and they wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Pulau Langkawi has jungle too and lots of it. If you enjoy back-to-nature experiences, it’s magical to glimpse hornbills and white-headed Brahminy Kites swooping through the treetops, to come face-to-face with monitor lizards and to hear the night-time chorus of croaking frogs.
The island is also home to flying snakes (non-poisonous) that fly from tree to tree, large fruit bats, colugas (gliding lemurs), and a host of other wildlife including kingfishers, muntjac deer, and gentle black leaf monkeys. There are snakes as well, a variety of them, but you don’t see them that often, if at all. In the nine years that I have been hiking the trails here I’ve only seen them a handful of times. All you have to remember in the event of seeing one is that they will do all that they can to get out of your way long before you decide to get out of theirs.
Living in Langkawi
The majority of the Langkawi archipelago’s 65,000 mostly Malay inhabitants live on Pulau Langkawi in traditional kampongs (villages) of stilted wooden houses. Backing onto the villages are rice fields with grey water buffalo sleeping under the molten midday sun. They use the buffalo to plough the fields and they’re a delight to see. They are also used in races throughout the year, when the farmer’s come together usually at the beginning and end of a harvest. Shackled with a lightweight plough the race takes place in a paddy field with the driver standing on the plough. Usually the one left standing wins the race.
Villagers use the steps of their houses to sit and mend fishing nets or shuck vegetables or to just chat to their neighbors. The other thing that you will notice is that they have an amazing sense of humor and like nothing better than sharing a cup of tea and a joke with strangers. Shy toddlers peep out from behind trees and wave at you as you pass, like a long-lost member of the family.
Most of the Pulau Langkawi is untouched by humans; a wilderness of mountains, waterfalls, and rainforest and that can make living on the island a little quiet. It has its attraction but if you are looking for international-standard restaurants, nightclubs and bars, then Langkawi isn’t the place for you. It’s a resort island and the expats who do live there, live there precisely because it has none of the above.
Langkawi, as well as being stunningly beautiful, is a tax-free island, meaning that all goods, including alcohol, are tax-exempt. This unique combination of natural beauty and dollar-saving incentive is a big attraction and it’s easy to understand why people never leave.
Reaching Langkawi involves a one-and-a-half hour flight from Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur or a 40-minute flight from Penang. Alternatively, you can come via ferry from either the mainland, an enjoyable half-hour ride or from Penang Island, which takes a little over two hours. The ferry has just started to allow cars too, which means you can now take your car with you and use it to get around the island.
Healthcare in Pulau Langkawi
Pulau Langkawi has its own 110-bed hospital set in 53 acres. It is capable of handling most emergencies but not specialist issues and for a truly Western-standard hospital, Penang (a medical center of excellence and a 40-minute flight away), would be your best choice.
There are also a number of Government medical clinics scattered throughout the island, staffed by GPs.
Cost of Living in Langkawi
The cost of living in Malaysia is a fraction of the cost of living back home and Pulau Langkawi is slightly cheaper than the rest of Malaysia. That means that your dollar goes a lot further in Langkawi, an island that has all the comforts of home.
A couple can easily live on less than $900 a month. An entire bag full of fresh fruit, including mangoes, bananas, apples, oranges, and pineapples, cost just $3.50. High-speed Internet is reliable and costs $26 a month and a premier pay TV package will run you about $35 a month.
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Langkawi: Tranquility and Wildlife Off the Coast of Malaysia
by Keith Hockton
The vibe of Langkawi, also known as the Jewel of Kedah, is one of a laid-back island. If it’s beaches and wildlife that you’re after, Langkawi is probably the Malaysian Island to head to—and Malaysia does have a few to choose from.
This tropical archipelago is off the beaten tourist trail, and although geographically close to Thailand it attracts backpackers of an older more sophisticated type. The hotels are a little bit more expensive than in Thailand and there is a good selection of five star hotels to choose from (The Danna, The Datai, The Andaman, The Westin and The Sheraton). There are also some wonderful boutique hotels and lots of clean backpacker hostels to suit everyone’s budget.
Langkawi lies on the northwestern tip of Malaysia and if you haven’t heard of it, you are in good company. It’s a mixture of picturesque paddy fields, sheer craggy limestone mountains, thick jungle and unspoiled mangrove swamps. It also boasts the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park, the first UNESCO listed Geopark in all of Asia, and is home to the famous crab-eating macaque.
A Snowbird’s Paradise
An island steeped in legends, the story behind Gunung Mat Cincang and its neighboring peak Gunung Raya, the island’s two highest peaks, is one of the most romantic. These two mountains were once two giants who were lovers. At the wedding of their children they fell out and had a scrap, spilling gravy and breaking pots and pans. The gravy spillage became the coastal town of Kuah (which means gravy in Malay), and the neighboring village of Belanga Pecah (or broken crockery) was born from the pots and pans. Finally coming to their senses and ashamed of their behavior, they chose to be turned into mountains. Mat Sawar, their mediator, was also turned into a small hill, and to this day he lies wedged between the two peaks, keeping a watchful eye over them.
The drive from Langkawi international airport to most of the hotels takes you through sleepy Malay villages, with established low-level homes on stilts surrounded with colorful verandahs, yawning dogs, chickens, and paddy fields. You’ll pass hundreds of acres of virgin rainforest and row upon row of planted rubber trees without a single sign of tourism anywhere. It’s easy to see why this island is so popular and why people tend to stay as long as they do.
When you enter Malaysia you’ll get a three-month visa. Quite a few of the tourists my age (early 50s) bunker down for the entire three months, returning to Europe and North America tanned and happy, as their winter starts to thaw. And it’s a place that they return to each year—a number of people I met on the beach or at lunch were returning for their fourth and fifth year in a row.
The roads to the hotel are comparatively empty save the occasional motorbike, and groups of grooming monkeys using the highway like their own personal tanning salon. It took me less than eight minutes to drive to the Bon Ton Temple Tree Resort.
This eight-villa hotel is an eclectic mix of heritage buildings disassembled from different parts of Malaysia and re-assembled. With names like Silk, Black Coral and Blue Ginger, they claim to be over 100 years old. I eventually settled on one facing the pool. The pool itself was delightful—there were no children in sight, and the restaurant, which is one of the best on the island, overlooks a natural lagoon. Filled with a multitude of local exotic birdlife I stood on my verandah and witnessed an eagle swooping down to pluck a small fish from the surface, only to be attacked by another eagle that sought to steal it. It was far better than tuning in to National Geographic and I came to realize that this is one of Langkawi’s main draw cards. Its fauna is spectacular.
That evening, having dinner in the alfresco restaurant, the only sounds as the sun set were the hundreds of birds in the lagoon as they settled down for the night. Minutes later, when they had presumably settled, there was absolute silence. I was reminded of the movie Out of Africa and at one stage fully expected Meryl Streep to join me at my table. “There isn’t a great deal to do here,” admitted Alison, one of the owners of Temple Tree, as we sat and chatted. “Things here tend to be a little more expensive than Penang and there isn’t such a variety of crafts. People come here for the beaches, the solitude and the wildlife.”
Great Hospitality and White Sand Beaches
Just down the road from the resort is one of Langkawi’s more popular beaches, Pantai Cenang. The strip of shops, restaurants and hotels that run parallel to the beach were unassuming, inviting, and tranquil. The beach itself was gorgeous. A mixture of white sand and crystal clear turquoise water fringed with an abundance of coconut palms.
Planting myself next to a coconut seller I asked for one to go. After cutting the top off and offering it to me, he stopped and withdrew it saying, “You look hot. Let me get you a chilled one. It will make you feel wonderful.” He was right, and for just $1 I had another.
The area of Pantai Cenang, near the island’s southwestern tip, is the island’s most vibrant tourist hub. Pantai Cenang also has the best waterfront nightlife on the island, where the numerous bars offer a laidback atmosphere filled with Motown tunes and cold beer. I met a lot of tourists here, and it’s a good place to pick up information about what’s happening around the rest of the island.
Kuah, the main town, is on the southeast corner of the island, while most of the larger five-star resorts are on the northwest coast. In-between and around the fringes are deserted beaches, and numerous wildlife parks which are the main attraction.
No matter how much time you have on the island, be it a few days or a few months, the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park tour is a must. There are different packages to choose from and for $20 I really felt that I got value for my money. The Bat Cave was awesome and the forest itself is stunning. Seeing eagles fishing naturally just feet from our boat is something that I’ll always remember.
I’m not a beach bunny—I would rather be active than sit on the beach—and Langkawi gave me all the options that I asked for and more. Its beaches, stunning mountains, enchanting forests, superb diving, and some remarkable restaurants, make it a destination unlike any other in Malaysia.
The best time to visit Langkawi is from December to March, the dry season. This is the season of blossoms, courtship and nesting, with refreshing sea breezes keeping temperatures from climbing much above 86 F. August to October is the wettest period with monsoonal downpours so heavy and so noisy it’s impossible to hear the person next to you talk.